First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Colleen Geske
Holandes, Nederlands, Hollandsk, Néerlandais, Hollanti, Dutch – no matter what it’s called, the Dutch language remains a mouthful. Broadly speaking, outside of the Netherlands and Belgium, the Dutch language is relatively unknown. (Thankfully, 90-93% of ‘Nederlanders’ feel comfortable conversing in English.) Of course, the Dutch language’s characteristic guttural Gs can also be heard in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, etc.), but many a tourist has been utterly shocked to learn that the Dutch do indeed have their own language. And no, it isn’t German! With just over 20 million worldwide speakers, Dutch barely sneaks into the top 50 most spoken languages in the world. It claims the second-tolast spot, #49, just before Kurdish. However, despite the low ranking, its global influence is impressive and reveals much about the Netherlands’ prosperous past.
On careful inspection of the English language, you will discover that thousands of words actually have their origins in Dutch. In fact, the first word in the English dictionary is ‘aardvark’, which is, of course, Dutch! In his book, Origins of the English Language, linguist Joseph M. Williams estimated that around 1% of English words are of Dutch origin. For a relatively tiny country this is no small feat. Many of these Dutch loanwords (words adopted from another language and incorporated into a recipient language without translation) reveal fascinating insights into the nation’s history. During the Dutch Golden Age (spanning most of the 17th century), Dutch trade, military and art were among the most acclaimed in the world. It therefore comes as no surprise that many Dutch terms relating to seafaring, commerce, industry and trade highlighting the Dutch proclivities of the 1600s pepper the modern English linguistic landscape.
With the Dutch leading the seafaring nations of the 17th century, many English nautical words have their origins in the Lowlands. Examples include the English words cruise, sloop, buoy, deck, dock, freight, keel, reef, tackle, pump, bow, skipper and yacht, which all derive from nearly identical Dutch terms. If your modern-day frustrations start and end with your boss, you can go ahead and blame the Dutch. Turns out the Dutch invented that word too. The English variation stems from the Dutch word baas, which was first used in 1620 as the title for a ship’s captain. Many believe that Americans adopted the word boss to avoid the word ‘master’, which implied slave subordinates rather than ‘free’ labourers.
As the Dutch travelled the world, they left many a culinary delight behind. Take for instance the words cookie (from the Dutch koekje/koekie), booze (from the Dutch busen, to ‘drink heavily’), brandy (from the Dutch brandewijn, ‘burned wine’), snack (from the Dutch snakken), scone (shortened from the Dutch schoonbrood), waffle (from the Dutch wafel) and, our personal favourite, gin (from the Dutch jenever). During the Golden Age, the Dutch were the most prosperous nation in Europe and, as a result, experienced a burgeoning arts and cultural scene. Enormous quantities of art were produced and sold in this period – with over 1.3 million Dutch paintings completed from 1640-1660 alone. With the proliferation of Dutch art also came an abundance of new artistic terms. Words such as easel (from the Dutch ezel, ‘donkey’), etch (from Dutch ets or etsen), landscape (from the Dutch landschap), and sketch (from the Dutch schets) artfully made their way into the English vocabulary.
Having now lived in the Netherlands on and off for over a decade (gasp!), I’ve had more than my fair share of exposure to both languages and their commonalities. They say Dutch is one of the easiest languages to learn for native English speakers. Is this true? Do all the loanwords make its mastery a breeze? I’d love to say yes, but many a foreigner would agree that, although the Dutch and English languages have a lot in common, their differences are still great and plentiful. Alike or not, don’t let that stop you from diving in head first, spotting the similarities, and learning a little bit of history along the way. Succes (good luck)!
Colleen Geske is the blogger and best-selling author behind the brand Stuff Dutch People Like. Described as 'blunt, provacative and wickedly funny', her blog and books offer a satirical look at Dutch culture as seen through the eyes of an outsider. The Stuff Dutch People Like social community now numbers over 500,000 followers. Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, Geske has called Amsterdam home since 2004. When not writing, she is a communications and social media consultant.