Dutch for Beginners Part 1 – Introduction

As most of you probably know, I’m a Dutch girl, who teaches English at a college in The Netherlands. However, when I was a student, studying to obtain my MA degree in English, I worked as a teacher of Dutch as a Second Language at a language institute in The Hague. Here, I mainly taught ex-pats from all over the globe, but most of the people came from an Anglo-American background. They all came to the Netherlands to work at some of the bigger companies which are based in The Hague: Shell, IBM, TNO, etc. I know there may be a few people out there who are curious about my native language. Therefore, I’d like to write a few posts about Dutch from time to time listing some of the basics, aimed at foreigners who would like to know how to speak/write a word or two.

So let’s start with the first lesson: the Introduction.

1.) Dutch is very much like English!

Believe it or not, but the basics of both Dutch and English (as well as German, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian) are remarkably similar. This is because all of these languages are part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. I won’t bore you with the details, but all it means is that these languages are related and therefore share some common features such as: words, word order, expressions of time, grammatical tenses and sentence structure in general.

One constraint is though that you should keep things simple. You can talk about basic concepts such as: items of domestic items, foods, colors, numbers, family structure and basic sentences. Another problem that causes difficulties is the influence of French on English. In 1066, William the Conqueror replaced the ruling elite of the British Isles by solely French speaking people. That is why Modern English has ‘forty-nine’, after the French model, whereas in Old English it was: negon-und-feowertig (nine and forty), which is very similar to what we do in Dutch (and German): negen-en-veertig (nine and forty).

2.) Let’s look at some of these similarities.

Some of the parallels are sometimes difficult to find. Below I will list some common words that I very much alike in both Dutch and English, that I used to teach my students. We’ll skip pronunciation for now, because that will go into a separate post, as Dutch pronunciation can be tricky. Let’s just look at spelling for now.

Domestic items:

  • table – tafel
  • lamp – lamp
  • chair – stoel (but English also has ‘stool’ as in ‘bar stool’)
  • door – deur
  • glass – glas
  • mug – mok
  • cup – kopje
  • book – boek
  • pen – pen
  • fork – vork
  • agenda/ diary – agenda
  • telephone – telefoon

Foods:

  • apple – appel
  • banana – banaan
  • pear – peer
  • orange – sinaasappel (orange juice is called: sinaasappelsap, or we use the French: jus d’orange, which is then abbreviated to ‘jus’)
  • bread – brood
  • water – water
  • milk – melk
  • beer – bier
  • butter – boter
  • cheese – kaas

Colors:

  • red – rood
  • yellow – geel (not similar at all, but I stuck it in to be complete)
  • blue – blauw
  • green – groen
  • purple – paars
  • orange – oranje
  • lilac – lila
  • brown – bruin
  • white – wit
  • black – zwart (again, no so similar, just trying to be complete)
  • grey/ gray – grijs

Numbers: (especially close in pronunciation)

  • one – één
  • two – twee
  • three – drie
  • four – vier
  • five – vijf
  • six – zes
  • seven – zeven
  • eight – acht
  • nine – negen
  • ten – tien

Family structure:

  • mother – moeder
  • mom/ mum – mam (mama)
  • father – vader
  • dad – pap (papa)
  • brother – broer (originally: broeder, but shortened)
  • sister – zus (originally: zuster, but shortened)
  • nephew – neef(je)
  • niece – nicht(je)
  • cousin – neef(je)/ nicht(je)
  • uncle – oom
  • aunt – tante
  • grandmother – grootmoeder, also: oma
  • grandfather – grootvader, also: opa

Basic sentences:

  • Hello – Hallo
  • I am …/ My name is… – Ik ben…/ Mijn naam is…
  • How are you? – Hoe gaat het met u/ jou*? (literally: How goes it with you?)
  • I’m fine, thank you. – Prima, dank u/ je.
  • How old are you? – Hoe oud bent u/ jij?
  • I am … years old. – Ik ben … jaar. (Dutch leaves out the ‘old’)
  • Nice to meet you. – Aangenaam. (formal)/ Leuk je te ontmoeten. (informal)
  • Thank you – Dankjewel/ Bedankt.
  • Where do you live? – Waar woont u?/ Waar woon je?
  • I live in London. – Ik woon in Londen.
  • Where are you from? – Waar komt u vandaan?/ Waar kom je vandaan?
  • I’m from England. – Ik kom uit Engeland
  • What is your nationality? – Wat is uw nationaliteit?
  • My nationality is English. – Mijn nationaliteit is Engelsman/ Engelse. (Engelsman = male, Engelse = female)**

3.) You know more Dutch than you think you do.

What I mean by this are loan words, from Dutch to English, but also from English into Dutch. I already briefly spoke about loan words from Dutch into English in a previous post. Here’s just a few of them:

  • cookie (AmE) – koekje
  • rucksack (BrE) – rugzak
  • Yankee – Jan Kees or Jan Kaas (origin is unclear)
  • easel – ezel
  • landscape – landschap
  • dock – dok
  • bay – baai
  • aardvark – aardvarken (South Africa)
  • Santaclaus – Sinterklaas
  • dollar – daalder

This of course also works the other way around. Many words having to do with technology come from English, but there are plenty more. I wrote a paper about this for a class in 2005. Download that paper here: HL project*****. If you don’t know anything about phonology, than this paper may be a little tricky to read. You have been warned!

4.) Lekker, leuk, gezellig

These three words, form some of the most important concepts in Dutch that are very hard to translate into English (or any other language for that matter). The theory goes, that if you can use these things correctly when speaking Dutch you can pass for a Dutch person. Until that time though, Dutch people will always consider you as ‘foreign’. That is why I will try to explain the three right now.

Lekker: used to describe ‘physical’ experiences. If you think the food tastes good, you say: ‘mmm lekker’ in Dutch. However, the connotation stretches much further. Nice weather = ‘lekker weer(tje)’. A person whom you are physically attracted to is called a ‘lekker ding’ (male of female!) and if you want to say that that ‘lekker ding’ has a nice ass, you say: ‘lekker kontje/ lekkere kont’.

Leuk: used to describe ‘mental’ experiences. If you think the movie was fun to watch, or the concert was good you say it was ‘leuk’ (i.e. leuke film/ leuk concert). If you’re at a party and you’re having a good time you can also say that the party is ‘leuk’. It’s pretty much used in opposite instances from ‘lekker’.

Gezellig: probably the trickiest word to use and explain, but I’ll give it my best shot***. ‘Gezellig’ is used at seemingly random times. At that same party that is ‘leuk’, a person can just give a sigh of relief (?) and state: hè gezellig. Meaning: gosh, I’m having a great time. If you look up ‘gezellig’ in a dictionary though, it will state that it means ‘cosy (BrE)/ cozy (AmE)’. However, in English you cannot say that a party is ‘cosy/cozy’. That word is mainly used for the way a room looks: a cosy room (or homey room if you’re American). In Dutch this word has extended its meaning to also apply to the atmosphere in the room or of an event. So when you come home after hanging out with friends and your mom asks you: hoe was het? (literally: How was it?), you’d say: ‘gezellig’, to indicate you had a great time.

5.) The determiner (the) – de vs het

Gezellig isn’t the only tricky thing in Dutch. What’s probably trickiest, especially for English speakers, is the fact that we have two words to refer to English ‘the’: ‘de’ & ‘het’. The first one sounds the same, the second one looks the same.

There is a difference though in how they are used: ‘de’ is used for masculine & feminine words and ‘het’ is used for neuter words. And therein lies the difficulty: Dutch does not clearly distinguish between the gender of words. There is no way to find out whether a Dutch word is masculine, feminine or neuter, unlike for instance German. All you can do is teach yourself which word has which gender. To Dutch speakers this division comes natural: we have native speaker intuition to determine whether a word takes ‘de’ or ‘het’****. There are a few rules though that you can always apply:

  • ‘De’ is always used for plurals. Example: de vork – de vorken / het boek – de boeken.
  • ‘Het’ is always used for diminutives. In Dutch these words can be recognized by the -je ending. Example: the little book – het boekje.
  • 75% of Dutch words take ‘de’, 25% of all words take ‘het’. So, if you don’t know and you have to guess, go for ‘de’!

* Dutch makes a distinction between ‘you  in informal and formal situations. Formal is ‘u’, informal is ‘jou’. More on this when we discuss pronouns.

** I will provide a list of countries, cities and other geographical notions in a separate post. Let me know where you’re from in the comments and I will make sure to include it in the list!

*** If any Dutchies have a different explanation, please help me out in the comments!

**** More on ‘de’ & ‘het’ will be explained when we get to our next lesson: adjectives!

****** This article is copyrighted by M. van de Sande. DO NOT STEAL IT! If you would like to use it, please add the appropriate references and asking permission would be nice.

P.S. I think I also have to put in a disclaimer here. The info provided above is what I used to teach from a book written specifically for the company I worked at. In these posts I am just trying to convey the basics of Dutch for people who are interested. It is not my intention to give a complete course on Dutch and it is also not my intention to plagiarize the information from my former employee.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. KB says:

    Hi, just wanted to say that I found your blog today and it’s really fantastic for English-speakers who want to learn Dutch! Regarding “de” and “het”, most words which are “der” or “die” in German are “de” in Dutch. There are exceptions, but it’s probably better than a stab in the dark if you know the German gender and need to know the Dutch gender. I know that Dutchies don’t like the comparison, but it is helpful for non-Dutch speakers who have some German under their belts.

    But easiest of all, most good dictionaries will tell you the gender of a Dutch “de” noun, so you can look it up.

    I have sometimes asked Dutchies about the gender of a specific “de” noun, but they get very confused if you put them on the spot and make them think about it. The best tactic I have found, is just to listen to how Dutch speakers subconsciously refer to things that native-English speakers would just call: “it”. For example, cities are female (“Haar straten zijn leeg”), mobile phones are male (“ik leg hem op tafel”), the church is female (“haar geschiedenis en identiteit”). Listen for the keywords “hem” and “haar” and make a mental note (or write it down if necessary). One of my favourites is female dogs whose owners will proudly tell you: “hij is een brave hond”. It’s “der Hund” in German, so the whole thing makes sense, if you think in those terms.

    Thanks for this post!

    1. indiequeen84 says:

      No problem. And the Dutch/ German comparison isn’t that crazy. They’re both Germanic languages after all!

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