Two weeks ago I wrote a post on how difficult it can be to learn a foreign language. People responded to that post asking for some more language posts. One request was to know more about cognates and similarities and difference between Dutch and English. You ask, I deliver. Today’s post will be on linguistic similarities (and with that a few differences too) between Dutch and English. The similarities go beyond mere words and I just thought I’d point a few out. So whether you’re a Dutch person learning English, or an English person learning Dutch, I think this will be helpful either way.
First of all I would like to point out that right when I first started this blog I wrote two posts on learning Dutch. Post 1 was the introduction and it has a long list with cognates in it for very basic, every day items. Post 2 was on adjectives in Dutch. I suggest you have a look at at least the first post before continuing to read this one. I also put a few links at the bottom with some interesting sources regarding this topic.
There are plenty of words that are similar in both Dutch and English. The main reason being that both come from the Germanic language family and therefore many basic words are very much the same, or at least appear very similar. This can actually help you learn the language and at least know the basics such as standard items around the house, and basic family relations. However, these similarities can also cause problems as they often are what we call ‘false friends’: words that look the same, but actually aren’t. On the other hand there are words that look so similar that you simply wouldn’t believe that they actually are the same thing.
Words that are similar and mean the same thing:
anew (opnieuw), seldom (zelden), lift (BrE, lift),
Words that look similar but mean something different:
undertaker = not ondernemer (entrepreneur) but funeral director (begrafenisondernemer)
stool = not stoel, but barkruk
knickers = not knikkers (marbles) but BrE for underwear
actual = really, not actueel = current
realize = beseffen, not realiseren in the sense of making something happen = produce or achieve
advocate = not advocaat (lawyer) but someone in favor of something (voorstander)
eventually = not eventueel (potential) but
The list goes on and on. It leads to quite hilarious situations at times. Now forgive the inappropriate example here, but it was the first thing to pop into my head. When I was 12 and first starting to learn English someone told me the following sentence:
The pig stood stiff in the brook.
I thought it was hilarious. Why? Because it sounds like: De pik stond stijf in de broek, which means: The penis was rock hard in the pants, whereas it of course means: Het varken stond rechtop in de sloot.
When it comes to basic sentence structure both English and Dutch use Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structure. Now basic sentence structure means when the sentence is just made up of a subject, a verb and an object. The minute you start adding adverbials (time, place etc.) things become more complicated. But still: basic sentence structure is the same. Compare:
Ik eet een appel – I eat an apple
Hij leest een boek – He reads a book
Wij schrijven brieven – We write letters
Grammatical tenses seem very simple and similar at first. However, when you start using them in either language you will find that there are some difficulties. The only tense that really works one on one is Past Perfect. In both Dutch and English you use the tense in the same way and in the same situations. Compare:
Toen ik thuiskwam, had de hond het eten opgegeten.
When I came home, the dog had eaten all the food.
The tense is the same (had …. opgegeten vs had eaten) and in both cases the sentence indicates that something happened in the past tense (came home) but that there was another event which happened before the past tense you are talking about (the dog eating the food). In order to refer to an event which took place before the past tense which you are referring to both English and Dutch use Past Perfect. The clue is usually in the word ‘when’, or ‘before’. These words usually occur with Past perfect. With all other tenses there are complications, so I will discuss those in the future.
The worst (in any language really) is to learn correct idiomatic expressions. When these things go wrong you will literally become lost in translation. What usually happens is that people try to use an expression but instead of using the correct equivalent, they simply translate literally. This usually goes wrong and Maarten Rijkens wrote two books filled with Dutch people using wrong English expressions. Especially his second book is handy because it lists all the expressions from the first book with the intended meaning of the speaker in Dutch, what you’re actually saying in English, as well as the proper English translation. Some infamous examples:
I always get my sin – Ik krijg altijd mijn zin (I always get what I want).
Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve – Nu komt de aap uit de mouw (Now we know the truth)
I always drive topless. Ik rijdt altijd met open dak (I always drive with the top down)
Who are you doing? Hoe gaat het met je? (How are you doing?)
Links to interesting sources:
Ronald van de Krol – Voertaal: English. The sticky world of Dunglish and how to avoid it
Maarten Rijkens – I always get my sin. het bizarre Engels van Nederlands
Maarten Rijkens – We always get our sin too. Tips om bizar Engels te vermijden
Let me know in a comment below whether this was helpful! Thank you.
7 responses to “Dutch vs English”
Great as always. On vacation just now, but will digest this more fully later. Thanks in particular for the book references; will have to pick those up on my next bol.com order.
Glad you liked it! 🙂 Have fun on your vacay.
Great post, and thanks for writing it. I saw the Maartan Rijkens books in the American Book Center but it’s hard to approach those from the English point of view rather than a Dutch one.
Also, thank you for the links to the previous posts (introduction and adjectives). I am past that point… but it was nice to realize I was past that point, if you know what I mean .;) Still, a good refresher!
No problem! I get your point about the books. I have more experience with Dutch to English than English to Dutch. I know a bit, but not too much. So most of my posts will try to explain things both ways but will gear more towards Dutch to English I’m afraid. But good to know you found it helpful and that you liked my previous posts too. I will write something about Dutch/ English present perfect next week or the week after so keep checking back.
Present perfect should be fun, since that is about where I am at for studying stuff at dutchgrammar.com. Also with your “introduction” post linked above, I didn’t really grasp the difference between lekker and leuk (physical vs. mental) so thank you. Nor did I know why English numbers were “forty nine” not “nine and forty”.
Man, I remember when I first started and I was very confused why all of the Dutch words started with ge- (past participles), but weren’t in the dictionary… so frustrating back then!
Oh I can imagine that would be tough. Dutch can be quite daunting at times, but hey so is English. I don’t think it matters which language you are trying to learn. it is always going to be difficult no matter what.
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