Dutch vs English

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.

Sentence structure

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

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.

Idiomatic expressions

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:

List of cognates

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.

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