Updated: Apr 14, 2020
English, Dutch, German- here in this map are the three sister languages- English in orange, Dutch in yellow, German in shades of green; we’ll talk about the Scandinavian branch (in blue) of languages later.
In a previous posting Dutchland? Germany? we saw how English speakers came to call the people of the Netherlands Dutch and the people of Deutschland Germans.
English, Dutch and German are all related languages- why don’t we talk about how they relate to each other?
The three languages are all closely related, but they’ve diverged- you can see it in how the same original words have come out differently.
German changes often adjust p, t, and k, Dutch and German no longer pronounce w the way English still does, all three have played around with the vowels:
Let's recap some of the history
Go back two thousand years and you’d find a single Germanic language that had split off from the ancestral languages of Latin and Greek and Sanskrit and Slavic several thousand years ago. The Germanic tribes lived in scattered little villages, learned from the Romans, spread out more, and each region split more and more into separate languages (the same way Latin splintered into Spanish, French, Italian etc.).
The Germani toward the Alps formed the basis of High German (with all that pf, tz etc.); the northern third of Germany developed Low German that’s very similar to Dutch; in the modern era North Germans switched to High German.
At the mouth of the Rhine, the Dutch didn’t go for the pf/tz change, and they didn’t go for umlaut (that alternation in foot~feet, mouse~mice, to fill~full, tooth~teethe, gold~gild), and went their own way.
The Angles and Saxons overran Britain after the Roman legions pulled out, without the pf-tz changes but with umlaut; another prominent change that English made was turning a lot of k-sounds into ch-sounds, and hard g into soft g:
German did develop a sound spelled ch but with a different pronunciation and origin.
A lot of the words are clearly related, even if each language has changed them in their own way. Here are some more examples:
actually- Germans rarely use the word Haupt, they usually say Kopf. Languages change out words, too. Who still says thou or prithee or overmorning for tomorrow or aught for anything? They used to be the norm, now they’re obsolete. That’s another way languages diverge- even British and American English diverge (car hood or car bonnet), even American English and American English diverges: you, y’all, yinz, youse, you guys; is it soda, soda pop, pop or cola?
In English we use ‘to fare’ to ask how somebody’s faring/doing; in Dutch, varen is to travel by boat, in German, fahren is to travel by ground vehicle. In Scandinavia, it still just means ‘to go’
The same words in the three languages have often taken on divergent meanings:
You'll find words that look alike by chance but aren’t even related:
Shared basic words differ, like he, she and it, or ‘the’:
(Dutch hij and zij rhyme with ‘hey’, and -ch- in Dutch and German is a kh sound (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/dochter))
Grammatical gender: a cow, a sow, a doe, a mare are biologically female, stallions, stags, male lions, bulls, sure, they’re male. But some European languages impose maleness and femaleness on everything, that’s what French and Spanish do.
Most languages of the world don’t impose gender on tables or napkins; most of Europe on into northern India descend from a language that did categorize not just creatures but everything into male, female, and neuter. A tree, a knee, a flea, a pea, all would be a he, she or it. A thousand years ago, English still did that, and one last bit of that in English is referring to a ships as a she. German still does that- as Mark Twain observed, in German, an onion is a she, while a little girl is an it.
And Dutch? In the Netherlands, creatures are he, she or it (kids and kittens and other small things tend to be its) and things are either hij or het (he or it) ... but in the Flanders part of Belgium, things are still hij, zij or het.
!!!? Is a girl an it? If a German or Netherlander is thinking of Annalies, they’ll call her a her, but if they use their word for girl, they’ll usually refer to the meisje/Mädchen as an it.
In German or Dutch, when you make something a diminutive, a wee little something, it’s an it: Maus > Mäuschen ‘wee little mousie’, Katze > Kätzchen ‘kitty.’
So fascinating how the three languages share family resemblances, and how each one has gone its own way.