Two Paths from Benrath: Dutch, German, and the Germanic Continuum

A schloss, or a slot?

When English speakers visit Amsterdam or Berlin, they often notice familiar words sprinkled among the strange sounds and thirty-letter strings of consonants. Most have at one time or another been puzzled by the facts that the Germans, not the Dutch, call themselves Deutsch; a few have been even more confused to learn that the Dutch call their neighbours Duits (with very similar pronunciation). The path that led us to this bizarre situation is a tricky one; like so much in linguistics, it has as much to do with historical accidents than organic language development.

The dialects we know today as standard German and standard Dutch are basically poles of a continuum stretching from the North Sea to the heart of Europe. The common ancestors of the Germanic peoples migrated south from Scandinavia and reached the frontiers of the Roman Empire early in the Christian Era. The northern barbarians ultimately brought the mighty empire down, and as the sun set on the Classical world, Germanic kings held sway from North Africa to the Ukraine.

The Völkerwanderung (wandering of the peoples) is a nice euphemism for the barbarian conquest of the Roman world.

Many barbarians learned Latin and became Romanized, but in the old heartland they stuck to their native tongues. Germans in England and Scandinavia fell out of touch with their cousins, but as late as the 8th Century those on the continent, at least, would have had little trouble understanding one another. Then things got complicated.

In the higher country of central and southern Germany, a new way of speaking caught on. Maken, “make,” became machen, with a new phlegmatic ch; a ship became a schiff; the skipper would no longer eat an appel, but an apfel. A lord would no longer call his castle a slot, but a schloss; and its doors were no longer open, but offen. Sound changes along these lines transformed the language south of the Benrath Line (a.k.a. the maken-machen line), so named for the village outside Düsseldorf where it crosses the Rhine. (An earlier shift, postulated by Jacob Grimm in the first systematic study of linguistic sound change, had turned th into d; it washed over all of Europe, leaving only English and Norse with the old sound. Today, Icelandic is the closest language to Proto-Germanic).

19th Century German linguists determined these two lines with remarkable accuracy; High German, the ancestor of standard German, grew up below both.

The new High German dialect was the ancestor of modern standard German. But at the time, it was only one dialect of many. Like other languages, German varied along a continuum: Austrians spoke similarly to Bavarians, who in turn were between them and Swabians. There was no essential difference between the inhabitants of the Low Countries and those of the rest of Germany. Indeed, someone from Hamburg or the lower Rhine would have had an easier time in Holland than elsewhere in Germany.

(As late as the 12th Century, there was no essential difference between early Dutch and English. The text that is conventionally considered the earliest example of Old Dutch, a darkly amusing poem about birds, is subject to serious debate over whether it is in fact Dutch or Kentish. For your reading pleasure, it goes as follows (in the original and approximated in Dutch, German, and English, respectively):

Hebban olla vogala nestas hagunnan, hinase hic enda thu. Wat unbidan we nu?

Hebben alle vogels nesten begonnen, behalve ik en u. Wat verbeiden we nu?

Haben alle Vögel Nesten begonnen, außer ich und du. Was erwarten wir jetzt?

Have all fowls nests begun, except I and thou. What bide we (i.e. what are we waiting for) now?)

But in 1517, a Saxon monk wrote a pamphlet in Latin that changed everything. Martin Luther opened a Pandora’s box that, along with Christendom and so much else, blew apart the unity of Germandom. Like so much else in linguistics, the difference between Dutch and German grew not from organic development, but from religion and politics.

I got 95 problems but the Netherlands ain’t one

The people of the Low Countries zealously embraced Protestantism, and in 1568 launched a rebellion against their Catholic overlords (for reasons I will not get into here, the Netherlands were ruled by Spain; they were also part of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, i.e. Germany). In the Eighty Years’ War, the tenacious Dutch won independence from Spain and seceded from the Holy Roman Empire. The Dutch Republic was born.

The Holy Roman Empire was a patchwork of petty states under the suzerainty of the Habsburgs of Austria. In 1477, the Emperor defeated Charles the Bold of Burgundy and seized his possessions in the Low Countries. The Netherlands ultimately ended up with the Spanish branch of the family, but the Dutch finally got sick of being pawns in European power politics and declared their own republic.

Watching all this from across the Channel, the English were left with with an demonymous conundrum. Traditionally, they had called all their continental relatives Dutch. Now their favourite trading partners were calling themselves Nederlanders, but Netherlanders (Netherlands literally just means low countries) never caught on. The French and many others preferred to call the new state Holland after its foremost province (just as they still call the UK Angleterre), but Hollanders was likewise found wanting. Ultimately, the English awarded citizens of the Republic the exclusive claim to the name Dutch, though the Nederlanders themselves did not want it.

That left the problem of what to call their neighbours. Almain, on the model of French and Spanish Allemand/Alemán (the name of a Germanic tribe that particularly bedevilled Rome), was still current as of Shakespeare’s day. However, German, from the Roman name Germania (which seems to come from a Celtic name meaning “noisy people”) was a more attractive option to Renaissance-minded cartographers. The only exceptions to the new consensus were Anglo Pennsylvanians, who continue to call their state’s German-speaking community Dutch to this day. All the while, for the Dutch and Germans themselves, the divorce was straightforward: the Emperor’s subjects kept the old name, while the inhabitants of the Low Countries became Niederländer/Nederlanders.

Political separation catalysed linguistic drift. Nascent efforts to standardise the German language based on Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, which, though designed to be broadly intelligible, was mainly High German, did not reach the Seven Provinces. The leaders of the Republic commissioned their own translation, the Statenvertaling, based on the speech of the Netherlands, especially Holland. Dutch was now an official language.

The new status of Dutch reinforced trends in the language. In most ways, Dutch is a more conservative language than German: water is still water and not Wasser, and a man in a hurry will lopen (run; cf. English “lope”) rather than laufen. The Dutch w, though closer to an English v, is a bit softer than the German one. But other characteristics are a bit more eccentric. Modern Dutch is the only Indo-European language with no g sound, preferring instead a sound like someone coughing up a hairball. Dutch is famous for its double vowels, which help give the language a fun sound. Most foreigners agree that German sounds scary; no one would say the same of the language of tulip gardners and stroopwafel bakers.

It is thanks to East India Company merchants, French Huguenot horologists, Portuguese Jewish bankers, and so many others who flocked to cities like Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age that the Dutch language is so easy to learn.

While the German literati in royal courts and great universities jealously upheld their language’s proper grammar, the Dutch were more concerned with business. The Netherlands welcomed immigrants from throughout Europe, and Dutch traders set up shop from New Amsterdam to Cape Town to Nagasaki. When a flood of people learn a language, it tends to get simpler- it is thanks to medieval Viking invaders that English no longer has grammatical gender or cases- and Dutch was no exception.

Dutch traditionally had three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter, and four grammatical cases: nominative, accusative (direct objects), dative (indirect objects), and genitive (possession). To the misfortune of today’s students, German preserved these distinctions (though Berliners are somewhat infamous for mixing them up colloquially). But they are hard to learn. Over time the Dutch masculine and feminine merged into one. Today, Dutch nouns are either referred to with de (masculine/feminine), or het (neuter), as opposed to German’s der, die, and das. Flemings (Batavophone Belgians) sometimes draw a distinction, referring to feminine things with feminine pronouns (e.g., de sok, zij is warm, “the sock, she is warm”), but most Dutch speakers would not know the difference without a dictionary.

As the Dutch got lax with their grammar, scholars at universities like Heidelberg kept German on the straight and narrow.

Case followed gender into the night. In German and the Dutch of yesteryear, position in a sentence transforms articles, adjectives, and even noun endings. In German, if I give the president an important letter, Ich gebe dem Präsidenten einen wichtigen Brief. In that sentence, dem is the dative article, Präsident takes an accusative/dative ending, and both einen and wichtigen are masculine and accusative. In Dutch, the same sentence is Ik geef de president een belangrijke brief. The only vestige of case is the -e adjective suffix, which in spoken language does not necessarily matter much. Cases were preserved in proper written Dutch until the 1940s, but by the time they were formally abolished, they were long obsolete. The genitive survives in a few expressions, particularly ‘s morgens, ‘s nachts (“in the morning,” “at night”), etc., as well as the possessive -s (also in English), but even there it is on its way out.

Although Germans were the world’s foremost Classicists, they preferred to create new words from native stuff, rather than borrow from Greek and Latin. The Dutch, on the other hand, were perfectly happy to use new words. To use one example, German translates television (from Greek tele-, “far,” plus Latin visio, “vision”) literally as Fernseher, “far-seer,” while in Dutch it is just televisie. Dutch also adopted the Romance -s construction for around half of plurals, which is rare in German. Dutch went even further than English with some Latinisms: the plurals of music and museum are musici and musea, and Easter (German Ostern) is Pasen.

Dutch simplicity reaches its extreme in Afrikaans. The settlers of Dutch South Africa came from many backgrounds and lived hard lives on the frontier: they had no time for complex declensions or arbitrarily assigning gender to inanimate objects. Afrikaans has no gender, nor cases, nor even verb conjugations. It is a remarkably simple language, and by far the easiest for English speakers to learn.

“Look, it’s a whole continent without any grammar teachers”

All the while, German changed relatively little. This is largely because standard German, especially historically, was a literary standard, which speakers of different dialects were happy to use as a lingua franca. Its proliferation owes much to the linguistic work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and 19th Century nationalism. A cobbler in Cologne and a Habsburg emperor (their imperial majesties were known for speaking with uncouth Vienna accents) would each speak his own dialect, but could switch to the standard register more or less easily. To bring things to a personal level, my own grandfather was born to a father from Hamburg and a mother from Austria-Hungary, and although he lived in Hamburg before moving to Latin America as a young man, he spoke mainly standard German. My younger relatives who still live there are more comfortable speaking standard German than the Plattdeutsch of our forefathers.

The lone exception is Swiss German. The Swiss were in the main current of standardisation through the 20th Century, but then, just as happened three centuries earlier with the Dutch, history threw a wrench in things. Adolf Hitler dreamt of uniting all Germans under one flag, and saw no reason why Switzerland should not join Austria and the rest of German-speaking Europe in the Reich. The Swiss, who were not so sold on National Socialism as their brethren, thought fast. Although over 70% of Swiss people spoke German as their mother tongue, they promoted French (spoken by ~20%), Italian (~7%), and Romansh (a local Romance language spoken in a few Alpine valleys) as co-official languages in their effort to brand themselves as a multinational republic. They also promoted the local Alemannic dialect of German as the country’s national standard. The threat passsed, and today German-speaking Swiss children do learn standard German in school, but for them it is nearly as foreign as Dutch. Perhaps one day someone will write an analysis of how “Swiss” and German are really not so very different.

Today is fondue weather in Switzerland. In standard German the phrase would be, “Heute ist Fonduewetter.”

Despite their centuries of close separation, Dutch and German remain very similar languages. Their syntax is virtually identical. They share a proclivity for ramming several words together into one behemoth compound, such as Donaudampfschiffahrselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, an association of Danube steamboat maintenance workers in Austria. German capitalises all nouns and Dutch treats ij (roughly “ey”) as a single letter, but all that is purely aesthetic. There are some confusing false cognates- in German a Meer is a sea and a See is a lake, while in Dutch a meer is a lake and a zee is a sea- but no one considers different meanings of “chips” (or other ruder words) on opposite shores of the Atlantic as grounds for considering American and British separate languages. German and Dutch have have 84% lexical similarity, though in spoken language many cognates are hard to identify to the untrained ear. There are even a few dialects in Limburg (today in eastern Belgium) whose status as either Dutch or German is a matter of ongoing debate.

An ad making use of some compound words: apparently the main thing (Hauptsache) about Astra bier is that it is “ass-cold” (arschkalt). Got anything against it (was dagegen)?

But it does not take much training. Although I am sort of a heritage speaker I am by no means fluent in German, yet it was easy enough for me to pick up Dutch (albeit with a heavy German accent). A native speaker of either language can pick the other up in a matter of weeks. Things are easier still for speakers of Plattdeutsch, the dialect of lowland northwest Germany. Plattdeutsch grew up north of Benrath, and thus in many ways is more akin to Dutch than to standard German. But as I know from family experience, many of its own speakers have no particular interest in preserving their language.

Germanic languages have varied along an organic spectrum since time immemorial. Religious fanaticism and political animosity preserved one Low German dialect by recasting it as a national language, but the longterm trend on either side of the German-Dutch border is toward standardisation. Perhaps by the 22nd Century no one will speak the old dialects, and the line of linguistic demarcation will settle a few dozen miles downstream from Benrath along the border. Perhaps even national languages will go the way of dialects, and everyone will speak English. That would be quite a comeback for Low Germanic.

For now, Fröhe Weihnachten, Vrolijk Kerstfeest, and Happy Christmas.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets