The Dutch language is spoken by more than 22 million people and serves as an official language of the European Union. The diverse geographic presence that Dutch has had throughout history is still apparent today, as the language remains significant in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and a number of former Dutch colonies.
Classification and Early History of the Dutch Language
The West Germanic language is derived from Low Franconian, which gradually split into subgroups – Old East Low Franconian and Old West Low Franconian, also known as Old Dutch. Around 700 CE, the Low Franconian language was modified due to contact with North Sea Germanic speakers.
Around 1150, the Old Dutch language shifted to what is referred to as Middle Dutch. Most linguists agree that it was not until about 1500 that the first signs of the language we now know as Modern Dutch were seen. This was largely due to a process of standardization during the Middle Ages initiated by the Burgundian Ducal Court in Dijon, now modern-day Brussels.
Standardization of the Modern Dutch Language: The First Dutch Bible
More rigorous measures of Dutch language standardization began in the early 16th century, based predominantly on the dialect of the Antwerp area. When Antwerp fell to the Spanish in 1585, a significant number of Dutch-speakers migrated to the Netherlands, mostly to the province of Holland, bringing the dialect with them.
A landmark event in Dutch language history occurred in 1637, when the first major translation of the Bible appeared in the Dutch language. Combining a number of varying dialects but primarily utilizing the dialect spoken in Holland, this Dutch language Bible was able to be understood by almost all Dutch-speaking peoples.
One Language, Many Names
In the Middle Ages, the Dutch Language was called “Dietsc” or “Duutsc,” from the Germanic literally meaning “language of the people.” This terminology was meant to contrast the Dutch language with Latin, which was used primarily for formal religious and educational purposes. With English language influences, Dietsc/Duutsc morphed into “Dutch.”
The official name of the Dutch language is Nederlands, or Netherlandic. While English-speakers in the Netherlands generally refer to the language as Dutch, and those in Belgium call it Flemish, these terms both refer to the same language.
The Dutch language is also referred to Hollands, or Hollandish, by those in the Netherlands. This term points to the fact that the modern standardized Dutch language was derived from the dialect spoken in the former province of Holland, now known as North and South Holland.
Contemporary Dutch Language and Dialects
The Dutch language is now the national language of the Netherlands, as well as one of the official languages of Belgium, along with French and German. It also is spoken in a small area of France west of Belgium and serves as the official language of administration in the series of islands that formerly made up the Netherlands Antilles.
Standard Dutch, known as Standaardnederlands or Algemeen Nederlands, is the official written language and serves for official and educational purposes. In the Netherlands, the dialects spoken in the areas surrounding the major cities of Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam are considered to be the closest to this written Standard Dutch. A diverse number of dialects, however, exist throughout the Netherlands.
Additional unique dialects can be found in the Flanders area of Belgium, where Standard Dutch did not gain prominence until the 1960s, thanks to the dominance of the French language until that time.
French and Dutch Language Conflict in Belgium
Dutch has had a shaky history in Belgium, where it often has competed for prominence with the French language. Until 1830, when the Kingdom of Belgium was established, the area of modern-day Belgium was dominated by Dutch-speaking peoples.
Under France’s rule of Belgium in the late 18th and 19th centuries, however, the French language gained cultural and social dominance. Belgian efforts to preserve the Dutch language have been made in response, especially in northern Belgium. In 1938, for example, Dutch was proclaimed the official language of the northern area of Belgium.
Today, Belgium includes Dutch as an official language, along with French and German. The predominance of the Dutch language in Belgium varies from one region to the next, with the Flemish region arguably lending the language the most significance.
Dutch Language in the West Indies
Dutch colonization in the West Indies left a lasting linguistic mark that is still apparent in a number of former Dutch colonies. The Dutch language continues to retain significance in areas such as Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, and Sint Maarten, among others.
One notable example is that of the former Dutch Guyana, present-day Suriname. Thanks to Dutch colonial assimilation efforts, the Dutch language is today an official language of Suriname, where it is spoken by an estimated 60 percent of the population. Suriname gained independence in 1975 and became a member of the Dutch Language Union in 2004.
Afrikaans Language and the Dutch
Afrikaans, which is found primarily in present-day Namibia and South Africa, is derived from the dialect of South Holland and was developed when Dutch settlers came to the southern tip of Africa in 1652.
The Afrikaans language has been greatly politicized, thanks to its inherent association with Dutch colonialism in southern Africa and the oppressive 20th century Afrikaner governments and apartheid laws in South Africa. In recent years, Afrikaans has lost some of the stigma associated with the language’s history, and it remains a significant language in both Namibia and South Africa.
The Pennsylvania Dutch
Funnily enough, the term Pennsylvania Dutch is somewhat of a misnomer.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are actually descendents of the Germanic peoples who immigrated to the US before 1800, and speak German. However, a common thread between the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Dutch language can be traced back to the fact that the Dutch language itself has roots in the West Germanic language.
Dutch Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Nederlands, Hollands
Language Family: Indo-European, Germanic, West, Low Saxon-Low Franconian, Low Franconian
Spoken by Approximately 23,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
- Akan Translation
- Albanian Translation
- Creole Translation
- Dutch Translation
- English Translation
- Flemish Translation
- French Translation
- Frisian Translation
- German Translation
- Papiamento Translation
- Spanish Translation
- Sranan Translation
- Vlaams Translation
- Yiddish Translation
Learn About Other Languages
Spanish (Latin America)