Monday, June 17, 2013

Language Profile: Dutch

This week's language profile is on Dutch, a Germanic language that is spoken all over the world due to the many colonies of the Dutch Empire. Today we'll be looking at the language continent by continent. 

The Rijksmuseum, a Dutch national museum in Amsterdam.
Naturally, we begin in Europe where the language came into existence. Dutch is the sole official language of the Netherlands, where it is spoken by the vast majority of its population. It is also an official language alongside French and German in neighboring Belgium, which was a part of the Netherlands until it declared independence in 1831. Also known as Flemish in Belgium, it is spoken by about 60% of the population.

The Dutch language has also left a lasting mark on the linguistic makeup of Africa. Dialects of Dutch spoken by settlers in Southern Africa eventually became Afrikaans, now considered to be a "daughter language" of Dutch. Afrikaans is fairly mutually intelligible with Dutch since over 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin, but it has also been lexically influenced by Malay, Portuguese, and other African languages. It is widely spoken in South Africa and Namibia. 

As we mentioned in last week's language profile, Indonesian was also greatly impacted by the Dutch language. The long presence of the Dutch East India Company in Southeast Asia had a significant influence on the vocabulary of Indonesia's lingua franca.

In North America, the Dutch founded a trading post they named New Amsterdam in 1626, which later became New York City. Despite the eventual British takeover, many place names in the area retain their Dutch roots, including Brooklyn (Breukelen), Harlem (Haarlem), and Coney Island (Conyne Eylandt), which means "Rabbit Island". It's also interesting to note that the eighth U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, was a native Dutch speaker from New York, and the only President not to have spoken English as his native language.

A harbor in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao.
Heading south to the Caribbean, we find the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. Dutch is the sole official language in the first two, though it is mainly spoken in school, while the creole known as Papiamento is preferred the rest of the time. In Sint Maarten, it is co-official with English.

Finally, we reach the South American country of Suriname that gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975. Despite Dutch being its sole official language, the lingua france of the island is Sranan Tongo, an English-based creole with lexical influences from Dutch, Portuguese, and some African languages.

It should come as no surprise that Dutch has plenty of regional dialects as well given its use in places that are vast distances from each other. Its vocabulary is mainly Germanic, with some words of Greek and Latin origin plus some French terms thrown in for good measure. Diminutives are also a favorite feature of the language, and are denoted by the suffix -je added to nouns.

In terms of writing, Dutch uses a Latin script with the addition of the IJ digraph. A digraph is a single phoneme represented by two letters. In this case, the sound [ɛi] is represented as IJ, but is also sometimes seen as Y.

If you need one final fact to prove how awesome the Dutch language is, check this out. The largest dictionary in the world is the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, a Dutch dictionary containing over 430,000 words. It took 147 years to complete the first edition and is 45,000 pages long!