Answers & Observations

What's the difference between Dutch and German? Specifically, how similar or different are Dutch and German grammar & structure?

When it comes to morphology (grammar of words), German actually retains a number of features that Dutch has lost over the centuries. One of the clearest examples is the German retention of noun cases. German nouns have four formal cases (although most nouns do not have distinct suffixes for all four cases), while Dutch nouns no longer distinguish case formally. Wikipedia's page on Dutch declension summarizes the Dutch loss of noun cases throughout its history. In fact, Dutch nouns once worked like German nouns.

Dutch verbs also have fewer inflected forms (less complex conjugation) than German ones, but this difference isn't as noticeable as with declensions. Dutch forms the present indicative, present subjunctive and imperative with suffixes, but all other tense-mood combinations (e.g. future indicative) are formed with auxiliary constructions (helping verbs). German works this way, too - both Dutch and German have a formal past tense ('Man sagt' 'One says'/'It is said' -> 'Man sagte' 'One said'/'It was said'), but German speakers prefer the periphrasis 'Man hat gesagt...' 'One has said...' instead.

Pronouns in both German and Dutch inflect for (or "change to") subject, object and possessive forms, but Dutch pronouns do not distinguish between direct and indirect objects (the way German does: 'dich' 'you' / 'dir' 'to you').

As for their syntax (sentence structure), German and Dutch are both "V2 langs" (verb-second languages). In other words, finite (conjugated) verbs appear as the second word in a main clause. This rule is enforced by speakers, who will even move other words to maintain the verb's second position:

German: Ich sehe etwas.
Dutch: Ik zie iets.
English: 'I see something.'

Gestern sah ich etwas.
Gisteren zag ik iets.
'Yesterday I saw something.'

The basic word order in helping/modal phrases is 'SUBJECT + auxiliary VERB + OBJECT + infinitive VERB' in both languages:

Ich habe etwas gesehen.
Ik heb iets gezien.
I have something seen
'I saw something.'

These observations are limited to Standard German and Standard Dutch. German, especially, exhibits a ton of variation in its patchwork of dialects. For instance, expect to find many more similarities between Meuse-Rhenish and Dutch than Standard German and Dutch.

We considered similarities and differences in structure very briefly above. But what about their phonology (pronunciation in each language)? Looking at their similarities, we can find underlying sound correspondences. This allows us to trace the pronunciation back through time, as their words look more and more similar traveling back through history - far enough back, and we're actually discussing a single language. Sound correspondences can help you understand the development of Dutch and the development of German, but also their common material they share since they are sub-branches of the same branch of the same tree.

Consider a simple example: 'wat' (Dutch) and 'was' (German). Comparing other words, we find many with 's(s)' in German that have Dutch counterparts with 't' (dat/das, weet/weiss, eten/essen, etc.). When we compare other West Germanic languages (like English 'what'), it turns out that German changed -t to -s, but Dutch retains final -t. We find a sound correspondence: when Dutch words end in -t, their German cognates end in -s(s). Then, considering sets like eten/essen, we can strengthen this sound correspondence: Dutch -t = German -s(s) & Dutch -t- = German -ss-.

Looking at sound and structure in this way, we can locate more correspondences and become aware of the differences that separate German from Dutch (or Dutch from German), but also the similarities that link them genetically.

What are German dialects? What's the relation between German dialects and Standard German? What makes them dialects, and German a language?

What makes one form of speech a "separate language" and another merely a dialect? Definitions tend to remain fuzzy and often contain too many contradictions for practical application. Where there are battle-lines, they may not match up with linguistic evidence. It's worth recalling the half-joke made by a Yiddish author often quoted in comparative linguistics and sociolinguistics that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy.

The historical approach can shed some light on this question. Learning something of the history of the evolution of German, including everything from the difference between High and Low German branches (e.g. Bavarian is a High German dialect, while Plattdeutsch is a Low Saxon dialect) to the eventual rise of a Modern Standard German. You'll be able to make big-picture sense of the many, many dialect areas that still criss-cross the country and beyond.

German speakers today use some form of local speech that is influenced by their dialect area. Few people speak German with the prescribed textbook pronunciation, even when they speak Modern Standard German.

We can imagine the various forms of German as having a vertical and horizontal component. The vertical component: "below" the official way of speaking (the "acrolect"), individual German speakers tend to have a sociolect continuum leading down to their harder-to-understand (for outsiders) local speech. Speakers may change registers based on the social situation. At the extremes of this continuum, it might seem as if speakers are using one language in standard/national situations and an entirely separate one in their local situations.

The horizontal component covers the geography of the country (and beyond): there is a strong dialect continuum that stretches across Germany and past its borders. In the extreme south and the extreme north, local speech sounds like two different languages. In between, transitional forms dominate. Adjacent regions speak dialects that are typically closer to each other than either dialect is to Standard German.

Pronunciation and word choice (lexis) account for the biggest differences between dialects. Grammar may remain consistent from dialect to dialect. (In fact, German dialects have remained among the most conservative Germanic languages with respect to grammar.)

You can dig further for free on Wikipedia's pages on West Germanic Languages and Standard German, along with the German Dialects guide. Ultimately, you'll need to rely on more technical materials like Russ' German Dialects. Of course, the best writing on the German dialects is in German by German linguists.

What's the difference between German and Yiddish? Is Yiddish just German with Hebrew and Slavic words or sounds mixed in?

Every piece of Yiddish grammar easily relates to Modern Standard German, and even most exceptions have an analogue in some German dialect (for instance, the Yiddish tendency to replace the genitive case with fun + possessor in dative case = German von + possessor in dative case).

The biggest differences besides the writing system are lexical and phonological (dealing with words and sounds). Even then, Yiddish has dialects, and these will vary among Yiddish dialects. Yiddish has borrowed words from Hebrew, including many "content" words like nouns and verbs. Slavic elements are also more evident in words and sounds than the structure of the language.

This isn't just a situation of "code-switching" - Yiddish has developed on its own, although always in close contact with the prestige language now called Modern Standard German. It isn't just Modern Standard German peppered with Hebrew words. On the other hand, Yiddish is no more distinct from Standard German than most other German dialects, and it's certainly far closer to German than to any other major world language.

I am even more familiar with a similar situation between Ladino (the traditional Sephardic language) and Standard Spanish. I speak & read Spanish, and can decipher writings in Ladino. Seems a Ladino non-(standard) Spanish speaker and a Spanish speaker can't communicate perfectly, but there's enough common ground for strong mutual intelligibility. Yiddish and German shared a similar relationship over the same period of time.

Germanic languages (like German and English) have pairs of words like buy/purchase and oversee/supervise, where the first word is Germanic and the second word is Latinic. What's the term for this (cognates?), and what does it tell us about the relationship between Germanic and Latinic languages?

First off, let's clarify: such words aren't cognates. Cognates are reflexes of the same word inherited from an ancestor language. I would suggest doublets, while adding a caveat.

Etymological doublets may occur when a cognate word is borrowed from a related language ("cycle", borrowed from Greek and "wheel", inherited from Germanic both come from Proto-Indo-European *kwel-), so that the inherited cognate and borrowed cognate sit side-by-side with different meanings. Such words are doublets and cognates.

In this case, we're looking at semantic doublets. Semantic doublets may occur when one language borrows loanwords with similar meanings from another language, related or not. English has many of these loanwords, which makes it popular to talk about the language as a "hybrid" or "mut" (and to discuss it in the context of contact languages, mixed languages, even creole languages). Yet it's far from easy to classify - you certainly can't generalize a label for English based on Latinic-Germanic semantic doublets.

But that's not the whole story. Take the examples of buy/purchase vs. oversee/supervise, which have distinct things going on with respect to word origins. Let's first separate pronunciation, form and meaning. This way, we can write off "purchase" and "buy" as synonyms, and, with respect to sense, as doublets. They share meaning and meaning only, with no common structure or pronunciation, and no common historical background as cognates. We could be more precise and say that one is etymologically Latinic and the other Germanic, but the two coexist as distinct yet near-synonymous lexemes in Modern English.

The second case is more complex. Latin-derived super-vise and Germanic over-see represent many verbs that share the unique structure PREPOSITION-VERB (fore-see/pre-view) in Germanic/Latinic word pairs. Let's enumerate the possibilities that could have created this predicament ("structure" below stands for words exhibiting the construction PREPOSITION-VERB):

1. the structure developed separately in Latin and Germanic sources; English inherited the Germanic one but borrowed the Latin one. In this case, they are unrelated (the resemblance is due to chance).

2. Germanic and Latin come from a common ancestor that had the same structure. In this case, they are related (cognates).

3. Latin had the structure, then Germanic/English developed the same structure based off the Latin pattern (calque). The original structure was borrowed into Germanic languages, while the calque was inherited.

4. Germanic/English had the structure, then Latin developed the same structure based off the Germanic pattern (calque). The original structure was inherited into Germanic, while the calque was borrowed.

Initially, PREPOSITION-VERB seems likely to be a calque. Yet other Indo-European languages (languages related to English) - Old Church Slavonic, Greek, Sanskrit, etc. - share this structure. What's more, it seems to occur only rarely outside Indo-European. Evidence suggests that the ancestor language (Proto-Indo-European) likely had the same structure, so verbal lexemes with the construction PREPOSITION-VERB actually demonstrate an inherited cognate structure (a kind of structural doublet).