I'm asking this because I stumbled upon what I believe is a Dutch copy of The Brothers Grimm at a used book store. I initially thought it was archaic German and looked over it to see if I could make sense of it (I know German). I was able to make sense of the few sentences I looked at, before I realized that what I was looking at couldn't be German.

I've thought about buying the book, purely for the amusement of being able to make sense of a book written in a language I've never learned a word of. But is there any point in me doing that?

And I should note that I've been studying linguistics for over 10 years now (I'm entirely self-taught), so I can make sense of a lot of ancient texts I've never actually studied (I can make a lot of sense out of Latin, for instance). So it may just be me. I've noticed also that I can recognize a lot of Danish in writing, thought not spoken. Also, Swedish and Norwegian look far more alien to me for some reason. I was able to understand Grendel's speech in the Beowulf film, though I'm not sure if a monolingual English speaker would've been able to or not.

  • I know German - Welcome to the club ! :-) Perhaps the most useful and entertaining way to meaningfully answer this question for yourself would be by first listening to a few songs in Dutch, and then trying to determine how much of each you are able to understand.
    – Lucian
    Sep 7, 2018 at 13:22
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    Swedish and Norwegian look far more alien to me, for some reason - German, Dutch, and English form one subfamily, whereas Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic form another.
    – Lucian
    Sep 7, 2018 at 13:29

2 Answers 2


What is the metric here? 42% of words? "Somewhat intelligible"? Some formula given parameters like years*7 + km*0.01 + difficulty*3?

Dutch and German are different languages mit an armey un flot on a somewhat fragmented and evolving dialect continuum. Modern Dutch emerged about half a millennium ago, before standard German was created, and long before it was widely spoken, which was really only recently.

Speakers of German dialects can hardly understand each other if they are just listening in without context, even speakers of dialects within the same subgroup like Alemannic. If someone actually speaks real dialect on television there are usually subtitles.

Your anecdote is undoubtedly true and not surprising but a very flawed experiment because 1) you definitely know English, and Dutch is between German and English 2) you presumably know at least passively the stories of the Brothers Grimm, which is anyway a restricted and archaic domain for which you have some priors 3) it's written not spoken.


The important concepts here are Abstandsprache, Ausbausprache and Dachsprache.

Reading en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abstand_and_ausbau_languages - concepts inspired by this set of languages and dialects - and Ctrl+F-ing for Dutch:

Finally, the ausbau languages may be so different that they also constitute abstand languages. Examples include Dutch versus German,

On the history:

Approximately at the same time, Dutch started to replace Low German as a roof of the Low German dialects in the Netherlands that form today's Dutch Low Saxon group, and most Central German dialects went under the "roof" of the evolving High German. Low German ceased to be spoken on the eastern rim of the Baltic Sea. Today, its dialects surviving in northern Germany have come under the roof of Standard German.[20] Local Low German dialects spoken in the Netherlands have come under the roof of Dutch.[19] This happened despite the effect of notable migration streams in both directions between the Western (Dutch) and Eastern (Prussian, now mainly Polish and Russian) areas of the region of the Low German languages, motivated by both religious intolerance and labour need. In several spots along the Dutch–German border, identical dialects are spoken on both sides, but are deemed to belong to different roofing according to which side of the border they are on.

Since you can read German you should also read the German version of that article. (Since you can read Dutch too I would recommend the Dutch version but there is none.)

Real world

Exposure is everything, and in the real world, exposure is unevenly distributed. Knowledge of one does not imply instantly understanding of the other upon exposure. Knowledge of one just implies much faster learning of the other.

Here is my answer to Do Germans understand the Dutch language?:

No, not in practice. By default, German speakers understand only occasional Dutch words, phrases in context, most written signs and the gist of simple texts like Wikipedia articles.

It depends less on the inherent distance of the languages - about the same as to Swiss dialects - and more on other variables: how much Dutch has one been been exposed to (and how much English, Frisian and French), whether the Dutch is written or spoken, what the topic is and situation are, how much background noise there is... And last but not least there are some delicate questions of attitude and intra-European protocols.

Those context variables are why the Dutch are usually much better at German than the Germans at Dutch. Smaller peoples are doomed to be more talented. Some German may report that he communicated with a Dutchmen, but that was only because the Dutchman was desperately re-activing the German he learnt in school, and due to the accent and other mistakes, the German thought that it was Dutch that he was understanding.

If a German villager from Transylvania were trapped on a desert island with a truly monolingual Dutchman - a rare species - they would understand each other within days to weeks, for the purposes of life on the island. After a year or so they would be speaking some sort of Platt or Kölsch, the exact mix would depend on their personalities.

But until then... Dutch is as effective at encrypting communication from German speakers as French is.

Intelligibility is not always symmetric. How easily can Dutch speakers understand German having had no exposure? Well, standard German grammar is more conservative than standard Dutch grammar, in terms of gender and especially case, concepts frequently reported by language learners as physically painful.


I would expect that to vary somewhat from speaker to speaker. Key drivers probably include how many other languages that person speaks and/or how easily they pick up languages, and what regional dialects of German they have been exposed to.

Speaking multiple languages and/or picking up new languages easily would help with guessing the meaning of a cognate term with slight variations in meaning.

Exposure to a Northern German dialect would help as these, like Dutch (and English, for that matter), have not gone through some of the phonetic shifts that occurred in German (e.g. Dutch pan and Lower German Pann vs. Standard German Pfanne ‘pan’), and some share word roots with Dutch which are not found in standard German (e.g. Dutch/Lower German trekken ‘pull’).

From my own personal experience (native speaker of German, interested in languages with conversational proficiency in approximately four languages, exposure to Lower German dialects up to preschool age, never made any serious effort to learn Dutch), I can get the gist of a written Dutch text with moderate effort. Understanding spoken language comes with the additional challenge of phonetics, which I personally find harder.

  • +1 Exactly. Individual variation is orders of magnitude larger than inter-language variations. Some German speakers can understand spoken Dutch without much trouble; others never will. And vice versa. And that's only those two. Pick any other two related languages and you get the same results. Not to mention that nobody speaks Standard German or Dutch natively; one speaks one's Mundart at home, and there's lots of those all over the Germanies, as they used to be called. Look at The Rhenish Fan, as it's still called.
    – jlawler
    May 16, 2022 at 18:56
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    @jlawler It is no longer true that Standard German has no native speakers, the events after world war 2 and an increased mobility of the urban population inside Germany have created lots of native speakers of standard German to the amount that some dialects, specially city dialects, are endangered now. May 17, 2022 at 8:38

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