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Dutch vs German: 2 languages, 5 false friends

Dutch vs German: 2 languages, 5 false friends

Germany shares more than just a border with Belgium and the Netherlands. Their languages also share a bloodline: The Low Franconian language of Dutch and the High German tongue of German are both West Germanic languages, and, as siblings, have lots in common. If the average Dutch-speaker lays on a thick German accent, they can even make themselves understood in Hamburg almost as well as in their native Holland.

But, like any siblings, for all they have in common, they disagree on plenty. Nearly every language pair imaginable shares false friends, and the Dutch/German duo is no exception. False friends are words that are spelled or pronounced similarly in two languages but mean different things. Quick example: An English-speaker who makes a public mistake might feel embarrassed, but if they’re in Barcelona explaining how they feel, they might instinctively use the Spanish adjective embarazada, which means pregnant. (Make that mistake, and you’ll really be embarrassed.)

If you’re familiar with Dutch and looking to improve your German – or vice versa – beware these five false friends.

  1. Schlimm/slim

A German trying out his Dutch might try to comfort a Dutch-speaker by saying, “That’s okay, it wasn’t that slim.” The Dutch-speaker, though, is bound to take offense. The German has mistaken his native schlimm (bad) for the Dutch slim (smart), essentially calling him a dumb Dutchman. Which really isn’t slim.

Those of you who speak neither Dutch nor German might be thinking, “I would never make that mistake. Those words aren’t even spelled the same way!” This is true. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for…

  1. Doof

Doof is double trouble: same spelling, same pronunciation in both languages. But while it means “stupid” on the streets of Frankfurt, it means “deaf” in the fields of Flanders.

We also urge caution with regard to…

  1. Bellen

Another one-two punch for spelling and pronunciation, bellen in German describes that thing dogs are only supposed to do outside. (No, not that thing.) It is the infinitive form of the verb “to bark.” The same verb in Dutch, though, can mean “to call someone (on the phone)” or “to ring someone up.” While this may trip up native speakers of German, the etymology of the Dutch word is quite logical: It comes from the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.

  1. Meer/meer, See/zee

In German, das Meer is an ocean and der See is a lake. The Dutch also go boating on the meer and zee, but the meanings are reversed: meer means “lake” and zee means “ocean.” This is problematic until we remember that switching the article in German from masculine to feminine gives us die See, which also means “ocean,” which means See and zee are false friends in one context and fraternal twins in another, but Meer is never meer … and trying to keep this all straight can make you seasick.

  1. Lecker/lekker

From schnitzel and sausages to beer or Berliners, Germany is home to many lecker (delicious) delicacies. The Dutch have a similar word that casts a wider net: Anything astonishing, cool, or flat-out fun is lekker. Hamburgers and Heineken are lekker, of course, but so are clear blue skies, a breathtaking view, a lively party, and practically any awesome thing you can think of.

Dutch fries? Lecker and lekker.

False friends? Neither lecker nor lekker.

It’s that simple.

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