Deutsch or Dutch? Common misconceptions, meanings and origins

Deutsch or Dutch? Common misconceptions, meanings and origins

Dutch or Deutsch? These two words, although similar in sound, have decidedly different meanings, and come from two different languages, namely English and German. Many people, unfamiliar with the German language, often confuse these words due to their similarity. And with good reason! You may be surprised to know that, at one time, these two words were virtually interchangeable. 

Where does the term Deutsch come from?

The word “Deutsch” is a German word that derives from the Indo-European root word *þeudō (þ is pronounced as a voiceless th). This word was used to refer to vernaculars other than Latin, which was the lingua franca of European scholars up until the 18th century. 

In Latin itself, the term for such vernaculars was theodisce. In Old High German, the word diutisc was used. Over time, this morphed into tiutsch or diutsch in Middle High German, and then finally, Deutsch.

Therefore, the word Deutsch refers to the vernaculars spoken in the Germanic region that were not the the lingua franca, Latin. The term was then later used to differentiate between Romanic and Germanic languages, and all Germanic languages on the continent, including Dutch, were referred to as Diutsch or Tiutsch.

As you will see below, that is also the reason why the language of the Netherlands came to be known as “Dutch”, despite the fact that today, German (Deutsch) and Dutch are different but similar languages.

Where did the term Dutch come from?

The term Dutch refers to the language spoken in the Netherlands. It is confusing to many that the two words used to describe the language (Dutch) and the country (which is known as Nederland, Holland or even Vlaams) are completely unrelated in English.

This can be blamed on the ignorance of the British, who back in the day, used to refer to anyone who spoke a Germanic language as "Deutsch" (which is ironic, since English itself is a Germanic language!). Over time, "Deutsch" gradually morphed into "Dutch", which was used to refer to people from both the highlands that make up present-day Germany and the lowlands that make up present-day Netherlands. 

However, as time passed, the linguistic separation between the Netherlands (the low flatland areas) and Germany (the high mountainous areas) became more clear, and the people of Germany began to be called "German" by the British (this originates from the Latin word Germanus, which is what the Celts used to refer to their neighbours). On the other hand, they never bothered to change their name for the language of the Netherlands, and it remained what it is still called today: Dutch.

The English ignorance of the difference between Dutch and German people still resonates even today, as we can see in the case of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” settlers in the United States, who are actually Germanic migrants.

How similar are German and Dutch?

However, the British referring to both the German and Dutch vernaculars as "Deutsch" makes a lot more sense when you consider the linguistic route of these two languages. German and Dutch, being Germanic languages, share a lot more than you might think.

German and Dutch, together with English, are the three most prevalent West Germanic languages. These languages can be traced back to a period when there was no distinction between them. Even when the Germanic region began to diversify around the turn of the century, the resulting dialects remained mutually intelligible for many years afterwards.

However, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated from the mainland to England in 5 AD. That is also the reason why – although English, German and Dutch are similar – English varies slightly more than the other two.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the Germanic languages gradually split into two distinct dialects: High German (referring to the mountainous regions) and Low German (referring to the flat lowlands). These languages were very similar to each other and could be mutually understood - until a linguistic change took place, which has come to be known as the High German consonant shift.

Deutsch splits from Dutch

Somewhere between the third and fifth centuries, the High German language underwent a many-staged phonological development that led to a major shift in the way certain sounds were pronounced. For example, the "p" sound began to be pronounced as an "ff", the "d" as a "t" and so on. 

The change was so significant that, by 600 AD, High German could be distinguished as a separate language from other West Germanic languages such as Low German and Dutch. This event marked the birth of the Dutch and German languages and thus the division of two words that for a long time had meant essentially the same thing: Dutch and Deutsch. 

Thumb image credit: Henk Vrieselaar /

Naina Pottamkulam


Naina Pottamkulam



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