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What single change(s) in history would cause the Dutch people to be speaking German instead of Dutch?

I understand that German and Dutch are both Germanic languages and share a common ancestry, as German has dialect continuum from the border with Poland all the way to the Netherlands.

I'm looking for a change that would prevent the drastic, but gradual diversion that happened between the two, so that someone from Berlin could understand a Dutchman just as well as he would someone from Munster or Austria.

I do know that people from different parts of Germany and Austria can have difficulties understanding each other, but overall it's still the same language.

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  • $\begingroup$ The "gradual diversion" happened 2000 years ago, when High German dialects underwent the second Germanic consonant shift. Dutch is a Low German dialect, Austrians speak High German. The two have been different since before the Middle Ages. You cannot really have the Netherlands and Austria speak the same language; at best you can have a common Low German language in the historical territories where Low German was spoken, including parts of Belgium, the Netherlands and northern Germany. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 27 '18 at 22:17
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The Dutch speak Dutch / the Deutsch speak Deutsch

As the famous quip goes, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

The historical linguistic reality is that south of the north Germanic languages and east of the Anglo-Frisian languages there used to be two Germanic dialect continua, conventionally called Low German (Plattdeutsch, German of the Flat Lands) and High German (Hochdeutsch, German of the High Lands). Like this:

The Ik/Ich isogloss, a.k.a. the Uerdingen line

The Uerdingen line (the Ik/Ich isogloss), one of the isoglosses separating Low German (to the north and west) and High German (to the east and south). Map by Slomox, available on Wikimedia under the CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported license.

Low German and High German differ principally in that High German dialects participated to the second Germanic consonant shift, which is the reason why in Modern German "ship" is "Schiff", "apple" is "Apfel", "out" is "aus", "two" is "Zwei", "wife" is "Weib" and "day" is "Tag". (The corresponding Dutch words, as a Low German standardized dialect, are much more similar to the English words: "schip", "appel", "uit", "twee", "wijf" and "dag".)

Berlin is firmly in Low German territory: so how come that today Berliners speak a High German variety and can no longer understand their Dutch Low German close relatives?

The answer is complicated, like most answers having to do with European history. The basic reasons are:

  • The territories which make up modern Germany and Austria were for a long time part of the Holy Roman Empire; politically the HRE did not account for much, but the imperial bureaucracy eventually standardized on a common bureaucratese called Sächsische Kanzleisprache, Saxon Chancellery Language, a form of High German which avoids the more extreme characteristics which would have made it utterly incomprehensible and alien to Low German speakers.

    In time, people first became accustomed to the simple fact of life that official documents used a language similar but different from their daily speech. And then, when modern times came and education became free and compulsory, guess what common language was taught?

  • The territories which make up modern Germany and Austria (called "the Germanies" in the Early Modern period) have always been quite closely united culturally, whereas the Low Countries were always outside this cultural community.

  • And finally, around 1870 the nascent German Empire decided administratively that everybody should learn High German in school.

  • Yes, the famous translation of the Bible by Luther played a role, but it was a modest role. Luther's translation uses a central variety, neither too Low nor too High; it's main importance is that is strengthened the cultural links between the Germanies.

A simple small change in history

Coming back to the question, what change in history would make the Dutch speak German, the answer is that in a sense they actually do. Continental west Germanic has two standardized forms, one called Dutch ("Nederlands") and one called German ("Deutsch"); Dutch a standardized Low German dialect, and German is a standardized High German dialect.

While I cannot imagine a "simple" change which would have resulted in only one standardized form of continental west Germanic, I can easily imagine a relatively simple change which would have preserved the Low Germanicity of Saxony and Brandenburg and Prussia and Pomerania: Gustavus Adolphus does not die in the battle of Lützen; instead, he continues to lead the northern Protestant side in the Thirty Years' War and establishes the Corpus Evangelicorum as a polity separate from the mostly Catholic Empire. A political boundary between the northern and western Low Germanic dialects and the southern and eastern High Germanic dialects would have preserved the linguistic separation, which would have, in time, resulted in two standard languages.

And who knows? Maybe the Dutch would have adopted the Low German standard of their Deutsch neighbors...

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the awesome answer. You talk about how the Low Countries were outside the German cultural community, do you know why? I think this could also be a key element in this language question. $\endgroup$ – Ravi Mattar May 27 '18 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ @RaviMattar: Brief: (a) They were not part of the Holy Roman Empire. (b) They were for quite some time ruled by Spain. Long: in 837 CE, king Louis the Pious decided to divide the Carolingian Empire between his three sons; the Low Countries fell into the ill-fated Lotharingia. The western part became France; the eastern part became the HRE; the middle part soon fractured. Before the advent of the EU, the Low Countries were never again united with the Germanies in a stable political structure. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 27 '18 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ "Gustavus Adolphus does not die in the battle of Lützen" - sounds like 1632 $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz May 28 '18 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ @manassehkatz: Yes it does, doesn't it? It really was a pivoting point in European history. We'll never know what would have happened had he continued in command of the Protestant side; but, on the other hand, in real history the Peace of Westphalia did create the basis for the modern world of nation-states. $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 28 '18 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Somehow I only discovered 1632 several months ago - done with 3 books so far, and I'm totally hooked. So many books, so little time! $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz May 28 '18 at 22:36
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Well. I have little knowledge on the history of the Netherlands, but judging according to this Wikipedia page:

I think that the changes have to go back to the early middle ages: Maybe the Frisians (who were Saxons, theoretically related to both Anglo-Saxons and the inhabitants of the German region Sachsen) win the Battle of Boarn.

If they continue to repulse the West Franks but are instead only defeated by Otto I, who for some reason happens to be less occupied with Italy and puts the focus of the Holy Roman Empire more to the North, keeping local nobles more under control and the ties to other German peoples stronger...

You may ask why it is necessary to go back so much: The Old Dutch is related to the Frankish languages while the Old Saxon is related to the modern German.

It can become complicated in the ethnic chaos of the migration period (the Franks were for example were no single germanic tribe, but rather a confederation of tribes) or in the feudal anarchy of the later times, but I think it's doable with so much explanation. Of course if this is a major plot device, then you are going to need much more research.

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Just to be clear, the current differences between Dutch and German is far bigger than outsiders would think at first sight. Their vocabulary shares many similarities, but a Dutch person cannot go to Berlin and instantly switch to German - Dutch high schoolers study German as part of its middle school curriculum, but even then they'll need to go to university or immerse themselves in the German culture before being considered fluent. You cannot literally translate a Dutch sentence into a German one without sounding like a fool. It will sound like the German version of Dunglish.

It's hard to pinpoint a definite change that will make the Dutch speak German since the concept of a politically unified Germany is 'relatively' recent. I'd go back far in time for that. Another problem is Belgium (the northern, Dutch-speaking part) which I presume you'll also want to speak German. Historically speaking, the Low Countries were one entity until 1648, at which point the Spanish gained possession of what would later become Belgium. That'll require some butterflying.

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Just make the Netherlands be part of Germany, and they can keep speaking the exact same language, but it will be called a dialect of German. It’s no more different from “standard” German than the Scots dialect is from standard English, and if Scotland was an independent country then Scots would be a language rather than a dialect.

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  • $\begingroup$ or no more different than lower german spoken in the north is from standard german. $\endgroup$ – eMBee Sep 4 '18 at 13:49
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If the Reformation doesn't start, and if the ruler of the Netherlands isn't seen as a foreign tyrant, the Netherlands might not revolt in the 16th century. Assume that Ferdinand I, the overlord of the Netherlands, instead of Philip II, inherits them from Charles V. Assume also that France is decisively defeated and the Ottomans stopped or even pushed back in the Balkans and Mediterranean by Charles V, and thus there are fewer wars that Ferdinand I needs to tax the Netherlands to pay for, thus lessening the chances of a Netherlands revolt.

Supposed that Ferdinand I and his successors divide their time more or less evenly between their wealthy and powerful possessions in the Netherlands and in Austria/Bohemia/Hungary. Then it will be possible that the elites in both regions will start to speak an new dialect that combines features of both regional dialects. And by the time that universal schooling starts, the idea may be that the new dialect is the only proper one and that only country bumpkins would speak regional dialects and thus only the new dialect should be taught in schools. Thus the new dialect becomes the universal versions of German.

This has the added advantage that it may be a much more peaceful history than ours. Perhaps millions of people will be killed in European wars from 1500-2000, but that might still total over a hundred million fewer lives lost than in our history.

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Martin Luther’s translation of the bible could have been a pivotal point in history. To address a larger audience, he intentionally picked a south German dialect as opposed to his own, which would have been understandable by his contemporary Dutch. Northern Germans have, to read the Luther Bible, effectively given up their own dialect, while the Dutch have had their own translation. Luther’s attempt was a failure, since the addressed south Germans remained mostly catholic after the 30 year war. If he stuck to his own dialect, maybe the Netherlands would today border on Bavaria and Austria or would have never left the Holy Roman Empire.

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As you correctly point out, even among Germans there are quite some variation is the pronunciation, and Hochdeutsch is about as "fictional" language for Germans as much as ABN is for Dutch: they learn it at school, but there is nobody talking it as family learned language.

I have personally heard some Dutchies (rather non conformist ones, I'd say) admitting that Dutch is nothing more than a German dialect.

The only way to prevent the divergence between the two modern languages would be to force the common living between the populations and preventing the foreign influxes that moved Dutch away from German. So, to cut it short, have German kingdoms expanding in the low lands until the North sea.

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    $\begingroup$ they learn [Hochdeutsch] at school, but there is nobody talking it as family learned language – That’s far from correct. I learnt standard German at home and so does my son. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft May 27 '18 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Wrzlprmft, I agree with you about grammar and syntax. But there is a large difference between a Schwabe and a Pruisen when they speak the same Deutsch... (at least there is at my ear) $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch May 27 '18 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ I fail to see what the difference between the German dialects has to do with this. The situation you are describing (as I understand it) is that everybody speaks dialect at home and standard German is a construct that only exists in official regions. This is not true to the extent that dialects are dying out because they are not inherited in many families. Sure, nobody speaks 100 % standard German, but what many families speak at home is much closer to standard German than to any dialect. $\endgroup$ – Wrzlprmft May 27 '18 at 18:30

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