Dutch orthography: Wikis


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Dutch grammar series

Dutch grammar

Dutch orthography uses the Latin alphabet according to a system which has evolved to suit the needs of the Dutch language. The regular relationship of graphemes to phonemes is listed in the article on Dutch language. This article will explain the present spelling system, and then trace the development of Dutch spelling as it has evolved from the Middle Ages through to the last two centuries when frequent government decrees sought to improve and simplify the system.



Dutch orthography has the reputation of being particularly logical. For the foreign learner it is relatively easy as, once one knows the system, one can almost always deduce pronunciation from spelling, if proper names and foreign loan-words are discounted. For Dutch children learning to write, the system is not quite so kind, as the reverse operation, deducing spelling from pronunciation, is more complicated: /k/ can be spelled ‹c› or ‹k› in loan words for example, and ‹ou› and ‹au› sound the same, as well as ‹ij› and ‹ei› in the standard dialect. Critics also complain that even when the system is regular it is occasionally antiquated: the digraph ‹oe› is spelled in this way because it was once a diphthong, but now it is a simple vowel /u/; the combination ‹sch› for /s/ in the ending -isch is also historically conditioned. All in all, at least among the Western European languages, Dutch is closer than average to a phonemic spelling.

Present spelling system

The spelling system of the Dutch language is issued by government decree and is compulsory for all government documentation and educational establishments.


Basic graphemes

Dutch consonants
spelling IPA
initial final
b [b] [p]
ch [x], [ʃ] [1] [x]
d [d] [t]
f [f]
g [ɣ], [x] [x]
h [ɦ]
j [j]
k [k]
l [l]
m [m]
n [n]
ng [ŋ]
nj [ɲj]
p [p]
ph [f]
qu [kw][2]
r [ɾ], [r], [ʀ][3]
s [s]
sch [sx] [s]
sj [ʃ]
t [t], [s][4] [t]
tj [tʲ]
tsj [tʃ]
v [v]
w [ʋ]
x [ks], [ɡz][5] [ks]
y [j][6]
z [z]
Dutch vowels and diphthongs
spelling IPA
closed open
a [ɑ] [aː]
aa [aː]
aai [aːi̯]
ae [eː]
au [ʌu̯], [ʌː][7]
ay [ai̯]
e [ɛ] [eː], [ə]
ee [eː]
eeuw [eːu̯]
ei [ɛi̯], [ɛː][7]
eu [øː]
i [ɪ], [ə] [i]
ie [i][8]
ieuw [iːu̯]
ij [ɛi̯], [ɛː], [ə][7]
o [ɔ] [oː]
oe [u]
oo [oː]
ooi [oːi̯]
ou [ʌu̯], [ʌː][7]
u [œ] [y]
ui [œy̯], [œː][7]
uu [y]
uw [yːu̯]
y [i], [ɪ][6]
  1. ^ in words descending from Latin
  2. ^ like in English, q can only be followed by a u, and this combination is pronounced [kw], just in a few words it is more common to pronounce it as [k]
  3. ^ r is silent before g in some dialects
  4. ^ when followed by i in southern dialects and in some loan words
  5. ^ In southern dialects x is sometimes pronounced [ɡz] between vowels, this usually is not the case in northern dialects
  6. ^ a b y usually represents a vowel, either [i] or [ɪ] in both open and closed syllables, and only in a few loan words it represents a consonant
  7. ^ a b c d e In the Southern dialects of Dutch, these are not diphthongs, in the northern dialects they are.
  8. ^ though it is unnecessary to write ie in open syllables, it is commonly done so, and at a word end [i] is usually written ie, rarely i

Double vowels or consonants

Since Dutch has many more vowels than the Latin alphabet, a system has come into use indicating vowels by an intricate system of single and double vowels or consonants. The same letter is used to indicate a pair of vowels that are close to each other in the IPA vowel space. Depending on the particular phonological treatise, the members of each pair are given various names: sharp/dull, clear/dim, free/checked, tense/lax, open/closed, long/short. Although vowel length is generally not phonemic in Dutch, one of each pair is pronounced slightly longer by many speakers, so the naming long/short is traditionally used to explain the orthography system and will be used here as well, even though some of the other indications might be more accurate.

Basic notation of vowel phonemes
Written letter Long phoneme Short phoneme
a ɑ
e ɛ
i ɪ
o ɔ
u ʏ

Some linguists propose using /ɵ/ instead of /ʏ/ as a more precise rendition for the short u. The length signs ː are somewhat arbitrary as they do not mark a phonemic difference and the actual length varies with stress and the speed of speech.

The spelling rules for a, e, o, u are very regular, apart from e also being used for the neutral schwa sound /ə/ in unstressed syllables, thus giving it three possible interpretations. As the position of the stress in a polysyllabic word is not indicated in the spelling this may lead to some confusion.

The following basic rules are simple:

  • A vowel in an open syllable (one ending with the vowel) is long:
    • po ('chamber pot') has a long /oː/
  • A vowel in a closed syllable (one ending with a consonant) is short, unless the vowel is doubled to show its length:
    • pot ('pot') has a short /ɔ/
    • poot ('paw') has a long /oː/

More confusing for learners is the additional rule for polysyllabic words:

  • The first syllable is open if it is followed by a single consonant, since this consonant belongs to the following syllable. There have to be two consonants for one of them to be closing the first syllable. So:
    • poot has plural poten; the "t" belongs to the second syllable so the syllables divide po-ten. As the first syllable is open, a double "oo" is no longer required to mark the long vowel /oː/.
    • pot has plural potten; the syllables divide pot-ten, so the double "t" indicates the first syllable is now closed and has the short vowel /ɔ/.

Much confusion is caused by the many words that change their vowel in declensions. For example the plural of lot is loten, not lotten as would be regular. So in fact:

  • lot to loten keeps the same spelling "o", but changes sound /ɔ/ to /oː/ (irregular)
  • poot to poten changes spelling "oo" to "o", but keeps the same sound /oː/ (regular)

Similarly vat changes vowel to vaten and gebed to gebeden.

pad has two plurals according to the meaning: paden (paths) or padden (toads).

Rules for i are more complicated. In the past the language did indeed have a doubled ii. To avoid confusion with a handwritten u, it became customary to lengthen the second i to a letter j, thus forming ij, initially pronounced (as it still is in some dialects) as a long /iː/. In the standard language the sound shifted to a diphthong /ɛi/. In the modern language a long i is usually written as ie, even in open syllables. In loanwords however, a single i is often used.

When vowels appear in front of an 'r', their value may be affected. Compare e.g:

bord: /bɔrt/
boord: /bɔːrt/ (instead of /boːrt/)
ver: /vɛr/
veer: /vɪːr/ (instead of /veːr/)

The vowels <oe> /u/ and <eu> /ø/ do not possess a long/short version.

't kofschip rule

Weak verbs form their past tenses by addition of a dental, ‹d› or ‹t›. Because final consonants are always devoiced, there is no difference in pronunciation between these in the participle. However, the orthography operates as though this devoicing did not take place.

The rule is that words ending in voiceless consonants take the voiceless -t-, voiced consonants the voiced d. Dutch children are taught the rule 't kofschip is met thee beladen, ("the merchant ship is loaded with tea"), that is, if the verb stem in the infinitive ends with the consonants of 't kofschip (-t, -k, -f, -s, -ch or -p), the past tense dental is a -t-; otherwise it is a -d-.

Dutch Meaning Dutch sentence English corresponding sentence
werken to work ik werkte I worked
krabben to scratch ik krabde I scratched

English-speaking learners of Dutch can use the mnemonic phrase soft ketchup.

See also

External links


  • Marijke van der Wal, Geschiedenis van het Nederlands, Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1994.
  • Nicoline van der Sijs, Taal als mensenwerk. Het ontstaan van het ABN, Den Haag: Sdu Uitgevers, 2004.


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