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Dutch orthography uses the Latin alphabet according to a system which has evolved to suit the needs of the Dutch language. The spelling system is issued by government decree and is compulsory for all government documentation and educational establishments.
Dutch uses the following letters and letter combinations. Note that for simplicity, dialectal variation and subphonemic distinctions are not always indicated. See Dutch phonology for more information.
- 〈c〉 before 〈e〉, 〈i〉, 〈y〉, is pronounced /s/ (or or /tʃ/ in some loan words from Italian), and /k/ otherwise.
- 〈ch〉 is pronounced /ʃ/ or /k/ in words descending from Latin or Greek.
- As in English, q can only be followed by a u, and this combination is pronounced /kʋ/, just in a few words it is more common to pronounce it as /k/.
- 〈r〉 is silent before 〈g〉 in some dialects.
- 〈s〉 may be pronounced /z/ before a vowel in words of foreign origin.
- 〈t〉 is pronounced /(t)s/ when followed by 〈i〉 in loanwords of Latin origin.
- 〈x〉 is sometimes pronounced /ɡz/ between vowels, usually in the southern dialects.
- 〈y〉 is usually treated identically to 〈i〉 or 〈ie〉. It is also an obsolete spelling variant of 〈ij〉.
- 〈ae〉 is an archaic spelling for 〈aa〉. In words of Latin origin it is treated identical to 〈ee〉.
- 〈e〉, 〈i〉, and 〈ij〉 are pronounced /ə/ when unstressed.
- 〈oi〉 is pronounced as 〈oo〉 in some names.
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.
Dutch orthography distinguishes between checked vowels and free vowels. A free vowel is not followed by a consonant in the same syllable (the syllable is open), a checked vowel is (the syllable is closed). Vowels can be free or checked in either pronunciation, orthography or both. The "default" pronunciation of a single vowel is short/lax when spelled checked, and long/tense when spelled free. The following table shows this:
|a||aː||ɑ||later /ˈlaːtər/ ("later")||lat /lɑt/ ("lat")|
|e||eː||ɛ||telen /ˈteːlə(n)/ ("to cultivate")||tel /tɛl/ ("count")|
|i||i(ː)||ɪ||Tine /ˈtinə/ (a name)||tin /tɪn/ ("tin")|
|o||oː||ɔ||open /ˈoːpə(n)/ ("open")||op /ɔp/ ("on")|
|u||y(ː)||ʏ||Lukas /ˈlykɑs/ (a name)||luk /lʏk/ ("succeed")|
Free 〈i〉 is fairly rare, mostly confined to loanwords and names. As tense /y/ is rare except before /r/, free 〈u〉 is likewise rare except before 〈r〉. 〈e〉 is also used to indicate the neutral schwa sound /ə/ in unstressed syllables, thus giving it two possible interpretations depending on stress placement. As the position of the stress in a polysyllabic word is not indicated in the spelling this may lead to some confusion.
There are two cases where the default pronunciation does not suffice, and additional changes are needed to override the default:
- A long/tense vowel that is checked in pronunciation. This is indicated in the spelling by writing the vowel doubled.
- A short/lax vowel that is free in pronunciation. This is indicated in the spelling by doubling the following consonant.
Pairs between single and double vowels, or between single and double consonants, often occur between related forms of words, such as between the singular and plural of a noun, or between the infinitive and conjugated forms of verbs. This is because the vowel length does not change in the pronunciation, but in spelling a syllable may alternate between checked and free depending on the syllable that follows. Examples of these alternations are shown below. Note that there are no examples with /i/, because free 〈i〉 does not occur in words of native origin.
|When free||When checked||Short/lax
|When checked||When free|
|aː||laten /ˈlaːtə(n)/ ("to let")||laat /laːt/ ("(I) let")||ɑ||lat /lɑt/ ("lat")||latten /ˈlɑtə(n)/ ("lats")|
|eː||leken /ˈleːkə(n)/ ("appeared", plural)||leek /leːk/ ("appeared", singular)||ɛ||lek /lɛk/ ("(I) leak")||lekken /ˈlɛkə(n)/ ("to leak")|
|–||–||–||ɪ||til /tɪl/ ("(I) lift")||tillen /ˈtɪlə(n)/ ("to lift")|
|oː||bonen /ˈboːnə(n)/ ("beans")||boon /boːn/ ("bean")||ɔ||bon /bɔn/ ("ticket")||bonnen /ˈbɔnə(n)/ ("tickets")|
|y(ː)||muren /ˈmyːrə(n)/ ("walls")||muur /myːr/ ("wall")||ʏ||mus /mʏs/ ("sparrow")||mussen /ˈmʏsə(n)/ ("sparrows")|
There are some irregular nouns that change their vowel from short/lax in the singular to long/tense in the plural. In these nouns, the spelling does not alternate between single and double letters. However, the sound /ɪ/ becomes /eː/ in the plural in such nouns, not /iː/, and this is reflected in the spelling. Examples are:
- dag ("day"), dagen ("days")
- weg ("road, way"), wegen ("ways")
- schip ("ship"), schepen ("ships")
- lot ("lottery ticket"), loten ("lottery tickets")
The origin of this somewhat complex system of indicating vowel length lies in Middle Dutch. Old Dutch still possessed phonemic consonant length in addition to phonemic vowel length, with no correspondence between them. In early Middle Dutch, short vowels were lengthened when they were free (in open syllables), so that any free vowel was now long by default. Checked vowels remained short, including those that were followed by a doubled consonant. Therefore, whether a vowel was checked or free was a convenient way to predict vowel length. Only long vowels in checked position needed special treatment, which was often indicated with vowel doubling or by adding another vowel such as 〈e〉 or 〈i〉. Later in Middle Dutch, the distinction between short and long consonants disappeared, but the original spelling was retained.
Final devoicing and the 't kofschip rule
Final devoicing is not indicated in Dutch spelling; words are usually spelled according to the historically original consonant. Therefore, a word may be written with a letter for a voiced consonant at the end of a word, but pronounced with a voiceless consonant in that position:
- heb /ɦɛp/ "(I) have", but hebben /ˈɦɛbə(n)/ "to have"
- paard /paːrt/ "horse", but paarden /ˈpaːrdə(n)/ "horses"
- leg /lɛx/ "(I) lay", but leggen /ˈlɛɣə(n)/ "to lay"
An exception is 〈v〉 and 〈z〉, which are written 〈f〉 and 〈z〉 word-finally. Compare this to English wife, wives and glass, glaze.
- blijf /blɛif/ "(I) stay", but blijven /ˈblɛivə(n)/ "to stay"
- huis /ɦœys/ "house", but huizen /ˈɦœyzə(n)/ "houses"
Weak verbs form their past tense and past participle by addition of a dental, 〈d〉 or 〈t〉 depending on the voicing of the preceding consonant(s) (see Assimilation (linguistics)). However, because final consonants are always devoiced, there is no difference in pronunciation between these in the participle. Nonetheless, in accordance with the above rules, the orthography operates as though this devoicing did not take place; the consonant that is written in the past participle matches that of the other past tense forms where it is not word-final. To help memorise when to write 〈d〉 and when 〈t〉, Dutch students are taught the rule "'t kofschip is met thee beladen" ("the merchant ship is loaded with tea"): if the verb stem in the infinitive ends with one of the consonants of "'t kofschip" (-t, -k, -f, -s, -ch or -p), the past tense dental is a -t-; otherwise it is a -d-. However, the rule also applies to loanwords ending in -c, -q or -x, as these are also voiceless.
|Dutch||Meaning||Dutch sentence||English corresponding sentence|
|werken||to work||ik werkte||I worked|
|krabben||to scratch||ik krabde||I scratched|
Dutch uses acute accent to mark stress, and diaeresis (trema) to disambiguate diphthongs/triphthongs. Occasionally, other diacritics are used in loanwords. Accents are not necessarily placed on capital letters (e.g., the word Eén at the beginning of a sentence), unless the word is entirely written in capitals.
Acute accents may be used to emphasize a word in a phrase. It can be put on the vowel in the stressed syllable of the emphasized word. If the vowel is written as a digraph, an acute accent is put on both parts of the digraph. Although this rule includes ij, the acute accent on the j is frequently omitted (resulting in íj instead of íj́), as putting an acute accent on a j is problematic in most word processing software. If the vowel is written as a trigraph (or more), the accent is put on the first two vowel letters.
Stress on a single short vowel (not a digraph or trigraph) is occasionally marked with a grave accent: Kàn jij dat? (equivalent to the example below), wèl; even though this is technically incorrect.
Additionally, the acute accent may also be used to mark different meanings of various words, including een/één (a(n)/one), voor/vóór (for/before), vóórkomen/voorkómen (to occur / to prevent), and vérstrekkend/verstrékkend (far-reaching/issuing), as shown in the examples below.
|Dat was háár ijsje.||That was her ice cream.|
|Ik wil het nú!||I want it now!|
|Dat is héél mooi.||That is very nice.|
|Kán jij dat?||Can you (are you able to) do that?|
|Tóé nou!||Come on!|
|Die fiets is niet óúd, hij is níéuw!||That bike is not old, it is new!|
|Hij heeft een boek.||He has a book.|
|Hij heeft één boek.||He has one book.|
|Ik zal voor jou opstaan.||I will get up for you.|
|Ik zal vóór jou opstaan.||I will get up before you.|
A diaeresis is used when a combination of vowel letters may be mistaken for a digraph, or interpreted in more than one way: "egoïstisch" (egoistic), "sympathieën" (sympathies, preferences), "reëel" (realistic), "zeeën" (seas). On a line break which separates the vowels but keeps parts of a digraph together, the diaeresis becomes redundant, and isn't written: ego-/istisch, sympathie-/en, re-/eel, zee-/en.
Diacritics in loanwords
Besides being used to mark stress, as described above, acute accents are also used in many loanwords (mainly from French) such as logé (overnight guest), coupé (train compartment), oké (okay), and café.
As in English, an apostrophe is used to mark omission of a part of word or several words:
|zo'n||(zo een)||such a|
|'s avonds||(des avonds)||in the evening|
|'s winters||(des winters)||in the winter|
|'s Gravenhage||(des Gravenhage)||The Hague|
Word-initial apostrophe, and the following letter, are never capitalized: "'s Avonds is zij nooit thuis." (She is never at home in the evening.)
- Dutch alphabet
- Dutch braille
- History of Dutch orthography
- IJ (digraph)
- Matthijs Siegenbeek
- Nederlandse Taalunie
- English spelling
- Grand Dictation of the Dutch Language
- De grondbeginselen der Nederlandsche spelling. Ontwerp der spelling voor het aanstaande Nederlandsch Woordenboek (1863) by L.A. te Winkel
- De grondbeginselen der Nederlandsche spelling. Regeling der spelling voor het woordenboek der Nederlandsche taal (1873) by L.A. te Winkel and M. de Vries
- De woordenlijst der Nederlandse taal online (2005) by the Dutch Language Union (Taalunie)
- De witte spelling (2006) by the Society "Onze Taal"
- "New Spelling" of the Dutch language
- Vincent van Heuven, Spelling en Lezen. Hoe Tragisch Zijn de Werkwoordsvormen?, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1978.
- Rob Naborn, De Spelling-Siegenbeek (1804), Doctoraalscriptie, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 1985.
- 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.