Dutch phonology

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Dutch is a Germanic language and as such has a similar phonology to other Germanic languages, particularly Frisian, English, and German. See West Germanic languages for more information.


The following is a table showing the consonant phonemes of Dutch.

Labial Alveolar Post-
Dorsal Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive p b t d k (ɡ) (ʔ)
Fricative f v s z (ʃ ʒ) x ɣ ɦ
Approximant ʋ l j
Rhotic r
Distribution of guttural R (e.g. [ʁ ʀ χ]) in Northern Europe.[1]
  not usual
  only in some educated speech
  usual in educated speech

Notes regarding obstruents:

  • The glottal stop [ʔ] is inserted before vowel-initial syllables within words after /a/ and /ə/ and often also at the beginning of a word, although unlike standard German there is not a requirement to use it.
  • The alveolar consonants (especially the stops) are generally pronounced as denti-alveolars in Belgian Dutch.
  • /ɡ/ is not a native phoneme of Dutch and only occurs in borrowed words, like goal. [ɡ] also occurs as an allophone of /k/ when it undergoes voicing assimilation, like in zakdoek [ˈzɑɡduk].
  • /x/ and /ɣ/ are velar [x ɣ] or uvular [χ ʁ] in the northern dialects. Further south they are velar or fronted towards a palatal velar [ç ʝ].[2]
  • In the north /ɣ/ often devoices and merges with /x/ in all environments, whereas in the south the distinction between the two phonemes is generally preserved.
  • In some northern dialects, the other voiced fricatives may merge with the voiceless ones as well: /ɦ/ is then realized as [h], whereas /v/ and /z/ merge with /f/ and /s/ respectively.
  • The sequences /sj/ and /zj/ are often assimilated to palatalised [sʲ zʲ], alveolo-palatal [ɕ ʑ], postalveolar [ʃ ʒ], or similar realisations.
  • /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ are not native phonemes of Dutch, and usually occur in borrowed words, like show and bagage ('baggage'). Depending on the speaker and the position in the word, they may or may not be distinct from the assimilated realisations of the clusters /sj/ and /zj/. If they are not distinct, they will have the same range of realisations noted above.
  • /s/ and /z/ may be somewhat palatalized [sʲ zʲ], especially in the Netherlands, or in some northern dialects even retracted [s̠ z̠], making them sound close to English /ʃ ʒ/. Palatalization is more common than retraction, and is also found in some southern dialects (but usually not in the south-west).
  • A number of dialects devoice /ɦ/ to [h] and some dialects, particularly those from the southwest, exhibit h-dropping.

Notes regarding sonorants:

  • /m/ and /n/ assimilate their articulation to a following obstruent in many cases:
    • Both become [m] before /p/ and /b/, and [ɱ] before /f/ and /v/.
    • /n/ merges into /ŋ/ before velars (/k ɡ x ɣ/). The realisation of /ŋ/ in turn depends on how a following velar fricative is realised. For example, it will be uvular [ɴ] for speakers that realise /x/ and /ɣ/ as uvulars.
    • /n/ may be realised as [ɲ] before /j/.[3] This also occurs before /ʃ/ or /ʒ/, and before /sj/ and /zj/ under assimilation.
  • Pronunciation of /l/ pronunciation varies from "light" (often in Belgium) to "dark" (Netherlands). For many speakers it is velarized [ɫ] syllable-finally, and may even undergo L-vocalization; this is more common in northern areas, but also occurs in Brabantian. Realisation is generally unaffected by a following /j/, and speakers with velarised /l/ generally also have [ɫj].
  • The realization of /r/ phoneme varies considerably from dialect to dialect and even between speakers in the same dialect area:
    • The "standard" and historically original pronunciation is an alveolar trill [r], with the alveolar tap [ɾ] as a common allophone.
    • The uvular trill [ʀ] is a common alternative, found particularly in the central and southern dialect areas. Syllable-finally, it may be debuccalized to [ɐ], much as in German. This is more common in the (south)eastern areas (Limburg, southeast Brabantian, Overijssel).
    • The coastal dialects of South Holland produce a voiced uvular fricative [ʁ], which causes it to merge with a uvular /ɣ/ and (if devoicing occurs) with /x/. In these dialects, schijven ("discs") and schrijven ("to write") are homophones.
    • Word-finally, the alveolar approximant [ɹ] is used by some speakers. In the Leiden dialect it is used everywhere in a word.
  • The realization of /ʋ/ also varies somewhat by area and speaker:
    • The main realisation is a labiodental approximant [ʋ], found particularly in the Netherlands.
    • A number of dialects in Belgium[4][5] and the southern Netherlands use a bilabial approximant [β̞], which is like [w] but without strong velarization.
    • In Suriname and among immigrant populations, [w] is usual.

The final 'n' of the ending -en (originally /ən/, with a variety of meanings) is not pronounced in many areas, making those words homophonous with forms without the -n. It is dropped both word-finally and word-internally in compound words. This pronunciation can be morphologically sensitive and can distinguish words, as the -n is dropped only when it is part of the distinct ending -en, but not when the word has a single stem that happens to end in -en. Thus, the word teken "(I) draw" always retains its -n because it is part of an indivisible stem, whereas in teken "ticks (plural)" it is dropped because it is a plural ending. These words are therefore not homophones in dialects which drop -n, despite being spelled identically.

Final -n is retained in the North East (Low Saxon) and the South West (East and West Flemish) where it is the schwa that disappears instead. This creates a syllabic [n] or (after velars) syllabic [ŋ] sound. Examples: laten [ˈlaːtn̩]; maken [ˈmaːkŋ̍]. Some Low Saxon dialects that have uvular pronunciation of /ɣ/ and /x/ (or one of them) also have a syllabic uvular nasal, like in lagen and/or lachen [ˈlaːχɴ̩]

Final devoicing and assimilation[edit]

Dutch devoices all obstruents at the ends of words. This is partly reflected in the spelling, the voiced "z" in plural huizen [ˈɦœy̆zə] becomes huis [ɦœy̆s] ('house') in singular. Also, duiven [ˈdœy̆və] becomes duif [dœy̆f] ('dove'). The other cases are always written with the voiced consonant, but a devoiced one is actually pronounced: the "d" in plural baarden [ˈbaːrdə] is retained in singular spelling baard ('beard'), but the pronunciation of the latter is [baːrt], and plural ribben [ˈrɪbə] has singular rib ('rib'), pronounced [rɪp].

huis, 'house'

huizen, 'houses'

duif, 'dove'

duiven, 'doves'

Because of assimilation, often the initial /v z ɣ/ of the next word are usually also devoiced: het vee ('the cattle') is /(ɦ)ət feː/. The opposite may be true for other consonants: ik ben ('I am') [ɪg bɛn].

Example words for consonants[edit]

Consonants with example words
Phoneme Phonetic IPA Orthography English translation

pen pen

biet beetroot

tak branch

dak roof

kat cat

goal goal (sports)

fiets bicycle

vijf five

sok sock

zeep soap

chef boss, chief

jury jury

acht (north)
acht (south)

geeuw (north)
geeuw (Belgium)

hoed hat

mens human (being)

nek neck

eng scary

land / country
goal (sports)

Nederlanders (north)
Geert Bourgeois (Belgium)
Geert Bourgeois

wang (north)
wang (Belgium)
bewering (Belgium)

jas coat


Dutch has an extensive vowel inventory consisting of 13 plain vowels and four diphthongs. Vowels can be grouped as back rounded, front unrounded and front rounded. They are also traditionally distinguished by length or tenseness. The vowels /eː øː oː/ are included in the diphthong chart to the right because many northern dialects realize them as diphthongs, though they behave phonologically like the other long monophthongs.


Monophthongs of Netherlandic Dutch, from Gussenhoven (1992:47)
Monophthongs of Standard Belgian Dutch, from Verhoeven (2005:245)

Vowel length is not always considered a distinctive feature in Dutch phonology, because it normally co-occurs with changes in vowel quality. One feature or the other may be considered redundant, and some phonemic analyses prefer to treat it as an opposition of tenseness. However, even if not considered part of the phonemic opposition, the long/tense vowels are still realised as phonetically longer than their short counterparts. The changes in vowel quality are also not always the same in all dialects, and in some there may be little difference at all, with length remaining the primary distinguishing feature. And while it is true that older words always pair vowel length with a change in vowel quality, new loanwords have reintroduced phonemic oppositions of length. Compare zonne(n) /ˈzɔnə(n)/ ("suns") versus zone /ˈzɔːnə/ ("zone") versus zonen /ˈzoːnə(n)/ ("sons"), or kroes /krus/ ("mug") versus cruise /kruːs/ ("cruise").

Short/lax vowels
Central Back
Close ɪ ʏ
Mid ɛ ə ɔ
Open ɑ
Long/tense vowels
Close i ~ y ~ u ~
Close-mid øː
Open-mid (ɛː) (œː) (ɔː)


  • The distinction between short /i y u/ and long /iː yː uː/ is only slight, and may be considered allophonic for most purposes. In most environments except before /r/, most dialects realise them as short vowels. However, some recent loanwords have introduced distinctively long /iː yː uː/, making the length distinction marginally phonemic.
  • The long close-mid vowels /eː øː oː/ are realised as slightly closing diphthongs [eɪ øʏ oʊ] in many northern dialects. Certain dialects of southern Holland have a more central starting position of these diphthongs, tending towards [əɪ əʏ əʊ]. The dialect of Antwerp realizes /eː/ as [ɛi~ɛə~eə] instead.[6]
  • The long close and close-mid vowels are often pronounced with different vowel height or as centering diphthongs before an /r/ in the syllable coda:
    • The long close vowels become [iə yə uə], or are allophonically lengthened to /iː yː uː/.
    • The long close-mid vowels are commonly raised to near-close [ɪː ʏː ʊː], or converted to centering diphthongs [eə øə oə] or [ɪə ʏə ʊə], depending on the dialect. Some speakers may not have such allophones at all, and pronounce [eː øː oː] in every position. Some, particularly Netherlandic speakers have similar allophones before coda /l/, while others may maintain a long monophthong or even the usual closing diphthongs before /l/.
  • The long open-mid vowels /ɛː œː ɔː/ only occur in a handful of loanwords, mostly from French.
  • The open vowels /ɑ/ and /aː/ are generally realised so that the latter is more fronted than the former, although the exact realisations may differ by dialect.
    • In many southern areas, the distinction is less clear as /aː/ has a more backed realisation, closer to [ɑː]. This is especially in Brabantian and Limburgish. In some subdialects, especially the city dialect of Antwerp, this backing is particularly strong, and /ɑ/ is fronted towards [a] as well, so that the two sounds effectively switch articulation.
    • This swapping of realisations may also happen in some dialects of North Holland, including notably that of Amsterdam. Fronted short [a] only occurs before some consonants, e.g. man [man].
    • In the Low Saxon-speaking areas, the local realisation of /aː/ may be particularly fronted, and tend towards [æː].

Several dialects have retained the distinction between the so-called "sharp-long" and "soft-long" e and o, a distinction that dates to early Middle Dutch. The sharp-long varieties originate from the Old Dutch long ē and ō (Proto-Germanic ai and au), while the soft-long varieties arose from short i/e and u/o that were lengthened in open syllables in early Middle Dutch. This distinction is not preserved in most modern standard Dutch pronunciations and is not recognised in educational materials, but it is still present in many local dialects, such as Antwerpian, West Flemish and Zealandic. In these dialects, the sharp-long vowels are often opening diphthongs such as [ɪə] and [ʊə], while the soft-long vowels are either plain monophthongs [eː] and [oː] or slightly closing [eɪ] and [oʊ].


Diphthongs of Netherlandic Dutch, from Gussenhoven (1992:47)
Diphthongs of Standard Belgian Dutch, from Verhoeven (2005:245)

Dutch also has several diphthongs. All of them end in a close vowel (/i y u/), but may begin with a variety of other vowels. They are grouped here by their first element.

Short/lax diphthongs
Mid ɛi œy (ɔi)
Open ɑu (ɑi)
Long/tense diphthongs
Close iu yu ui
Mid eːu oːi
Open aːi
  • /ɛi œy ɑu/ are the most common diphthongs and commonly the only ones considered "true" phonemes in Dutch. /ɑi/ and /ɔi/ are rare and occur only in a few words.
  • The "long/tense" diphthongs are generally analysed phonemically as a long/tense vowel followed by a glide /j/ or /ʋ/, where the latter has the allophone [w] between vowels, and [u] between a vowel and a consonant. Thus, what is underlyingly /eːʋ/ is realised on the surface as [eːw] or [eːu], and likewise for the others.
  • The first element of /ɛi/ is pronounced more open than the short vowel /ɛ/ by many speakers, and therefore may be more accurately transcribed as [ɛ̞i]. For some Netherlandic speakers it may be as open as [æi], or even [ai].[7] On the other hand, the dialect of Antwerp realizes /ɛi/ as [aə].[8] Many Belgians tend to monophthongize it [ɛ̞ː].
  • In most of the northern areas, /œy/ is pronounced more in the back, like [ʌ̈y].[9] Some people in Belgium pronounce a monophthong [œː] instead. Before a vowel, and sometimes also word-finally, a glide is added as final element: [œyj] or [œj].
  • The first element of /ɑu/ is often raised by many speakers. In Belgium, a common pronunciation is [ɔu], although the first element is more open: [ɔ̞u]. Many Belgians tend to monophthongize it to [ɔ̞ː].[10] In the north, it is generally unrounded, giving [ʌu]. In some areas, particularly Holland, the first element may be fronted [au].[7]
  • The first element of the long mid diphthongs /eːu oːi/ may be raised or lowered: [ɪːu] and [ɔːi] respectively. However, not all speakers do this. Speakers that diphthongise /eː/ and /oː/ will sometimes also do this to the diphthong, resulting in a falling diphthong with two closing elements: [eɪu]/[oʊi] or the more centralised [əɪu]/[əʊi].

Example words for vowels and diphthongs[edit]

Vowels with example words
Phoneme Phonetic IPA Orthography English translation

kip chicken

biet beetroot


hut cabin

fuut grebe

duur expensive

hoed hat


bed bed

blèr yell

beet (north)
beet (Belgium)

de the
freule unmarried noblewoman

neus (north)
neus (Belgium)

bot bone

roze pink

boot (north)
boot (Belgium)

bad bath

zaad seed

Argentijn (north)
Argentijn (Belgium)


fout (north)
fout (Belgium)

ai ouch, ow

hoi hi

nieuw new

duw push

groei grow(th)

leeuw lion

mooi nice, beautiful

haai shark


Most native Germanic words (the bulk of the core vocabulary) are stressed on the root syllable, which is usually the first syllable of the word. Germanic words may also be stressed on the second or later syllable if certain unstressed prefixes are added (particularly in verbs). Non-root stress is common in loanwords, as such words are generally borrowed with the stress placement unchanged. In polysyllabic words, secondary stress may also be present. Certain prefixes and suffixes will receive secondary stress: vòòr.kó.mən, wéér.lòòs. The stressed syllable of a word will receive secondary stress within a compound word: bóm.mèl.ding, ál.co.hol.per.cen.tà.gə.

While stress is phonemic, minimal pairs are rare, and marking the stress in written Dutch is optional, never obligatory, but sometimes recommended to distinguish homographs that differ only in stress. The most common practice is to distinguish een (indefinite article, which, as a clitic, bears no stress) from één (the cardinal number one).[11][12] It is also written to distinguish some verbs, as stress placement on prefixes also carries a grammatical distinction, such as in vóórkomen (to occur) and voorkómen (to prevent). In vóórkomen and other verbs with a stressed prefix, the prefix is separable and separates as kom voor in the first-person singular present, with the past participle vóórgekomen. On the other hand, verbs with an unstressed prefix are not separable: voorkómen becomes voorkóm in the first-person singular present, and voorkómen in the past participle, without the past participle prefix ge-.

Dutch possesses a strong stress accent, like other Germanic languages, and uses stress timing due to its relatively complex syllable structure. It has a preference for trochaic rhythm, with relatively stronger and weaker stress alternating between syllables in such a way that syllables with stronger stress are produced at a more or less constant pace. Generally, every alternate syllable before and after the primary stress will receive relative stress, as far secondary stress placements allow: Wá.gə.nì.ngən. Relative stress will preferably not fall on /ə/, so syllables containing /ə/ may disrupt the trochaic rhythm. To restore the pattern, vowels are often syncopated in speech: kín.də.rən > /ˈkɪn.drə(n)/, há.ri.ngən > /ˈɦaːr.ŋə(n)/, vər.gə.líj.king > /vər.ˈɣlɛi.kɪŋ/. In words where secondary stress is imposed lexically onto the syllable immediately following the stressed syllable, a short pause is often inserted after the stressed syllable to maintain the rhythm, to ensure that the stressed syllable has more or less equal length to the trochaic unit following it: bóm..mèl.ding, wéér..lò.zə.

Historically, the stress accent has reduced most vowels in unstressed syllables to [ə], as in most other Germanic languages. This process is still somewhat productive, and it is common to reduce vowels to [ə] in syllables carrying neither primary nor secondary stress, particularly in syllables that are relatively weakly stressed due to the trochaic rhythm. Weakly stressed long vowels may also be shortened without any significant reduction in vowel quality. For example, politie (phonemically /poːˈlitsi/) may be pronounced [poˈli(t)si], [pəˈli(t)si] or even [ˈpli(t)si].


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The syllable structure of Dutch is (C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C). Many words, like in English, begin with three consonants, e.g. straat (street). Words that end in four consonants are mostly superlative adjectives.

Historical sound changes[edit]

Dutch (with the exception of the Limburg dialects) did not participate in the second Germanic consonant shift except for the last stage, compare

  • /-k-/ > /-x-/: German machen vs. Dutch About this sound maken , English make
  • /-p-/ > /-f-/: German Schaf vs. Dutch About this sound schaap , English sheep
  • /-t-/ > /-s-/: German Wasser vs. Dutch About this sound water , English water
  • /-θ-/ > /-d-/: German das, Dutch About this sound dat  vs. English that

Dutch generalised the fricative variety of Proto-Germanic */ɡ/ as [ɣ] or [ʝ], in contrast with German, which generalised the stop [ɡ], and English, which lost the fricative variety through regular sound changes.

Dutch underwent a few changes of its own. For example:

  • Words with -old or -olt lost the /l/ in favor of a diphthong as a result of l-vocalization. Compare English old, German alt, Dutch About this sound oud .
  • /ft/ changed to /xt/ (North) or /çt/ (South), spelled cht, but this was later reverted in many words by analogy with other forms. Compare English loft, German Luft, Dutch lucht (pronounced About this sound [lʏxt]  or About this sound [lʏçt] ).
  • Proto-Germanic */uː/ turned into /yː/ through palatalization, which, in turn, became the diphthong About this sound /œy/ , spelled ui. Long */iː/ also diphthongized to About this sound /ɛi/ , spelled ij.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Map based on Trudgill (1974:221)
  2. ^ Pieter van Reenen; Nanette Huijs (2000). "De harde en de zachte g, de spelling gh versus g voor voorklinker in het veertiende-eeuwse Middelnederlands.". Taal en Tongval, 52(Thema nr.), 159-181 (in Dutch). Retrieved 2009-05-04. 
  3. ^ Gussenhoven, Carlos (1992), "Dutch", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 22 (2): 45–47, doi:10.1017/S002510030000459X 
  4. ^ Peters (2006:117)
  5. ^ Gussenhoven & Aarts (1999:155)
  6. ^ Camerman (2007:19)
  7. ^ a b Stroop, Jan (October 1999). "Young Women's Farewell to Standard Dutch". Poldernederlands. Retrieved 31 August 2012. 
  8. ^ Camerman (2007:24)
  9. ^ Rietveld & Van Heuven 2009, p.70
  10. ^ Verhoeven (2005:245)
  11. ^ Gussenhoven (1992:47)
  12. ^ The current collection at nl.wiktionary