Dutch orthography

Dutch orthography
Dutch grammar series

Dutch grammar

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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 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 is fairly 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[who?] also complain that even when the system is regular it is occasionally antiquated: the digraphs ⟨ie⟩ and ⟨oe⟩ are spelled in this way because they were once diphthongs, but now they are simple vowels /i/ and /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 [ɹ], [ɾ], [r], [ʀ][3]
s [s]
sch [sx] [s]
sj [ʃ]
t [t], [s][4] [t]
tj [tʲ], [tʃ]
tsj [tʃ]
v [v]
w [ʋ], [β̞]
x [ks], [ɡz][5] [ks]
y [j][6]
z [z]
Dutch vowels and diphthongs
spelling IPA
closed open
a [ɑ] [aː]
aa [aː]
aai [aːj]
ae [eː], [eɪ],[7] [aː][8]
au(w) [ʌw], [ʌː][9]
ay [aj]
e [ɛ], [ə][10] [eː], [ə][10]
ee [eː], [eɪ]
eeuw [eːw]
ei [ɛj], [ɛː][9]
eu [øː]
i [ɪ], [ə][10] [i]
ie [i][11]
ieuw [iw]
ij [ɛj], [ɛː],[9] [ə][10]
o [ɔ] [oː]
oe [u] or sometimes [œɥ], [œː][7]
oi [ɔj] or sometimes [oː][8]
oo [oː]
ooi [oːj]
ou(w) [ʌw], [ʌː][9]
u [ʏ] [y]
ui [œɥ], [œː][9]
uu [y]
uw [yːw]
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 In words of Latin origin.
  8. ^ a b In older spelling and names.
  9. ^ a b c d e In the Southern dialects of Dutch, these are not diphthongs, in the northern dialects they are.
  10. ^ a b c d When unstressed
  11. ^ 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 Long phoneme Short phoneme
a ɑ
e ɛ
i i ɪ
o ɔ
u y ʏ
oe   u

Some linguists propose using /ɵ/ instead of /ʏ/ as a more precise rendition for the short u. The length sign, ⟨ː⟩, is somewhat arbitrary as it does not mark a phonemic difference, 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 the older /ie/ or /iə/ diphthong has shifted to /i/, but retains its original spelling as ie, even in open syllables. In loanwords, however, a single i is often used.

When mid-closed long vowels appear in front of an 'r', they are raised to near-closed vowels. The (normally short) vowels /i/, /y/ and /u/ are lengthened before r, or may be dipthongized with an epenthetic /ə/. Compare e.g:

veer: /vɪːr/ (instead of /veːr/)
deur: /dʏːr/ (instead of /døːr/)
boord: /bʊːrt/ (instead of /boːrt/)
dier: /diːr/ or /diər/ (instead of /dir/)
duur: /dyːr/ or /dyər/ (instead of /dyr/)
roer: /ruːr/ or /ruər/ (instead of /rur/)

The vowel <eu> /øː/ does not possess a short version. The vowel <oe> /u/ does not possess a long version except for the aforementioned lengthening before r.

'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

See also

External links


  • 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.

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