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Dutch orthography uses the Latin alphabet and 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.
The modern Dutch alphabet consists of the 26 letters of the ISO basic Latin alphabet and is used for the Dutch language. Five (or six) letters are vowels and 21 (or 20) letters are consonants. The letter E is the most frequently used letter in the Dutch alphabet. The least frequently used letters are Q and X. In some aspects, the digraph IJ behaves as a single letter.
|Letter||Letter name||Spelling alphabet|
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.
The following list shows letters and combinations, along with their pronunciations, found in modern native or nativised vocabulary:
The following additional letters and pronunciations appear in non-native vocabulary or words using older, obsolete spellings (often conserved in proper names):
Loanwords often keep their original spellings: cadeau /kaːˈdoː/ 'gift' (from French). The Latin letters c, qu, x and y (from Greek υ) are sometimes adapted to k, kw, ks and i. Greek letters φ and ῥ become f and r, not ph or rh, but θ mostly becomes th (except before a consonant, after f or ch and at the end of words). Combinations -eon-, -ion-, -yon- in loanwords from French are written with a single n (mayonaise) except when a schwa follows (stationnement).
Vowel length is always indicated but in different ways by using an intricate system of single and double letters.
Old Dutch possessed phonemic consonant length in addition to phonemic vowel length, with no correspondence between them. Thus, long vowels could appear in closed syllables, and short vowels could occur in open syllables. In the transition to early Middle Dutch, short vowels were lengthened when they stood in open syllables. Short vowels could now occur only in closed syllables. Consonants could still be long in pronunciation and acted to close the preceding syllable. Therefore, any short vowel that was followed by a long consonant remained short.
The spelling system used by early Middle Dutch scribes accounted for that by indicating the vowel length only when it was necessary (sometimes by writing a double vowel but also in other ways). As the length was implicit in open syllables, it was not indicated there, and only a single vowel was written. Long consonants were indicated usually by writing the consonant letter double, which meant that a short vowel was always followed by at least two consonant letters or by just one consonant at the end of a word.
Later in Middle Dutch, the distinction between short and long consonants started to disappear. That made it possible for short vowels to appear in open syllables once again. Because there was no longer a phonetic distinction between single and double consonants (they were both pronounced short now), Dutch writers started to use double consonants to indicate that the preceding vowel was short even when the consonant had not been long in the past. That eventually led to the modern Dutch spelling system.
Modern Dutch spelling still retains many of the details of the late Middle Dutch system. The distinction between checked and free vowels is important in Dutch spelling. A checked vowel is one that is followed by a consonant in the same syllable (the syllable is closed) while a free vowel ends the syllable (the syllable is open). This distinction can apply to pronunciation or spelling independently, but a syllable that is checked in pronunciation will always be checked in spelling as well (except in some unassimilated loanwords).
A single vowel that is checked in neither is always long/tense. A vowel that is checked in both is always short/lax. The following table shows the pronunciation of the same three-letter sequence in different situations, with hyphens indicating the syllable divisions in the written form, and the IPA period to indicate them in the spoken form:
|Letter||Free in both||Checked in both|
|a||aː||ra-men /ˈraː.mə(n)/ ("windows, to estimate")||ɑ||ram /rɑm/ ("ram")||ram-pen /ˈrɑm.pə(n)/ ("disasters")|
|e||eː||te-len /ˈteː.lə(n)/ ("to cultivate")||ɛ||tel /tɛl/ ("count")||tel-den /ˈtɛl.də(n)/ ("counted")|
|i||i(ː)||Ti-ne /ˈti.nə/ (a name)||ɪ||tin /tɪn/ ("tin")||tin-ten /ˈtɪn.tə(n)/ ("tints")|
|o||oː||ko-per /ˈkoː.pər/ ("copper, buyer")||ɔ||kop /kɔp/ ("cup, head")||kop-te /ˈkɔp.tə/ ("headed [a ball]")|
|u||y(ː)||Lu-kas /ˈly.kɑs/ (a name)||ʏ||luk /lʏk/ ("succeed")||luk-te /ˈlʏk.tə/ ("succeeded")|
Free ⟨i⟩ is fairly rare and is mostly confined to loanwords and names. As tense /y/ is rare except before /r/, free ⟨u⟩ is likewise rare except before ⟨r⟩.
The same rule applies to word-final vowels, which are always long because they are not followed by any consonant (but see below on ⟨e⟩). Short vowels, not followed by any consonant, do not normally exist in Dutch, and there is no normal way to indicate them in the spelling.
When a vowel is short/lax but is free in pronunciation, the spelling is made checked by writing the following consonant doubled, so that the vowel is kept short according to the default rules. That has no effect on pronunciation, as modern Dutch does not have long consonants:
When a vowel is long/tense but still checked in pronunciation, it is necessarily checked in spelling as well. A change is thus needed to indicate the length, which is done by writing the vowel doubled. Doubled ⟨i⟩ does not occur.
A single ⟨e⟩ indicates short and long e but is also used to indicate the neutral schwa sound /ə/ in unstressed syllables. Because the schwa is always short, ⟨e⟩ is never followed by a double consonant when it represents /ə/.
A word-final long /eː/ is written ⟨ee⟩ (or ⟨é⟩ in some loanwords), as an exception to the normal rules. That means that a word-final single ⟨e⟩ will always represent a schwa.
Because the position of the stress in a polysyllabic word is not indicated in the spelling, that can lead to ambiguity. Some pairs of words are spelled the same, but ⟨e⟩ represents either stressed /ɛ/ or /eː/ or unstressed /ə/, depending on how the stress is placed.
The length of a vowel generally does not change in the pronunciation of different forms of a word. However, in different forms of a word, a syllable may alternate between checked and free depending on the syllable that follows. The spelling rules nonetheless follow the simplest representation, writing double letters only when necessary. Consequently, some forms of the same word may be written with single letters while others are written with double letters. That commonly occurs between the singular and plural of a noun or between the infinitive and the conjugated forms of verbs. Examples of alternations are shown below. Note that there are no examples with /i/ because free ⟨i⟩ does not occur in native words:
|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. Their spelling does not alternate between single and double letters. However, the sound /ɪ/ becomes /eː/ in the plural in such nouns, not /iː/ That is reflected in the spelling.
As a rule, the simplest representation is always chosen. A double vowel is never written in an open syllable, and a double consonant is never written at the end of a word or when next to another consonant. A double vowel is rarely followed by a double consonant, as it could be simplified by writing them both single.
The past tense of verbs may have a double vowel, followed by a double consonant, to distinguish those forms from the present tense.
Compounds should be read as if each word were spelled separately, and they may therefore appear to violate the normal rules. That may sometimes cause confusion if the word is not known to be a compound.
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 still be pronounced with a voiceless consonant:
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 if the consonant were still voiced. It is written in the past participle the same as the other past tense forms in which 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|
The letters ⟨v⟩ and ⟨z⟩ are somewhat special:
Then, therefore, final devoicing is reflected in the spelling:
However, ⟨f⟩ and ⟨s⟩ are also written at the end of a syllable that is not final. The pronunciation remains voiced even if the spelling shows a voiceless consonant. This is most common in the past tense forms of weak verbs:
Compare this to verbs in which the final consonant is underlyingly voiceless. Here, the dental assimilation rule calls for the ending -te, which gives away the voicelessness of the previous sound even if the spelling of that sound itself does not:
Some modern loanwords and new coinages do not follow these rules. However, these words tend to not follow the other spelling rules as well: buzzen ("to page (call on a pager)") → buzz ("(I) page"), buzzde ("(I) paged").
Dutch uses the acute accent to mark stress and the diaeresis (trema) to disambiguate diphthongs/triphthongs. Occasionally, other diacritics are used in loanwords. Accents are not necessarily placed on capital letters (for example, the word Eén at the beginning of a sentence) unless the whole word is written in capitals.
Acute accents may be used to emphasise a word in a phrase, on the vowel in the stressed syllable. If the vowel is written as a digraph, an acute accent is put on both parts of the digraph. Although that 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 more than two letters, the accent is put on the first two vowel letters.
Stress on a short vowel, written with only one letter, is occasionally marked with a grave accent: Kàn jij dat? (equivalent to the example below), wèl. However, it is technically incorrect to do so.
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 either mistaken for a digraph or interpreted in more than one way: "egoïstisch" (egoistic), "sympathieën" (sympathies, preferences), "reëel" (realistic), "zeeën" (seas). On a line break that separates the vowels but keeps parts of a digraph together, the diaeresis becomes redundant and so is not written: ego-/istisch, sympathie-/en, re-/eel, zee-/en.
Besides being used to mark stress, acute accents are also used in many loanwords (mainly from French) such as logé (overnight guest), coupé (train compartment), oké (okay) and café.
Similarly, a circumflex accent is also used in some French loanwords, including enquête (survey), and gênant (embarrassing).
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 (archaic))||in the evening|
|'s winters||(des winters (archaic))||in the winter|
|'s-Gravenhage||(des Gravenhage (archaic))||The Hague|
Except in all caps, the letter immediately following a word-initial apostrophe is not capitalised. If necessary, the second word is capitalised instead: "'s Avonds is zij nooit thuis." (She is never at home in the evening.)