Deze uitleg in het Nederlands

The Dutch ‘letter’ IJ

23 October 2001

The Dutch alphabet (equally for the Netherlands and Belgium; there is only one standard language and one alphabet) has 26 letters. The last three are x, y, z. In many Dutch primary schools they are taught as x ij z, and the y, when spelling, is called "Griekse y" (= "Greek y"), but pronounced "Griekse ei", or just "ij". Also "i-grec", which is a French loan. This may be because the example IJsbeer is easy to understand for six-year-olds, but words that start with a Y are invariably difficult and learned.

In print and ij look very different, and ij and ij are practically the same, but in the handwriting of most Dutch speakers and ij are identical, but an ij can be distinguished from the combination of i and j. In case of the capital letter IJ this is even more true.

Those who say ij is a letter want it between x and z, but never manage to agree what to do with the y then. That letter is also needed, because it is used as a variable in mathematics, and for spelling words of Greek origin, such as "systeem". Some say there should be 27 letters, but don't know whether it's x y ij z or x ij y z. Some want to change the existing spelling and abolish the y altogether. But there is no official support for those suggestions.

Although dictionaries, at least since 1850, invariably sort ij between ih and ik, some encyclopaedias, and all telephone directories in the Netherlands (not in Belgium!), sort ij and y together; sometimes one after the other, but often together as if they are the same, intermixed. This is practical, because many surnames have non-standard spellings; so now Thijssen and Thyssen appear together, and you can find them without having to know the exact spelling. It also helps find names of Frisian origin, such as Sijbrandij and Sybrandy.
Even with this special sorting order, De Bruijn and De Bruyn are together, but De Bruin is not. In dictionary order, De Bruijn and De Bruin would be close, but not De Bruyn.

Personally, I think the best solution is to treat ij as a combination of i and j, just like oe, ei, eu and many others are combinations with a special meaning. Then the capitalisation of words beginning with IJ (in names, or at the start of a sentence) is an exception, a special case. So is the incorrect, but practical sorting of telephone directories.
Also, a word like "ijsvrij" (historically, a special free day, when children can go skating instead of going to school), when written vertically in capital letters should be:

IJ
S
V
R
IJ

not:

I
J
S
V
R
I
J

The same is true when wide-spacing a word: not I J S V R I J, but IJ S V R IJ.

When I bought the WNT (Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal - Dictionary of the Dutch Language) on CD-rom, it made me doubt even more: historically, there is clearly a connection between y and ij, where y was often used as a substitute for what is now officially always ij. This dates back for hundreds of years. It is not a coincidence that Afrikaans (a language spoken in South-Africa; different from Dutch, but related enough so Dutch speakers can read almost all of it without ever learning the language) uses y in all words where cognate Dutch words use ij: when Afrikaans branched off from what was then Dutch, y was still used a lot in Dutch too.

Nevertheless, I still think using a 26-letter alphabet (the same as in English), treating ij as i+j, recognising the special cases mentioned above, and being aware of historical facts, is the best solution. History is history, now is now. Both can be different, and true at the same time.

One other practical fact: ij are too wide apart, and therefore ugly, only in non-proportional fonts like Courier. In proportional fonts, like Times, Arial, Helvetica etc., the letters are kerned close together, so they are just as wide as a special single character for ij would be. Yet it does exist, see the unicode Code Charts, Latin Extended A. The codes are 0x0132 for IJ and 0x0133 for ij; the dotted , code 0x00ff, has nothing to do with it! Some insist that such a character should be used, and that keyboards should have a special key for it. Old mechanical Dutch typewriters had it, and needed it, because of their non-proportional letters. But on computer keyboards, I think that once you are used to typing i followed by j, a special key would only be a nuisance. And as said, the result looks practically the same with a special character as it does without it.

Below is an example for comparison, first the combination of i en j in a non-proportional script (typewriter script), then the same using a special ij key and ij character:

IJsland in de ijzertijd.
IJsland in de ijzertijd.

It's interesting to see the optical illusion that occurs here: in the example with the special ij character, the other letters seem to be smaller too; but in fact they are as big.