Sounds and Spelling of Dutch

To understand Dutch orthography you need a notion of open and closed syllables. A closed syllable is terminated by more than one consonant, or by a final single consonant. Otherwise the syllable is open. This influences the meaning of the preceding vowel letter. The same concept is found is German and English, but with slightly different rules. The Dutch rules are rather consistent. Examples of closed syllables: bed, bedden. (In German, the final consonant must also be doubled (Bett), but in Dutch this is not done.
If the vowel which is heard in an open syllable must sound in a syllable which is already closed, then the vowel is doubled.
"maken", "maak" and "maakte" (open-closed-closed syllables) all three have the long, bright "aa" sound, whereas "mak" and "makke" (both closed syllables) have the short, dark sound (though some people reverse bright and dark, e.g. in colloquial Amsterdam Dutch).

Note that this description is based on some sort of standard Dutch, but many regional and personal variants exist, as in any living language.

In order to avoid problems regarding fonts and computer platforms, the phonemic representation does not use the IPA symbols (IPA = International Phonetic Association), but rather their ASCII-representation, following the scheme designed by Evan Kirshenbaum.

Sound   : p
Descr.  : bilabial plosive, voiceless, unaspirated
Spelling: p, or pp to close an otherwise open syllable, or b when final.
(A general rule says that any voiced consonant (except
nasals and l) becomes voiceless when final. Same as in German and
Russian, not the same as in English).
Examples:            paard, op , heb
Phonetic:            pa:rt, Op , hEp
English translation: horse, on , have
German translation:  Pferd, auf, habe

Sound   : b
Descr.  : bilabial plosive, voiced, unaspirated
Spelling: b, or bb to close an otherwise open syllable.
Examples: baard, hebben
Phonetic: ba:rt, hEb@(n)
Remark  : final n is usually skipped, except in careful speech, and except
          by most people from North-Eastern regions.
English : beard, (to) have
German  : Bart , haben

Sound   : f
Descr.  : labiodental fricative, voiceless
Spelling: f, or ff (to close ... etc.)
Examples: leeft, fiets  , blaffen
Phonetic: leIft, fits   , blAf@(n)
English : lives, bicycle, bark
German  : lebt , Fahrrad, bellen

Sound   : v
Descr.  : labiodental fricative, voiced (tending to voiceless, to an extent
  that depends on speaker and region)
Spelling: v
Examples: leven   , veel     , vader
Phonetic: leIv@(n), veIl     , va:d@r
English : live    , much/many, father
German  : leben   , viel     , Vater

Sound   : v/w
Descr.  : initial and medial: labiodental fricative, very voiced (or approximant)
          (regional variants bilabial, very voiced, unrounded)
          final: bilabial semivowel, rounded
Spelling: w, uw
Examples: twee, willen ,           nieuw, nieuwe, uw
Phonetic: tveI, vel@(n) (or vIl@), ni:w , niv@  , y:w
English : two , want             , new  , new,  , your
German  : zwei, wollen           , neu  , neue  , Ihr

Sound   : m
Descr.  : bilabial nasal
Spelling: m, mm
Examples: man , geheim
Phonetic: mAn , Q@hEIm
English : man , secret
German  : Mann, geheim

Sound   : M
Descr.  : labiodental nasal
Remark  : not phonemic, only due to combination with spelled v, f or w
Spelling: n, m
Examples: invullen
Phonetic: iMvYl@
English : fill in, fill out
German  : einfüllen

Sound   : t
Descr.  : dental plosive, voiceless, unaspirated
Spelling: t, tt, dt, d
Remark  : The forms spelt with "dt" are due to analogy:
          ik loop [loUp], zij loopt [loUpt] = I walk  , she walks
          ik leid [lEIt], zij leidt [lEIt]  = I lead  , she leads
          ik lijd [lEit], zij lijdt [lEit]  = I suffer, she suffers
          This is one of the main causes of spelling errors, few
          Dutch people can do this right, because they don't hear
          what to write.
Examples: tand,  tent, jatten, wordt       , word
Phonetic: tAnt,  tEnt, jAt@  , vOrt        , vOrt
English : tooth, tent, steal , (it) becomes, (I) become
German  : Zahn,  Zelt, klauen, werde,      , wird

Sound   : d
Descr.  : dental plosive, voiced, unaspirated
Spelling: d, dd
Examples: tanden, dan
Phonetic: tAnd@ , dAn
English : teeth , than
German  : Zähne , als/dann

Sound   : s
Descr.  : alveolar sibilant, voiceless
Spelling: s, ss
Examples: samen   , tussen ,  jas
Phonetic: sa:m@(n), tYs@(n),  jAs
English : together, between,  coat
German  : zusammen, zwischen, Jacke

Sound   : z
Descr.  : alveolar sibilant, voiced (tending to voiceless)
Spelling: z, zz
Examples: zoon, lezen, mazzel, huizen
Phonetic: zoUn, leIz@, mAz@l , hWI.z@
English : son , read , luck  , houses
German  : Sohn, lesen, Glück , Häuser

Sound   : n
Descr.  : dental nasal
Spelling: n, nn
Examples: naar, mens  , winnen
Phonetic: na:r, mEns  , vIn@(n)
English : to  , Man   , win
German  : nach, Mensch, gewinnen

Sound   : l
Descr.  : dental/alveolar lateral;
          velarized before other consonants or when final
Remarks : velarization is very nearly as in South-British English
          (not Scottish, Irish or American); this is regarding
          sound AND position.
Spelling: l, ll
Examples: laatste, veel      , vele , melk
Phonetic: la:tst@, veIl<vzd> , veIl@, mEl<vzd>k or mEl@k
English : last   , much / many      , milk
German  : letzte , viel      , viele, Milch

Sound   : r r<trl> r"
Descr.  : alveolar/uvular trill/approximant
Remarks : the approximants occur in the same positions as "thick" l
          many different varieties, like @ or the American r sometimes
          Some use a rolling French uvular r in nearly all positions.
Spelling: r, rr
Examples: karrewiel   , karrad   , haar, rood
Phonetic: kAr@vil<vzd>, kArAt    , ha:@, roUt
English : cartwheel   , cartwheel, hair, red
German  : Wagenrad                 Haar, rot

Sound   : C
Descr.  : palatal fricative
Remark  : Is in fact due to t and j coming together. Some pronounce
          tj, tC or cC.
Spelling: tj
Examples: beetje
Phonetic: beIC@
English : a bit
German  : Bisschen

Sound   : j
Descr.  : palatal approximant
Spelling: j, i
Examples: jaar, mooi, fraai
Phonetic: ja:@, moUj, fra:j
English : year, beautiful, beautiful
German  : Jahr, schön, schön

Sound   : S
Descr.  : palatal sibilant, voiceless
Spelling: sj, ch
Examples: sjaal, tasje,                sjouwen, chef
Phonetic: Sa:l<vzd>, tAS@ (or: tasj@), SOU@   , SEf
English : shawl    , (small) bag     , carry  , boss/chef
German  : (I wouldn't even know)

Sound   : Z
Descr.  : palatal sibilant, voiced (tending to voiceless)
Remark  : exclusively in loan-words
Spelling: g, j
Examples: journaal     , reportage
Phonetic: Zu:rnal<vzd> , reIpOrta:Z@
English : journal / nine o'clock news, report
German  : Tagesschau, Bericht

Sound   : n^
Descr.  : palatal nasal
Spelling: nj, gn
Examples: Anja, kan je           , campagne, champagne
Phonetic: An^a, kAn^@            , kAmpAn^@, Sampan^@
English : Anya, can you/would you, campaign, champaign
German  : Anja, kannst du        , Campagne, Champagne

Sound   : k
Descr.  : velar plosive, voiceless, unaspirated
Spelling: k, kk, c, q
Examples: keuken   , dak          , query
Phonetic: kYI.k@(n), dAk          , kve:ri
English : kitchen  , roof (thatch), query
German  : Küche    , Dach         , Nachfrage

Sound   : g
Descr.  : velar plosive, voiced, unaspirated
Remark  : only as a combinational variant of k, and in loan-words
Spelling: g, k
Examples: goal, zakdoek
Phonetic: goUl<vzd> (but also koUl<vzd> or QoUl<vzd>), zAgduk
English : goal, handkerchief
German  : Tor , Taschentuch

Sound   : x
Descr.  : velar (uvular) fricative, voiceless
Spelling: ch, g
Examples: chaos, acht           , nicht  , weg,
Phonetic: xaOs , Axt            , nIxt   , vEx
English : chaos, eight/attention, cousin , way/away/road
German  : Chaos, acht/Acht      , Cousine, weg / Weg

Sound   : Q
Descr.  : velar (uvular) fricative, voiced (tending to voiceless)
Spelling: g, gg
Examples: gaan , leggen, dagdroom
Phonetic: Qa:n , lEQ@  , dAQdroUm (or daxdroUm)
English : go   , lay   , daydream
German  : gehen, legen , Tagestraum

Sound   : N
Descr.  : velar nasal
Spelling: ng, n(k)
Examples: zingen, lang , anker
Phonetic: zeN@  , lAN  , ANk@r
English : sing  , long , anchor
German  : singen, lange, Anker

Sound   : h
Descr.  : glottal approximant
Remarks : As in English, but less breathy; sometimes betrayed only
          as a missing glottal stop, that would otherwise be there.
Spelling: h
Examples: herfst     , weghalen
Phonetic: hErfst     , wExha:l@
English : autumn/fall, carry away
German  : Herbst     . wegnehmen / wegholen

Sound   : ?
Descr.  : glottal stop
Spelling: (none)
Examples: ervan opaan kunnen (opaan is from "op" and "aan")
          hou op!
Phonetic: ?ErvAn Op?a:n kI.n@   ;   hOU?op
English : (be able to) rely upon, trust; stop that!
German  : vertrauen; Hör auf!

Sound   : i
Descr.  : closed front unrounded, longish (long before r)
Spelling: ie, i
Examples: niet , niets  , iets     , liter, nier
Phonetic: nit  , nits   , its      , lit@r, ni:r
English : not  , nothing, something, litre, kidney
German  : nicht, nichts , etwas    , Liter, ??

Sound   : e (or I)
Descr.  : half-closed front unrounded
Spelling: i
Examples: dit , zitten
Phonetic: det , zet@
English : this, sit
German  : dies, sitzen

Sound   : E
Descr.  : half-open front unrounded
Spelling: e
Examples: zetten
Phonetic: zEt@
English : put
German  : setzen

Sound   : eI (or ei, or regional e:) (e: before r)
Descr.  : front unrounded, from half-closed to closed
Spelling: e, ee
Examples: deed, deden, neer  , meer     , meren
Phonetic: deId, deId@, ne:@  , me:@     , me:r@
English : did , did  , down  , more/lake, lakes/moor
German  : tat , taten, nieder, mehr/Meer/See, Meere/Seeen

Sound   : EI (or Ei, or in the Hague dialect: E:)
Descr.  : front unrounded, from half-open to closed
Spelling: ei, ij
Note    : For capitalization, ij is regarded as one letter.
          Ijsselmeer is wrong, this should be IJsselmeer.
Examples: tijd, ijs, eis
Phonetic: tEIt, EIs, EIs
English : time, ice, demand
German  : Zeit, Eis, Forderung

Sound   : y
Descr.  : closed front (slightly centralised) rounded, longish (long before r)
Spelling: u, uu
Examples: vuur , ruzie
Phonetic: vy:r , ryzi
English : fire , row/dispute
German  : Feuer, Krach/Ärger

Sound   : Y (or I.)
Descr.  : half-closed front (slightly centralised) rounded
Spelling: u
Examples: rug   , dus
Phonetic: rYx   , dYs
English : back  , so
German  : Rücken, also

Sound   : W
Descr.  : half-open front (slightly centralised) rounded
          (Could have occurred, for symmetry reasons, but doesn't)

Sound   : YI. (or Yy, or regional Y:) (Y: before r)
Descr.  : front (slightly centralised) rounded, from half-closed to closed
Spelling: eu
Examples: neus, keus  , keuze , reuzen, gezeur, zeuren
Phonetic: nYys, kYys  , kYyz@ , rYyz@ , Q@zY:@, zY:r@
English : nose, choice, choice, giants, nuisance/nagging, nag/bother/fuss
German  : Nase, Wahl  , Wahl  , Riesen, ??

Sound   : WY (or Wy, or in the Hague dialect: W:)
Descr.  : front (slightly centralised) rounded, from half-open to closed
Spelling: ui
Examples: uit, buiten
Phonetic: WYt, bWYt@
English : out, outside
German  : aus, draussen

Sound   : u
Descr.  : closed back rounded, longish (long before r)
Spelling: oe
Examples: moeder, moer
Phonetic: mud@r , mu:r
English : mother, nut
German  : Mutter, Mutter(?)

Sound   : o (or U)
Descr.  : half-closed back rounded
Spelling: o
Examples: kop
Phonetic: kop
English : head/cup
German  : Kopf

Sound   : O
Descr.  : half-open back rounded
Remark  : It is disputed whether o and O are different. I think I
          distinguish them myself, but am not even sure!.
          Many regional speakers, esp. in the north and east, do make a clear
Spelling: o
Examples: nog
Phonetic: nOx
English : still, yet
German  : noch

Sound   : oU (or ou, or regional o:) (o: before r)
Descr.  : back rounded, from half-closed to closed
Spelling: o, oo
Examples: open   , doos, dozen, hoofd, hoofden, door    , koren
Phonetic: oUp@(n), doUs, doUz@, hoUft, hoUvd@ , do:@    , ko:r@(n)
English : open   , box , boxes, head , heads  , through , choirs/grain
German  : offen  , Dose, Dosen, Kopf/Haupt, Köpfe/Haupte, durch, Chöre

Sound   : OU (or Ou, or in the Hague dialect: O:)
Descr.  : back rounded, from half-open to closed
Spelling: au, ou
Examples: oud, gauw
Phonetic: OUt, QOU
English : old, soon/quickly
German  : alt, bald/schnell

Sound   : @
Descr.  : schwa
Spelling: e, i, ij
Examples: beginnen, terug , gierig, lelijk
Phonetic: b@QIn@  , t@rI.x, Qi:r@x, leIl@k
English : begin   , back  , greedy, ugly
German  : Beginn  , zurück, geizig, hässlich

Sound   : a
Descr.  : open, front or central, longish (long before r)
Spelling: a, aa
Examples: avond  , kaas
Phonetic: avont  , kas
English : evening, cheese
German  : Abend  , Käse

Sound   : A
Descr.  : open, back, short
Remark  : Many cities (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Antwerpen) and rural areas
          have the sounds, but not the lengths, of a and A reversed.
          So there the long a is dark and back, and the short a bright
          and front. (Interesting that the same happens more or less
          in English, Swedish and German).
          Maybe the "standard" sounds come from Rotterdam and the Hague,
          where the local dialects have very dark (perhaps even rounded)
          short A sounds. (Which does not imply that the dialects of
          Rotterdam and the Hague are the same, nor are those of the
          other mentioned cities).
Spelling: a
Examples: had, hadden, appel
Phonetic: hAt, hAd@  , Ap@l (or often ApOl<vzd>)
English : (I/you/he/she) had, (we/you/they) had, apple
German  : hatte, hatten, Apfel

Copyright (©) 1995 R.Harmsen