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Problems in Dutch Pronunciation and Spelling

Dutch spelling is fairly phonetic. In general, there is just one way of writing for each sound, and each letter and each letter combination is usually pronounced in the same way. Once you know the General Rules written Dutch will almost always clearly tell you how to say it, and spoken Dutch will tell you how it's written.
It was only when I started thinking about teaching Dutch that I became aware of the exceptions, words 'not spoken as they're written.' Dutchmen are often not aware of these problems.

This page will deal with exceptions to the general pronunciation rules.

A single vowel can be pronounced as 'short' or 'long.' You may already have seen how this is indicated by the vowel's position in the word, or by the number of consonants following. See Dutch Spelling or Dutch Pronunciation. The E is a special case because next to 'long' and 'short' it can be 'voiceless.'
A few sounds in Dutch can be written in two ways.
Many people in Holland do not pronounce the N's at the end of plurals and verbs. It's accepted, it's not wrong, but I do recommend students to pronounce those final N's. You'll see them written and you'll have to write them anyway. Dropping them will only make learning Dutch more difficult.
In Dutch there is under certain conditions a softening of D to Y (Dutch J.)

A suffix is a letter or combination of letters attached at the end of a word that changes its meaning. In English for instance, an -S or -ES ending indicates a plural (word/words).
A prefix is a letter or combination of letters put at the beginnng of a word that changes its meaning. In English, RE- or CON- are common prefixes, and an A- prefix changes the meaning of a word to its opposite (symmetrical/asymmetrical).
Longer words can be divided into syllables, like for instance com-pli-cat-ed. Short words are often just one syllable.
The stress in a word is the part that gets emphasis, is pronounced a little louder. For instance, aMERican.
Please note that short, one-syllable words follow the general pronunciation rules: their beginnings and endings are not prefixes and suffixes (except for the plural and possesive form).

click to hear - 2
stress (grammar)

Exceptions to Phonetic Spelling

A few letter combinations are not pronounced as expected. Some of these exceptions may be brought in line with pronunciation in a next spelling change. It will look awful to the people used to the present spelling: incorrect, uneducated, barbaric even, but it will be easier for both native and foreign students.

Possible Future Spelling Change
I in -IG endings: voiceless E
-IG to -UG
aardig weinig click to hear
luchtig duchtig gelukkig click to hear
grimmig grillig zinnig click to hear
puntig gunstig slungelig click to hear
de zuinige motor click to hear
een aardige man click to hear
One-syllable words:
wig lig click to hear

aardug weinug (aarduhg etc.?)
luchtug duchtug gelukkug
grimmug grillug zinnug
puntug gunstug slungelug
de zuinugge motor (de zuinuhge motor?)
een aardugge man
IJ in -LIJK endings: voiceless E
-IJK to UK
eerlijk billijk degelijk click to hear
verrukkelijk smakelijk click to hear
rijkelijk tijdelijk wijselijk click to hear
degelijke schoenen click to hear
een verschrikkelijke winter click to hear
One-syllable words:
slijk blijk - click to hear - 2

eerluk billuk degeluk
verrukkeluk smakeluk
rijkeluk tijdeluk wijseluk
degellukke (deguhluhke?) schoenen
een versrikkellukke winter
CH in SCHR is not pronounced
SCHR- to SR-
schrijven schriel schroom
click to hear

srijven sriel sroom
ISCH is pronounced as EES (Dutch IES)
logisch basisch kritisch click to hear

logies basies krities
H after T is not pronounced
TH- to T-
thee ether theorie click to hear
teertheorie theeteelt click to hear

tee eter teorie
teerteorie teeteelt
C is either pronounced as K or as S
C to K or S
succes accent cent click to hear

sukses aksent sent
W before R is pronounced as V
WR to VR
wreef wrikken wroeten click to hear
weerwraak verwrongen click to hear - 2

vreef vrikken vroeten
weervraak vervrongen
End-of-Word B is Pronounced as P
(no changes in spelling: mid-word B is NOT pronounced as P)
krab krabben stap stappen click to hear
eb ebben step steppen click to hear

End-of-Word D is Pronounced as T
(no changes in spelling: mid-word D is NOT pronounced as T)
vod vodden pot potten click to hear
bord borden sport sportief click to hear

-TIE ending: SEE or TSEE
if pronunciation changes a little further: all to -SIE or -XIE
after vowels and N: TSEE
politie ambitie spatie click to hear
evolutie solutie click to hear - 2
clementie gratie click to hear
urgentie administratie click to hear
democratie tolerantie click to hear
vakantie click to hear 2
after most consonants: SEE
frictie attractie connectie click to hear
restrictie reflectie directie click to hear - 2
other -TIE endings (like -TIEF, -TIER
and -TIEK) are not irregular:
fictie - fictief click to hear
statief - statiegeld click to hear - 2
positie - positief click to hear - 2
gratie - gratis click to hear
sectie - sekte click to hear - 2
selecte selectie click to hear
collectie collecte click to hear - 2

Some possible changes look too weird to write down:
polietsie spaatsie tolerantsie I cannot very well imagine writing TS in those words

Changing T to S or CT to X is less offensive:
friksie/frixie conneksie/connexie

fixie - fiktief
statief - staatsiegeld

graatsie - graties
seksie/sexie - sekte
False Friends Note: Dutch administratie is just 'bookkeeping,' while Dutch directie means 'the management.'

Sound the Same, Different Spelling

A few sounds in Dutch can be written in two ways. Mistakes are very common. Maybe this will also be changed in a future spelling change.

au/ou: trouw blauw lauw koud click to hear
ei/ij: hei hij mei mij click to hear
ch/g: vlaggen lachen licht ligt click to hear - 2

When is the E voiceless?

A major problem of Dutch pronunciation is that a written E can be either short, long or 'voiceless.' 'Voiceless E' is also (maybe more professionally) called 'unstressed E' or 'the schwa.'
Hear: "e-long" - "e-short" - "e-short" (alternate take) - "e-voiceless".
'Long,' 'short,' and 'voiceless' are just naming conventions. One might as well say there's a difference in tone. 'Voiceless E' is also called 'schwa' ('sjwa' in Dutch.)
snel eten click to hear
deze weg click to hear
het hele meer click to hear

Guidelines to the E-pronunciation do not cover all cases and there are (of course!) exceptions.
Keep in mind that the stress of the word cannot be on a voiceless E: so the E's in unstressed syllables are often voiceless.

  • EE is always long:
    twee zeeën geen vee click to hear
  • E is short when followed by one or more consonants that is or are the end of the word:
    vel hek ben het click to hear
    pret stem el lef click to hear
    berg telg geld verst click to hear - berg geld telg verst click to hear
  • Single E as the last letter of a word after a consonant is voiceless:
    de me ze click to hear - 2
    This is unlike the other vowels, which are long in this position:
    vla juni stro nu click to hear
  • E is voiceless in the prefixes be-, ge-, te- and ver- click to hear
    belet gered terecht verlet click to hear
  • E is voiceless in the word endings -en, -er and -e click to hear
    helden helder helde click to hear
    sterke werken echter click to hear
  • E is usually long when followed by a single consonant that in its turn is followed by one or more vowels:
    vele hekel benen heten click to hear
    Compare with:
    vel hek ben het click to hear
    In English, Silent E has a somewhat similar function: hug/huge, Sam/same, twin/twine.
  • The doubling of consonants is an indication that the preceding vowel is short:
    felle redden vette leggen click to hear - 2
    Compare with:
    vele reden vete legen click to hear
    When breaking up Dutch words into syllables, the break is usually between consonants; if there's only one consonant it almost always goes to the second syllable. In cases like that, the first syllable, ending in a vowel, is called an 'open' syllable, and that vowel is pronounced 'long.' A 'closed' syllable ends in one ore more consonants, and if there's a single vowel before it, that vowel will be pronounced 'short.'
    teer tere ver verre click to hear
    teer te-re ver ver-re
    stelen stellen leken lekken click to hear
    ste-len stel-len le-ken lek-ken
    weven werven even erven click to hear
    we-ven wer-ven e-ven er-ven
  • The ending -el is usually voiceless (but not when stressed):
    egel edel wezel click to hear
    enkel engel grendel stremsel greppel click to hear - 2
    model gezel click to hear (here, the stress is on the -el)
  • Compound words are usually pronounced (and written) like their constituting parts:
    dezelfde tweede dekbed click to hear
  • E is short in the prefixes her- and ter- click to hear
    tergend herverdelen terdege hernemen click to hear
  • In one-syllable words starting with be-, ge-, te- and in ver the E's are not voiceless but short:
    bes Ger tel ver click to hear
    (Compare with: beest Geer teelt veer click to hear)
    Similarly, in one-syllable words, the E's in -en and -er are not 'voiceless' but short (they're not 'endings'):
    pen den der ster click to hear
    But the -e ending is always voiceless:
    je te we click to hear
    Except for re of do re mi click to hear
  • It is rare, but sometimes the stress of the word falls in the be-, ge-, te- and ver- beginnings and they are not prefixes with voiceless E:
    (only in the first words of the example lines)
    bezemen bezeren bezetten click to hear
    geselen gezeten gezellen click to hear
    tekenen tevergeefs terecht click to hear
    verziend verziekt verzonnen click to hear
  • The apostrophe often stands in for a voiceless E:
    z'n m'n d'r 't 'n click to hear - 2 - 3
    Many people in Holland use the English apostrophe-s ('s) for the possessive, but that's not correct Dutch. Leave the apostrophe out of it.
  • Also note that long I is often written as IE:
    wie die drie click to hear
  • Occasionally, 'French' accents are used:
    hé hè click to hear
  • Many words are in the pattern:
    prefix with voiceless E / stressed syllable / suffix with voiceless E.
    For instance:
    vervelen beleden genezen benemend click to hear
  • Short U is pronounced exactly the same as voiceless E - but it can carry the stress of the word:
    huppelen pruttelen krullen click to hear
    stukken prutser buks click to hear
  • The most common definite article ('the') is de. The less common het is often shortened to 't - which changes the vowel sound from 'short' to 'voiceless.' click to hear: het 't
    (There are no good rules what are 'de-' and 'het-words.' I only know that het goes with all diminutives (-je endings), and de goes with all plurals.)
    The indefinite article ('a') een, is to the best of my knowledge the only ee pronounced as voiceless E. Consequently, it's sometimes written as 'n. For emphasis, één ('one') is used.
    click to hear: een ('n) één

Final N's

Many people in Holland drop the final N's in noun plurals and verbs. At the moment it's not considered the standard way of speaking Dutch, I think it's sloppy and incorrect, but it's accepted. Of course, we live in the free world, do as you please as long as you don't hurt someone.
To students, however, I do recommend to pronounce those final N's, because dropping them just adds another rule, it will make learning Dutch harder. You'll have to write those N's and you'll see them written, so adding another exception to the fairly phonetic pronunciation of Dutch just increases the level of difficulty.
Most of the English-language Dutch courses I've seen tell the student that the final N's are not pronounced. Probably, the English or American authority on Dutch has decreed so. Well, he or she is wrong. Interestingly, the voice talent on the CD's or tapes coming with those courses often does pronounce the final N's.

If the final N's are dropped from standard Dutch pronunciation, they may also disappear in spelling; an even more radical but not entirely unimagineable step would be changing all voiceless E's to UHs. (Though it will create a new problem about when not to write the H's.)

lopen lopuhn
lope lopuh
koopjes koopjuhs
click to hear

D and T Softening

In a few words, D's are changing into Dutch J's, English consosnant Y's, usually before voiceless E:

goed goede goeie click to hear - 2 - (good)
goeiemorgen click to hear - good morning
op een goeie dag ... click to hear - someday ...

rood rode rooie click to hear - 2 - (red)
die rooie veger click to hear - that red broom (not a stock expression)
door de rooie gaan click to hear - cross into extremes

dood dode dooie click to hear - (dead)
op z'n dooie gemak click to hear - taking his time, without any hurry

dode bladeren click to hear - poetic: dooie blâren click to hear [dead] fallen leaves

D's are also disappearing in a few first person singular, 'ik' ('I') present tense verb forms, and also in the 'jij' question mode:

houden ik houd ik hou click to hear - houden = to hold - houden van = to like, to love
ik houd niet van vis click to hear - I don't like fish

ik houd niet van vlees snijden - click to hear - I don't like cutting meat
daar houd ik niet van click to hear - I don't like that

ik snijd het brood click to hear - I'm cutting the bread
hij snijdt het brood click to hear - he is cutting the bread
ik sneed het brood click to hear - I was cuting the bread

jij houdt / houd jij? click to hear - you 'hold ' / do you 'hold'?
jij snijdt / snijd jij? - click to hear - you are cutting / are you cutting?

"Houd jij van opera? - Ik niet." click to hear "Do you like opera? - I don't."

ik vind er niks aan click to hear - ik vin 'r niks aan click to hear It's not interesting to me, I don't care for it

One could say Dutch always has a W-sound after AU and OU, but (to my ears) it gets more prominent when followed by voiceless E:
oud oude ouwe click to hear - (old)
ouwe koeien uit de sloot halen - click to hear - 2 - [dredge up old cows from the ditch] pointless talk about foregone matters, flogging a dead horse

T between S and J or Z is dropped:
STJ: kastje worstje click to hear - 2 - small cabinet - small sausage
STZ: postzegels click to hear - stamps (for mail)

When talking rough, Ts are often dropped:
dat lust ik niet click to hear - I don't like the taste of that
da lus' ik nie click to hear
(Even properly pronounced 'Dat lust ik niet' is not a polite thing to say.)

But, dear Students, it's perfectly alright to pronounce these D's and T's.

Vowels Followed by R

You may have noticed that Dutch vowels get longer before R and/or change slightly in tone. Don't worry about it in your first years of studying Dutch - advanced students.

Pronunciation - Vowels Review - Consonants Review - Spelling

Everyday Dutch Words Basic vocabulary for conversation and reading
Useful Words and Phrases for Travelers
Learning Dutch? (Lessons - Suggested Method)

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Don't be a dief (thief) / dievegge (female thief) - diefstal (theft) - stelen (to steal) - heler (dealer in stolen goods) - hear Dutch - 2