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Appendix 1 ~ Alphabet and Pronunciation Guide
Het alfabet ~ The alphabet
The Dutch alphabet, like English, consists of 26 basic letters. However, there are also a number of letter combinations. The following table includes a listing of all these letters and a guide to their pronunciation. As in English, letter sounds can differ depending upon where within a word the letter occurs. The first pronunciation given below (second column) is that in English of the letter (or combination) itself. Reading down this column and pronouncing the "English" words will recite the alphabet in het Nederlands (in Dutch). Note that letter order is exactly the same as in English, but pronunciation is not for many of the letters.
SAMPA-orthography: see SAMPA
A (ah) Long 'a' in French 'bateau', but longer (SAMPA /a:/); short 'a' as in 'arm' (/A/) B (bay) Pronounced like 'p' when at the end of a word C (say) Like 's' preceding i, e and y; like 'k' preceding a, o, u and consonants D (day) Pronounced like 't' when at the end of a word E (ay) Long 'e' as 'a' in 'late' (/e:/); short 'e' as 'e' in 'pet' (/E/) F (ef) G (khay) 'g' as 'ch' in Scottish 'loch' or the composer 'Bach', but voiced (/G/) H (hah) Usually voiced. I (ee) Long 'i' as 'e' in 'seen' (ee) (/i:/); short 'i' as 'i' in 'pit' (/I/) J (yay) Pronounced like 'y' as in 'yes' K (kah) No aspiration L (el) Thinner than in English M (em) N (en) O (oh) Long 'o' as 'o' in 'open' (oh; /o:/); short 'o' as 'aw' in British English 'law' (/O/) P (pay) No aspiration Q (kuuh) R (err) trilled (see below) S (ess) T (tay) No aspiration U (uuh) Long 'u' as 'u' in French 'du' (/y:/); short 'u' somewhat like 'i' in 'bird' (/Y/) V (vay) W (way) for Holland: between upper teeth and lower lip (not between lips) / for Flanders (Belgium): between the lips X (iks) Y or IJ (eh-ee). Y only in loans, IJ is a diphthong and considered two letters. Z (zet)
aa ee oo uu
au ei eu ie ij oe ou ui
Nederlandse uitspraak ~ Dutch Pronunciation Guide
Dutch has quite a few vowels (13). To be well understood by a native speaker it is imperative to master them, which can be quite challenge for native speakers of languages that rely more on their many consonants such as Russian. One general observation is that they are always pronounced as pure (or only slightly diphthongized) vowels as in French, never drawled or 'chewed upon' as in many varieties of English.
Most vowels occur in pairs that are traditionally indicated by the terms short and long. Unfortunately, this nomenclature is rather misleading because the difference is not a matter of length, but rather a difference in the position of the tongue root (lax vs. tense).
|vowel listen (help·info)||'short' (lax)||'long' (tense)|
|a - - stal - staal||/ɑ/ as in squat, father||/a/ as in broad US 'my God!' (Gaad) or Fr. bâteau|
|e - - bed - beet||/ɛ/ as in bell||/e/ as in bait|
|i - - bit - biet||/ɪ/ as in bit||/i/ as in beet|
|o - - bot - boot||/ɔ/ as in paw or UK Potter||/o/ as in boat|
|u - - put - kluut||/ɵ/ more rounded than subtle||/y/ as in French tu|
|oe - - koet||/u/ as oo, but rounded|
|eu - - deuk||/ø/ as German Möwe|
In addition there is a neutral vowel that occurs in almost all unstressed syllables, the schwa /ə/ as is does more or less in English as well. It is spelled with an 'e', so that this letter has three meanings: the above two in stressed syllables, the schwa in unstressed ones.
Notice the value of the letter 'u' in Dutch. As in French it denotes the /y/ sound. Thus, in German it corresponds to ü. It is relatively rare in Dutch because most words that used to have it have shifted it to the diphthong ui. It occurs mostly at the end of words like u, nu or in front of a w or r: ruw, stuur.
- Trick: If you can whistle: whistle a high note, freeze your mouth in the position it is in and sing. You'll produce a /y/-sound. The trick is to have the tongue far in the front of the mouth and the lips rounded.
The spelling 'oe' for /u/ is a real Dutch oddity. Most languages use 'u' as German and Latin. (French uses 'ou', English often used 'oo', although it does have words like shoe). The Dutch /u/ sound is strongly rounded and dark with the tongue pretty far retracted back in the mouth. (American 'oo' sounds tend to be intermediary between /u/ and /y/ )
There is a systematic way in the spelling to indicate which of the two varieties is intended. An open syllable has the 'long' one, a closed one -ending in one or more consonants- has the 'short' one.
- na /na/
- nat /nɑt/
If a conflict arises, either the vowel or the consonant is doubled:
- zaak - zaken both have /a/ (business - businesses)
- zak - zakken both have /ɑ/ (bag- bags)
Notice how the formation of the plural necessitates a good mastery of this principle. The vowels oe and eu do not exhibit the dual quality of the other vowels.
The case of the letter i is a bit special. There has been a double ii in the past but to avoid confusion with a hand-written u it was replaced by -ij. Afterwards the long /i:/ sound it represented became a diphthong /ɛi/ (although many dialects retain /i/). To write the long /i/ sound Dutch mostly uses -i.e.
As said above, the distinction 'short'-'long' has little to do with pure length, because the change from open to closed is much more important. There is an exception. In front of -r the long vowel may indeed just be the same vowel held a bit longer:
- bord : /bɔrt/
- boord: /bɔːrt/
In front of -r there are a few other oddities:
- keel - /kel/
- keer - /kɪːr/
- keus - /køs/
- keur - /kœːr/
- ei and ij are both /ɛi/ compare English feisty
- au and ou are both /au/ as in English now
- ui is /ʌy/ needs to be learned by ear, it is a bit like in French l'oeil.
- aai is /ai/
- ooi is /oi/
- ieu is /iu/ or /iy/
- eeu is /eu/
- uw is /yu/
Diphthongs like /ɔi/ (as in English toy) or /ɑi/ (as in English my) are not used in the standard language. In various dialects they do occur and producing them is often frowned upon. They are considered 'lower class' in many circles.
In unstressed syllables like the suffix -lijk the ij represents a schwa.
Most consonants in Dutch are pronounced more or less the same way as in English but there are a number of notable exceptions. First of all a number of phonemes that English has are simply missing in Dutch. Phonemes are sounds that suffice in marking one word as different from the other.
- /θ/ : th as in thing.
- /ð/ : th as in that.
- /g/ : g as in good. (but it does occur as an allophone of k before d, for example in zakdoek)
Please avoid these sounds when speaking Dutch.
The g, ch and sch problem
The spelling sch- can be rather confusing for people familiar with some German. In German it is used to write the /ʃ/ sound, where English uses sh-. In Dutch the sch- combination also occurs quite frequently but is pronounced rather differently. In most cases it presents a combination of s+ch where the latter is the voiceless velar fricative /x/ as heard in German Bach or Scottish loch.
- schip : /sxɪp/
In older versions of the orthography (prior to 1947) the combination -sch represented a simple /s/ sound in final position. The guttural ch at the end had gone mute. (Originally it represented a k- sound as it still does in some dialects and in Frisian). The final -sch spelling is still used for one rather common ending: -isch and also in numerous geographical names as they have never been altered in spelling:
- chaotisch: /xa'otis/ (not: /xa'otiʃ/
- 's-Hertogenbosch : /sɛrtoɣən'bɔs/ , (not: /ʃɛr'togənboʃ/ )
In principle Dutch has both a voiceless and a voiced velar fricative and the letter 'g' represents the voiced one and the combination 'ch' the voiceless one. However, the number of words where this creates a phonemic distinction is very small:
logen /'loɣən/ contrasts with: loochen /'loxən/
It depends on the region whether this distinction is actually made in the spoken language. Around Amsterdam it would not be, further south the phoneme 'g' is often pronounced as a voiced palatal fricative, so that the difference becomes more pronounced.
Worldwide, the voiced /ɣ/ sound is pretty rare. It only occurs in a few languages like Arabic and Gaelic. As many native speakers do not use it either, it is recommended not to bother about it and use the voiceless /x/ for both, unless your mother tongue happens to have the difference.
The Dutch "r"
Another, similar, problem for English-speaking learners is the Dutch "r". Essentially there are two, both of which were historically trilled. The first, alveaolar [r], is the trilled "r" also used in Spanish, produced with the tip of the tongue against the alveolar ridge. This sound was standard only a few decades ago and is still used by some speakers. However it is gradually replaced by a voiced velar or uvular trill [R], which is also used in many dialects of German; it is also similar to the French "r", but is voiced and articulated somewhat further forward (it is less "throaty"). Starting from the Dutch "g" (/ɣ/) described above - a voiced velar fricative, the tongue is lowered and relaxed, thereby allowing the back of the tongue to trill against the soft palate (the velum) or of the uvula against the back of the tongue.
Both the alveolar and the uvular /r/ sounds are often not trilled when spoken by native speakers; the alveolar [r] is more often a light tap, while the uvular [R] can turn into a fricative or approximant. This also presents a considerable challenge for those unaccustomed to the sound when they are confronted with words like groot ("big"). The first two sounds tend to blend to one lengthy velar/uvular /x:ot/ or /ɣ:ot/, which may cause confusion with words like rood (red) and goot (gutter).
A third type of /r/ currently making inroads into Dutch is Gooise R, named after the Gooi area in the Netherlands, where Dutch television is produced (Hilversum) and this speech feature is popularly thought to have originated. This concerns an approximant sound, not unlike American /r/ in words such as bar, without trilling or friction.
- p represents /p/, but unlike in English it is never aspirated.
- poot /pot/, kaap /kap/
- f represents /f/ as in English
- fuut /fyt/, schaaf /sxaf/
- t represents /t/ a true dental. Unlike UK-English it is not aspirated and unlike US-English it does not become a /d/ in the middle of a word.
- toe /tu/, beter /'betər/
- s represents /s/, in few case it can be a /z/ sound but much less frequently so than in German:
- samen: /'samən/
- organisatie: /ɔrɣani'zatsi/
The latter word also contains an exception on the rule that t represents /t/. In the ending -tie (corresponding to -tion) it is pronounced as a quick /ts/ combination.
- k represents /k/. again it is never aspirated as often happens in English or German.
- kop /kɔp/ , kraak /krak/
In contrast to English it is not silent in combinations like kn-: knie' /kni/
- ch represents /x/ as discussed above, except in recent English loans. This phoneme is quite common.
- schraag /sxrax/, schichtig /sxɪxtəx/
Devoicing and assimilation
As in German, but unlike English all consonants at the ends of words are devoiced (..at the ents off worts are devoist...). You may hear that phenomenon when people speak English with a strong Dutch accent.
- zaad: /zat/
Assimilation with the previous word often devoices the consonant in initial position as well:
- het zaad: /tsat/
The neutral article het is often reduced to a prefixed t-sound in the spoken language and occasionally rendered as such in the written language as: 't. Het zaad -> 't zaad.
Notice however that both the /z/ and the /d/ reappear in the plural:
- de zaden: /də 'zadən/
Contrary to d, the letters v and z are not used in the final position in such cases:
- de vaas - de vazen: /də vas - də 'vazən/
- de graaf - de graven /də ɣraf - də 'ɣravən/
Apart from the devoicing effects Dutch has the following voiced consonants:
- b represents /b/ as in English
- baas /bas/
- v represents /v/ as in English, although its voicing is less emphatic
- bevel /bə'vɛl/
- d represents /d/ as in English
- dader /'dadər/
- z represents /z/ as in English
- ziezo! /'zizo/
- g represents /ɣ/ not /g/ as in English (see above)
- gegraven /ɣəɣravən/, gracht /ɣrɑxt/
Around Amsterdam the tendency to devoice is so strong that /v/ /ɣ/ and /z/ are seldom heard. People use /f/, /x/ and /s/ instead.
Liquids, nasals etc.
- m represents /m/ as in English
- mooi /moi/
- w represents /ʋ/ much like in German, it is a labiodental approximant, not a bilabial one. Bring your upper teeth close to your lower lip and produce sound without breath. Put otherwise: produce a v-sound without breath. Speakers from e.g. Surinam often do use the bilabial version.
- water /ʋatər/
In initial wr- (wraak /vrak/ or /ʋrak/) w tends to sound more like /v/. It is not silent as in English.
In erwt /ɛrt/ (pea) the w is silent for most speakers
- n represents /n/ as in English
- nonnetje /'nɔnətjə/ (/'nɔnəcə/)
Many plurals (including the plural forms of the verb) have an ending -en. For many speakers this is pronounced as /-ə/ and the final n is dropped, but this is not true for all. It depends strongly on the region of the speech area you are in. Around Amsterdam it is certainly /-ə/, but in Groningen or in West-Flanders it is a syllabic /-n/ instead.
- ng /ŋ/ as in English sing, never /ŋg/ as in finger (the latter uses a /g/ that Dutch does not have). It does not occur in initial position, much like in English.
- vinger /vɪŋər/
Even in loans the /ŋg/ tends to be avoided: tango : /'tɑnɣo/ or /'tɑŋɣo/
- nk /ŋk/ as in English sink (This involves a /k/ sound that Dutch does have)
- j represents a /j/ sound, which in English usually written as y. The English j as in Jack is virtually unknown.
- jacht: /jɑxt/, borrowed into English as: yacht.
In combination with i it forms a diphthong: ij. Although this is a two letter combination, both letters get capitalized at the beginning of a sentence: ijs -> IJs (ice). /ɛis/. The suffix -je that forms the rather ubiquitous diminutives tends to palatellize the previous consonants or even fuse to a palatal stop all together in rapid speech.
- blaadje /'blatjə/ (/'blacə/
- y is not a native Dutch letter but it occurs in loans where it is pronounced /i/ or /j/.
- l represents an /l/ that is neither velarized (dark) as most English l's are, nor is it the slender variety as in German, French (or Irish). It is neutral and in between.
- lila /'lila/
- r can represent a variety of sounds. A rolled 'r' /r/ was more or less the norm, but is heard less and less. A variety of uvular forms is taking its place. Retroflex ones (as in US English) sound distinctly foreign.
- h represents /ɦ/ a voiced version of the h-sound commonly heard in English and German. It only occurs in initial position of a syllable.
- behang /bə'ɦɑŋ/, herfst /ɦɛrfst/
- the glottal stop ` is not rendered in the ortography, unless by a trema, e.g. in naäpen /na`apən/.
It is much less used than in German, e.g. theater: /te'jatər/ rather than /te`atər/.
Stress is not represented in the spelling as such but often an educated guess can be made. Dutch is like English and German (and unlike French) a typical stress language. One syllable tends to get all the attention. It is at the same time loud, long and high in pitch and it never has a schwa ə. Instead it has a full vowel or a diphthong. Unstressed syllables tend to be short, low, soft and usually have a schwa, although there are exceptions.
Because the schwa is written as a e in the orthography it is often quite clear where the stress falls in a word:
- verlaten : /vər'latən/ has only one non-schwa syllable la and sure enough that is where the stress goes.
Unfortunately for the non-native speaker the letter e is also used for other purposes.
- verleden : /vər'ledən/
And, to make it any more difficult for the non-native speaker:
- december : /de'sɛmbər/
It's a word which has three e's, all different pronounced.
The middle -e represent a full /e/ sound (as the ai in bait), but that is only clear for a native speaker. But with a bit of knowledge of grammar it will be clear that /led/ is the root of a verb (lijden actually) and that ver- is a prefix and -en the suffix. In general, the root of a verb (or noun) will get the stress in Dutch.
Of course there are exceptions, a good example are the separable and non-separable verbs.
Some words and names can have rather surprising stress patterns:
- Veluwe is /'velyə/ for example.
The rules for capitalization in Dutch are similar to those in English. Capitalization occurs at the beginning of a sentence. Eigennamen (proper names, e.g., of persons, organisations, countries etc.) are capitalized, but soortnamen (generic names) are not.
As mentioned above, when a word beginning with ij has to be capitalized, both letters become capitals, e.g. IJsselmeer.