Grammar: The Dutch Alphabet & Pronunciation
- The Dutch alphabet
- Dutch pronunciation
- Vowels and Diphthongs
1. The Dutch alphabet
Our modern Dutch alphabet simply consists of the 26 letters of the ‘ISO basic Latin alphabet’. We have about five vowels and twenty-one consonants. Whereas the letter E/e is the most frequently used letter in our language, the letters Q and X are used least frequently.
So, the Dutch alphabet has 26 letters - just like in English. In fact, you don’t have to learn any new letters! Hurrah!
2. Dutch pronunciation
However, as with any new language, there are going to be quite a few differences and peculiarities in pronunciation. Some letters are simply pronounced differently, and there can be combinations that may throw you for a loop. Don't worry, we're here to help!
3.Vowels and Diphthongs
The way Dutch vowels sound depends on whether they are in open or closed syllables.
A syllable is closed if it in a consonant sandwich (e.g. “bed”) and open if not (e.g. “ga”).
Instead of trying to explain the English equivalents of each vowel sound, it may be easier to check out this website.
In Dutch, in addition to the vowels “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, “u”, and “y”, there are a number of diphthongs.
- "oe" sounds like the "oo" in "tooth"
- "eu" sounds like the "ay" in day with rounded lips, or like the "eu" in the French word "feu"
- "ei/ij": these sounds are like a combination of "eh" and "ee", similar to the "ay" in "day"
- "ui" is tricky, but can be described as a short "a" sound followed by a "u" sound. It is difficult to explain and understand in words, so listening and practicing to the audio in the link below can help.
- "uw" is a long Dutch "u" sond with a slight "w" sound
- "ou" and "au" sound similar to the "ou" in "loud"
- "aai" sounds like a long "a" sound followed by a long "i"
- "eeuw" long "e" sound followed by the "uw" diphthong from above
- "ooi" long "o" sound followed by a long "i"
- "oei" combination of "oe" and "ie" ("ie" is pronounced the same as a long "i")
- "ieuw" long "ie" followed by "uw"
Here is a link to some audio for diphthongs
The consonants in Dutch – b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, z – are not too different from the consonants in English. You also have “ch”, “ck”, “ng”, “nj”, “sch”, “sj” and “tj”.
The major differences are the “g”, “j”, “r”, and “w”.
The “g” sound is not found in English. It sounds akin to coughing up a loogie, but I’d like to think it’s quite a bit more elegant.
The sound is made when air passes through an opening made in the back of the throat where the tongue and uvula (the dangly thing in the back of your mouth) meet. This is around the same area where your tongue and the roof of your mouth meet when making the English “g” sound.
If you are familiar with German pronunciation, the Dutch “g” sound is like the “ch” sound in the word “Dach”.
Check out this great video for an explanation.
In some foreign words, the “g” is pronounced as it is in the language the word was borrowed from.
The “j” sound in Dutch is straightforward – it is essentially the “y” sound as in the English word “you”. . ”r”
Then there’s the “r” in Dutch. There are several ways of pronouncing it. How should you pronounce it?
The first option is to roll your “r” using the tip of your tongue. Some people even just tap it instead of doing a sustained roll.
Another option is a more guttural “r”, once again using the uvula as with the “g” sound. It can be quite difficult to roll your r’s using this method, but with a lot of practice it can be learned.
Both of these “r” sounds come at the beginning or middle of words and sometimes at the end, but a lot of Dutch people pronounce the “r” kind of like an American “r” at the end of a word.
For a live clarification, check out another video from the same helpful Youtube user.
The Dutch “w” is not pronounced exactly like “w” in English, nor like a “v” sound.
The “w” in Dutch is actually called a “labiodental approximant” (ooh fancy!).
It is a bit like pronouncing the English “w” while having your teeth in lips in the same position as when pronouncing the English consonant “v”.
A quick explanation of “ch”, “ck”, “ng”, “nj”, “sch”, “sj” and “tj”.
- “ch” is pronounced like the Dutch “g”
- “ck” is pronounced as a “k” sound
- “ng” is like the “ng” in the English “sing”
- “nj” is kind of like the “n” in “onion” or for you language buffs out there like the Spanish “ñ”
- “sch” is often a combination of “s” and “ch” (as a “g” sound), but can also be pronounced as an “s” at the end of a word, for example “fantastisch”
- “sj” is pronounced like the English “sh” sound
- "tj” is pronounced like the English “ch” sound, but softer
40 Comments This discussion is locked.
Here is a helpful website I found with thousands of pronunciations: http://www.heardutchhere.net/DutchPronunciation.html
I finally figured out how to pronounce "ui" (at least closer than what I was before).
First, in IPA terms: I start with the diphthong /aɪ̯/ and both round and velarize it. That's how I get the closest sound.
For those that don't know the IPA, a "velarized open front unrounded vowel" is closest to an English long i (as in the word "like"). Make that sound and hold it, and while doing that try and round your lips into the shape of an O. It shouldn't be too small, but you should notice right away that the sound changes just by changing the shape of your mouth.
Thanks a bunch for putting all these grammar threads up! They've been a huge help.
The "aa" sounds the same (compare "haar" and "aap"). And there's a difference between the "o" in "bord" and the "o" in "bomen", for example, the first one is pronounced short, the second long. But that has to do with the number of (the same) consonants a vowel is followed by and it's place in a word and not the "r". Apart from that I don't know any differences!
Is there a softer g/ch sound, for example at the end of a word (like grappig), like in the German "ich", "Küche"? Or do you always pronounce it like in the German "Dach"? I believe in Belgium the g sound is generally softer, but how about the Netherlands? And are there occasions where you pronounce "st" and "sp" like sht/shp as is the case in German Start, Sport, sprechen (which you pronounce Shtart, Shport, shprechen)? I think I heard spreken being said as shpreken didn't I? Thanks for your help! :)
No problem! And I find the differences in pronunciation between languages fascinating, so thanks for clarifying what those sound like in Hungarian. If "c" in Hungarian is sounded as "ts" then you might have been pronouncing the German "z" correctly this whole time :) No need to break any habits.
Ah, I see. From what I can quickly research about Dutch phonology, /s/ and /z/ are often retracted by Netherlandic speakers (so they become /ʂ/ and /ʐ/) which sound similar to /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ (the sounds you described). Which I find very interesting because I can't think of anything that would cause such retraction, especially given all of the Germanic sound laws that have affected each Germanic language. Perhaps somewhere down the line in the history of Dutch this became common. I'll have to look into it more later.
When 'zijn' is concerned, pronouncing the 'z' as in zoo seems to be the standard, though of course this differs per region and dialect.
Here you can find a man reading aloud pieces of Dutch text. See 'De uitvreter', paragraph 2, for an example of how 'zijn' can be pronounced (click the sound icon).
Various sounds are pronounced a bit stronger/harder or weaker/softer, depending on the sounds before and after them, but I wouldn't go as far as calling that different sounds. If I'm not mistaken this difference is bigger for consonants than for vowels.
For instance the examples you give, the l in blij is indeed pronounced less clearly, but still the same sound if you ask me. All the others are pronounced quite clearly (they are all the first sound of a syllable).
I still wonder how some Dutch or Belgian people pronounce words like "schrijven" with an r-trill. I can only imagine leaving out a sound and pronounce it like "srijven" or something like that. Could a native speaker explain (best with a link to some sound samples)? Thanks! :)
I've been ransacking the internet for about 15 min, then I wrote this post, and the next link on the Google result list gives me all the answers. :D Just as I thought, the ch is not pronounced in "schr".
No idea. :) Also there is a lot of grey area in between those ways of pronouncing it.
The one thing I can say about that, is that in Belgium they usually don't pronounce the t in words like politie and station. But I have no idea if this way of pronouncing is more common in the south of the Netherlands than the north.
I notice in some words like "operatie" the "t" is pronounced as /ts/. Would you explain this please?
Also, regarding "r", most American accents are rhotic, which means they always pronounce "r". However, in other countries non-rhotic accents are common, such as in Australia where it is universal. Australians neither pronounce nor even hear "r" unless it is followed by a vowel. So if an American says "car" /kar/, an Australian will hear it as /ka/ and say it the same way. "car alarm" /kar alarm/ becomes /ka ralam/ to an Australian. The /r/ moves from "car" to the start of "alarm". Instead of being pronounced, the "r" changes the quality of the preceding vowel. Unfortunately, because of this the last part of the explanation of "r" in this topic is of no help for people with non-rhotic accents!