Grammar: Dutch Spelling
- Dutch spelling: intro
- Open and closed syllables
- Writing consonants
1. Dutch spelling
The Dutch spelling system is actually pretty logical. I’m not just trying to ease your mind here; there are actually a lot of concrete rules. So sit back and breathe deep. We can do this.
2. Open and closed syllables
The length of the vowels in a word are determined by the type of syllable. The syllable can be open or closed. As explained before in the pronunciation section, a closed syllable is essentially a consonant sandwich, where the vowel is the delicious meat/cheese/mustard. In a closed syllable the vowel is short. In an open syllable, which doesn’t have that second slice of bread, the vowel is pronounced long, just as the toppings on your sandwich will inevitably spill out if you don’t have a second slice of bread.
Now, how does this look with regards to the spelling?
Here are some examples of words with closed syllables, where the vowels are short:
- het bed (the bed)
- tof (great)
- ik kam (I comb)
The vowel length is usually preserved after inflexion, which means that in order for the vowel to remain short, a change in spelling has to occur:
- in the plural: “het bed” becomes “de bed-den”
- adjective declination: “tof” becomes “tof-fe”
- verb conjugation: “(ik) kam” becomes “(wij) kam-men”
The dashes show the separation of the syllables.
This happens because otherwise the first syllable will remain open and be pronounced as a long vowel (which can lead to differences in meaning, or using an entirely nonexistant word).
Here are some examples of words with open syllables, where the vowels are long.
- de vader (the father)
- de lepel (the spoon)
If the syllable is open then the vowel only has to be written once, but things change when the syllable is closed, but the vowel is still long:
- de maan (the moon)
- groot (big)
- ik neem (I take)
Since the vowel has to be distinguished as being long, it has to be written twice. This is for long vowels in closed syllables.
This also affects the formation of the plural, adjective declination and verb conjugation:
- plural: “de maan” becomes “de ma-nen”
- adjective declination: “groot” becomes “gro-te”
- verb conjugation: “(ik) neem” becomes “(wij) ne-men”
There are some words where an open syllable = doubled vowel:
- de thee (the tea)
- de zee (the sea)
- twee (two)
Diphthongs never change in respect to whether a syllable is open or closed.
- de deur -> de deuren
- de vrouw -> de vrouwen
3. Writing consonants
Some consonants undergo a change when a word is conjugated or inflected in some way.
The letters v and z are never at the end of a syllable and thus never at the end of a word. They are instead replaced by f and s respectively:
v -> f
- schrij-ven (open syllable; “to write”) -> schrijf (closed syllable)
- le-ven (to live) -> leef
z -> s
- le-zen (open syllable; “to read”) -> lees (closed syllable)
- verlie-zen (to lose) -> verlies
For words that end in f or s it usually reverses:
- lief (kind) -> lie-ve
- het huis (the house) -> hui-zen
Words never end in double consonants!
Most words in Dutch are not capitalized.
The following are cases in which they are:
- at the beginning of a sentence
- for proper nouns
Unlike in English, the names of the weekdays, months, seasons, and cardinal directions are not capitalized.
If a sentence begins with a word with an apostrophe, the second word is capitalized:
- ‘s Morgens drink ik water.
Both letters in the diphthong “ij” must be capitalized if the situation calls for it:
- IJs is koud.
There are some diacritics in Dutch that are used in certain situations. There’s are tremas, accent marks, and apostrophes.
A trema is used to denote the separate pronunciation of two consecutive vowels. The trema is put on the vowel with which the a new syllable begins.
Accents can be used to help understand the meaning of a word in a certain context.
- Ik ben voor haar gekomen. (I came for her.)
- Ik ben vóór haar gekomen. (I came before her.)
An apostrophe is used in the following cases:
- to textually represent spoken language in which something is left out
- M’n oma draagt klompen. (m’n = mijn)
- as part of the abbreviation of the genetive form des
- ’s morgens - (“des morgens”)
- for the plural of nouns that end in a vowel (where the long vowel must be conserved)
- auto -> auto’s
- for marking possession for words ending in an “s” or a vowel
- Frans’ boek
- Maria’s jurk
- plural form of words that consist of one letter or a short combination of letters
- twee b’s
- de wc’s
Maybe you should add "specific people replaced by abbreviation form" to words with apostrophies. E.g. aow'ers, vwo'ers, zzp'ers, PvdA'er. Apostrophy also goes for some diminutives: Hema'tje, FAQ'je.
Even though I've been learning Dutch for a while now, I'm still not ready to accept an apostrophe as a valid way to pluralise something... I'm so used to correcting people misusing apostrophes in English!
Better get used to it, apostrophes in Dutch and English are used differently. As a native Dutch speaker who is exposed to English a lot, I have to actively think about them in both languages, it's one of the parts of the language I find most difficult not to mix up Dutch and English…when I was 10 years old life was a lot easier, I only knew Dutch style…sigh...:)
Hopefully that had made you a bit more compassionate towards us. Sometimes it's extremely uncomfortable to write some words—for me especially those that end on a vowel—without an apostrophe in English for the plural.
In fact, sometimes in English, like with "nos and yesses"... I'd rather not write anything at all that ignore what I opine to be a stylistic catastrophe :( I just refuse to do it :P
Are you ready to accept kaas for cheese? You are learning something new. Open up and accept. How about the English pronunciation of rough, dough, through, plough (in Australian), tough (hey finally one that rhymes with rough) and many others - there is no sense or discernible pattern. And why isn't it discernable? How does anyone ever learn English? cheers
If it has a consonant at the end it is closed, if not, it is open.