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Abstract phonological forms in Dutch orthography

Dutch orthography does not always represent the phonetic form of a word. Instead, some more abstract level of phonological representation may be reflected in the spelling of words. Put differently, Dutch orthography abstracts away from the effects of certain phonological processes. For instance, the spelling of the word hond dog represents the underlying form /hɔnd/ instead of the phonetic form [hɔnt]. Traditionally, this kind of abstractness is described as the Principle of Uniformity which says that morphemes should always have the same orthographical form. However, this principle is not applied consistently in Dutch orthography. For instance, the effect of Final Devoicing, the rule that obstruents are always voiceless in codas, is not represented in the spelling of the voiced obstruents /b, d, ɣ/, but this effect is encoded in the spelling for the voiced obstruents /v, z/. This leads to the following spelling pattern:

Table 1
Underlying form of stem form Singular spelling form Plural spelling form
/tɔb/ toil tob tobben
/hɔnd/ dog hond honden
/vlɑɣ/ flag vlag vlaggen
/briv/ letter brief brieven
/baz/ boss baas bazen

The effects of the rules of connected speech, including those of voice assimilation, are never represented in the spelling. On the other hand, the effects of the morpho-lexical rules (conditioned by morphological or lexical information) are always represented in the spelling.

[+]Final devoicing and voicing assimilation

Dutch spelling abstracts from the effects of a number of phonological rules. Hence, the spelling form does not always represent the phonetic form of a word, but a more abstract phonological representation instead. For instance, Dutch orthography abstracts from the rule of Final Devoicing as far as underlying /b, d, ɣ/ are concerned. The effects of Regressive and Progressive Voice Assimilation, whether they apply in compounds or in phrases, are also not represented in the spelling, nor is the insertion of schwa in coda clusters (as in the casual phonetic form of melk [mɛlək] milk) ever represented. On the other hand, the allomorphy of the diminutive suffix is always represented in the Dutch spelling. This makes sense since there are sometimes two allomorphs, as in the case of bloempje /blumpjə/ little flower versus bloemetje /blumətjə/ bunch of flowers, both diminutive forms of the noun bloem /blum/ flower. In other words, by representing the effects of morpho-lexical rules, i.e. phonological rules conditioned by the presence of specific morphological or lexical information, in the spelling, it is guaranteed that the phonological form of a word can always be recovered from its orthographical form.

As far as the effects of the rules of word phonology are concerned, things are more complicated because these effects are partially represented in the spelling.

The effects of Final Devoicing are only represented orthographically for underlying /z/ and /v/, i.e. they are spelled as s and f respectively when devoiced. In the case of /b/, /d/ and /ɣ/ it is always the underlying form that is spelled as shown in 2:

Table 2
Underlying form of stem form Singular spelling form Plural spelling form
/tɔb/ toil tob tobben
/hɔnd/ dog hond honden
/vlɑɣ/ flag vlag vlaggen
/briv/ letter brief brieven
/baz/ boss baas bazen

A related complication is that /v/ and /z/ are even spelled as f and s in past tense forms of verbs with a voiced fricative in stem-final position, even though these fricatives are always voiced in that position:

Example 1

a. beefde /bev+də/ [bevdə] shivered, sg.
b. raasde /raz+də/ [razdə] raged, sg.
[+]Nasal assimilation

In the case of Nasal Assimilation, its effect on the place of articulation of nasal consonants is not represented for the palatal and the velar nasal (2b and 2c), but it is represented for the bilabial nasal (2a):

Example 2

a. [m] damp [dɑmp] damp
b. [ñ] Spanje [spɑñə] Spain
c. [ŋ] bank [bɑŋk] bank

The effects of the rule of degemination are not represented in the spelling, except when we would get a geminate consonant at the end of a (prosodic) word. Compare the examples under 3 with those in 4:

Example 3

a. voedde /vud+də/ [vudə] fed, past tense
b. achtte /ɑx+tə/ [ɑxtə] considered, past tense
c. wordt /ʋɔrd+t/ [ʋɔrt] becomes
Example 4

a. eet /et+t/ [et] eats
b. gevoed /ɣə+vud+d/ [ɣəvut] fed, past participle
c. (iets) vies /viz+s/ [vis] (something) dirty

In the last example, the /z/ is devoiced, and hence spelled as s. This would give rise to the letter sequence ss, which is subsequently subject to degemination in the orthographical sense. On the other hand, the sequence dt is kept, although it is also subject to devoicing and degemination in the phonological sense, and realized as [t], because Dutch orthography does not represent the effect of Final Devoicing on /d/'s. In other words, dt can be said to represent the underlying form of the word wordt.


As far as the hiatus rules of word phonology are concerned, a difference has to be made between Pre-vocalic Schwa-deletion and Homorganic Glide Insertion. While the effects of the first rule are always represented in spelling, the effects of the second rule are never represented. We do find intervocalic glides spelled in words like koeien [kujən] cows and vlooien [vlojən] fleas, but this is precisely because these glides are unpredictable, the predictable glides in these cases being the [ʋ].


Table 3 summarizes which effects of phonological rules are represented in Dutch orthography.

Table 3
Phonological rule Effect represented Effect not represented
Final Devoicing for /v, z/ for /b, d, ɣ/
Laryngeal Spreading always always
Nasal Assimilation for [m] for [ñ, ŋ]
Degemination in word-final position in word-internal position
Prevocalic Schwa-deletion always always
Homorganic Glide-Insertion always always