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The spelling of vowels

There is no one-to-one relationship of phonological segments and graphemes in Dutch, due to the fact that the Roman alphabet does not provide enough letters. The mismatch is very noticeable in the spelling conventions of Dutch vowels.

Short (lax or B-class) vowels are always spelled by means of a single vowel letter. Since the same letters are used for the representation of long vowels (A-class vowels) in open syllables, these vowel letters are always followed by two consonant letters if they represent a short vowel, except in the last syllable of a word, where one consonant is sufficient to indicate the closed nature of the syllable. Intervocalic consonants are therefore spelled as geminates, even though they are not geminates in the phonological sense. For instance, the vowel /ɑ/ is spelled as a in the following words: bak /bɑk/ bin, bakken /bɑkə(n)/ bins, balk /bɑlk/ beam, balken /bɑl.kə(n)/ beams. On the other hand, the a in baker /ba.kər/ midwife represents a long vowel /a:/, as it stands in an open syllable. The vowel schwa is spelled as e in the default case, as in bodem /bo.dəm/ bottom and bode /bo.də/ messenger. In some words it is spelled as i, as in monnik /mɔnək/ monk and in the suffix -ig /əɣ/ like in matig moderate, or as ij, as in the suffix -lijk /lək/ like in behoorlijk adequate.

Long (tense or A-class) vowels are represented by two vowel letters, except in open syllables. Hence, the a of baker /ba.kər/ midwife and the digraph aa of taak /tak/ task both represent /a:/. In the default case, the vowel digraphs are doublings, as in aa, but there are a number of exceptions to this general rule, as Dutch orthography has special digraphs ie, oe, eu, for the vowels /i, u, ø/ respectively. Moreover, the /e:/ is spelled as ee in word-final position, in order to avoid confusion with the schwa which is also spelled as e.

Diphthongs are usually represented by a combination of two vowel letters which stand for the phonological components of these diphthongs. The diphthong /ɛi/ is spelled as ei (so-called 'short ei') or ij (so-called 'long ij'), the diphthong /ɑu/ as ou or au, and the diphthong /œy/ as ui.

[+]B-class vowels

The spelling of B-class vowels (also short or lax vowels) is given in table 1:

Table 1
Vowel Spelling Example
/ɪ/ i kikker /ˈkɪkər/ frog
/ɛ/ e jekker /ˈjɛkər/ coat/jacket
/ʏ/ u hutten /ˈhʏtə(n)/ huts
/ɔ/ o botten /ˈbɔtə(n)/ bones
/ɑ/ a bakker /ˈbɑkər/ baker

In English loanwords, the letter a can represent /ɛ/, as in tram /trɛm/ tram and flat /flɛt/ flat.

In order to receive an interpretation as a short vowel, these letters must be followed by a sequence of two consonant letters, except at the end of a word. This is a regularity at the orthographical level, not at the phonological level, because double consonant letters do not represent a geminate consonant. Moreover, when the consonant is represented by a digraph, doubling of the consonant symbol does not take place. This applies to the consonant digraphs ch /x/ and ng /ŋ/, as in lachen /ˈlɑxǝ(n)/ to laugh and zingen /ˈzɪŋǝ(n)/ to sing. For the same reason, in the word goochem /ˈɣoxǝm/ smart, the vowel of the first syllable is spelled as oo, because even though this vowel stands in an open syllable, the digraph ch will trigger interpretation as a short vowel of a single letter o.

The schwa is usually spelled as e. Exceptions are words like monnik /ˈmɔnǝk/ monk and suffixes such as -ig /ǝɣ/ where i is used, and -lijk /lǝk/, where ij stand for the schwa. This latter spelling is an etymology effect, as the suffix -lijk derives from the early Germanic noun leiks /liks/ body (the diphthongized form of historical /i/ is spelled as ij). In the indefinite singular determiner een /ǝn/, the schwa is represented by the geminate ee, which reflects its historical descent from the cardinal number een een /en/ one. In geographical names such as Dokkum /ˈdɔkəm/ Dokkum the schwa is spelled as u. Since the schwa patterns distributionally with A-class vowels, we do not find consonantal geminate letters after letters standing for schwa, as illustrated by the following words:

Example 1

a. bezemen /ˈbezǝmǝ(n)/ to sweep
b. monniken /ˈmɔnǝkǝ(n)/ monks
c. Dokkumer /ˈdɔkǝmǝr/ of Dokkum
[+]A-class vowels

A-class vowels (also long or tense vowels) are spelled as single letters in open syllables (including word-final position), and as two letters (mostly identical) in closed syllables, i.e. in syllables in which the vowel is followed by at least one consonant. However, the graphs for the vowels oe> /u/ and eu> /ø/ are not doubled because they are digraphs. Moreover, the geminate form of i is ie instead of ii. In the case of /e/, it is also spelled as an orthographical geminate ee in word-final position, in order to avoid confusion with the schwa which is spelled as e in that position. In the case of /i/ the geminate spelling ie is used in open syllables as well, namely in native words. Table 2 summarizes the spelling of A-class vowels, and also illustrates the role of etymology in the spelling of borrowed words.

Table 2
Vowel Spelling and example
/i/ i (in open syllables, e.g. liter /ˈli.tər/ liter)
ie (in closed syllables and in native words, e.g. Piet /pit/ Pete, Pieter /ˈpi.tər/ Peter)
y (in loanwords, e.g. mythe /ˈmi.tǝ/ myth)
ij (only in the word bijzonder /bi.ˈzɔn.dǝr/ special
/y/ u (in open syllables, e.g. vuren /ˈvy.rə(n)/ fires, and before /ʋ/, e.g. uw /yʋ/ your)
uu (in closed syllables, e.g. vuur /vyr/ fire)
/u/ oe
ou (in loanwords, e.g. douane /duˈwa.nə/ customs)
/e/ e (in open syllables, e.g. beter /ˈbe.tǝr/ better)
ee (in closed syllables and at the end of a prosodic word, e.g. beet /bet/ bite, trofee /tro.ˈfe/ trophy, meewarig /me.ˈʋa.rəɣ/ compassionate)
é (in loanwords from French, e.g. café /ka.ˈfe/ café)
er (in loanwords from French, e.g. diner /di.ˈne/ dinner)
ai (in English loanwords, e.g. container /kɔn.ˈte.nər/ container)
ae (in loanwords from Latin, e.g. Aesopus /e.so.pʏs/ Aesopus)
/ø/ eu
oe (in loanwords, e.g. oedeem /ø.ˈdem/ oedema)
/o/ o (in open syllables, e.g. zo /zo/ so)
oo (in closed syllables, e.g. boot /bot/ boat)
eau (in French loanwords, e.g. bureau /by.ˈro/ desk)
oi (in geographical names, e.g. Oirschot /ˈɔrsxɔt/ name)
au (in loanwords, e.g. auto /ˈo.to/ car)
/a/ a (in open syllables, e.g. la /la/ drawer)
aa (in closed syllables, e.g. aap /ap/ monkey)

The three diphthongs of Dutch are spelled as sequences of two letters. Etymology plays a role in their spelling. The diphthong /ɛi/ is spelled as ei ('short ei') when it derives historically from Proto-Germanic /ɑi/, and as ij ('long ij') when it derives from /i:/. Thus, we get orthographical minimal pairs for homophonous words such as leiden /ˈlɛi.də(n)/ to lead versus lijden /ˈlɛi.də(n)/ to suffer. The same applies to the diphthong /ɔu/ which is spelled as ou when it derives historically from the sequence /ɔl/, like in woud wold forest, and ou or au otherwise. Sometimes, the off-glide /ʋ/ at the end of the diphthong is also represented in the spelling, as in nauw /nɑuʋ/ narrow versus nou /nɑu/ now, words which are homophonous.

Table 3
Vowel Spelling and example
/ɛi/ ei (e.g. ei /ɛi/ egg)
ij (e.g. ij /ɛi/ water)
/ɑu/ ou (e.g. nou /nɑu/ now)
au (e.g. au /ɑu/ ouch!)
ouw (e.g. gouw /xɑu/ province)
auw (e.g. nauw /nɑu/ narrow)
/œy/ ui (e.g. ui /œy/ onion)
eui (in French loanwords like fauteuil /fo.ˈtœy/ arm-chair)
eu (e.g. neuron /ˈnœy.rɔn/(also /ˈnø.rɔn/) neuron)

Sequences of vowel letters may cause problems as to their proper interpretation. For instance, the sequence ei occurs in both gein /ɣɛin/ fun, where it stands for a diphthong, and in geïnd /ɣǝ.ɪnd/ collected, where it stands for the sequence schwa + /ɪ/. Therefore, Dutch spelling uses diaeresis (also known as trema), two dots above a vowel letter, to indicate the proper interpretation, as in gein versus geïnd. Another example is reëel /re.ˈel/ real versus reeën /ˈre.ə(n)/ deers. A related principle concerns the spelling of /i/ before schwa: when /i/ is spelled as ie in word-final position, and does not bear word stress like in 2b, it is reduced to i when it occurs word-internally due to morphological processes (shown in 2bi). Thus we get the following contrast:

Example 2

a. genie
a.' genieën
b. olie
b.' oliën
[+]Diacritic '

Another complication in the spelling of vowels is the use of the diacritic ' . This diacritic is used to represent the genitive suffix /s/ after a stem ending in s. Thus we get:

Example 3

a. Jans boek Jan's book (the book of Jan)
b. Jans' boek Jans's book (the book of Jans)

When the plural suffix -s is added to a word ending in a single vowel letter, the corresponding letter s is preceded by the diacritic ' in order to guarantee the correct phonological interpretation of the vowel letter as standing for a long vowel:

Example 4

a. kano's canoes
b. pyjama's pyjamas
c. rabbi's rabbis
d. reçu's receipts