[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J19, 1995/2, p11-13.]
[Also on this page: A Scrabble Senior.]

Spelling Reform in the Low Countries.

Harry Cohen.

Born and educated in Holland, Harry Cohen worked as a statistician for the United Nations in Geneva 1958 - 1962, and from then until his retirement in 1981 as a translator for the European Commission in Brussels. He has written widely on economic matters, but also on language and particularly spelling for Dutch papers and for the American journal Verbatim. He made a valuable contribution to elucidating the history of the Nolst Trenité poem 'The Chaos' (JSSS J17 1994/2 pp27 - 30).
The SSS Newsletter has reported on Dutch in Summer 1986 J3 p15, JSSS J5 1987/2 pp14-16 and JSSS J21 1997-1 pp25,26.

1. Nineteenth century vacillations.

... It all started in 1804. Holland then was a French satellite state that followed the Napoleonic policy of streamlining broad segments of public life. All citizens had to adopt a surname, the tax system and the postal service were centralized, and rulings were issued on primary education and the practice of medicine. And on spelling. The Leiden professor Matthijs Siegenbeek was commissioned to design an orthographic system for the Dutch language. It was officially published, and followed by a matching wordbook. In 1815, when Holland and Belgium were united following Napoleon's downfall, these standards also became applicable in Flanders.

Siegenbeek's guidelines were not mandatory and never became really popular. When linguists Matthias de Vries and Lammert te Winkel started compiling a comprehensive Dutch dictionary in the 1860s, they first published a study on the spelling principles to be used. Although not intended for the general public, their system was followed in ever widening circles. In Belgium, where Siegenbeek had been renounced after the 1830 secession, it was even adopted officially. The Dutch authorities went less resolutely about it, but at the turn of the century De Vries and Te Winkel's spelling was nevertheless practised by most government offices, schools, the press, and the public at large.

2. Twentieth century simplifications.

With the advent of compulsory education, however, more than one teacher felt that this spelling was unnecessarily difficult. Following the historical orientation of nineteenth-century philology, De Vries and Te Winkel had built a number of differentiations based on etymology rather than sound difference into their system (eg, rede ['reason'] and reede ['roadstead'], although pronounced identically, were spelt differently because their vowel sounds had differed in former ages). Gradually, the voices in favour of spelling simplification assumed the form of a movement. The best known campaigner was high-school teacher Roeland Kollewijn. He suggested, inter alia, more coherent rules for vowel representation, deletion of the silent ending -CH in words like visch ('fish'), and the replacement of PH, RH, AE and C (for /k/) in borrowed words by F, R, E and K, respectively.

Although the drive for simplification grew in scope (and in variety!), no official measures were taken until 1934, when education minister Hendrik Marchant introduced a modernized version of De Vries and Te Winkel's design. It took over Kollewijn's ideas on vowel representation and elimination of silent -CH to a large extent, and did away with a great deal of obsolete case endings. However, as the system was addressed to schools only, it was ignored by the civil service, the press and the general public - and altogether in Belgium.

3. Dutch-Belgian co-operation.

During World War II, the exiled governments of Holland and Belgium agreed to deal with spelling matters in a concerted way in future. Co-operation has since been widened by the foundation of the Nederlandse Taalunie ('Dutch-Language Union') in 1980. As a result, identical spelling instructions were promulgated in both countries in 1946/47 and made compulsory for schools and official use. The detailed rules - based on the Marchant model - and a list of over 65,000 words were published in Woordenlijst van de Nederlandse taal ('Wordlist of the Dutch Language'), colloquially referred to as Het Groene Boekje ('The Little Green Book', after the colour of the cover). Issued in 1954, its contents have been a source of continuing controversy. Most arguments centre on the following problems.

4. Spelling bastaardwoorden.

The term bastaardwoorden ('hybrid words') refers to a group of loanwords, mainly of Greek, Latin, French or English origin, which have retained non-native spelling features. Because there is no generally accepted definition, it is impossible precisely to specify which they are, but it is safe to say that they constitute an intermediate category between native words and outright foreign ones. Their spelling often conflicts with Dutch conventions for sound representation (hypothese instead of *hiepoteeze, quasi instead of *kwazie, bureau instead of *buro, clown instead of *klaun). Since the spelling of a bastaardwoord normally goes through a process of gradual assimilation (critique became critiek over the years, to be followed by kritiek), people often feel at a loss as to which variant is the 'correct' one.

The Groene Boekje set out word by word the spelling to be regarded as standard (eg, kritiek, not critiek). However, as compromises between conservative and progressive tendencies were reached separately for each individual entry, the final results proved far from consistent, for instance criterium ('criterion') remained unchanged. Even worse, for many a bastaardwoord several spelling variants were given, one being marked as 'preferred' and the others as 'tolerated'. For instance, while the words kritiek and criterium were given a single standard spelling, criticaster was paired up with the 'tolerated' alternative kritikaster. In subsequent years, use of the 'preferred spelling' was made compulsory in education and government. In Holland, this directive is also adhered to by the press and the general public, but avant-garde circles and many people in Belgium incline to 'tolerated' variants. In both countries, the Groene Boekje, because of its chaotic set-up, often fails as a model for the spelling of the thousands of new words that have made their appearance since its publication. All in all, it has never been quiet on the spelling front.

5. The tussenletter problem.

The so-called tussenletters ('in-between letters') are a second bone of contention. In Dutch, compound words are normally written without spaces (eg, koffiekop 'coffee cup'), with hyphens inserted only when required for reasons of legibility. This applies even when the components are relatively long (eg, levensverzekeringsmaatschappij 'life insurance company'), and to nonce words. The component parts are frequently linked by a medial sound, usually a schwa or an S (eg, hondevlo 'dog flea', landstaal 'national language'). The schwa may be represented by either -E- or -EN-, and the S sometimes coincides with an initial or final sibilant in a component. This can lead to uncertainty among language users. The Groene Boekje has laid down rules on the matter, but in some cases these have proved to be vague or ambiguous, or have led to contrived results - an often quoted example is bessesap ('redcurrant juice') versus bessenwijn ('redcurrant wine').

6. Latest proposals.

Scores of official (and private!) commissions have tried to remedy these and other shortcomings, but time and again discussions have got bogged down in endless arguing. The latest Spelling Commission's design for a coherent spelling system to cover all present and future bastaardwoorden was also turned down, but the Taalunie authorities did approve some of the peripheral proposals. This will lead to the following innovations.

1. The 'preferred spelling' will henceforth be the only valid one.
2. The wordlist of the Groene Boekje will be reviewed and updated at regular intervals.
3. New rulings will be introduced to deal with the tussenletter problem.
4. The rules on the use of hyphens, apostrophes and diereses will be revised.

Although technical preparation is already under way, the date of implementation is not yet known. The proposed measures still have to go through the legislative machinery. And there certainly will be a period of transition - for the time being no school books need be thrown away.

[Edward Rondthaler: see Journals, Newsletters, Anthology, Bulletins, Personal View 8, ALC web.]


Edward Rondthaler.

To the Editor of the JSSS:

For many years a friend of mine and I have played scrabble together. He has always been an excellent speller and has looked with some disdain on my advocacy of spelling reform.

More recently he has shown signs of Alzheimers, and his playing has suffered accordingly. But since I am the score keeper I can adjust the figures and see to it that he continues to win most of the time.

In January he had an attack of pneumonia and recovered so slowly that not until last night (July 13) - after an interval of six months - were we able to play again.

It was an enormously interesting game. I was fascinated, as you will be, at what happened.

We think of children, functional illiterates, foreigners, and spelling reform cranks as the only ones who spell English words as they sound. But here was a highly educated, well read, adult scrabble player who without qualm or question laid down the following spellings: wor, jem, worp, mod (mode), wont (want).

Of course this needs much more study. But on the surface it seems to say that even in a well educated, mature, adult mind the artificiality of English spelling may not be as deeply rooted as we have assumed.


Most viewers read it as "unite", and are chagrined when their error is pointed out to them.

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