[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1987/2 p14-16 later designated Journal 5.]

Changes in the Spelling of Dutch.

Jean-Marc Trouille.

Jean-Marc Trouille studied German and Dutch at the Universities of the 'Sorbonne Nouvelle' (Paris III), Groningen and Zürich, and is currently lecteur for French in the Modern Languages Department of Aston University. We reported briefly on Dutch spelling in the Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter J3 Summer 1986, p.15.

1. The background.

It is often considered a typical Dutch characteristic that the Dutch generally discuss things, express a great many opinions and make proposals without reaching clear decisions. This would seem to be true in the case of the proposed spelling reforms and the so-called 'spellings-kwestie' (spelling question) or 'spellingstrijd' (spelling dispute). Indeed, spelling matters are an important and topical issue at all levels of public life: government, education, writers, journalists, academies, mass media, public opinion, etc. In the Netherlands as well as in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, a great majority of people think that the spelling of their language ought to undergo some changes; a number of them believe that Dutch spelling ought to be radically adapted and simplified, and that the large number of foreign words, in particular, should be 'dutchified' ('vernederlandst') in order to assimilate them completely into the language. Unfortunately there is great disagreement among the twenty million Dutch speakers in Europe about new spelling rules that could be introduced to set up a spelling reform.

2. Dutch-Flemish co-ordination.

Initially there was no agreement between Flanders and the Netherlands, and each country had its own regulations in spelling matters. In the Netherlands, the first attempt to standardize spelling was made by Professor Siegenbeeck on behalf of the then Minister of Public Education, and the 'Siegenbeeck Spelling' was officially adopted in 1804. In Belgium, the philologists De Vries and Te Winkel elaborated spelling rules which became official in 1865 under the title: Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal. In 1883, the Dutch authorities decided to adopt the spellings recommended by De Vries and Te Winkel, so that there has been in theory a common spelling for all the 'Low Countries' since that time. In 1891, a first attempt was made by Kollewijn to simplify this official spelling, but we have to wait until 1934 for a Royal Decree ratifying certain amendments to the spelling of De Vries-Te Winkel. This revised spelling is known as the 'Marchant Spelling', and it has been taught in all Dutch schools since 1934. However, this only became the official spelling in both the North (Netherlands) and the South (Flemish Belgium) in 1946-47. Following this, in 1954 a mixed Dutch-Flemish commission published a 'Glossary of the Dutch Language' ('Woordenlijst van de Nederlandse Taal'), often called 'de Groene Bijbel' ('the Green Bible'). Nowadays, this is still considered as the official reference book in spelling matters. Since 1946-47, no new spelling regulation has been adopted. It is therefore not appropriate to speak of very recent changes in Dutch spelling.

3. 'Bastard words'.

Meanwhile, in the Sixties, the Dutch-Flemish 'Pée-Wesselings' commission was formed in order to propose new spelling rules, mainly for the so-called 'bastaardwoorden' ('bastard words'). These are foreign words, mostly from French, and they quite often have two, or sometimes even more possible accepted spellings: generally a traditional and a progressive one ("de traditionele en de progressieve spelling"). One of them is chosen as the preferential, preferred one ("de voorkeurspelling"), e.g.:



(but: overproduktie)

As we see in these examples, the preferential spelling is sometimes the traditional, sometimes the progressive type. There is no clear reason that justifies the choice made. The fact that hundreds of words have double forms does not facilitate their correct use. The so-called progressive spelling is generally a 'dutchification' ('vernderlandsing'), but not always a simplification: sometimes the result such dutchification is more complicated, as in these examples when <x> is uneconomically expanded to <ks>.

equivalent-ekwivalent, exemplaar-eksemplaar, examen-eksamen, succes-sukses, text-tekst.

Moreover, in the last ten to fifteen years, a new trend has appeared: a provocative, anti-establishment spelling, modelled on the progressive type, which created new dutchified forms. The results are often rather surprising:

biscuit-biskwie, chantage-sjantaazje, chic-sjiek, chauffeur-sjofeur, chocola-sjokola, suite-swiete, communicatie-kommunikaatsie, circuit-sirkwie, eau de cologne-odeklonje, sociale unit-sosjale joenit.

Obviously, the task of the Pée-Wesselings commission was not an easy one: the commission had to advise how a consistent spelling of these 'bastard words' could be obtained without confusion; the commission had also to continue the process of dutchification and to take the phonology of these words into account. Finally, in 1969, the commission presented its final suggestions, but they have never been officially adopted.

4. The Dutch-Flemish 'Dutch Language Union'.

From 1969 until 1985 the spelling dossier remained forgotten at the bottom of a drawer. Then, in October 1985, the Dutch Language Union ('de Nederlandse Taalunie'), which had obtained official responsibility in spelling matters, decided to set up a working party. Its task was to draw up a programme of research. The results of this programme were to be used by a new commission which was to be set up to bring about a new spelling reform. Recently, this working party has started to conduct a survey of spelling preferences among the public and among the professions. At the moment, this investigation is in progress and its results are expected by the end of 1987.

The fact that both the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgium have coordinated their efforts of spelling unity in the recent past is to be seen as a very straightforward step for the cultural collaboration of these countries, as well as an important contribution to Flemish emancipation against the French-speaking Belgians. This common effort to organize a joint language evolution in both the North (the Netherlands) and the South (Flemish Belgium) is stated in the Agreement of the Dutch Language Union 'Taalunieverdrag') of 1980 as follows:

- joint decisions on matters of spelling and grammar (which have always been controversial topics in Dutch linguistic history);
- joint action in the fields of lexicography, terminology and language teaching.

5. Different Dutch-Flemish spelling preferences.

Nevertheless, the Dutch used in the two countries is not quite the same, despite the official 'A.B.N.' ('Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands') or General Educated Dutch. As far as the spelling is concerned, the differences are partly due to the different orthographic preferences which Dutch and Flemish people often have, and which are noticeable from reading a Flemish newspaper, say, De Standaard, and a Dutch one: many Belgians, for example, prefer to replace <c> by <k> in order to avoid similarities with French. This preference for non-French forms is political in Flanders. On the other hand, the progressive spelling used by certain Dutch people is often influenced by some "provocative" spelling forms, such as 'de sien' (the scene).

6. Trend to Cut Spelling in 1947.

Let us now analyse some concrete results of the last Dutch spelling reform, officially adopted on 1st May 1947. Interestingly enough, this reform, which aimed to correspond more closely to the recent evolution of modern Dutch, was mainly a simplification of existing spellings. However, one consideration of the Netherlands-Belgium commission may have been the wish to avoid a number of resemblances to German. R G Baker [1] remarks that: "an analysis of reforms in writing systems throughout the world indicates that they tend to coincide with major political upheavals.( ... ) After the defeat of Nazi Germany minor orthographic changes were carried out in formerly occupied Holland and Denmark".

- The old spelling had many nouns ending in <-sch>, where the new spelling has <-s>, e.g.:


- The plural of such nouns ended in -(s)schen; in the new spelling this has become (s)sen, e.g.: fleschen>flessen
- Similarly, the old spelling had various verbal forms ending in <-sschen, -sch, -scht, -schte, -schten>, which have respectively become <-ssen, -s, -st, -ste, -sten>, e.g.:

(wasch, wascht, waschte, waschten>>>>
was, wast, waste, wasten)

- Adjectives which previously ended in <-sch> have in the new spelling lost the <ch>: frisch>fris
- In the declensional form, <-ssche> is now <-sse>: frissche>frisse

This does not apply to the suffix <-isch>, which has been retained, e.g. belgisch, historisch, electrisch, though <-sch> here is pronounced /s/. The ending <-sch> has remained in some geographical names too, e.g. Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen, Hoogeveensche Vaart, Hollandsch Diep, and nouns ending in <-bosch>: Oudenbossche kwekers, Bossche koek, s' Hertogenbosch.

- In a number of open syllables the former spelling had <ee> or <oo> where the new spelling has just <e, o>, e.g.:

algemeene>algemene(feminine or plural)
(f. or pl.)
teere>tere(f. or pl.)

Other examples:

roode>rode(f. or pl.)
traditioneele>traditionele (f. or pl.)

- Before obviously masculine words like: man, heer, boer, stier, kater, the definite article formerly had to be accusative den, e.g. de man loopt op straat, but ik zie den man. After 1947, this so-called 'sexist' <-n> disappeared.

7. New patterns of simplification.

Some new trends have appeared in recent years, such as:
- the ending <-ies> tends to replace <-isch>: socialistisch>socialisties.
- the ending <-lik> tends to replace <-lijk>, although it implies different pronunciation.
- <th> tends to be shortened to <t>: apotheek>apoteek.
- for phonological reasons, people tend to simplify <ei/ij> and <ou/au>.

These shortenings are certainly not negligible though they have not greatly changed the general appearance of Dutch. By comparison, Afrikaans, whose etymology is at least 95% Dutch, experienced simplification earlier and more deeply, not only in spelling, but in syntax and grammar too. Many people in the Low Countries tend to think that their language has already undergone too many changes this century: they are right to object that it is now difficult for a Dutch native to read what was written in the 19th century, because of the different reforms and subsequent changes. Unlike the spelling of French and English, Dutch is already very close to the spoken language. Perhaps priority should be given to the spelling of foreign words.

8. Future reforms?

In their recent history, the Dutch and Flemish have managed to organise a joint evolution of their common language and spelling. The Dutch Language Union is now responsible for all further linguistic developments, which it will be interesting to observe, such as the results of the investigation into spelling preferences in the public and the professions. Which groups in public life would prefer to simplify the spelling? Which groups would choose to change some spelling forms even in an uneconomical way? Who would keep the present spelling intact? The only point everybody seems to accept is the urgency of a reform of the spelling of bastard words. But again, multiple solutions are suggested. Obviously the task of the Dutch Language Union is not easy, and the future will tell us how far the 'Taalunie' will be able to pursue spelling reform.

Note. [1] R G Baker Spelling Reform and Politics: the Case of Norwegian, in Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter, J1 Autumn 1985, pp.8-9.

Acknowledgment. The author wishes to thank Mr L Ravier of the Dutch Language Union, as well as Dr C Jans of "De Orde van den Prince" for their valuable assistance in the preparation of this article.


1. C Bissel, The Dutch Language Union, in 'Language Monthly', September 1986.

2. -, Nederiandse Taalunie, in 'Modern Languages', March 1986.

3. Lode Craeybeecks Sluipmoord op de Spelling, Elsevier 1972.

4. S Govaert La Flandre et les Pays-Bas: rapports nouveaux in 'Centre de Recherche et d'Information socio-politiques, Courrier hebdomadaire', 30 avril 1982.

5. J de Rooij, Nederlandse Taalunie, Voorzetten 3: spelling:wettelijke en bestuurlijke aspecten Wolters-Noordhoff, 1987.

6. -, -, Voorzetten 4: spelling: inhoudelijke aspecten, 1987.

7. M C van den Toom De geschiedenis van de Nederlandse spelling, in 'Nederlandse Taalkunde', 1975.

8. Omer Vandeputte Nederlands, het verhaal van een taal, Stichting Ons Erfdeel, 1983.

9. Woordenlijst van de Nederlandse Taal, 1954-1978.

10. De Nederlandse Taalunie, Staatsuitgeverij, 's-Gravenhage, January 1982.

11. Vijf jaar Taalunieverdrag (1980-1985), De Sikkel, Malle, 1985.

12. G Geerts, J van den Broeck, A Verdoodt, Successes and Failures in Dutch Spelling Reform, in Joshua A Fishman (ed.), 'Advances in the Creation and Revision of Writing Systems, 'The Hague/Paris, 1977, pp. 179-245.

Back to the top.