Fun with Dutch!

All you ever wanted to know about Dutch (and Flemish)...

Also check out the Plopdans!

An overview

The A to Z Guide of Belgium defines Dutch as
A strange language spoken in Flanders and consisting largely of the consonants v,s,c,h,r and k. Dutch is surprisingly easy to learn. Simply fill your mouth with crisps and then speak English and German simultaneously without breathing.

This isn't quite right, but Dutch is quite similar to both German and English. It's the closest language to English (other than Frisian, spoken in parts of the Netherlands), thus making it sound almost comprehensible to people who have never studied the language. Its grammar is relatively simple: the only tricky bit is that, like German, there is a tendency to throw verbs to the end of a sentence. The lexicon (vocabulary) is often similar to English, so words are pretty easy to learn...even more so if you also know French and/or German. It also helps that we've borrowed some words from the Dutch as well. The one tricky thing (for me anyway) is the pronunciation.


Much of Dutch pronunciation is straightforward: most of the consonants, for example, sound very much like English. (A few exceptions: w sounds halfway between English "w" and "v" while v sounds halfway between English "v" and "f." Also, to sound "really" Dutch, you should trill your r's.) There are, however, a few things that make Dutch pronunciation "hard":
  1. Spelling

    Dutch is supposed to have straightforward, phonetic spelling. Echoing An Englishman's Difficulties with the Dutch, I admit that English has the most horrible spelling system in the world (its inconsistencies probably make it almost as hard to write correctly as Chinese/Japanese), but nevertheless English doesn't claim to have phonetic spelling. On the other hand, if you think spelling Dutch is as easy as Spanish or Italian, you are sorely mistaken.

    The most confusing thing at first is probably the open syllable rule: If a syllable ends in a vowel, the vowel becomes a double vowel automatically. For example, take the word maan ("moon"). Dutch plurals are (usually) created by adding "-en," so you'd think that the plural is maanen (which would make perfect sense) but because of the blasted open syllable rule it becomes manen. "But wait," you say, "How can 'man' be considered an 'open' syllable? It ends in a consonant!" You see, this is the second twist: the Dutch syllabify their words differently, so that it doesn't matter that "en" is just an add-on...the syllables are thus ma-nen. Thus, if there is a vowel followed by only one consonant and then another vowel, it is open. The final, and most frustrating, twist, is that this only applies to stressed syllables. This is usually the first syllable, but often in words like regering ("government") you have no idea which syllable is stressed (it's the second one, so it's pronounced as if it were regeering).

  2. Look of the Vowels

    While most vowels are pretty straightforward, a few of the vowels look very different from how they're spelled. For example, take ee. You'd think that this would sound like the English "ee" in "reek," but instead it sound more like the English "ay" in "lay." So, been ("leg, bone") comes out like English "bane." To add an extra confusion, it does sound like "ee" if it's in front of an the aforementioned regering (which, as you will recall, would be spelled regeering if the Dutch had any sense) is pronounced "ruh-GHEE-ring."

    Likewise, guess how brood is pronounced? No, it's not like English "brood": oo is an "oh" it comes out as "broht." Again, neither this nor the ee pronunciation is wrong--it's just different from what you're used to in English spelling and thus takes some time to get used to.

  3. (Possibly) New Sounds

    If you know German or French, u and uu shouldn't be too hard...but otherwise you need to get used to making new sounds. Dutch u is like German "ö" in Köln or French "eu" in leur. The way you make it is to do an "ih" sound like in "spit" while rounding your lips. Likewise, Dutch uu is like German "ü" or French "u" in fut. To do this sound, make an "ee" sound with rounded lips.

  4. Confusing Dipthongs (even for the Dutch/Flemings)

    There are two dipthongs that even the Dutch and Flemings can't agree on how to pronounce: First, there is ij and ei (which are the same sound even though one is called "long" and the other "short"). The "standard" way to pronounce these seems to be "ay" ("eh-ee"), but they often sound close to or the same as "eye" ("ah-ee"). It seems that the latter pronunciation is mainly found in the Netherlands (as opposed to Flanders).

    Second, there is ui. I've read a bunch of descriptions of how to pronounce this, but none quite seem right to my ears. I think the standard pronunciation sounds like "ah-oh" or "uh-oh" (almost like the sound in the [American] English "out" but more like the Canadian pronunciation). The Flemish pronunciation of ui, on the other hand, is "uh-ee," which seems to make more sense...perhaps that is the original pronunciation?

  5. Gutteral Stuff

    Finally, just like German, Dutch has a good amount of gutteral sounds...namely, ch and g. They both sound the same--a bit like the ch in "Bach." This is pretty straightforward, but often it means moving your mouth in ways you aren't used to. For example, school (guess what that means?) starts with not a "sk" sound but, literally, "sCH." I guess you have to hear it to understand, but suffice it to say that it's a bit difficult at first.

Well, there you are: the most difficult bits of Dutch pronunciation. It's a bit odd, but fun...combined with the lilting stress, Dutch sounds a little funny, at least to my ears. Particular words stand out; my favorite word right now is rijbewijs ("driver's licence"). Almost as favorite is scheepswerktuigkundige, which means "mechanic" but the literal translation justifies all those syllables: "ship's work-tool-knowing-person." (As you can see, Dutch occasionally inherits the German tendency to cram a bunch of words together.) Also funny is the Plopdans.

Good sites for learning more about Dutch pronunciation:


But what about Flemish? How do you speak Flemish? The dirty little secret is that Flemish and Dutch are really the same language. Yes, I know that all the Vlamings on the Lobelia will kill me for saying this, but the differences between Flemish and Algemeen Nederlands are only as big as that between American and British English. (However, this is not true of Flemish regional dialects, such as West Vlaams which was popular on my boat...apparently someone from Holland wouldn't understand very much of these dialects.) Indeed, the Flemings and Dutch have agreed on the same linguistic standard, which one can't say of the Yanks and Brits. (Imagine if we Americans agreed to speak The Queen's English! ...or at least spell things the same way--see an interesting BBC-sponsored discussion for some good comparisons of Dutch/Flemish with British/American English.). Of course, the distinction between a "language" and a "dialect" is largely political, not linguistic: as the saying goes, "A language is a dialect with an army and navy." Does that mean that Flemish is a language? You be the judge.

In any case, there are differences between "Standard" Dutch as spoken in Holland and Dutch/Flemish as spoken in Flanders. Dutch in Flanders goes into some details about the history of the Dutch language in Flanders, as well as some differences between the forms of speech. As the article notes, the primary difference is that the funny "lilt" of Dutch Dutch doesn't seem as strong in Flemish--Flemish sounds more "normal" (i.e. like English) to my ears. As noted above, Flemings tend to stay with the standard ij and ei pronunciation ("ay") but a non-standard ui pronunciation ("uh-ee"). They also didn't seem to drop the "en" at the end of words like the Dutch do: For example, seven sounded more like "zay-fuhn" than "zay-fuh." There are apparently enough differences in vocabulary and expressions to warrant a Vlaamse Woordenlijst (Flemish Word-list, or Dictionary) that "translates" between Dutch and Flemish. Similarly, a translation agency offers its services to help "adapt" Dutch texts for Flemish audiences.

Learning More Dutch

I really enjoyed Colloquial Dutch book and cassette, which was a great introduction to the language as actually spoken, although I felt that its pronunciation section could have been a bit clearer (thus all the stuff above!). It's also a good idea to get a good Dutch dictionary...I unfortunately can't offer too much advice in this department, as I really wanted a book that had Dutch pronunciation but found that none exists (or at least every bookstore I went to didn't have such a thing). I did end up getting Kramers Woordenboek, which the Flemings on my boat said was a good dictionary, although mine is a pocket dictionary and thus has only a fraction of the "regular" Kramers. It is pocket-sized, however, so look for it if you want a convenient dictionary to carry around. The following are some more Internet sites for learning Dutch:

There are several online Dutch courses that could supplement or perhaps even replace a book/lesson. Taalthuis ("Language House") isn't bad although it's a bit slow. The aforementioned Integral Dutch Course is text-only but gives a good introduction. Bieneke Berendsen's Free Dutch Grammar Course gives a good introduction to Dutch grammar. Finally, the Learn Dutch website is appalingly organized but centers around a very humorous story about a store.

False Cognates

Called faux amis ("false friends") by the French, false cognates are words in a different language that look similar to English words but actually mean different things. The Double Dutch Glossary will set you straight.

Dutch Radio and TV

A great way to learn language as it's actually spoken is to watch TV or listen to the radio. Admittedly, they may be speaking a bit fast, but you'll still be able to pick up a few words here and there. Check out the Dutch Radio Stations Hotlist and Some Radio Stations in Dutch, which include links to places such as Radio Netherlands. Also, a very cool site is Nieuwsbronnen, which has, among other things, links to televised news in Dutch.

Dictionaries has a list of online dictionaries. John and Grayson's seems fairly good, although incomplete. Travlang's Dutch-English and English-Dutch dictionaries have annoying popups but allow pretty cool searches. The Alternative Dictionary specializes in Dutch slang. Finally, learn about Dutch proverbs at Proverb du jour

Link Pages

Onze Taal has a pretty long but good list of links for Dutch language learners, as does Lowlands-L, which also includes a list of Offline Materials.

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