An Englishman's Difficulties with the Dutch

- or -

Liefste Schepsel van de Schepping

Steven Pemberton, CWI, Amsterdam

(Originally written for Lambert Meertens, on his 25th Jubilee at the CWI: only he will understand some of the more obscure jokes).

Table of Contents

What is Spelling?
The Open Syllable
The Voiced Consonants
The Long Vowels
The IJ disaster
The -isch Stupidity
A Larger Example

Want ziet gij den splinter in het oog van uw broeder maar den balk in uw eigen oog bemerkt gij niet.
Mattheus VII, 3

"Wat is die 'regen' waar de anderen het over hebben, ma?"

It was raining. It was wet. I was in Amsterdam. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. A voice behind me, recognising me, remarked: Engels weer, Steven.

Now, what was I supposed to make of such a remark? The equivalent of the English comment "Nice weather for ducks"? That it was raining and that would be a good cure for homesickness for me? Did he mean "Lucky we don't get this sort of weather in the Netherlands!", or did he mean "I wish you lot would keep your weather at home, where it belongs"? I don't know, though I had also noticed a tendency on the Dutch TV weather forecasts to say that when rain was coming, that it was coming from England. Could this be some sort of racial stereotyping in progress? On British TV they tend to blame cold weather on the Russians, in the same sort of way, though it's surprising that they never blame the rain on the Irish, but on the Atlantic instead, even though it usually has to pass over Ireland on its way.

Well, I looked up some statistics for rain. London: 610 mm per year; roughly the same as Rome, Moscow, Peking, Cape Town, Delhi. Amsterdam: 1010 mm per year; roughly the same as New York, Washington, Buenos Aires. So where do the English get their reputation from in the Dutch mind? Especially since if you know what Nederpop and Nederwiet are, you'll also understand where the word Neerslag comes from.

Another racial stereotype that the Englishman abroad has to cope with is the English reputation for cookery. Now I realise that the Dutch cuisine is highly esteemed in the rest of the world, and that the English have therefore a lot of catching up to do, but really, most Dutch people haven't even tasted Yorkshire Pudding (let alone even know what it is!), so it's a bit unfair of them to judge us the way they do.

But the subject I'd really like to treat here is Dutch spelling. When I complain to Dutch people about Dutch spelling, their immediate and unanimous response is "But what about English spelling!". This is what is referred to in knowledgeable circles as a non-sequitur or in other words, "What on earth does that have to do with it?" (The English use the same tack when accused of being a Nation-Not-Very-Good-at-Foreign-Languages: "Yes, but the Americans are even worse!" By the way, this topic usually comes up when Dutch people discover that I speak Dutch: "But you're English! How did you manage to do that?")

You see, the thing is, English spelling nowhere claims to be consistent. I've looked everywhere, in dictionaries, encyclopaedias, English language teaching books, all over the place, and I've never found even the suspicion of a reference to a claim that English spelling is in any way consistent. The Dutch, on the other hand regularly have a spring-cleaning session in their spelling to further confuse foreigners in their attempts to learn Dutch, failing in the process to make the spelling consistent, and having the effect of losing continuity. At least the English can claim to still be able to read Shakespeare.

This spring-cleaning is done by a committee of wise persons who as a result of their deliberations produce 'The Little Green Book' full of their pronouncements (Green from the colour of the cover, and Little from the size of the print they use). The committee is made up of representatives from The Netherlands and Belgium (surprisingly few non-Dutch speakers know that Dutch and Flemish are the same language: I honestly have in my possession one of those multi-language instruction books with two separate Dutch translations, one for the Dutch and one for the Belgians!). Unfortunately, a basic premise for the Dutch is that Dutch spelling mustn't look German, and for the Belgians that it mustn't look French, so that there are clashes over some issues, such as the use of c or k for the k sound. In such cases they share out the words between them, and some get c and some k, which leads to anomalies such as kopie and fotocopie, which got shared out to different groups.

In fact, the Little Green Book is a dead giveaway, since it is in fact just a list of recommended spellings for words. As any good computer programmer knows, if a system is consistent, you only need to describe the rules, and all cases come out of them. If on the other hand a system is inconsistent, you have to list all cases separately.

So we have to conclude that the Dutch recognise, though refuse to admit, that their spelling is inconsistent.

What is Spelling?

Before we treat the problematic aspects of Dutch spelling in detail, let us first treat some theoretical aspects, especially for the case where you are striving for consistency.

Firstly, one has to recognise that the written and spoken language are not identical, and are actually two variants of the language. The written language is a formalisation of the spoken, merging many spoken variants, and usually lagging behind the changes in the spoken language.

There are several requirements of spelling, among which is that it should be usable by all members of a language group.

Choosing spelling rules is fundamentally choosing the mapping between sounds and symbols on the written page. As a simplification in this process, certain sounds are considered identical, and mapped to a single formal representative; these are then referred to as homophones. Take, for instance, the casual pronunciation by an educated English speaker of the phrase 'hot water bottle'. All three sounds represented in spelling with a t here are actually different, only the one in 'water' being the sound normally associated with the letter. In fact, the influence of education and spelling is so great, that most speakers of a language are not even aware of homophones. (Homophones are also the source, for instance, of a English speaker's problems with the Dutch pronunciations of the letters w and v. Both sounds occur in English, but they are homophones for English v, and so to the English ear both sound like a v. This is also the reason that most Dutch people wrongly pronounce "pan" and "pen" identically.)

There are several possible mappings of sounds to spelling. Firstly there is the one-to-many mapping such as used in the Dutch spellings ei and ij. These are obviously easy to read (as long as the mapping is one-to-many, and not many-to-many), and difficult to write, since you need training to know which spelling to use for each separate word. For this reason, these spellings will be further referred to here as Read-only Spellings or ROS for short.

Similarly, you have many-to-one mappings. The homophones come into this category, as do for instance the Dutch b (bed, heb) and d (dek, bed) and 'context-dependent' spellings, such as caused by the Dutch 'open syllable' rule (treated below). These we will call Write-only Spellings or WOS.

Since one's passive knowledge of a subject is always greater than one's active knowledge, it is obvious that ROS spellings are to be preferred to WOS.

In any case, the ideal spelling choice, for both reader and writer, is the one-to-one mapping (RAS), where each sound has a unique spelling, and each spelling a unique pronunciation.

The final, obviously undesirable, possibility is the many-to-many mapping, or OS. (OS in French texts on spelling is also variously referred to O, AU, AUX, EAU, and EAUX spelling.) As an example, English has 14 ways to represent the sound [sh]: shoe, sugar, issue, mansion, mission, nation, suspicion, ocean, nauseous, conscious, chaperone, schist, fuchsia, pshaw. Of these 14 spellings, most have other pronunciations in other positions. Most Dutch people know the -ough- example too (usually by heart), and have no qualms about boring English people with it at parties and other social events, or by reciting the poem Dearest creature in creation yet again.

Don't go and think that Dutch is immune from OS either. For instance, consider the Dutch -ti- spelling, like station, politie and portie.

Let us make a remark here. Although RAS is preferable to ROS, the requirement for the spelling system to be usable by the whole language group sometimes requires ROS. A good example is the Dutch g/ch difference, where certain parts of the language area still distinguish the sounds.

Another remark worth making is that there need be no formal requirement that a sound be represented by a single letter, as long as the combination remains non-WOS. The English -sh-, -th-, and -ch- spellings are examples (though sh is non-WOS in dishonest), as well as the Dutch -tj-, -sj- and -ch- spellings.

With these initial formal comments now behind us, let us now examine certain aspects of Dutch spelling.

The Open Syllable

The first real problem a foreigner learning Dutch spelling is confronted with is the rule of the 'open syllable'. This rule states that if one of the four long vowels written with double letters (aa, ee, oo, uu; treated below) ends a syllable, it should be written only with a single letter. So you get geven instead of geeven, and lopen instead of loopen. The definition of an open syllable is already troublesome (caused by, amongst others, multi-letter sounds like -ch-), but the real problem is that the rule is not consistently applied throughout the language, but is context-dependent, and inconsistent. For instance, alongside mede you have tweede, a case where the rule hasn't been applied, similarly with waarom, and if you take degelijk and change the d into a t, you have tegelijk where you just have to know that the pronunciation is different (these could be classified as read-only and write-only inconsistencies).

Furthermore, e is an exception when the open syllable is the last syllable in the word. In such an open syllable, a, o and u are still long, but for some reason e is not. Compare sla, zo and nu with ze, which if the rules were consistent would be pronounced zee.

And then you have yet another problem: what do you do when you want a short vowel sound at the end of a word? Answer: invent yet another spelling rule. Short vowel sounds at the end of a word must be followed by an (unvoiced) h: bah, goh, joh, lekker puh (e doesn't need this rule as mentioned above, and I know of no Dutch word that ends with a short i sound).

When I was learning Dutch, I asked my Dutch teacher why the open syllable rule was used. "To save ink" was his reply (The Little Green Book says that it is bij wijze van vereenvoudiging ("as a simplification"). This is of course just one of the many little jokes that they added to perk up an otherwise rather dull work.)

Now, while I appreciate that the Dutch are a thrifty race, I'd like to point out that I am aware of no studies that demonstrate that the rule actually does save ink. You have first to balance out all the doubling of consonants that has to take place to overcome the effects of the rule in other places. For instance, suppose the rule didn't exist, so that spellings were context-free. Then boter would have to be spelt booter, but then you could spell botter as boter, saving ink in that case. So you see, without a full investigation, we can hardly say that the rule is beneficial, especially considering the problems it causes. Consider the spelling -eren: put a waard before it, and you have waarderen (where the first e is pronounced long), but put a goed before it, and you have goederen (where it's pronounced short). Consider the subtle difference between grote and grootte, where the pronunciation is identical, but the meanings different. Consider the word belevenissen. Of the three, formal, open syllables, only one affects the pronunciation of the vowel. When I first saw this word, I could only guess it was pronounced beeleveenissen using a word like degelijk as model.

Proposal. Scrap the open-syllable rule. It is complicated, introduces all sorts of special cases, and is difficult to learn. There are no indications of any advantages. Advantages of the change are that the spelling rules are much simpler; the spelling of vowel sounds is always context-free; there is no need for double consonants any more.

Examples of the change:

The Voiced Consonants

The four voiced consonants b, d, v and z are never voiced in Dutch if they fall at the end of the word, being instead pronounced p, t, f and s: they never say bed but bet, they don't say rib but rip, and so on. The two choices possible here were: write the letters as they are pronounced (context free), or write the letters as they are, and add the 'not-voiced-at-the-end-of-a-word' rule to the spelling rules (context dependent). I suspect that the spelling committee had supporters from both camps as members, because they did both. The context-freeers got v and z and the context-dependers got b and d. The foreigners got confused.

Proposal. You could drop the context-dependent part. No one has problems with graaf/graven, lees/lezen and enough Dutch people already write t where they should write d that dropping this rule would go rather smoothly. I suspect though that the educated part of the Netherlands would rather feel that the uneducated had won a battle if this change were effected, so dropping the context-free part might have to be considered. Then you would have to get used to spellings like

een glaz bier,
ik leez in bed,
ik beloov het.

The Long Vowels

Each of the vowels a, e, o and u have 'long' counterparts (vrij in Dutch), all written by doubling the vowel: aa, ee, oo, uu (except in open syllables as pointed out already). The odd one out is i: it also has a long version, but it is written ie (causing complications with the open syllable rule, too: consider pi and spie, prima and priemen, klimaat and klimerwt).

In fact, originally, the spelling of a long i was ii, although you also have to know that at that time, there was no separate letter j, and the j shape was just a stylistic variant of the letter i. Only later were different sounds assigned to the two shapes (The same thing happened with u and v too, which is why a w is called a double-u in English, and a double-v in French.)

So ii was written ij. Unfortunately, the pronunciation of the long i changed into the diphthong it now is, so that ei and ij gained the same pronunciation, and a new spelling for long i had to be found, i.e. ie. The old pronunciation of ij can be seen from words like Parijs which used to be pronounced Paries i.e. with the same vowel sound as the French use, with Berlijn similarly, and, exceptionally,bijzonder. Many Dutch people in my acquaintance also say Bie ons for Bij ons.

Proposal. For consistency, drop the ie spelling, and reintroduce the ii spelling for long i (though spelt ii not ij). This may look rather strange at first sight, but you soon get used to it, and take it from me, it looks no stranger than aa and uu. (Another possibility would be to reintroduce the old method of lengthening vowels, namely adding an e after the vowel. Then you would have baarbaer, beerbeer, bierbier, boorboer, and buurbuer. As you can see, in two cases there is no change, and in one case, aa, you just revert to the old-fashioned spelling. There is a new spelling then for uu, but unfortunately, the spelling for oo clashes with the current oe spelling, for which a replacement would have to be found. You could, I suppose, use the English spelling -oo-, but I anticipate that that would cause rather a lot of confusion in the change-over period. Better then to remain with the ii proposal.)


The IJ disaster

A display using the word
A display at (up-market) Schiphol airport
While we are on the subject of the long i, we may as well also treat the long ei completely. I need hardly go into the chaos that ij causes in Dutch, firstly because of the ROS ei/ij, many people don't know whether to write projectleider or projectlijder; secondly, what do you do if the character isn't available on a typewriter or similar? Write it as a y or as two letters i and j? Thirdly, where should it be put in the sorting order? Because of problem 2, along with the y's (the solution used in phone books), or because of its history, with the i's (the solution used in dictionaries). And finally, you have the problem of the simple word bijou. A word taken from French, with 5 letters, b-i-j-o-u not b-ij-o-u. The problem with this word is that every Dutch person knows that there's something special about it, and half of them can't remember what it is that's special, and through hyper-correction use a y and spell it as byou. You see the word spelt everywhere like that. Even stores that project themselves as up-market (and therefore as 'educated'), such as the Byenkorf, spell their jewellery department Byoux. If you don't believe me, check it for yourself.

Proposal. Get rid of ij completely; its sound is already available with ei and the chaos, confusion and inefficiency caused by the letter is too great to worry about the problem of the uneducated having won yet another battle. I realise that this will be difficult, since in some respects the letter ij is the symbol of Dutch identity: the one letter that no other language has in its alphabet, the one letter that causes the Dutch language to appear in international standards for computer character sets. To appease the possible loss of National Pride that might be caused by abolishing the letter, I would propose then keeping it for two cases: the stretch of water by Amsterdam called the IJ (since it would cause the Dutch a double loss of pride to have to go sailing on the Ei), and (in order to retain a need for the lower-case letter) for the Bijenkorf and its jewellery department.

The -isch Stupidity

How the committee ever got away with this one is really beyond me. I suspect that it's either intended as an enormous joke on the Dutch population (which they still haven't got), or some sort of appeasement to hardline members of the committee. After changing words like bosch and visch into the phonetic bos and vis, they go and leave the ending -isch with both an incorrect vowel sound and an incorrect consonant cluster, untouched. Madness.

Proposal. What do I need to say? Correction of both faults immediately.


A Larger Example

In order to try and demonstrate the effects of these proposals, I include a piece of Dutch text with (I hope) all changes made. For copyright reasons, I use a story by a colleague which first appeared in the MC Papier in 1983. An English translation by myself appears in The CWI Quarterly, December 1984. Of course there are other possible changes to spelling that I could have proposed, such as the representation of the schwa sound (currently spelt in Dutch with e (ge-), ij (-lijk), ee (een), ' ('t, z'n), en (-en), i (-ig), and so on, and so on) but, as a simplification, I have left those out of the current discussion and transcription.

Woonen in Amsterdam

S. van der Ton

Omdat ik al eerder naar Neederland geweest was, wist ik dat ze mei 3 vraagen bei de grenz zouden stelen: Hoe lang bleivt Uu?, Hebt Uu al een retourkaartje?, en Hoeveel geld hebt Uu bei Uu? Omdat ik verwachte dat 2 van mein antwoorden onbevreedigend zouden zein, hiild ik vast in mein hand de uitnoodiging van het MC, terweil ik mein kofer, zoo groot als een klein huiz, meetrok.

Een vriindin was met mei meegekoomen en zei ging eerst. "How long are you staying?" "A week". "Have you a return ticket?" "Yes". "How much money have you got with you?" "250 guilders". Goede antwoorden alemaal, en dus kon ze verder gaan. Toen keek hei naar mei. "Are you together?" "Yes" "OK, you can go". En zoo makeleik was het! Ik vraag meizelv af wat hei dacht dat ik in mein kofer had, voor 1 week!

Amsterdam. Stad van grachten, fiitsen, trams, bars dii laater dan 11 uur 's nachts oopen bleiven, en een hipy op elke hoek dii mafe Bob Dylan liidjes staat te zingen.

Het was mein bedoeling om geen buitenlandse Engelsman te zein dii aleen met andere Engelsen omgaat, en wiins huiz een plek Engelsachtigheid is. Nee, ik wilde een echte Amsterdamer zein.

Naatuurleik, de eerste stap om een Amsterdamer te worden is een fiits koopen op het Waaterlooplein. Dat deed ik, en een heel mooie fiits met drii versnelingen was het. Een week later ontdekte ik de tweede stap om een Amsterdamer te worden: jouw fiits wordt gestoolen.

In feite heb ik een weinig bekend feit ontdekt: fiitsers moeten een fiitsbelasting betaalen, en dii wordt geheeven door jouw fiits mee te neemen en te verkoopen. Het huidige taariiv is 1 fiits per jaar: vraag aan wii dan ook hoe lang ze in Amsterdam woonen, en hoeveel fiitsen zei verlooren heben --- het is alteid hetzelvde getal. De enige uitzondering dii ik ooit gevonden heb is Arthur Veen. Dii had in 4 jaar geen fiits verlooren. Maar binen een jaar werden 4 fiitsen van hem gestoolen, dus moest iimand meegeluisterd heben.

Mensen vraagen aan mei of ik geen last om rechts te fiitsen heb. Maar het antwoord is nee. Ik geloov dat het mensdom in tweeën gedeeld is: degeenen dii een landkaart leezen door de kaart te draaien in de richting van de reiz, en degeenen dii hun hersens draaien in de richting van de reiz. Van de tweede soort zeinde, hoevde ik aleen mein hersens om te draaien, en had ik geen last van de verandering van links naar rechts. Doch nu wel met landkaarten leezen...

Evenwel, ik verwachte dat fiitsen makeleiker zou zein in dit plateland. Niimand waarschuuwde mei voor de verplichte pasaagiir dii je achterop je fiits moet meeneemen in Amsterdam; ik vind het erg, hoor. En verder zal ik nooit wenen aan een rood licht dat 'gaa' beteekent voor fiitsers. Vreeseleik is dat.

Nog een stap om Amsterdamer te worden is een rel te ziin. Ik denk dat de poolitsii zich dit realiiseerde en, als vriindeleik welkom, een rel orgaaniiseerde in mein eigen buurt. Ik woonde toen in een rustige straat met boomen en voogels, geen gewoone relstraat dus, en op een aavond, toen ik van het werk naar huiz fiitste, vervolgde de poolitsii enkele relschopers in mein straat als een soort "surprise party", en begon mei neer te slaan.

Net dii week had ik mein eerste drii Neederlandse zinen geleerd, en dit was mein groote kans dii zinen te oefenen. Dus, toen ik het weteleike miiniimum aantal klapen gekreegen had, kon ik van de grond opstaan, en zegen: "Ik ben Engels, ik woon in deeze straat". Dit bleek hem te oovertuigen, en hei schoov mei onvriindeleik de straat uit, met hulp van wat van zein vriinden, voor de pret.

Dii aavond dus kreeg ik de kans om het splinterniiuwe Acadeemiis Ziikenhuiz te proobeeren, terweil mein arm gefootoograafeerd werd.

Neederlands leeren is, naatuurleik genoeg, een belangreike stap om Amsterdamer te worden. Wat ik net ontdekt heb is iits dat Uu zeeker al weet, naameleik het georgaaniiseerde plan om Engelstaalige mensen te verhinderen om Neederlands te leeren. Uu weet het zeeker al, maar voor de Engelse leezers, zal ik het eeven uitlegen.

De hoofdtaktiik is deemooraaliiseeren: "Neederlands is een ver-schrik-ke-lei-ke taal, vind je niit?" zegen ze als begin. Subtiiler is: "Wat spreek je goed Neederlands" als je staamelt: "Mag ik mischiin een andere kop van kofii alstuubliift heben" of "ik vraag Uuw pardon?". En ten derde, als je in een winkel bent, en één enkele fout maakt, of een woord niit verstaat, gaan ze verder in het Engels, en wat je dan ook zegt, ze gaan niit meer terug naar het Neederlands.

Maar waarom dit plan, vraag je? Naatuurleik, als Engelsen Neederlands spreeken, met wii kunen Neederlanders dan hun Engels oefenen?

Woonen en werken in Amsterdam heeft een verbaazend gevolg gehad: als ik naar een internaationaale conferentsii gaa, zegen mensen teegen mei "What good English you speak!". Ik weet nog niit zeeker of ik "oh I lived there awhile" of "oh, my mother's English, you know" moet zegen. Maar het verschrikeleikste gebeurde op vaacantsii in Griikenland. Ik sprak met een Engelsman, en zei dat ik op weg terug naar Amsterdam was. "Oh!" zei hei, "I thought you weren't English!"

Copyright © Steven Pemberton, 1993. All rights reserved.