Anneke Neijt Dutch Department, Center for Language Studies, University of Nijmegen

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Verschenen in M. Bommes, C. Noack en D. Tophinke (eds.) Sprache als Form, Westdeutscher Verlag, 2002, p. 212-221

Anneke Neijt

Dutch Department, Center for Language Studies, University of Nijmegen

Spelling Legislation in Flanders and the Netherlands

Spätestens nach 1945 (im Grunde aber schon in der Weimarer Republik) wäre es nötig gewesen, eine der parlamentarischen Demokratie gemäße gesetzliche Grundlage für eine solche weitreichende Regelung des gesellschaftlichen Verkehrs zu schaffen, wie es ja auch in den Nachbarländern (den Niederlanden, in Dänemark ...) praktiziert worden ist und bei jeder Reform dort wiederholt wird. (Maas 2000:59)


The debate around the recent German spelling reform gave rise to questions such as ‘Why should spelling be a matter of legislation?’ (Peter T. Daniels, Linguist List, October 28, 1998). The following sketch of spelling in the Netherlands and Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium) will illustrate some arguments for and against legislation. For: (a) it prevents hasty and capricious decisions by single members of government, (b) it provides a stable orthography for a lengthy period of time and (c) it materializes the cooperation between countries that share their national language. Against: (d) orthography is not an issue that can be handled adequately in political discussions, (e) legislation prevents orthography evolving naturally through small, consecutive changes and (f) changing an orthography via new legislation is more time consuming and more expensive than changing an orthography solely through the publication of a new spelling guide.

A short sketch will be given of the history of the legislation on Dutch ortho­graphy in the Netherlands and Flanders and the issues discussed in spelling debates and dealt with by spelling reforms (cf. Geerts et al. 1977 and Neijt and Nunn 1997). Subsequently, the actual spelling laws will be discussed. My conclusion is that cross-border governmental collaboration is necessary. If this can be arranged solely through statutory intervention, then this is probably a good thing. But the details of spelling are better dealt with by an official publication under the auspices of a per­manent spelling board that has knowledge of the fields of linguistics and education, not by lawmakers, since it is necessary to keep the spelling debate out of the poli­tical arena.

The history of Dutch spelling legislation

Dutch gained official status as the language used by the government after the foun­dation of the Bataafsche Republiek in 1795. This led to the first official orthography as well: the proposals by Siegenbeek (1804 and 1805) were accepted by the govern­ment in the Netherlands. In Belgium, French continued to be the national language. The Dutch standard set by Siegenbeek appeared to be unacceptable to those who also tried to gain official status for Dutch in Belgium. When Belgium became independent in 1830, the government opted for the spelling standard set by Jan des Roches (1761), which led to the unfortunate situation of slightly different spelling systems for Dutch on either side of the border.

Soon thereafter, collaboration in linguistic matters got off the ground. The joint enterprise of constructing a large dictionary which started in 1851 made it necessary to decide on a common spelling standard and led to the first standard orthography accepted by both governments. In 1864, the Belgian government accepted the pro­posals put forward by lexicographers De Vries and Te Winkel. In the Netherlands, however, these proposals led to fierce discussions and much delay, and it was only in 1883 that the cabinet decided to accept the so-called ‘De Vries and Te Winkel spelling’, which is still in use today, albeit with some amendments introduced by later spelling reforms.

While language users in Flanders debated about language more than about spelling, the reverse was true in the Netherlands. Here, the spelling debate continued and several spelling committees were set up by the ministers of education in the first half of the 20th century with the purpose of finding solutions acceptable to all par­ties. The proposals made by these spelling committees usually were turned down by the ministers, sometimes because the members of the spelling committee themselves (linguists, but also people from the literary field) could not fully agree on the joint proposal and took individual action against it. The most difficult issue was the spell­ing of case endings that only occurred in careful pronunciation. Most linguists argu­ed that this pronunciation was artificial, a by-product of the De Vries and Te Winkel spelling. But this opinion was not held unanimously.

In schools, writing without case endings became more and more accepted, be­cause it turned out to be impossible to teach the difficult gender specifications and case endings of nouns properly to pupils who did not use these in their oral lan­guage. The government allowed the schools to use the simplified spelling, until in 1930 a new decree was issued by the minister of education. The case endings in names of male persons and animals had to be written.

New ministers, new decrees. Although opinions diverged, the next minister for education, Marchant, accepted the proposals for simplification of the spelling and forced a decision in 1934. And l’histoire se répète. The spelling reform of 1934 was partly undone by Marchant’s successor in 1936 and a new committee of linguists was charged with the details of gender specifications for Dutch words, so that the proper case endings could be taught at school.

The issue faded into the background during World War II, but after the war, Belgium and the Netherlands decided on a joint reform. This led to the Belgian Spelling Decree of 1946 and the Dutch Spelling Act of 1947. In 1954, a new spelling guide replaced De Vries and Te Winkel’s spelling guide of 1866, which had been reprinted several times in slightly revised form.

The reform of 1947/1954 was highly similar to the 1934 reform: the De Vries and Te Winkel spelling was simplified. Writing case endings was no longer com­pulsory and this brought an end to the discussions about gender and case endings in Dutch. Case endings simply disappeared from written representations, as they had disappeared long ago in spoken language. In this respect, the reforms were success­ful.

But the reform did not end the discussion on other spelling issues, nor did it put an end to governmental interference. In order to establish coordinated spelling rules in Belgium and the Netherlands (and to foster language politics in a unified Europe), the Nederlandse Taalunie was founded in 1980. Henceforth, this governmental body, headed by a Committee of Ministers from Flanders and the Netherlands, would be responsible for all aspects concerning the spelling of the Dutch language. After a long period during which advisory spelling committees (who investigated both the acceptability of a reform and the possibility of a more systematic spelling), the Taalunie decided on a reform in 1994. Its precise contents were published in 1995 and the reform became effective in 1996. Unfortunately, the reform did not follow the advice of the spelling committee and it has been implemented loosely and without much linguistic consideration by the Committee of Ministers. Not surpris­ingly, the new spelling is criticized rather than supported by linguists.

The most recent spelling reform is not a drastic one, compared to the previous 1954 reform. But it gave rise to a number of new issues, which illustrate the diffi­culty of statutory spelling reforms. For instance: the difference between official and legal spelling. The following story explains how the distinction originated. The instructions the Nederlandse Taalunie sent to the publishers of dictionaries in 1995 contained numerous inconsistencies. When the Spelling Act was published in 1996, most of these had been removed from the word list added as an appendix to the Act (cf. Spellingbesluiten 1996), but the list still contains errors. For instance: obvious typing errors, such as sigaretsightseeing where sightseeing should be on the follow­ing line, spelling forms that should not have been added, such as shockeren where the spelling used to be choqueren, in questionnaire where the (legislated!) rules of the guidelines prescribe one . Because of the inconsistencies, many publishers and notably the publisher of the most prestigious Dutch dictionary Van Dale’s Groot woordenboek der Nederlandse taal, decided not to follow the legal spelling in all its details. The resulting situation was neither favourable for the governments (the reform did not turn out to be a complete success) nor for the publishers (the dictionaries could not be used by civil servants, lawyers or teachers). The Nederlandse Taalunie and the dictionary editors entered into negotiations which led to some corrections in the governmental spelling list and to some corrections in the dictionaries. Those aspects of Dutch spelling that were not included in the law, such as the use of capitals, were not part of the agreement. The Van Dale dictionary writes anschluss (German loan word) and Rotary (name of a club), whereas the gov­ernmental spelling list (cf. Woordenlijst) has Anschluss and rotaryclub. Isolating the differences that did not have a legal basis reduced the size of the problem and paved the way for the acceptance of the Van Dale dictionary by the Nederlandse Taalunie, and hence by the administration of both countries. It did not, however, reduce the problem for language users, who have to be aware of the distinction between legal spelling forms and the official ones (i.e. those included in the Woordenlijst, but spelled according to some rule which has no legal status). Administrators and exa­minees should always use the legal forms, but they are allowed to choose linguistic­ally more adequate spelling variants for those aspects that are not regulated by law. Most spelling guides and dictionaries contain both forms, the form they recommend and the legalized form, and they contain only the linguistically more adequate form when this variant is permitted by the law.

This sketch of the history of Dutch spelling legislation illustrates most of the pros and cons listed in the introduction. The capricious actions in 1930, 1934 and 1936 of subsequent ministers of education triggered legislation twenty years later. It also led to more stable spelling regulations and to a more fruitful collaboration between the governments of Belgium and the Netherlands, even though the most recent spelling reform was set by politicians, ignoring the advice of the linguists on the spelling committee. But the legislation turned out to have some unforeseen consequences for the political debate, which from then on could make use of the awkward distinction between legal and official aspects of the spelling regulation. Partly due to the legislation, it is politicians and not linguists who are responsible. As a result, the official spelling of the Dutch language is less widely accepted than would have been the case with the support of linguists and educational specialists.

The issues discussed and reformed

Spelling variants. The spelling of loan words has been a continuing problem. Te Winkel (1865) does not offer a systematic approach to these words and in line with Te Winkel’s approach, the reform of 1954 allowed different spelling variants for many non-native words. This turned out not to be a feasible approach. Therefore the government decided shortly after the publication of the spelling guide that only one of the spelling variants was to be used in official documents. This variant, the so-called ‘preferred’ spelling, was the variant put forward as most appropriate by the spelling guide. In the reform of 1996, the hitherto ‘preferred’ spelling became the only one, except for some 40 words. Surprisingly, some new doublets have been introduced in the new spelling guide: the above-mentioned choqueren – shockeren but also forms such as rauwdouwer – rouwdouwer and former doublets such as cinema – kinema, consecreren – consacreren, distilleren – destilleren are retained.

Dutchification. There used to be a trend towards dutchification of loan words. For instance: rhythme became ritme in 1954, and cadeau was generally written kado until the reform of 1996, but the latest reform is neutral in this respect. Of the 40 words with a new spelling, 20 are dutchified and 20 others are not. It is completely unpredictable which words should be written with non-native graphemes and pairs such as the following are a continuing source of mistakes: propedeusegynaecoloog, dialect – diakritisch. Spelling checkers are quite a relief.

Derivation and inflection. Derived and inflected undutchified loan words are sometimes difficult to spell. Some examples may illustrate this:
foto – fotootje – foto’s ‘photo’ – diminutive – plural

baby – baby’tje – baby’s ditto – diminutive – plural

diner – dineetje – diners ‘dinner’ – diminutive – plural

deleten – gedeletet ‘to delete’ – past participle

de grill – ik gril ‘the grill’ – ‘I grill’
Some of these spelling forms violate the phonological principle (gedeletet has four orthographic syllables, but three syllables in pronunciation), which may lead to diffi­culties for the reader.

Verb forms. The spelling of inflection of verbs is completely systematic, but difficult to use, because homophones receive different spelling forms, dependent on their context:
ik vind – jij vindt – vind je? ‘I find – you find – do you find?’

het verandert – het is veranderd ‘it changes – it has been changed’

ik besteedde – bestede gelden ‘I spent – spent money’
Verbal spelling errors are a source of irritation for many language users, presumably because spelling the verbs correctly took years and years of training at school. Re­cent investigations show that errors in verb spelling are related to the frequency of the spelling variant (Sandra et al. 1999). This suggests that the source of such errors is storage of full spelling forms and that perhaps such errors are therefore inevitable.

Gemination of consonant letters: claxonneren ‘to honk the horn’, pensioneren ‘to pension off’, budgetteren ‘to budget’, sovjetiseren ‘to sovjetize’, apart id., appartement ‘apartment’. As a rule, is used, not , after , cf. conditioneren, miljonair, mayonaise and accordeonist (‘to condition, millionaire, mayonnaise, accordionist’). Writing geminates where one should not (*mannier ‘manner’ or *commité ‘committee’ instead of manier and comité) or vice versa is the most frequent spelling mistake according to Booij et al. (1979) and Ghesquière (1997).

Diacritics. Use of diaereses, hyphens and apostrophes: the name Baäl, the noun baal ‘bale, bag’, linguïst id., kopiist ‘copyist’, gummi-jas ‘rubber coat’, Oost-Ger­maans ‘Eastern Germanic’, Oudgermaans ‘Old Germanic’, Venloos (adjective), Venlo’s (genitive), auto’s (plural), tantes (plural and genitive).

Linking morphemes in compounds: dorpsstraat ‘village street’, bakkerszoon ‘baker’s son’, gedachtegang ‘train of thought’, hoerenkind ‘whore’s child’. These morphemes are a relict of noun allomorphy or case endings of Dutch and today, their use seems to be in a state of change: variable forms are found such as tijdpad – tijdspad ‘time scale’, kalkoenpoot – kalkoenenpoot ‘turkey leg’.

Legislation in the Netherlands and Belgium

Because of several amendments to the original Belgian Spelling Decree of 1946 and the Dutch Spelling Act of 1947 by way of more recent decrees or Orders in Council, it is difficult to understand which parts of Dutch spelling are legal and which parts are merely official, e.g. present in the guidelines of 1954 or 1996 and in the word list, but without legal status. For those interested, translations of the most significant paragraphs of the acts are presented below, followed by a comparison between the most recent Dutch and Flemish documents.

In the Netherlands, orthography has had a legal basis since the 1947 Spelling Act. This act states (De spelling van de Nederlandse taal 1974: 9-11):

Art. 1 The official spelling of the Dutch language follows the spelling of De Vries and Te Winkel, with the following amendments: [the 11 reformed aspects are fully mentioned: ee and oo will become e and o in certain contexts, case endings need not be written, etc.]. [“De officieele schrijfwijze van de Nederlandsche taal is de schrijfwijze volgens De Vries en Te Winkel, met inachtneming van de onderstaande regels: 1. De e wordt in open lettergrepen niet verdubbeld.”] [11 of such rules follow]

Art. 2 The official spelling of the Dutch language is used in all outgoing Dutch documents of Government Departments, Authorities, Courts and Civil Servants. [“De officieele schrijfwijze van de Nederlandsche taal wordt gevolgd in alle van de Ministerieele Departementen, Autoriteiten, Colleges en Ambtenaren uitgaande, in het Nederlandsch gestelde, stukken.”]

Art. 3 Institutions of public as well as private education follow the official spelling of the Dutch language. [“De instellingen van openbaar, zoowel als van gesubsidie­erd bijzonder onderwijs, volgen de officieele schrijfwijze van de Nederlandsche taal.”]

Art. 4 Exams will not be acknowledged nor supported by the government unless the regulations guarantee use of the official Dutch spelling. [“Examens komen niet voor erkenning, medewerking of steun, middellijk of onmiddellijk, van overheidswege in aanmerking, indien het reglement geen waarborgen bevat, dat de officieele schrijf­wijze van de Nederlandsche taal zal worden gevolgd.”]

Art. 5 There is a permanent Advisory Committee for the spelling of the Dutch lang­uage. [“Er is een vaste Commissie van Advies inzake de schrijfwijze van de Neder­landsche taal, verder te noemen de Commissie.”] [… Further details.]

Art. 6 These prescriptions by law become effective at a later date to be determined by us, however no later than 1 September 1947. [“De bepalingen dezer wet treden inwerking op een nader door Ons te bepalen dag, echter uiterlijk op 1 September 1947.”] (Staatsblad 1947, no. H 52):
Since all Government Departments should adhere to the spelling act, spelling re­forms need approval from the government as a whole.

In Belgium, orthography is regulated by the 1946 Decree of the Governor. The contents of the Decree are highly similar to those of the above-mentioned Act, but the Decree states that reforms are only possible by mutual arrangement between both countries and it does not mention the sanctions of Article 4. Royal Decrees in Belgium and the Netherlands give legal status to the spelling guide published in 1954.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, several Royal Decrees and Orders in Council were published in subsequent years, one of these allowing the use of either the pre­ferred or the alternative spelling mentioned in the word list. In daily practice, most people used the preferred spelling. There was a period in time where a more dutchi­fied version was generally used, also by some schools and in some newspapers, but no one used the alternative spelling of the word list systematically, because general guidelines for using either the preferred spelling or the variant did not exist.

The reform of 1996 led to new Spelling Acts in both the Netherlands and Flanders. The first articles are of most interest to us in this context (the full texts can be found on the Internet, cf. Spellingbesluiten 1996):


Art. 1 Guidelines and word list of the Dutch language

Pronouns and genitives are used, and hybrid words and linking sounds in com­pounds are written, according to what has been stated in the guidelines and the word list, both inserted in the appendices to this decree.

[“Leidraad en woordenlijst van de Nederlandse taal. Het voornaamwoordelijk gebruik, het gebruik van tweede-naamvalsvormen alsmede de schrijfwijze van bas­taardwoorden en van tussenklanken in samenstellingen geschieden volgens hetgeen daaromtrent is gesteld in de leidraad en de woordenlijst, die zijn opgenomen in de bijlage 1, onderscheidenlijk de bijlage 2, die bij dit besluit behoren.”] (Staatsblad 1996, 394)


Art. 1 With regard to the spelling of hybrid words, the linking letters –e(n)– and –s– in compounds, the use of the diacritical signs hyphen, diaeresis and apostrophe, and the spelling of foreign words, the spelling rules hold which are included in the guidelines and the word list, respectively added to this decree as Appendix 1 and 2. [“Met betrekking tot de spelling van bastaardwoorden, de tussenletters –e(n)- en –s- in samenstellingen, het gebruik van de diakritische tekens liggend streepje, trema en apostrof en de spelling van vreemde woorden gelden de spellingregels vervat in de leidraad en de woordenlijst, respectievelijk als bijlage 1 en bijlage 2 bij dit besluit gevoegd.”] (Ministerie van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap – Vlaamse Codex).
It would seem that for the other parts of Dutch spelling, the decrees of 1953 and the rules of 1947 still hold. This means that most of the guidelines from 1947 are still in force, and that most of the new guidelines are not, even though they are official (in the sense that the new spelling guide is signed by the Committee of Ministers of the Nederlandse Taalunie). Similarly, the 16,000 words appended to the above spelling decrees are legal, but the 110,000 words of the Woordenlijst (and all information added to these words, such as hyphenation, plurals, etc.) are merely official.

A comparison of the articles 1 of the new Spelling Acts reveals that spelling legislation is slightly different in both countries. In the Netherlands, new rules for the use of pronouns and genitives seem to have been introduced (but, surprisingly, no rules for genitives are present in the appendices to which the text refers). The Flemish version of Article 1 mentions neither pronouns nor genitives. The linking sounds in the Netherlands are linking letters in Flanders, and only –e–,–en– and –s– are included. Nowhere an explanation of this difference is given; it seems an otherwise irrelevant difference in formulation. The use of hyphens, diaereses and apostrophes receives a new formulation in Flanders only, which is quite a surprise, since these aspects have also been changed in the Netherlands, according to the information issued by the government at the introduction of the new spelling in 1996 (cf. also the ‘nota van toelichting’ included at the end of the above mentioned Dutch law). Foreign words are part of spelling legislation in Flanders, not in the Nether­lands. As long as there is no common opinion about the difference between hybrid and foreign words in Dutch it is not clear whether or not this really is a difference. The use of both terms in the Flemish law suggests a difference, which could be defined by linguistic criteria (Van Heuven et al. 1994 and Neijt and Zuidema 1994), but remarks by the Nederlandse Taalunie’s most influential advisory board suggest that the distinction needs to be re-evaluated (Spellingbesluit 1994:124-126).

When two countries use the same official language and they cooperate so closely in matters of spelling, an explanation needs to be found for the differences between the spelling acts. Here, I can only guess. It might be that earlier differences in legislation made it impossible to use similar formulation in both countries. It may have been too expensive or time consuming to formulate completely new spelling acts. Alternatively, it might be that the final trajectory of legislation passed without mutual consultation or it might be that the lawyers in charge did not consult linguists and simply made mistakes in their interpretation of what has been agreed by the Committee of Ministers of the Nederlandse Taalunie.

Final remarks

A spelling standard is useful in any large organization. It is a prerequisite for lang­uage used by governments and especially for language used in court, where ambi­guities introduced by spelling variation must be prevented. However, legislation in the Netherlands and Flanders has led to a situation characterized by a subtle and undesirable difference between legal and official language use. Some aspects of orthography are mentioned in the law, others are not, but they are published in the spelling guide signed by the Committee of Ministers of the Nederlandse Taalunie and are therefore official. For language users and linguists, the distinction is a nuisance. If spelling legislation is necessary, the law should not mention details of spelling. Rather, it should refer to an official spelling standard which is published separately and which can be corrected if necessary.

Standards need maintenance. For the maintenance of spelling standards, a permanent Advisory Committee should be set up, including experts on issues concerning orthography and with the task to form a broadly accepted common opinion without the difficulty of preparing an actual spelling reform. An Académie Néerlandaise in imitation of the Académie Française? General issues need to be investigated before the decision to reform them can be made, since for a large number of questions, the answer is not obvious. For instance: should words be dutchified or not? Variant spellings or not, and if so, for which spelling aspects? Rule-based or lexical changes? Spelling reforms once per century or in successive small steps, with each new edition of the spelling guide? New guidelines for better education or reform of the system of verb spelling? It will be necessary to form a group of experts that is willing to specialize in this field. Such a group of experts could have guided the activities of an actual spelling reform committee and could have prevented the spelling errors introduced by the most recent reforms in Flanders and the Netherlands.

I purposely presented an equal number of pros and cons of spelling legislation in the introduction. The history of Dutch orthography explains why spelling has been codified and this legislation has been useful in effectuating the latest spelling reform across the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. For those who accept that spelling standards may change, small steps of change will be preferable. This is what happened in successive editions of the spelling guide before and after legislation. The distinction between legal and official parts of the guide is an artefact of the latest spelling reforms that needs to be abandoned as soon as possible.

Legislation or not? An act becomes superfluous when an adequate permanent spelling board with members from both countries is invested with the authority. Such a board could have prevented (a) hasty and capricious decisions by individual members of government, it would provide (b) a stable orthography for a lengthy period of time, because issues need to be investigated first and common opinions should be formed amongst linguists, educational specialists and language users and (c) the selection of members from both countries would guarantee collaboration across the national boundaries. This committee could organize public debate, but would prevent (d) political debate and it could follow the natural course of develop­ment (e) with small steps of successive changes. But of course, (f) the formation of a permanent spelling board would be as expensive as spelling legislation. However, the benefit would be that orthographic reforms would be guided by considerations other than those of politics and that linguists would be capable of understanding and explaining official spelling rules.


I would like to express my gratitude towards my friends and colleagues Marie-Louise Beerling, Renée Nauta, Martin Neef, Anneke Nunn and Joyce van Tuyl for comments on an earlier version of this paper. Of course, none of the people ment­ioned above bear any responsibility for errors and shortcomings.

I was a member of the 1990-1993 spelling committee (the ‘commissie Geerts’) and co-editor of this committee’s report (Neijt and Zuidema 1994).


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