The recent history of Dutch orthography (II). Problems solved and created by the 2005 reform



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The recent history of Dutch orthography (II).

Problems solved and created by the 2005 reform



Anneke Nunn and Anneke Neijt

Dutch Department, Radboud University, Nijmegen


  1. Introduction

In many languages, spelling changes are gradual and go unnoticed. Dutch spelling, however, is known amongst linguists for its recurrent reforms which took place in 1954, 1995 and 2005.1 It is no surprise, therefore, to find that Rogers (2005:197) in his textbook on writing systems mentions Dutch as one of the few languages with a history of writing reforms. He claims that the reforms have been successful. Have they indeed?

From a sociological or political point of view, one may agree with Rogers, and conclude that the Dutch spelling reforms are a success because they were implemented, and because many writers try to follow the new rules. From the perspective of the Dutch language users, however, there are other aspects of the reform to be taken into account. Some people are against all kinds of spelling reform. They consider spelling reforms useless, a loss of culture or a sign of weakness of the language and its users. Others consider that any changes should simplify the spelling or solve orthographic problems. These may accept changes when they are explicit, adequately formulated, easy to learn and supported by dictionaries and spelling checkers. Therefore, language users may not share Rogers’ positive conclusions.

In Neijt & Nunn (1997) we evaluated the spelling reform of 1995 in of view of the orthographic principles that underlie the relation between spoken and written language in Dutch. We concluded that while some problems had been solved, new ones had been created as well. Our closing remark concerned spelling stability over time (p. 23):

With so much opposition to the new spelling, it seems unlikely that it will remain the standard for long, which implies that Dutch spelling has gained nothing in stability as a result of this latest reform.

Indeed, it took scarcely a decade for further revisions to be put in place. This article deals with these latest reforms, which became effective in 2005. It does so in largely the same way we tackled the reforms of 1995 in our 1997 publication, to which it is the sequel.

Section 2 below deals with the background of the reform of 2005 (which became effective in 2006) followed by a short description of the way the spelling reform has been implemented and how it has been received. Section 3 focuses on which aspects of spelling have been changed. In section 4 we evaluate those changes in the light of the spelling principles we identified in the 1997 prequel, and also judge them from the perspective of writers and readers. And just like a decade ago, we will conclude that certain changes solve orthographic difficulties, whereas others cannot be seen as improvements, and a few even create new problems.

  1. Background of the 2005 spelling reform


First we present the background of the reform of 2005, followed by a short description of the way the spelling reform has been implemented and how it has been received.
    1. Dutch recent orthographic history


To appreciate the current spelling reform, some familiarity with the orthographic history of Dutch is mandatory. For a comprehensive account, see Schaap 1974, Geerts et al. 1977, Booij et al. 1978 and Neijt & Nunn 1997. For our present purposes, however, the following rough outline will do.

The spelling rules of Dutch orthography designed by Te Winkel (1863, 1865) became the standard orthography in Belgium in 1864 and in the Netherlands in 1883. In 1954, the spelling was simplified in some respects, as a consequence of the spelling laws that have been passed in 1946 and 1947. Unpronounced ch was done away with (vleesch vlees ‘meat’), the number of vowel digraphs in open syllables was minimized (zoozo ‘thus’, weeken weken ‘weeks’ or ‘to soften’), and the writing of the often unpronounced case endings became optional (which quickly resulted in the complete disappearance of those case endings except in fixed expressions). These changes were quite generally welcomed. This was not the case with the slightly changed rules for the linking element e(n) in compounds, which were based on a semantic distinction.2 Until 1954, one must write en for a plural as in ganzenhoeder ‘goose-herd, herd of geese’, and e for a singular as in ganzepen ‘quill pen, quill of one goose feather’. Words that carried decidedly two meanings received two forms, cf. ossevlees and ossenvlees ‘meat of an ox, meat of oxen, beef’. The choice depends on the context. From 1954 onwards, one must write en only if the linking element necessarily denotes a plural, as in ganzenhoeder but not in ossevlees. This slight change of formulation reduced the number of variants, but the rules remained hard to apply and also led to variation in use, cf. Hagers 1991:74, Van Sterkenburg 1991:58, 68.

In similar vein, the new strategy for writing bastaardwoorden (‘hybrid words’, words of a foreign origin adapted to the Dutch pronunciation) was much frowned upon. The reformers had proved incapable of coming to terms with inconsistently spelled sets of words: sets within which some hybrids had already (partly) adapted to the Dutch spelling rules, whereas others had kept their original spelling. With respect to the graphemes ph and rh a clear decision in favour of dutchification was agreed upon, e.g. photofoto ‘photograph’, and rhododendronrododendron. In other cases, however, the reformers had been unable to agree whether or not to dutchify, so that spelling doublets were introduced. These consisted of pairs of ‘preferred’ and ‘allowed’ forms. Unfortunately, the choices between preferred and allowed had been made largely arbitrarily and were therefore hard to learn and remember. For instance, accorderen ‘to agree by signature’, akkoord ‘agreed, agreement’, apotheek ‘pharmacy’, and vakantie ‘holiday’ were all preferred, with akkorderen, accoord, apoteek and vacantie their allowed counterparts. Furthermore, differences arose between Dutch and Flemish writers as the former tended to use etymological spellings whereas Flemish writers preferred dutchified spellings (cf. Heyne & Hofmans 1988).

From 1954 until the spelling reform of 1995, the following areas of spelling were often, and sometimes hotly debated, but remained unchanged: verbal inflection (especially homophones, such as besteed ‘to spend, first person singular or past participle’ and besteedt ‘spend, third person singular’), etymology in native words (noch ‘neither’ and nog ‘still’, or weids ‘stately, wide’ and wijd ‘wide’), linking elements in compounds (bessesap ‘berry juice’ and bessenjenever ‘berry genever’), apostrophes (menu’s, menuutje ‘menu, plural and diminutive’), hyphens and diereses (radio-omroep ‘radio broadcast’ and zeeëend ‘sea duck’). Several official advisory reports were written and subsequently rejected.

In 1980, the Netherlands and Belgium signed a treaty to cooperate in matters of language and spelling. This cooperation was called the Nederlandse Taalunie ‘Dutch Language Union’, often simply called Taalunie. The Taalunie began preparing for another spelling reform. In 1995, their work came to fruition through the publication of a new official spelling dictionary, replacing the one introduced in 1954.

This time, the spelling of hybrid words and of linking e(n) in compounds changed drastically. The spelling doublets were abolished by choosing the preferred spelling in almost all cases3. There were new rules for the spelling of linking e(n) which referred to plural form instead of plural meaning. These rules were simpler and resulted in a more constant spelling of words in compounds, though many exceptions were retained – details follow below. In addition, there were minor changes affecting capitals in adjectives derived from compound geographical names, and the distribution of diereses and hyphens.

This reform was successful in unifying the spelling of Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, and the Netherlands. Most people adopted the majority of the new spelling rules, which is remarkable, since the changes of 1995 were drastic4. However, the conclusion of our evaluation of the 1995 spelling reform was that we did not expect this spelling to remain the standard for a long time, for the following reasons (Neijt & Nunn 1997:18-23).


  1. The spelling reform did not address all spelling issues under discussion; the spelling of verbs and hybrid words was not simplified.

  2. The spelling reform introduced new problems with respect to the linking schwa in compounds: a counterintuitive new rule was introduced with many exceptions and with sub-rules based on extralinguistic knowledge such as the so-called fauna-flora rule (vossebes ‘fox berry’, but generally vossenjacht ‘fox hunt’).

  3. Inconsistencies in the spelling of loan words remained, some new inconsistencies were introduced, and no guidelines were provided for the spelling of future loan words. Guidelines are crucial to be able to write inflected forms of these new words and of words that entered the language long ago, but tend not to be dutchified. An example is bridge, a popular game in the Netherlands. To play bridge may be phrased as een bridgeje leggen. Or should one write bridge’je or bridgje?

  4. The official spelling dictionary contained many errors and ambiguously worded rules.

  5. The most authoritative and comprehensive Dutch dictionary, Van Dale’s Groot woordenboek der Nederlandse taal [Van Dale 1995] decided to use slightly different and more consistent rules. These led to different spellings for approximately a thousand words (a smattering of loan words and a large number of compounds with linking schwa). The Van Dale spelling was also used by other dictionary publishers. Together, they published an alternative spelling dictionary (Neijt & Reinsma 1995). This dictionary had a red cover, in order to distinguish it from the standard spelling dictionary with a green cover, known by the nickname het Groene Boekje ‘the Green Booklet’. For this reason we will refer to the spelling variants as ‘Green’ or ‘Red’. The Green Booklet is henceforth abbreviated as GB; incidentally, the nickname Het Groene Boekje became the title on the cover of the 2005 edition.

The effects of the 1995 spelling reform can thus be summarized as follows:




problems solved in 1995

problems created in 1995

1. The notoriously deficient and outdated spelling dictionary of 1954 was finally updated.

1. Many errors and inconsistencies found their way into the new spelling dictionary, ultimately giving rise to two divergent spelling dictionaries.

2. The rules for spelling linking e(n) in compounds were fundamentally changed, resulting in a constant spelling of most words in compounds.

2. A great many exceptions concerning the spelling of linking e(n) were introduced, plus a minor rule involving extralinguistic knowledge.

3. Nearly all variant spellings of hybrids were abolished. The conventionally divergent spellings in Flanders and the Netherlands converged.

3. By arbitrarily choosing among former variants, many inconsistencies in the spelling of related words were introduced.

The situation of two spelling standards, Green and Red, was ill-favoured by all parties. Therefore, deputies of Van Dale’s dictionaries and the Taalunie solved this situation by mutual agreement. Lists of errata were added to Van Dale’s lexicon and to the spelling dictionary issued by the Taalunie. This removed most differences. The set of flora-fauna-compounds, though, remained as a systematic difference between the two spellings.

The spelling law of 1995 stated that an update of the spelling dictionary would appear every ten years (see for details on the legal implementation of this reform Neijt 2002b). The update of 2005 was used to eradicate the errors introduced in 1995 and the differences between the Green and Red spellings.

A second, less straightforward goal of the update was to make the existing rules more explicit and extend their coverage, without changing their outcome, the spelling. To pull off this rather complex feat the Taalunie installed a spelling task force (Werkgroep Spelling), in which linguists from both Flanders and the Netherlands participated. This task force designed the reforms described in section 3. Quite understandably, it turned out to be impossible to design new rules without changing their outcome. The changes have been called adaptations to common practice in later publications by members of the spelling task force (Verkuyl 2005, Werkgroep 2006, Daems 2006:2; change is Du. verandering, adaptation is Du. aanpassing).

True to its brief, the Werkgroep effected changes on minor issues and small sets of words only. One might therefore consider the spelling reform of 2006 a non-reform, as did the Taalunie in the introduction of the new dictionary, though an earlier official statement mentioned 2.6% changes in the main entries of the dictionary, cf. Persverklaring 2005:2. This means that 2.600 entries changed. Its very real effect, however, was that language users lost control over the system, because the reform lacked a principled approach of the relation between the language and its writing system.5 As a consequence, just like what happened ten years before, the Werkgroep ended up introducing new inconsistencies while removing existing ones.

    1. Implementation of the spelling reform


The purely linguistic task of defining adequate spelling rules is not an easy one, but it is even more daunting for governments to implement a new spelling. All over the world proposals for spelling reforms by official spelling committees fall by the roadside more often than not. So how did the Taalunie succeed in 2005? Some details of the operation are worth mentioning: the Spelling Platform, the Taalunie Keurmerk Spelling, the way publicity was handled, and the new spelling law in the Netherlands.

Well in advance of the intended reform, the Taalunie created a Spelling Platform in which they asked lexicographers and editors for advice about how to implement the new spelling. It would be profitable for all parties if new editions of dictionaries and textbooks would be available shortly after the publication of the new Taalunie spelling. To enable this platform to work, its members received strictly confidential information about the spelling reform before it was approved by the highest body of the Taalunie, the Committee of Ministers.6

Furthermore, the Taalunie created a Keurmerk Spelling, a brand indicating that a dictionary, spelling checker or spelling manual complies with the Taalunie spelling. Publishers want this brand, because it may sway schools and the civil service towards adopting their publications. This also enhanced compliance to the new spelling rules.

Publicity has been handled with utmost care. Shortly after the spelling reform in 1995, an extensive ministerial note added to the new spelling law contemplated the publication of a new version of the spelling dictionary in 2005. This note stated also that the next version would not contain new rules. Even though the Taalunie proposed real changes, these have consistently been called adjustments of issues that often led to spelling questions. In their preface of the spelling dictionary, the Committee of Ministers explicitly states that the orthography has not been changed, and that the list of items has merely been actualized and technically improved (GB 2005:14):

The spelling rules have not been changed in 2005. But they were reformulated wherever the rules were obscure in practice, and in particular when there were real or apparent contradictions between the rules and their application in the dictionary. In addition, some issues that were not treated exhaustively in former editions are now described more clearly (“De spellingregels zijn voor de uitgave van 2005 niet veranderd. Maar waar uit de praktijk is gebleken dat er onduidelijkheden bestonden, en zeker waar er schijnbare of echte tegenspraak bestond tussen de regels en de toepassing ervan in de Woordenlijst, werden ze anders verwoord. Daarbij worden enkele kwesties die in vorige edities niet uitputtend waren behandeld, nu duidelijker beschreven.”)

However, those who read on discover that the Committee ultimately admits to making at least one real change: the removal of the fauna-flora rule that was an exception to the rules for linking elements in compounds. In fact, a whole host of minor changes was introduced, and the guidelines had been thoroughly reformulated too. This surprised and angered many, convincing them that the spelling dictionary of 2005 surreptitiously introduced new guidelines, not only new formulations.

Much ado ensued, resulting in a new threat to the spelling uniformity that had been gained by the reforms of 1995 and 2005. Protesters designed and published an alternative, so called ‘White’ spelling (Genootschap Onze Taal & Daniëls 2006), about which we will say more in section 2.3. Some time afterwards, in May 2006, the Taalunie published a brochure in which it admitted to changes in three areas: linking elements in compounds, the use of spaces and hyphens, and the use of capital letters.

The spelling reform of 1995 had been given legal status by a spelling law that mentioned both a spelling dictionary and the spelling rules approved by the Committee of Ministers. At the same time the old spelling law of 1947 remained intact. (See for details Neijt 2002a, 2002b). The reform of 2005, however, involved replacing all former Dutch spelling laws by a new one that simply defines the situations in which use of the Taalunie spelling is required. The literal text of this new Dutch spelling law is as follows (Art. 2.1):

The spelling of Dutch decided upon by the Committee of Ministers, will be used at public bodies, at institutes of education which receive public funding, and in exams for which legal directions have been established. (“De schrijfwijze van de Nederlandse taal waartoe het Comité van Ministers beslist, wordt gevolgd bij overheidsorganen, bij de uit de openbare kas bekostigde onderwijsinstellingen, alsook bij de examens waarvoor wettelijke voorschriften zijn vastgesteld.”)

Presumably, similar laws will be issued in Flanders and Surinam (though at the moment of writing this text, we could not find any). The obvious advantage of this law is that it remains unchanged when a new spelling is decided upon by the ministers of the Taalunie. Legal implementation of the orthography of Dutch has been simplified enormously. A drawback of this simplification is that democratic control is minimal: no other means are available than direct appeal to the Committee of Ministers or the Interparliamentary Committee, that needs to approve of the decisions by the ministers. Neither government nor parliament play a role.


    1. Reception of the spelling reform


As soon as the new reforms were made public, there was fierce opposition in the Netherlands. A counter movement was launched by a number of Dutch newspapers and the society Onze Taal (‘Our Language’), a body consisting of some 35.000 members with a lively interest in the Dutch language, and their own monthly journal. Starting in 1998, Onze Taal had been publishing its own spelling dictionary, called Spellingwijzer Onze Taal ‘spelling manual Onze Taal’ and generally known as the Witte Boekje ‘White Booklet’. In 2006, a revised edition of this Witte Boekje was published, after consultation of linguists and laymen via a questionnaire on the web. The White Spelling deviates from the Green Spelling “when there is a better alternative”7. There are some 900 deviations from the official spelling (Genootschap Onze Taal & Daniëls 2006:43).

The White Spelling was adopted by many language users and publishers in the Netherlands, including some national newspapers, much to the chagrin of most teachers. Representatives of Dutch and Flemish educational associations published a newspaper article explaining that spelling variation in classrooms is counterproductive, cf. Rooijackers et al. 2005, Rymenans 2006.

Assessing the long term impact of the alternative White Spelling is difficult. Given that everyone in the civil service must follow the new spelling norms for all official business, it seems unlikely that alternative spellings will prevail. But what will happen in society at large? Much depends on the spelling checkers provided. The requirement that schools teach the Green Spelling, guarantees the development and availability of Green Spelling checkers. Will alternative spelling checkers be readily available to everyone?

Presumably, all will be settled within a few years, as happened before with the variation introduced by Van Dale. The differences between Green and White Spelling are small, as were the differences between Green and Red Spelling of 1995. The alternative spelling used by Onze Taal and the newspapers may go unnoticed and presumably will not really threaten orthographic unity. It is difficult to predict what will happen in 2015, when the Taalunie will publish their third version of the Green Booklet. Presumably the Taalunie will adopt a number of the alternative White Spelling forms, as they did before with Red Spelling forms.




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