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

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5. Conclusion

By way of conclusion, we will compare the 2005 reform to its predecessor of 1995. The evaluation of the changes in the previous section can be summarized as follows:
problems solved in 2005

  1. update of dictionary, and correction of errors and inconsistencies introduced in 1995;

  2. uniformity among dictionaries (no longer Green Spelling versus Red Spelling);

  3. demise of the fauna-flora rule, which violated the Morphological Principle;

  4. wider coverage through rules for more aspects of spelling.

problems created in 2005

  1. new errors and inconsistencies arise;

  2. a new alternative spelling was provoked (Green Spelling versus White Spelling);

  3. new violations crept in of the Morphological Principle and the Phonological Principle;

  4. readability of some forms deteriorated (Tweede Kamerlid, dinertje, pa-sja);

  5. complexity increased (especially concerning the use of capitals, but also through subspecification of the Etymological Principle for the languages French and English)

  6. flexibility decreased, especially in the use of capitals, hyphens and spaces.

When we compare this overview to the overview of problems solved and created by the 1995 reform (cf. section 2 above), the similarities and differences between both reforms are immediately apparent. In both cases problems were solved, but at the same time new problems were created. Neither reform addresses the main spelling problems of hybrid words and verb spelling, nor the intricate issue of handling the principles.

Notice that in 1995 major spelling issues were taken on, which affected many words. In contrast, the reforms of 2005 were much ado about fairly little, since despite all the hubbub only minor issues were addressed. From a professional, purely linguistic point of view, they were also certainly less fortuitous, and the former more fundamental approach to spelling in terms of principles is a clear loss of stability.

As regards the general public, many among them found the recent reforms less acceptable, partly because they came only ten years after the major overhaul of 1995, partly because they expected no real changes – they trusted the Taalunie, which had insisted time and time again that there would be no changes. On the other hand, repeated reforms may wear out resisters. If so, it comes with a serious drawback. For it implies that people are becoming indifferent about spelling and no longer bother to learn the new rules.

In the final analysis, neither reform attained its goal of establishing the idea that Dutch orthography improved. Both failed to adequately explain new rules and the reason why changes were needed. Issues that could have been easily explained, such as the much simpler rules for the linking elements, were not adequately explained in the guidelines of 1995, nor in those of 2005. Too many exceptions were introduced in 1995, and too many difficult new rules were introduced in 2005.

At the root of this less than desirable result lies the lack of direction that characterizes both reforms. Therefore, it is unpredictable what will happen when another decade has passed and the next planned reform comes along. In order to prevent the creation of further problems, we would recommend the following:

  1. Formulate guidelines for reforms in general, conducive to attaining ever greater orthographic stability.

  2. Take care of the foundation of these guidelines. Formulate an update of Te Winkel 1865. Provide theoretical motivation. If at all possible, provide arguments for the choices made from research on writing, reading and learning to read and write. The merits of one way of writing as compared to another can be assessed by means of simple psycholinguistic experiments. Let’s use those tools to our advantage.

  3. Concepts used in spelling rules should be based on proper linguistic definitions.

  4. Distinguish core and periphery. The core of the spelling system should be regulated by a dictionary and fixed rules. More marginal matters call for general guidelines and flexibility. Let us not forget that learning to write Dutch includes learning to use the language creatively.34

Sadly, we cannot but arrive at the same conclusion as before, in 1997: Dutch spelling has gained nothing in stability from the latest reform.

We like to express our gratitude to those who read the concept version of this paper, and provided comments: Frans Daems, Johan De Schryver, John Gledhill, Rik Schutz, Rik Smits, Bob van Tiel, and Gerard Verhoeven. As usual, remaining errors are our own.


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1 Here, only the years are mentioned in which new versions of the official spelling dictionary appeared after the seventh edition by De Vries &Te Winkel in 1914. New spelling guidelines without updates of the dictionary were issued by the Dutch government in 1903, 1930, 1934, 1936, 1947 and 1955 (Schaap 1974:64-81). One may consider these changed guidelines as precursors of the reform in 1954, and one may consider the reforms of 1995 and 2005 marginal, compared to 1947 reform (Verhoeven 2007:23-24). As far as we know, the Belgian government issued new guidelines only in 1864 and in 1946. On spelling reform in general, cf. Neijt 2005.

Notice that both authors are from the Netherlands. We aim to provide a relevant sketch of Dutch orthography that crosses the Dutch borders, though.

2 The linking element e(n) in compounds originates from stem allomorphy (zon – zonne ‘sun’) and case endings (genitive –en in mannenstem ‘male voice’). At present this element is most often identified with the plural ending of nouns, cf. Schreuder, Neijt, van der Weide & Baayen (1998) and Neijt, Schreuder & Baayen (2004) or rhythm (Neijt & Schreuder 2007). There is a broad analogy effect in the use of linking elements, cf. Krott (2001) and Krott, Schreuder & Baayen (2001).

3 In 39 words the reformers selected the allowed variant. For instance: k → c in insekt → insect ‘insect’, because dialect, effect and object are written with a c, and c → k in catheter → katheter ‘drain’, because of katheder ‘lectern’. See Neijt & Nunn 1997:18.

4 Here are some facts about the scope of the reforms. In 1995 the spelling was changed of approximately 1.2% of the words in the dictionary, whereas the reforms of 2005 affected 2.6% (Permentier 2005:195). On the other hand, in 1995 more frequently used words changed than in 2005, so that the earlier reforms had a stronger impact on everyday texts. In 1995, the reforms remained limited to just four areas: hybrid words, linking elements, diacritics and derivations of geographical names. Those of 2005 had a much wider scope, affecting not only hybrid words, linking elements and diacritics once again, but also hyphenation, diminutives, lower and upper case, inflection of loan verbs, and the use of spaces. The number of spelling rules increased too in 2005. De Schryver (2005) distinguishes approximately 60 new rules, De Schrijver & Neijt (2005:323-333) mention 90 rules either added or slightly changed. The former edition of this book (2002) contained 259 spelling rules, the latest version (2005) has no fewer than 290.

5 Arguments supporting this conclusion will be given in the remainder of this article. Our evaluation concurs with De Glopper’s (Interview with C.M. de Glopper 2005), who claims that the spelling reform committee of the Taalunie in 1995 did “sloppy work, unsystematic and insufficiently thorough. […] In schools, a lot of time and attention is devoted to spelling. But there is great uncertainty about spelling among both teachers and pupils. This is paid insufficient heed to by those who primarily wish to smooth out every last wrinkle in the rule system. [..] Should another committee appear ten years from now to overhaul the spelling, it would be well advised to get into the schools to investigate the learnability of the new rules.” (“De overheidscommissie die de spellingherziening van ’95 heeft gedaan, heeft half werk geleverd; onsystematisch en weinig doortastend. [...] In het onderwijs wordt aan spelling veel tijd en aandacht besteed. Maar de onzekerheid over spelling is bij leerkrachten en leerlingen erg groot. Daar is onvoldoende aandacht voor bij de mensen die het regelsysteem vooral sluitend willen krijgen. [...] Als er over tien jaar weer een commissie komt die de spelling op de schop neemt, dan zou die commissie onderzoek moeten doen op scholen naar de leerbaarheid van de nieuwe regels.”)

6 The Spelling Platform received inter alia the Technische Handleiding, an unpublished document of the Werkgroep Spelling (February 10, 2005) that has been approved later by the Committee of Ministers of the Taalunie (April 25, 2005). This document underlies the guidelines of the spelling dictionary (October 15, 2005). It is, however, not widely available. Whenever possible, we therefore refer to the guidelines instead, which have equally been approved by the Committee of Ministers.

7 Some of the alternative spellings are glij-ijzer ‘skate’ instead of glijijzer, and 10-eurobiljet ‘10 euro bill’ instead of 10 eurobiljet. Sometimes spelling alternatives are introduced: appèl - appel ‘appeal’, fondu(e)fondue, ideeë(n)loos ‘without ideas’, panne(n)koek ‘pancake’, cadeau - kado ‘gift’.

8 A list of 34 compounds is given. In 1995, a set of 87 forms was available (see Uitleg Extra 1996:11). We did not check all 87 forms, but it seems that the spelling of this set did not change. It is not clear why a smaller set of exceptional examples has been selected for publication. Do children need to learn the smaller set by heart? And is therefore a more realistic number of 34 items selected?

9A simpler set of rules with the same output is available, cf. Spellingrapport 1994:72-73. There is also a rule of thumb (p. 75) based on input forms only: “When the first word of the compound does not end in an by itself, and if this word is a noun, one should write <en>. In all other cases one should write .” An example of the first case is kip kippensoep ‘chicken – chicken soup’. An example of the latter case is groente groentesoep ‘greenery, greenery soup’. The official rule and this rule of thumb share their output, since the plural of words not ending in e usually is –en, whereas the plural form of words ending in e usually is –s.

10 The issue can be illustrated as well with kattebelletje ‘scribbled note’ and kattenbelletje ‘bell for a cat’. These two forms were introduced by the Werkgroep Spelling in 1995. The first one is derived from Italian carta bello, adapted as a form of folk etymology in Dutch. Users of Dutch may not be aware of the different origin of these words, and again, one may legitimately ask the question whether or not one should distinguish in spelling what is not distinguished in spoken language. Language use constantly vacillates between the literal and the figurative. A general approach is needed for such kinds of creative language use.

11 These generalisations lead to a smaller set of exceptions to the rules. For instance, [i] is always written as

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