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

Evaluation of the spelling reform

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Evaluation of the spelling reform

We will now evaluate the effects of the reform in view of the spelling system and from the perspective of Dutch readers and writers. Are the basic characteristics of the Dutch spelling system still in sync with the principles that constitute the foundation of Dutch orthography according to De Vries and Te Winkel? Has the spelling been simplified? And has the spelling reform provided the full coverage and explicitness it set out to achieve?

4.1 The spelling principles

A natural starting point for the evaluation are the basic spelling principles of Dutch. These were first formulated by Te Winkel (1863, 1865) and adapted in the spelling dictionary De Vries & Te Winkel (1866). These principles are generally known as the Phonological Principle, the Morphological Principle, and the Etymological Principle. From 1866 until 2005, these formed the basis for modern Dutch spelling, notwithstanding the amendments of 1947, 1954 and 1995 (Nunn 1998:3). Even though the spelling law of 2005 is no longer formally based on the principles by De Vries and Te Winkel, the new dictionary contains statements which may be considered to be instances of them.25

The first and most prominent principle is the Phonological Principle. Its old and new formulations are as follows:

The Phonological Principle

  • Represent by means of letters all the constituent parts that are heard in a word when it is pronounced correctly by civilized people. Choose the closest match of letters in case the correct pronunciation cannot be expressed. (Te Winkel 1865:43)

  • A word is spelled with the sounds heard in the standard pronunciation of that word. (GB 2005:16)

The formulation of this principle has been changed between 1865 and 2005, but not its meaning. Also, it continues to be obeyed in almost all cases. A few changes, however, result in written words that do no longer accurately describe the pronunciation.

Diminutives of French loan words in a silent t are a case in point. The former spelling contained colbert – colbertje –, depot – depootje – de.pot.tje, and biscuit – biscuittje – bis.cuit.tje. The basic words are pronounced without the final t. The diminutive forms are in accordance with the pronunciation, but one of the hyphenated forms,, wrongly suggests that the t is not pronounced. The new spelling changed depootje → depotje and biscuittje → biscuitje, with the hyphenated forms and These also suggest that the third syllable is pronounced without a t. Moreover, the new form depotje suggests that [ɔ] is pronounced rather than [o].

Secondly, in some cases the spelling either corresponds to one of the possible pronunciations only, or suggests an incorrect pronunciation altogether. For instance, the word affiche ‘poster’ is pronounced with a final schwa, cf. Heemskerk & Zonneveld (2000). The diminutive form is therefore predicted to be affichetje, just like dame – dametje ‘lady little lady’. However, only the diminutive afficheje is listed in the dictionary, which implies that affiche is pronounced with a silent vowel. If possible at all, afficheje should have been given next to the more normal form affichetje. Another example of this kind is formed by the pair girafje and giraffetje ‘little giraffe’. These spellings show that two variants exist, giraf and giraffe. One would therefore also expect two possible spellings for compounds with this word. However, both in 1995 and in 2005 only one variant has been chosen, and without further comments, the spelling changed from giraffehals into giraffenhals ‘giraffe neck’. This means that compounds are assumed to be formed from the variant giraf only (which has a plural form –en, not –s), and not from the variant giraffe which has two plural forms, giraffen and giraffes.

The second principle is called the Morphological Principle. We present both the original version of 1865 and the new, simplified one, which captures the essence of the principle, but with omissions:

The Morphological Principle

  • Write a word with the same letters as far as pronunciation and flexion allow. Assign to a derived word’s base and its constituent parts as far as pronunciation allows the form that is used outside the derivation or the compound word. But notice that this principle holds only for instances in which the meaning of the form used in isolation is similar to the meaning of the constituent parts of a complex word. (Te Winkel 1865:19)

  • Preferably use the same spelling for a word or a part of a word. (GB 2005:16)

The first omission concerns meaning. The old formulation strives for congruent spelling of linguistic constituents with similar meanings only, hence no ds in Duits ‘German’ and diets ‘duidelijk’ which are morphologically related to duid and died, older words for ‘folk’ (Te Winkel 1865:20).

The second omission arises from doing away with the caveat “as far as pronunciation allows”. With it, it was clear that the Phonological Principle was paramount, the Morphological Principle unambiguously subordinate. Without it, there is no clear hierarchy.

In our 1997 overview we used the name Readability Principle for this part of the former Morphological Principle, because in effect it restricts congruency to those cases that are in accordance with the spelling-speech relation. By using this name we wanted to emphasize the importance of the relation between letters and sounds for the reader. Even though De Vries and Te Winkel did not present it as a principle, they took care of Readability. The new formulation of the Morphological Principle and the examples discussed above (diminutives such as depotje and afficheje, and hyphenated forms of diminutives) show that Readability is no longer considered an essential aspect of orthography.

Some aspects of the new spelling prescriptions make the spelling of morphemes more constant than it was. We already discussed the new more regular spelling of paardenbloem. The deletion of the fauna-flora rule results in a uniform spelling for all compounds with [pa:rdə(n)] as first element. Minor inconsistencies of the 1995 spelling have been solved such as dronkenlap ‘drunkard’ ↔ dronkeman ‘drunkard’ (now dronkenman), and there is an endeavour to solve inconsistencies of the c/k type, cf. fabrikaat → fabricaat. These efforts remain inconsistent, however, as long as no general strategy is developed.

Similarly, the abolishment of the dutchified spelling of diminutives (diner, dineetjedinertje) keeps the spelling more in line with the Morphological Principle. But observe that such forms give a less accurate representation of the pronunciation, as does the base word diner. Moreover, this new treatment of diminutives is in conflict with the way other forms are dealt with, such as café – cafeetje. Consequently, the rule of thumb “dutchify the syllable before the diminutive suffix” is no longer reliable, and language users need to follow a word-by-word strategy.

One of the issues raised by the 2005 reform is the domain of the Morphological Principle: does it also restrict the use of capitalization? The answer seems to be negative, given that there are many instances in which a proper name embedded in a derived word is written with small letters. There are so many exceptions however, that one may doubt the validity of this rule. The inconsistency of the present guidelines is illustrated in (12). Capital letters carry over to compounds and derivations in geographical names. In the case of personal names they carry over to compounds only, and they do not carry over at all in the case of holidays:

base word





‘The Netherlands’


‘Dutch studies’


‘north of the Netherlands’


‘Dutch (adj.)’







‘Rembrandt Year’





‘New Year's Day’


‘New Year's Day’


‘New Year-ish’

In geographical names the Morphological Principle is best obeyed. However, even here counterexamples exist (or perhaps these are mistakes): Amerikaans, anti-Amerikaans, but antiamerikanisme, and amerikaniseren.

The final principle is the Etymological Principle. Its old and new formulation are as follows:
The Etymological Principle

  • The choice between competing spellings for one sound is determined by the derivation or by the older form that was used when pronunciations that are now identical could still be distinguished clearly. (Te Winkel 1865:22)

  • The spelling of a word is determined sometimes by its origin. (GB 2005:17)

Te Winkel’s formulation refers to homophones such as hei ‘heather’ and hij ‘he’, that are distinguished on the basis of older stages of Dutch. In actual fact, he used the principle in the wider sense intended by the new Green Booklet, to include the spelling of ill-fitting loan words, but he did not degrade it into the meaningless ‘sometimes’ of today’s formula. Te Winkel meant to dutchify those loan words that were used by lay men, i.e. words that are needed to describe everyday life. Hence, insekt is written with k whereas object is not.

The new spelling guidelines offer a mixed approach, which is most obvious in the spelling of the loan verbs cruisen and leasen. On the one hand their spelling is made more foreign by choosing the English stem with a silent e. On the other hand by allowing two variants with d or t (leasete or leasede and cruisede or cruisete) the spelling reflects the adaptation of the pronunciation to the Dutch linguistic system. Similarly, sexappeal (former spelling sex-appeal) is dutchified in that it is written as one word, but the x is not replaced by ks as in words such as seks and seksualiteit. Such inconsistencies stem from the lack of an overall view on the spelling of loan words.

The status of the new Donor Principle is unclear. It seems that this principle overlaps with the Etymological Principle. More information about how to apply the principles is needed.

4.2. Evaluation from the perspective of writers

Spelling changes are always inconvenient from the perspective of readers and writers because they have to get used to new representations in their mental lexicon (Reitsma 1983, Verhoeven 1985 and Frisson & Sandra 2002). Readers are less efficient in recognizing unknown forms (e.g. homophones such as teid instead of tijd ‘time’, Bosman & Van Hell 2002). The inconvenience may be compensated for by a general simplification of the spelling or by spelling problems being resolved. In the case of the 2005 reform, the changes in the spelling rules aimed at taking away real or apparent contradictions between the rules and their application in the dictionary and at providing guidelines where they were missing. This would be an improvement for writers. So was the reform successful in this respect?

First let us assess whether the spelling has become more consistent and whether the rules have become simpler for the writer. According to Daems (2006:2) consistency means that words are spelled uniformly in the sense of the Morphological Principle and written the same way when formed in a similar manner. He calls this analogy (Daems 2006:4), which is not the same as the Principle of Analogy that Te Winkel once defined for Dutch orthography. Te Winkel invoked analogy for ‘zero’ morphology, morphemes which are not pronounced, such as t in hij wordt ‘he becomes’ and s in stationsstraat ‘station street’. The dt is written in verbs with stems in d where the ending t is pronounced and written in verbs not ending in –d (e.g. hij hoort from the stem hoor; therefore, analogously hij wordt from the stem word); the ss is written in stationsstraat ‘station street’ because the linking s is pronounced in other compounds with station-, such as stationsweg ‘station road’. Daems’ analogy is a more general tendency towards similarity of forms, which is quite difficult to obtain in writing, because analogy with one form often conflicts with possible analogies to other forms. As pointed out above, the new spelling rules created many violations of this more loose kind of analogy between similar words. Table (13) shows some of this.

Contrasts between ‘similar’ words after 2005

Conflicting pairs

Cause of conflict

cross-over ↔ pullover

Transparent opaque form

reïncarneren ↔ re-integreren

ideeënrijk ↔ ideeëloos

Set of exceptions

meester-kok meesterbrein

oud-gevangene ↔ oudgast

Meester and oud trigger hyphen only when considered special adjuncts26

hodgkin ↔ Stradivarius

Illness versus object of creative art

T-shirt ↔ tl-buis

Capital letter reflects / does not reflect actual shape directly

café – cafeetje diner – dinertje

Dutchification in diminutive versus Donor Principle



Hyphen in some foreign word groups only

cliënteel clientèle

patiënt patience

Diacritics according to Dutch or foreign standards

de douche, ik douch leasen, ik lease

English versus French loan words

volleyballen, ik volleybal baseballen, ik baseball

Dutch versus English pronunciation of [bɔl]

In many instances, it is unclear which variant should be considered to follow the main rule and which one is an exception. Rules have been designed for small classes of words, defined by subtle criteria. Writers need to take these criteria into account, which relate to transparency of the morphological structure of words, French or English origin, subtle pronunciation differences and knowledge of the world which is quite often irrelevant for the proper use of a word. For instance, one may know perfectly well what a tl-buis ‘strip light’ is, without knowing what t and l stand for, and one may deeply understand what a T-shirt is, without realising that T stands for its general shape, like the U in U-turn. Many language users find all that irrelevant, and conclude that the differences in (13) simply prove the inconsistency of the new spelling27.

The above argument holds for laymen and lexicographers alike, as shown by discrepancies between words or between the rules and words in the dictionary shown in (14), some of which have been corrected (cf. Erratalijst 2006).


violated rule

neestem(mer) ‘nay vote(r)’ (corrected as nee-stem(mer)), neecampagne ‘no campaign’ (cf. ja-knikken ‘yes nodding’)

Hyphen follows cited word form

drievierde ‘three fourth’, vijfachtste ‘five eighths’ (corrected as drie vierde, vijf achtste)

Fractions are written with a space

allrisk, bluejeans (cf. all right, compact disc)

Combinations with an adjective as their left-hand member are word groups

mijn en dijn (cf. ditjes-en-datjes)

String-on words require hyphens

vutter (cf. VUT, WAO’er)

Capitals and apostrophe for derivation of acronym with capitals

Cockney, Lap, Spanjool

No capital in names of languages or peoples with a derogatory meaning28

Furthermore, words such as up-to-date and service-volley are said to require a hyphen because of the spelling of the donor language, but up-to-date is variably written with or without hyphens in English (Cobuild 1995:1848), and service-volley with a hyphen seems not to occur. Such errors show that the new spelling rules are too complex. They rely too much on other languages and on extralinguistic knowledge to be properly applied even by lexicographers.

Greater consistency has been achieved partly at the cost of increased complexity of the rules. This is most clear in the case of the rules for spaces, hyphens and capitals. However, this is no reason for concern to the spelling task force, since the rules capture the spelling system, and are not spelling strategies (Daems 2006:2). The task force expects writers to write by analogy and by memorizing words, not by the application of rules. Observe, however, that memorizing is an option only for forms that are met and remembered, not for unknown forms that do not occur often in writing. For analogy to work, the rules should at least show unequivocally which words or parts of words are to be considered similar. In natural language, there is a tendency towards uniformity of morphological paradigms; similar patterns should be available in writing in order to set analogy at work for readers and writers. In the absence of such patterns, the examples in (13) are straightforward inconsistencies. Furthermore, this list of errata shows that even lexicographers are in doubt about which rule or which analogy to choose. The conclusion must be that Dutch orthography became more complex due to the 2005 reform.

The spelling reform of 2005 was largely motivated by the desire for more explicitness and fuller coverage. To this end many rules, with sub-rules and exceptions were introduced, especially concerning the use of hyphens and capitals. These rules are not completely successful. In the first place, making rules explicit and more complete is only an advantage if the new rules are formulated adequately with respect to correctness and practicability. There are a number of cases where the spelling rules, changed or unchanged, were formulated incorrectly. We already pointed that out for the spelling of the linking e(n), but there are other cases too. Changes such as aërodynamica → aerodynamica, for instance, were made on the grounds that there is no dieresis in purely foreign words. That may be true in museum and paella, but words like laïceren, judaïca and octaëder form counterexamples. The real issue is that the dieresis in aero- should not be there, because it does not mark a syllable.

Quite apart from all this, there remain some unanswered questions: what are the guidelines for new loan words? What about names embedded in the names of streets? Do we write iets extraas or iets extra’s (‘something extra, a bonus’; the former spelling is given in [Van Dale 2005])? The rules still do not cover all areas of uncertainty.

Further problems with the new rules are the apparent and real inconsistencies mentioned in (13) above, plus:

  1. The contradictory instructions for names and abbreviations: Donor Principle versus explicit rules.

  2. The use of vague concepts such as “common words”, “occasional loans”, and “words which denote one concept” (cf. the introduction of the notion samenkoppelingen ‘string-on words’).

  3. Too much semantic/pragmatic knowledge is still required, like whether the name of a language or a people is derogatory, or whether a holiday is official or not.

In addition, the rules use many new distinctions which are arbitrary and not (linguistically) motivated. For instance: why should English compounds that refer to job names not be written as compounds? Why should the names of inventors and discoverers be singled out to lose their capitals in a compound? Such distinctions do not play a role elsewhere in the language system. In this respect they are comparable to the fauna-flora rule. This rule also was based on meaning distinctions that play no role in the morphology and phonology of Dutch, and for this reason are better not expressed in writing.

A fundamental problem with the present reform is the fact that the new rules don’t allow for flexibility. Whether or not a given word is treated like a proper or common name and whether or not it is meant as a derogatory phrase, depends on the context, and thus is subject to variation. Whether or not certain forms are morphologically transparent or opaque, often depends on the actual knowledge of individual language users (for instance, people with or without knowledge of classical languages). The Etymological Principle, now strengthened by the introduction of the Donor Principle, relies on knowledge not available to everyone. Moreover, the application of these principles is subject to debate, because words travel all over the world, and thus a word of Swahili origin may enter into Dutch via German, French, English or whatnot.

The current reform aims at a spelling system without variation, maybe as a reaction to half a century of spelling chaos related to the variable use of case endings (solved in 1947) and half a century of experimentation with spelling variants for hybrid words (the so-called preferred and allowed spelling; brought to an end by the 1995 reform). It seems that a proper balance still must be found between strict rules for the core of the system and sufficient room for variation dependent on context, style, genre and participants.29

4.3. Evaluation from the perspective of readers

We have seen that the rules for hyphens, spaces and capitals have become quite complex, with many additional rules and rule-divisions. This means that the spelling reform is not a simplification for writers, let alone for those who are learning to write.30 So how about the readers? Do they profit from the new rules?

The fact that Readability is no longer mentioned in the guidelines of GB 2005 shows that the perspective of the reader is no longer taken into account.31 There is only one word that received a more readable spelling, i.e. skiester instead of skister, which incorrectly suggested a short vowel i. On the other hand, many words are now less readable, as table (15) testifies.


problem for the reader

ik douch

ch in this context suggests the pronunciation [x] rather than [sj]

cruisede, dinertje

suggest that the e and r are pronounced


suggests would + beschrijver ‘would + describer’ instead of ‘would-be + writer’

10 eurobiljetten

ambiguous: ‘10 euro-bills’ or ‘bills of 10 euro’?32

sociaal psycholoog

ambiguous: ‘sociable psychologist’ or ‘practitioner of social psychology’?


ambiguous: ij-i or i-ji (cf. mini-jihad)


with stress on e, meaning ‘roll call’ or ‘appeal’, is now a homograph of appel ‘apple’

In conclusion, there is no discernable improvement from the perspective of readers.33

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