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Dutch phonology is similar to that of other West Germanic languages, especially Afrikaans and West Frisian.
Standard Dutch has two main de facto pronunciation standards: Northern and Belgian. Northern Standard Dutch is the most prestigious accent in the Netherlands. It is associated with high status, education and wealth. Even though its speakers seem to be concentrated mostly in the densely populated Randstad area in the provinces of North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht, it is often impossible to tell where in the country its speakers were born or brought up, so it cannot be considered a regional dialect within the Netherlands. Belgian Standard Dutch is used by the vast majority of Flemish journalists, which is why it is sometimes called VRT-Nederlands ("VRT Dutch"; formerly BRT-Nederlands "BRT Dutch"), after VRT, the national public-service broadcaster for the Flemish Region.
The following table shows the consonant phonemes of Dutch:
In many areas the final 'n' of the ending -en (originally /ən/, with a variety of meanings) is pronounced only when a word is being individually stressed; this makes -en words homophonous with otherwise identical forms ending in -e alone. The -n is dropped both word-finally and, in compound words, word-internally. This pronunciation can be morphologically sensitive and serve to distinguish words, since the -n is dropped only when it is part of the distinct ending -en and not when the word consists of an indivisible stem which happens to end in -en. Thus, the teken of ik teken ('I draw') always retains its -n because it is part of an indivisible stem whereas in teken ('ticks') it is dropped because it is part of a plural ending. Such pairs (teken = 'draw'; teken = 'ticks') are therefore not homophones in dialects that drop -n, despite being written identically.
Final -n is retained in the North East (Low Saxon) and the South West (East and West Flemish), where it is the schwa that disappears instead. This creates a syllabic [n] or (after velars) syllabic [ŋ] sounds: laten [ˈlaːtn̩]; maken [ˈmaːkŋ̍]. Some Low Saxon dialects that have uvular pronunciations of /ɣ/ and /x/ (or one of them) also have a syllabic uvular nasal, like in lagen and/or lachen [ˈlaːχɴ̩]
Dutch devoices all obstruents at the ends of words, as is partly reflected in the spelling. The voiced "z" in plural huizen [ˈɦœy̑zə] becomes huis [ɦœy̑s] ('house') in singular. Also, duiven [ˈdœy̑və] becomes duif [dœy̑f] ('dove'). The other cases are always written with the voiced consonant, but a devoiced one is actually pronounced: the "d" in plural baarden [ˈbaːrdə] is retained in singular spelling baard ('beard'), but the pronunciation of the latter is [baːrt], and plural ribben [ˈrɪbə] has singular rib ('rib'), pronounced [rɪp].
Because of assimilation, the initial /v z ɣ/ of the next word is often also devoiced: het vee ('the cattle') is [(ɦ)ət feː]. The opposite may be true for other consonants: ik ben ('I am') [ɪg bɛn].
|Phoneme||Phonetic IPA||Orthography||English translation|
Geert Bourgeois (Belgium)
Dutch has an extensive vowel inventory consisting of thirteen plain vowels and at least three diphthongs. Vowels can be grouped as front unrounded, front rounded, central and back. They are also traditionally distinguished by length or tenseness. The vowels /eː, øː, oː/ are included in one of the diphthong charts further below because Northern Standard Dutch realizes them as diphthongs, but they behave phonologically like the other long monophthongs.
The following sections describe the phonetic quality of Dutch monophthongs in detail.
Word-final /i, y, u/ are raised and end in a voiceless vowel: [ii̥, yẙ, uu̥]. The voiceless vowel in the first sequence may sound almost like a palatal fricative [ç].
/i, y, u/ are frequently longer in Belgian Standard Dutch and most Belgian accents than in Northern Standard Dutch, in which the length of these vowels is identical to that of lax vowels.
Regardless of the exact accent, /i, y, u/ are mandatorily lengthened to [iː, yː, uː] before /r/ in the same word. In Northern Standard Dutch and in Randstad, these are laxed to [i̽ː, y˕ː, u̽ː] and often have a schwa-like off-glide ([i̽ə, y˕ə, u̽ə]). This means that before /r/, /i, y, u/ are less strongly differentiated from /eː, øː, oː/ in Northern Standard Dutch and Randstad than is usually the case in other regional varieties of Standard Dutch and in Belgian Standard Dutch. There is one exception to the lengthening rule: when /r/ is followed by a consonant different than /t/ and /s/, /i, y, u/ remain short. Examples of that are words such as wierp [ʋirp], stierf [stirf], zwierf [zʋirf] and bedierf [bəˈdirf]. The rule is also suppressed syllable-finally in certain compounds; compare roux-room [ˈruroːm] with roerroom [ˈruːr(r)oːm] and Ruhr-Ohm [ˈruːroːm].
/ɛ, ɔ/ are typically somewhat lengthened and centralized before /r/ in Northern Standard Dutch and Randstad, usually with a slight schwa-like offglide: [ɛ̈ə̆, ɔ̈ə̆]. In addition, /ɔ/ in this position is somewhat less rounded ([ɔ̜̈ə̆]) than the main allophone of /ɔ/.
The free vowels /eː, øː, oː/ are realized as monophthongs [eː, øː, oː] in Belgian Standard Dutch (Jo Verhoeven describes the Belgian Standard Dutch realization of /øː/ as mid central [ɵ̞ː]) and in many regional accents. In Northern Standard Dutch, narrow closing diphthongs [eɪ, øʏ, oʊ] are used. The starting point of [oʊ] is centralized back ([ö]), and the starting point of [eɪ] has been described as front [e] by Collins and Mees and as centralized front [ë] by Gussenhoven. The monophthongal counterparts of [eɪ, oʊ] are peripheral; the former is almost as front as cardinal [eː], whereas the latter is almost as back as cardinal [oː]. Many speakers of Randstad Dutch as well as younger speakers of Northern Standard Dutch realize /eː, øː, oː/ as rather wide diphthongs of the [ɛɪ, œʏ, ɔʊ] type, which may be mistaken for the phonemic diphthongs /ɛi, œy, ɔu/ by speakers of other accents. Using [ɛɪ, œʏ, ɔʊ] for /eː, øː, oː/ goes hand in hand with lowering the first elements of /ɛi, œy, ɔu/ to [aɪ, aʏ, aʊ], a phenomenon termed Polder Dutch. Therefore, the phonemic contrast between /eː, øː, oː/ and /ɛi, œy, ɔu/ is still strongly maintained, but its phonetic realization is very different from what one can typically hear in traditional Northern Standard Dutch. In Rotterdam and The Hague, the starting point of [oʊ] can be fronted to [ə] instead of being lowered to [ɔ].
In Northern Standard Dutch and in Randstad, /eː, øː, oː/ lose their closing glides and are raised and slightly centralized to [ɪː, ʏː, ʊː] (often with a schwa-like off-glide [ɪə, ʏə, ʊə]) before /r/ in the same word. The first two allophones strongly resemble the lax monophthongs /ɪ, ʏ/. Dutch children frequently misspell the word weer ('again') as wir. These sounds may also occur in regional varieties of Standard Dutch and in Belgian Standard Dutch, but they are more typically the same as the main allophones of /eː, øː, oː/ (that is, [eː, øː, oː]). An exception to the centralizing rule are syllable-final /eː, øː, oː/ in compounds such as zeereis [ˈzeɪˌrɛis] ('sea voyage'), milieuramp [mɪlˈjøʏˌrɑmp] ('environmental disaster') and bureauredactrice [byˈroʊredɑkˌtrisə] ('desk editor (f.)').
In Northern Standard Dutch, /eː, øː, oː/ are mid-centralized before the pharyngealized allophone of /l/.
Several non-standard dialects have retained the distinction between the so-called "sharp-long" and "soft-long" e and o, a distinction that dates to early Middle Dutch. The sharp-long varieties originate from the Old Dutch long ē and ō (Proto-Germanic ai and au), while the soft-long varieties arose from short i/e and u/o that were lengthened in open syllables in early Middle Dutch. The distinction is not considered to be a part of Standard Dutch and is not recognised in educational materials, but it is still present in many local varieties, such as Antwerpian, Limburgish, West Flemish and Zeelandic. In these varieties, the sharp-long vowels are often opening diphthongs such as [ɪə, ʊə], while the soft-long vowels are either plain monophthongs [eː, oː] or slightly closing [eɪ, oʊ].
In Northern Standard Dutch and some other accents, /ɑ, aː/ are realised so that the former is a back vowel [ɑ], whereas the latter is central [äː] or front [aː]. In Belgian Standard Dutch /aː/ is also central or front, but /ɑ/ may be central [ä] instead of back [ɑ], so it may have the same backness as /aː/.
Other accents may have different realisations:
Before /r/, /ɑ/ is typically a slight centering diphthong with a centralized first element ([ɐə̆]) in Northern Standard Dutch and in Randstad.
Dutch also has several diphthongs, but only three of them are indisputably phonemic. All of them end in a non-syllabic close vowel [i̯, y̑, u̯] (henceforth written [i, y, u] for simplicity), but they may begin with a variety of other vowels.
Apart from [eɪ, øʏ, oʊ] which occur only in Northern Standard Dutch and regional Netherlands Standard Dutch, all varieties of Standard Dutch have phonetic diphthongs [iu, yu, ui, eːu, ɔi, oːi, ɑi, aːi]. Phonemically, they are considered to be sequences of /iʋ, yʋ, uj, eːʋ, ɔj, oːj, ɑj, aːj/ by Geert Booij and as monosyllabic sequences /iu, yu, ui, eːu, oːi, aːi/ by Beverley Collins and Inger Mees (they do not comment on [ɔi] and [ɑi]). This article adopts the former analysis.
In Northern Standard Dutch, the second elements of [iu, yu, eːu] can be labiodental [iʋ, yʋ, eːʋ]. This is especially common in intervocalic positions.
In Northern Standard Dutch and regional Netherlands Standard Dutch, the close-mid elements of [eːu, oːi] may be subject to the same kind of diphthongization as /eː, oː/, so they may be actually triphthongs with two closing elements [eɪu, oʊi] ([eːu] can instead be [eɪʋ], a closing diphthong followed by [ʋ]). In Rotterdam, [oːi] can be phonetically [əʊi], with a central starting point.
[aːi] is realized with more prominence on the first element according to Booij and with equal prominence on both elements according to Collins and Mees. Other diphthongs have more prominence on the first element.
The ending points of these diphthongs are typically somewhat more central ([ï, ü]) than cardinal [i, u]. They tend to be higher than the ending points of the phonemic diphthongs /ɛi, œy, ɔu/.
|Phoneme||Phonetic IPA||Orthography||English translation|
|'bit'(past form of to bite) |
(All but 4 of the [r]s in these recordings are actually uvular, mostly similar to [ʁ]. The recording for "groei" actually sounds like [xɾui].)
Most native Germanic words (the bulk of the core vocabulary) are stressed on the root syllable, which is usually the first syllable of the word. Germanic words may also be stressed on the second or later syllable if certain unstressed prefixes are added (particularly in verbs). Non-root stress is common in loanwords, which are generally borrowed with the stress placement unchanged. In polysyllabic words, secondary stress may also be present. Certain prefixes and suffixes will receive secondary stress: /ˌvoːrˈkoːmən/, /ˈʋeːrˌloːs/. The stressed syllable of a word receive secondary stress within a compound word: /ˈbɔmˌmɛldɪŋ/, /ˈɑlkoːɦɔl pɛrsɛnˌtaːʒə/.
The vast majority of compound nouns are stressed on the first element: appeltaart /ˈɑpəlˌtaːrt/, luidspreker /ˈlœytˌspreːkər/.[Please elaborate on exceptions] The word boeren generally takes secondary stress in compounds: boerenkool /ˌbuːrəˈkoːl/, boerenland /ˌbuːrəˈlɑnt/. Some compounds formed from two words are stressed on the second element: stadhuis /ˌstɑtˈhœys/, rijksdaalder /ˌrɛi̯ksˈdaːldər/. In some cases the secondary stress in a compound shifts to preserve a trochaic pattern: eiland /ˈɛi̯ˌlɑnt/, but schateiland /ˈsxɑt.ɛi̯ˌlɑnt/. Compounds formed from two compound words tend to observe these same rules. But in compounds formed from more than two words the stress is irregular.
While stress is phonemic, minimal pairs are rare, and marking the stress in written Dutch is always optional, but it is sometimes recommended to distinguish homographs that differ only in stress. While it is common practice to distinguish een (indefinite article) from één (the cardinal number one), this distinction is not so much about stress as it is about the pronunciation of the vowel ([ən] versus [eːn]), and while the former is always unstressed, the latter may or may not be stressed. Stress also distinguishes some verbs, as stress placement on prefixes also carries a grammatical distinction, such as in vóórkomen ('to occur') and voorkómen ('to prevent'). In vóórkomen and other verbs with a stressed prefix, the prefix is separable and separates as kom voor in the first-person singular present, with the past participle vóórgekomen. On the other hand, verbs with an unstressed prefix are not separable: voorkómen becomes voorkóm in the first-person singular present, and voorkómen in the past participle, without the past participle prefix ge-.
Dutch has a strong stress accent like other Germanic languages, and it uses stress timing because of its relatively complex syllable structure. It has a preference for trochaic rhythm, with relatively stronger and weaker stress alternating between syllables in such a way that syllables with stronger stress are produced at a more or less constant pace. Generally, every alternate syllable before and after the primary stress will receive relative stress, as far secondary stress placements allow: Wá.gə.nì.ngən. Relative stress preferably does not fall on /ə/ so syllables containing /ə/ may disrupt the trochaic rhythm. To restore the pattern, vowels are often syncopated in speech: kín.də.rən > /ˈkɪn.drən/, há.ri.ngən > /ˈɦaːr.ŋən/, vər.gə.líj.king > /vər.ˈɣlɛi.kɪŋ/. In words for which the secondary stress is imposed lexically onto the syllable immediately following the stressed syllable, a short pause is often inserted after the stressed syllable to maintain the rhythm to ensure that the stressed syllable has more or less equal length to the trochaic unit following it: bóm..mèl.ding, wéér..lò.zə.
Historically, the stress accent has reduced most vowels in unstressed syllables to [ə], as in most other Germanic languages. This process is still somewhat productive, and it is common to reduce vowels to [ə] in syllables carrying neither primary nor secondary stress, particularly in syllables that are relatively weakly stressed due to the trochaic rhythm. Weakly stressed long vowels may also be shortened without any significant reduction in vowel quality. For example, politie (phonemically /poːˈlitsi/) may be pronounced [poˈli(t)si], [pəˈli(t)si] or even [ˈpli(t)si].
The syllable structure of Dutch is (C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C). Many words, as in English, begin with three consonants such as straat (street). Words that end in four consonants are mostly superlative adjectives.
Notes on individual consonants:
A sequence of CCC always begins with /s/. The CC-structure can be realised by almost all stops and non-sibilant, non-glottal fricatives followed by the sonorants /r/ or /l/, exceptions are that /dl/ and /tl/ are impossible: /br/ brutaal, /bl/ bling, /pr/ /pl/ printplaat, /kr/ krimp, /kl/ kloot, /ɡr/ grapefruit, /ɡl/ glossy, /tr/ truck, /dr/ droevig, /vr/ vrij, wreken, /vl/ vlaag, /fr/ fris, /fl/ flodder, /ɣr/ groen, /ɣl/ glunderen, /xr/ chrisma, /xl/ chloroform. Voiced obstruents cannot appear in other clusters except for /ɣ/. Voiceless obstruents can occur in stop-fricative and fricative-stop clusters. Sequences of a voiceless obstruent or /ɣ/ and /n/ are also possible, for /m/ only /sm/ occurs:
Nasals rarely begin clusters.
Dutch (with the exception of the Limburg dialects) did not participate in the second Germanic consonant shift:
Dutch has also preserved the fricative variety of Proto-Germanic */ɡ/ as [ɣ] or [ʝ], in contrast with some dialects of German, which generalised the stop [ɡ], and English, which lost the fricative variety through regular sound changes. Dutch has, however, had a fortition of /θ/ to /d/ like High (and Low) German:
Dutch also underwent a few changes on its own:
The sample text is a reading of the first sentence of The North Wind and the Sun.
The phonetic transcription illustrates a Western Netherlandic, educated, middle-generation speech and a careful colloquial style.
De noordenwind en de zon hadden een discussie over de vraag wie van hun tweeën de sterkste was, toen er juist iemand voorbijkwam die een dikke, warme jas aanhad.
/də ˈnoːrdənʋɪnt ɛn də ˈzɔn | ɦɑdən ən dɪsˈkʏsi oːvər də ˈvraːx | ˈʋi vɑn ɦʏn ˈtʋeːən də ˈstɛrkstə ʋɑs | tun ɛr ˈjœyst imɑnt voːrˈbɛi kʋɑm | di ən ˈdɪkə ˈʋɑrmə ˈjɑs aːnɦɑt/
[də ˈnʊːɾdəʋɪnt ɛn də ˈzɔn | ɦɑdə ən dɪsˈkʏsi oʊvəɾ də ˈfɾaːχ | ˈʋi fɑn ɦʏn ˈtʋeɪə də ˈstɛɾəkstə ʋɑs | tun əɾ ˈjœyst imɑnt fʊːɾˈbɛi kʋɑm | di ən ˈdɪkə ˈʋɑɾmə ˈjɑs aːnɦɑt]
The phonetic transcription illustrates the speech of "a highly educated 45-year-old male who speaks Belgian Dutch with a very slight regional Limburg accent." Sentence stress is not transcribed.
De noordenwind en de zon waren ruzie aan het maken over wie het sterkste was toen er een reiziger voorbij kwam met een warme jas aan.
/də noːrdənʋɪnt ɛn də zɔn | ʋaːrən ryzi aːn ət maːkən | oːvər ʋi ɦɛt stɛrkstə ʋɑs | tun ɛr ən rɛizɪɣər voːrbɛi kʋɑm mɛt ən ʋɑrmə jɑs aːn/
[də noːʀdəwɪntˢ ʔɛn də zɔn | waːʀə ʀyzi aːn ət maːkə | ʔoːvər wi ɦət stɛʀkstə wɑs | tun əʀ ən ʀɛizɪɣəʀ voːʀbɛi kwɑm mɛt ən wɑʀmə jɑz‿aːn]