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Towards standardisation

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the publication of the first Dutch spelling books and dictionaries. It was especially in the 1800s that major advances were made for the standardisation of Dutch.


Initially, the first Dutch-language linguists were unwilling to compromise. In his Nederlandsche spellijnghe of 1550, for instance, Joos Lambrecht advanced his own Ghent dialect as the norm, a decision that was not very practical. People soon began to feel the need for a spelling that was acceptable throughout the Low Countries.

Still, it was not until the first years of the nineteenth century that the Dutch government commissioned the linguist Matthijs Siegenbeek to formalise Dutch spelling. Not everybody was happy with the rules as set out in his Verhandeling over de Nederduitsche spelling (Treatise on the Dutch Spelling, 1804) and several modifications were suggested. In 1863, Matthias de Vries and L.A. te Winkel proposed their simplified rules, which were officially adopted in Belgium the following year and in the Netherlands in 1883. A modified form of De Vries and Te Winkel's spelling gained official status in both countries in 1946. It is these rules that are outlined in the first Woordenlijst der Nederlandse taal (@link) [Electronic version of the Glossary of the Dutch Language at the site of the Dutch Language Union] of 1954. Usually referred to as Het groene boekje (The Green Booklet) because of its green cover, it contains the official spelling rules and a prescriptive list indicating the spelling and gender of an important part of the Dutch vocabulary.

The latest spelling reform was as recent as 1995, which made it necessary to publish a newly revised Woordenlijst.


The first Dutch dictionary describing the Dutch lexicon (>link), whilst adding a German and Latin translation to every Dutch lemma (>link), is Cornelis Kiliaen's Dictionarium Teutonico-Latinum (1574). This unique work is, to all intents and purposes, the first scholarly dictionary in any European language. It formed the basis of subsequent translation dictionaries for more than a century.

It was in the nineteenth century that work started on what is still the largest dictionary in the world: the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche taal (@link) [Electronic, searchable version of the Dictionary of the Dutch Language] or WNT (Dictionary of the Dutch Language). Numbering forty volumes (44,000 pages in all) and containing over 400,000 entries, this dictionary records the Dutch lexicon of the period 1500-1921. The first volume (a-ajuin) rolled of the press in 1864, the final one (zuid-zythum) in 1998.

The most widely used dictionary in the Dutch language area is the three-volume Van Dale groot woordenboek der Nederlandse taal (@link) [Dutch-language website of Van Dale Taalweb. The site allows its users to search the online version of the dictionary Grote Van Dale]); affectionately referred to as the Dikke Van Dale (Fat Van Dale) because of its size. Named after its founding father, Johan Hendrik van Dale, the first edition was published in 1872. The latest (thirteenth) edition appeared in 1999.


The first Dutch grammar appeared in 1568, but as its title suggests (Voorreden vanden noodich ende nutticheit der Nederduytscher taalkunste [Prologue to the Necessity and Usefulness of Dutch Grammar]), it was little more than a modest introduction. Far more important was the Twe-spraack vande Nederduitsche letterkunst (Dialogue of Dutch Grammar) written by Hendrick Laurensz. Spiegel in 1584. Spiegel not only describes Dutch grammar, but he also prescribes: he formulates rules that speakers and writers of Dutch should follow in order to speak and write correctly.

The modern equivalent of the Twe-spraack, describing in great detail the structures and rules that govern Dutch grammar, though without the prescriptive nature of Spiegel's sixteenth-century work, is the Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunst (@link) [Electronic version (in Dutch) of the Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst (General Dutch Grammar) at the site of the Catholic University Nijmegen] or ANS (General Dutch Grammar) first published in 1984. The second, revised edition appeared in 1997.

Question 16:

Why did the first Dutch dictionaries, grammars, and spelling guides appear in the Renaissance (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries)?

Check your answer (>link)


One of the latest additions to the growing body of reference works on the Dutch language is the Uitspraakwoordenboek (Pronunciation Dictionary) first published in 2000. For some words, several pronunciations are listed, usually with an indication that a particular pronunciation is more common in the North (the Netherlands) than in the South (Flanders).

Click (>link) to go to the final part of the historical overview.


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