Dutch Linguistics

Sound: Phonetics – Fonetiek

The Dutch word for >phonetics is ‘fonetiek’. >Phonetics is concerned with the production and perception of sounds in spoken language. For example, when you say the word ‘pin’, you start with both your lips together making the sound [p], but when you say ‘sin’ you start by putting your teeth close to each other (and your tongue close to your teeth) and letting out some air, making the sound [s]. This is obviously the production of sound. Phoneticians also study the perception of sound. For example, they can make a computer say the word ‘pin’ and slightly alter the first sound [p] to something close to it. What they want to know is when you stop hearing [p] and start hearing some other sound ([b] for example). This gives them information on how the brain makes distinctions between sounds. Let us first look into the production of sound in a little more detail.

Sound production

We have just made a start describing the difference between producing a [p] and an [s]. The square brackets are used for the >phonetic transcription of a sound. Note that we do not mean the letters ‘p’ and ‘s’, but the sounds. For example, at the end of the English word ‘police’ we spell ‘ce’ but we produce the sound [s].

A closer inspection of the production of sounds allows us to divide the sounds into several groups. A major distinction is that between >vowels and >consonants. Vowels are those sounds that are made without an obstruction of the air stream (with your mouth open) and consonants are made with an obstruction of the air stream.

When writing Dutch or English we conventionally use the standard alphabet which has 26 letters, 6 for the vowels and 21 for the consonants:

vowels (klinkers)

consonants (medeklinkers)









































The ‘police’ example demonstrates that writing isn’t a reliable source of information for speech sounds. We need a phonetic alphabet that describes the sounds of a language, not the letters.

A famous “notational standard for the phonetic representation of all languages” is the @International Phonetic Alphabet [Webpage in English of the International Phonetic Association. The site offers interesting information on phonetics and hyperlinks].

All the consonants of all known languages in the world are represented in the following chart (click the chart to view a large version):

The International Phonetic Alphabet - click to view detail

(>chart due to International Phonetic Association)

The sounds are divided into groups by the way they are produced (vertically) and the place where they are produced (horizontally). The following picture will help you get an idea of the different places of sound production (click the image to view a large version):


De neusholte = nasal cavity
De bovenlip = upper lip
De onderlip = bottom lip
De mondholte = oral cavity
De tand = tooth
De tong = tongue
De glottis = vocal cords / glottis
De tandkassen = alveolar ridge
Het palatum = hard palate
Het velum = soft palate / velum
De huig / uvula = uvula
De luchtpijp = windpipe / trachea

Picture used with kind permission of Prof. K. Fellbaum

The manner of production will become clear as we discuss the Dutch consonants:

The [p], [b] and [m] are >bilabial. That means they’re produced with both lips against each other. These sounds are the same in English. (‘page’, ‘book’, ‘ mind’).

The [f], [v] and [υ] are >labiodental. This means that your lower lip touches your upper teeth. [f] and [v] are the sounds in English ‘fiction’ and ‘version’.

The [υ] is the Dutch ‘w’, as in Dutch ‘water’. Notice that this is different in English, where the ‘w’ in ‘water’ is bilabial.

The [t], [d], [n], [r], [s], [z], [l] and even [ʃ] and [ʒ] (see chart for accurate symbols) are all >alveolar. The >alveolar ridge is the hard tissue just behind your teeth (feel!). All these sounds, except for [r], also exist in English. [ʃ] is the sound in English ‘ shy’, [ʒ] is the sound in English ‘plea sure’. [t] is in ‘tea’, [d] in ‘door’, [n] in ‘new’, [s] in ‘super’, [z] in ‘zuma’ and [l] in ‘lamp’. The Dutch [s] may sound a little like a ‘shhh’ to English ears, and the English [l] uses the tip of the tongue while most Dutch people pronounce it a bit further back in the mouth, using the middle of the tongue more. If you’re an English speaker learning Dutch it’s probably best to keep your own [l] and [s], they will sound the most natural. Not all Dutch speakers use [r]; some people pronounce the ‘r’ in the back of their throat. In Belgium and the West of the Netherlands people use an alveolar ‘r’.

The [j] is >palatal. The [j] also exists in English, it the first sound in the word ‘your’.

The palate is the part behind your alveolar ridge. If you start with your tongue tip against your upper teeth and move backwards in your mouth you feel that your tongue goes up, just behind the alveolar ridge. This is where the hard palate starts, if you go even further back in your mouth (requires some tongue twisting!) you get to the soft palate (so called because the tissue is softer there, which you should be able to feel with your tongue).

The velar [k], [g] and [ŋ] also all exist in English. You produce them with the back of your tongue touching the soft palate, also called velum. The [k] (English ‘ kite’) and [ŋ] (English ‘ha ng’) do occur in original Dutch words. The [g], as in English ‘ guy’, is not a sound of Dutch, it only occurs in words recently ‘borrowed’ from other languages such as English. Interestingly, the [g] sound is a sound of all languages surrounding Dutch (German ‘gut’, English ‘guy’, French ‘garçon’), but it’s not a sound native to Dutch.

The uvular [x] is a typical Dutch sound. The uvula is the bit of flesh that hangs at the end of your soft palate. [x] is normally written with the letter ‘g’ or with ‘ch’. Dutch words as ‘gaan’ (to go) and ‘hagelslag’ (chocolate sprinkles) use the typical [x]. The uvula is almost in your throat, and sometimes people learning Dutch think that the [x] sounds like clearing your throat. This is probably because they pronounce it a little too far back in their throat. Even though people tend to think that [x] is a very Dutch sound, other languages have it too, for example Scottish ‘ Loch Ness’ and German ‘achtung’.

Finally, there is the glottal [h], also familiar in English in words like ‘hang’ and ‘ high’.

There is a high degree of similarity between the consonants of English and Dutch. The majority are the same, and really only [υ], [r] and [x] are different.

If we put all the Dutch consonants in an IPA chart,this is what we get (click the chart to view a large version):

Dutch consonants in an IPA chart

(>Dutch consonants: based on the Handbook of the IPA)

Describe the place of articulation of the following Dutch sounds.

[f] [k] [b] [x] [s]

:: answer ::

You will probably have noticed that even though [p] and [b] are pronounced at the same place, they’re not actually the same sound. This is because when you produce a [b] you make a sort of buzzing sound with your throat. This is called voice. [p] is said to be voiceless, whereas [b] is voiced. The difference becomes clear when you gently put a finger at your throat and make the sound [s] (just go ‘sssssssss’). Now do the same but make the sound [z] (by going ‘zzzzzzzz’). When you make the [z] you should feel your throat vibrating. This is because you use your vocal chords. [z] is voiced and [s] is voiceless. In the IPA chart the left-hand part of a pair is the voiceless sound ([p] [b] and [s] [z] and [t] [d] etc.)

Also, even though [d] and [n] are pronounced at the same place, and both are voiced, they’re still not the same sound. This is because the manner of articulation is different. A plosive is a sound where the airflow gets obstructed briefly and then the air can escape suddenly, giving a little bit of an explosion of air. You can hear this when you pronounce the plosive [p] (don’t say ‘pee’, but simply ‘p’). A nasal sound uses the nasal cavity to let air escape, where other sounds only use the oral cavity. This becomes very clear when you say [m] (‘mmmmmm’). Even though your lips are closed, you can still make a sound. This is because the air goes out through the nasal cavity giving that typical nasal sound.

The Dutch [r] is produced with a tap, which means that you quickly tap your tongue against the alveolar ridge. Instead of [r] some Dutch people use [ʀ]. This is the ‘r’ sound very close to [x], a rolling ‘r’ in the back of the throat. Fricatives are those sounds where the air stream is never completely obstructed (as with a plosive), but the air has to escape through a small opening somewhere in the oral cavity. The result is that you hear the friction of the air getting pushed through a small opening, but because the air is never completely obstructed you can keep the air going as long as you have air in your lungs: ‘ffffffffff’ and ‘sssssss’ and so forth.

Approximants finally are much the same as fricatives, except that the obstruction of the air is even less. The difference is clear when you feel the difference between Dutch [υ] (‘wwwwwww’) (remember Dutch ‘w’ is labiodental!) and [f] (‘fffffffffff’). The ‘f’ takes a lot more effort.


Vowels are sounds that involve no obstruction of the air whatsoever. The air just flows from your lungs, through your vocal chords and your oral cavity out into the world. The reason they sound different from each other is that the shape of your mouth and the position of your tongue is different. Let’s look at the IPA chart of vowels:


(>thanks to the International Phonetic Association)

As you can see the symbols used for vowels are a little less straightforward than those used for consonants, although they’re also largely based on our alphabet. Luckily we only have to focus on the vowels used in Dutch.

Before we start to worry about the symbols, let’s make sure we understand the chart. The chart is a representation of the mouth of a person facing left. Horizontally in the chart you see FRONT- CENTRAL- BACK, this actually means the position in your mouth (so the front of your mouth to the back of your mouth). The vertically listed CLOSE- CLOSE-MID- OPEN-MID- OPEN refer to your jaw and how far it’s lowered when producing a sound. With the help of this chart we can now see where a sound is produced. The [ɑ] is pronounced very far back in your throat, with your mouth wide open (jaw hanging down) whereas the [i] is pronounced front and with your mouth almost closed. Here are the Dutch vowels in some examples (the colon ( : ) behind a symbol means the sound is longer):

IPA Dutch word means ‘BBC’ English sound (approx.)
I bit bit bit
Y hut cabin /
ε bed bed bed
Ə 't the above
û bad bath /
ɔ bot bone /
i biet beetroot beat (Dutch sound is shorter)
y fuut grebe (bird) /
e: beet bite bayed
ø neus nose /
a: zaad seed /
o: boot boar bode
u hoed hat good (Dutch sound is shorter)
i: analyse analysis bead
y: centrifuge spindryer /
and some ‘borrowed’ loan phonemes:
ε serre conservatory sounds a little like ‘bad’
œ oeuvre works /
o: zone zone /
u: cruise cruise good

You can see that the Dutch vowels differ more from the English vowels than the consonants do. Especially the sounds in hut, fuut, neus, zaad, analyse and centrifuge are different from English sounds. Unfortunately we don’t have time to take you through the exact pronunciation of all these sounds. Our advice is to pay close attention to Dutch speech and try to copy the sounds, the IPA chart can be a great help in locating the exact place of pronunciation of some of the difficult vowels.

The vowels we’ve been concerned with so far are called monophthongs. They have a single sound quality, as opposed to diphthongs which change quality throughout the sound. This may sound puzzling, but it’s pretty straightforward. In English, when you say ‘crow’ you make one single vowel sound. If you say ‘boy’ you start with a vowel that sounds like ‘o’ as in ‘crow’ but it quickly changes to ‘[i]’, as in ‘speed’ (try to say ‘boy’ really slowly). The changing vowel in ‘boy’ is called a diphthong. The IPA lists three diphthongs for Dutch:

IPA Dutch spelling translation ‘Sounds like English
εi ei egg /
œy ui onion /
ʌu zout salt out

You can try to pronounce the diphthongs by working your way from the IPA chart for vowels. Find the first sound of the diphthong and then the second. Then try to glide from the first to the second vowel (try it for diphthongs in your native tongue first).

All the Dutch vowels and their place of articulation can be found in the following IPA chart:



(>based on Handbook of the IPA)

The last thing we will mention here about vowels is to do with the manner of pronunciation. An important factor in how a vowel sounds is whether or not your lips are rounded. A typical round vowel is the ‘o’ in ‘crow’. The [ε] in ‘bed’ is said to be unrounded. With all this information we can now describe vowels in a lot of detail. For example, we can now say that [u] is a close back rounded vowel and that [ε] is an open-mid front unrounded vowel.

The IPA charts representing Dutch are based on an educated middle-aged variety of Dutch, spoken in the west of the Netherlands. It is important to realise that in some areas the pronunciation can differ, and if you want to practise the sounds it’s a good idea to listen back to yourself and compare the sounds to those you hear on radio or TV (or other native Dutch speakers).

Find a mirror and practise some of the vowels and consonants of Dutch. Pay close attention to your lips and the position of your tongue. Compare what you see with the IPA charts. Make adjustments if you think they’re needed. Play around and see how much difference little adjustments can make.

Towards phonology – phonetics in more detail

Before we can move on to phonology, it is important that you’re aware of one more phonetic fact. In the IPA charts we just introduced it looks like all sounds have one constant value. Unfortunately, this is not true. Not only do the sounds differ per speaker, more importantly there’s variation between sounds depending on what phonetic environment they’re used in. For example the [p] in the English ‘pin’ sounds different from the [p] in ‘spin’. If you’re a native English speaker you can test this by holding your hand (or a piece of paper or a candle) in front of your mouth when you say the two words. You’ll find that in ‘pin’ a lot more air escapes during the [p] than in ‘spin’. This is because of >aspiration, phonetically described with a little ‘h’ above the sound: [ph]. English plosives are said to be aspirated if they’re in the beginning of the word. If they follow a fricative, such as [s] this aspiration disappears. This means that ‘pin’ is pronounced [p h ɪ n] and ‘spin’ is pronounced [s p ɪ n]. Dutch does not have aspiration, which means that ‘pin’ is just pronounced [p ɪ n]. To English ears this [p] can sound a bit weak, almost like a [b]. To Dutch ears aspiration sounds a bit exaggerated, and this is something you should be aware of when learning Dutch.

Write down the following words in phonetic transcription:

English: sting, tin, skin, king

Dutch: stik, tik, kin, ski

:: answer ::

The reason this is important is that even though the pronunciation may be different, we still perceive the different [p]’s as one sound. Language is quite amazing in that sometimes sounds that are very similar in physical terms are treated as two different sounds in a language, while sounds that are not similar in physical terms at all are perceived as the same sound by speakers of a certain language. This is part of the explanation why people who speak Chinese as their first language have trouble telling the English [l] apart from the [r]. We’ll talk about this and more in the next chapter about phonology.

(You can read more about phonetics on the @website of the IPA [English website of the International Phonetic Association. The site offers interesting information on phonetics and hyperlinks] and on the @website of UCL professor John Wells [Personal webpage of Prof. John Wells (in English), offering links for further reading on phonetics]).