VOWEL COMBINATIONS: Pronunciation and spelling

In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed the differences between long and short vowels, both in term of pronunciation and spelling. In this article (which as always, comes with a very cool and helpful video) I’ll be discussing the last, essential thing you need to know about Dutch vowels: how to combine them and how to pronounce them. Correctly of course. (I’m not that evil!)

AN EXAMPLARY GUIDE

Like we did with the short and the long vowels, we need to make a guide which we can use to pronounce and spell the vowel combinations in Dutch correctly. Study the following easy, examplary words by heart as a point of comparison.

ɑu̯ → OU koud and AU blauw
ɛi̯ → IJ ijs and EI trein
œy̯ → UI huis
øː or ʏː → EU deur
u → OE boek

Beyond these combinations, there’s no other vowel combinations that you should really know about. In last names, which often stem from old Dutch, you might find some weird vowel combinations like “ae” but they do not occur anymore in normal words in the Dutch language. There are some other vowel and consonant combinations that I’ve left out for now, but that’s mostly because the combinations above are the most frequent, most used and most often misspelled by students such as yourself (if not: good for you and maybe you can check out another blog post? ;-)).

PRONUNCIATION: THE THEORY

Let’s now look at how these vowel combinations are pronounced. I’ve distinguished the difference in pronunciation in Flemish from Dutch, but no matter what version you end up with, both of them are standardized, it just very much depends on the variation you’re studying.

OU/AU

  • First of all, there is no difference in pronunciation of these sounds, whether it’s written with “ou” or “au”, it sounds the same. The main thing you should know is that 90% of the words in Dutch are written with “ou”, so if you’re unsure which of the two combinations it would be, most likely, it would be “ou”.
  • In Flemish, you would use the “long O” sound as a starting off point and then move on to “w”, so it sounds like “ow”.
  • In Dutch, you would use the “long A” sound as a starting off point and then move on to “w”, so it sounds a bit stronger, like “aw”.

EI/IJ

  • First of all, there is no difference in pronunciation of these sounds, whether it’s written with “ei” or “ij”. Beware, the “ei” is also called “korte ei”, because the shape of the letter “i” is literally … short and “ij” is also referred to as “lange ij” because the shape of the letter “j” is well, yes… long.
  • The main thing you should know is that unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing when to use which combination. You just have to learn it by heart.
  • In Flemish, you would use the “short e” as a starting point and then connect it to the “j” sound, so it sounds like “ey” in English.
  • In Dutch however, you would use a sound halfway between “short e” and “short a” (almost a quacking kind of sound) as a starting off point before connecting it to the “j” sound. It’s a harsher form of “ey” in English.

OE

  • Roughly the equivalent of “oo” in English, “book”, “cook”.
  • For Portuguese speakers, this is the “u” sound.
  • Keep your tongue as low as possible and keep your lips in the shape of a ring. It should sound hollow. This sound is the same in both Flemish and Dutch.

EU

  • A difficult sound to get right. You can basically get there by starting with a long “e” and then slowly bringing your lips together into a ring-shape, making sure that your tongue stays in the same position.
  • For German speakers, this is the equivalent of “ö” in German.
  • This sound is roughly the same in both Flemish and Dutch, in Dutch you might add a slight “w” at the end of the pronunciation.

UI

  • Another difficult sound to get right. Here you basically have two options. Both options start with the same sound, which is the sound of “short u” (like in “us”), which basically consists of opening your mouth, letting everything hang and letting your vocal chords resonate. It’s one of the laziest sounds in the language. From there, you could either move on to
    1) a “j” sound, moving your tongue to the roof of your mouth (uj) (most common in Flemish) or
    2) to a “w” sound, bringing your lips together at the end (uw) (most common in Dutch).

PRONUNCIATION: PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Here you can find some examples to practice. Check the video down below if you want to hear the correct pronunciation.

OU/AU koud, oud, zout, hout, fout, blauw, lauw
EI/IJ trein, klein, plein, ijs, mijn, zijn, zij, wij
UI huis, tuin, uit, lui, vuil, buiten, kruipen
EU deur, kleur, geur, gebeuren, heup, neus
OE boek, zoeken, zoen, moeten, voet, zoet

To practice the Dutch variation of vowel combinations specifically, check Taalmenu.

EXERCISES & LINKS

If you want some more exercise material, check out these links:

Apps:
Uitsprekend (Flemish pronunciation, for free)
Spreek Beter (Dutch pronunciation, 1.99€)
Nederlandse spelling (mostly made for kids who are Dutch native speakers, but could also be practical for adults learning Dutch)
Websites:
Van Dale NT2 Woordenboek (usable both on the Van Dale app and online, amazing Dutch to simplified Dutch for students dictionary with pronunciation examples of each word in both Flemish and Dutch variation, a bargain for 4.99€ / year!)
Studiebazaar Uitspraakoefeningen (Flemish pronunciation, organized according to vowels, vowel & consonant combinations)
Klankbord (Dutch pronunciation)
Forvo (a free online dictionary where you can hear how regular Flemish & Dutch people would pronounce a word, also available for many, many other languages)
Books
In terms of books, check out Nu versta ik je, available in both Dutch and Flemish versions.

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