While Dutch is consistently rated as one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, not every aspect of the language is a walk in the park. One of these aspects is pronunciation. Sure, the language is fairly phonetic (meaning that it “looks like it’s spelled”) especially compared to English, and Dutch uses the same Latin alphabet that you’re already familiar with. However, Dutch pronunciation is very guttural and getting accustomed to the spelling of words can be a hurdle. Here are some of trickiest hurdles of mastering Dutch pronunciation:
The Infamous G
No article (or conversation, for that matter) about Dutch pronunciation would be complete without talking about the infamous G. If you’re a native English speaker, you can take almost every instinct you have about pronouncing G’s and throw them away now. In Dutch, a G is pronounced quite like the German [ch], as in Bach. Or, while this sound doesn’t exist in Standard English, you might also be familiar with this sound in Scottish words like “loch” and “ach.”
In linguistics, this sound is called a velar fricative and can be pronounced more or less gutturally/harshly depending on the region. It’s almost like a gargling sound at the back of the throat, or the sound you make when you try to clear your throat. You can listen to it here in the example geel, which means “yellow.” In the video, we had fun watching the ways non-native speakers pronounced Gouda, groot, and goedemorgen.
If you can’t get it at first, don’t worry! It takes a while to get the hang of. Better yet, some variations of Dutch, like Belgian Flemish, pronounce it much softer.
For the uninitiated, Dutch can appear to have a lot of vowels. On top of that, getting used to which combinations correspond with what sounds can take a while — especially if you try to base it on English pronunciation or that of another Germanic language. Here are some of the most deceptive-looking combinations:
OU / AU
While many participants want to pronounce Gouda with an [oo] sound (like in “coop”), OU in Dutch is pronounced like the [ow] sound in English (and also found in our words like “loud” and “proud”). Think along the lines of “cow” or Laos and you’ll get this sound down in no time. Luckily, AU is pronounced the same way. And in the case that OU or AU is followed by a W, as in the word jouw (your), the W is silent. Handy, right?
This vowel combination might be one of the trickiest for English speakers, if only because the spelling isn’t very intuitive for us. As you might have figured out from the video, OE is pronounced like the [oo] sound in English, as in “loose.” Goedemorgen and koekjes don’t look as scary now, do they?
Like the other typical stumbling blocks in language learning, this sound doesn’t really exist in Standard English (except, again, for some varieties of Scottish English). In some ways, it’s similar to the OU and AU sound, but not the same. You might be tempted to think that “out” and uit sound the same when you hear it initially, but this is a dangerous trap to fall into. Listen to recordings of words like bruin (meaning “brown”) and repeat what you hear.
EI / IJ
Lucky for you, this other confusing Dutch sound comes in a pair — so if you learn one, you’ll learn them both. EI and IJ effectively sound the same in Dutch, and are called the korte EI (short EI) and lange IJ (long IJ) when Dutch children learn them in school. This sound is actually a diphthong (meaning a sound that is comprised of two vowels that merge together) and sounds somewhere between the Y in “by” and the AY in “May.” This sound makes up a large portion of Dutch phonology, so it’s a very important aspect to conquer!
A Germanic Base
There’s no doubt that Dutch shares much of its pronunciation with its larger Germanic language family tree. If you’re already familiar with German (or Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian), then the same pronunciation rules of J sounding like an English Y still stand. This handy tip will help you correctly pronounce words like koekjes and jouw.
The same is also generally true of the W sound in Dutch. If you’ve been exposed to any German before, then you’ll know that a W in German makes a V sound in English (so the dance Waltz sounds like “valtz” in its original pronunciation). This easy swap isn’t 100% the case in Dutch, but W’s generally sound like one of our V sounds. You can practice with words like wit (white) to properly master the pronunciation of stroopwafel.
In the end, Dutch and English pronunciation have a lot in common! There are hundreds of cognates that make learning easy, and most of the sounds you know from English carry over without much difficulty. All you need is a little practice to master it fully.