Dutch – Constantly Moving the Goalposts

Dutch is a very challenging language to learn, because the constant adjustments in the ‘official’ spelling of Dutch words make for a chaotic and inconsistent linguistic environment.

A short blog but I need to keep going. I have been busy with translation work and this issue has been bugging me, hence the post. More recipes and Sri Lankan ramblings soon 🙂

All languages evolve, and words evolve too. This is normal and natural. However, the Dutch aren’t exactly normal in this respect: They more or less carry out what’s jokingly known as a ‘spring cleaning’ of the language and put out a new edition of Het Groene Boekje, aka the ‘Green Book’ or Word List of the Dutch Language. This book is released by a committee of Dutch Language experts in both Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s not a dictionary because here are no word definitions, but just a list of words and their new, ‘accepted’ spelling.

The initiative is meant well: They want to keep the language fresh and up-to-date, but still consistent and official. An honourable goal. However, they never seem to see the  real consequences of these changes. Instead of promoting consistency and precision, confusion is the result.


The problem is simple: The Dutch-speaking world simply doesn’t pay much attention to Het Groene Boekje. Nobody enforces it. Unlike the French, where maintaining the French language is a Government objective, backed by laws and policies, in Holland this is just a polite suggestion from academics. In practice, nobody really gives a shit.

Every time a new edition of Het Groene Boekje appears, the Dutch speakers react. Some people complain about some of the decisions and others support them; newspapers and writers tend to ignore it (wisely in my view). On the other hand, schools usually adopt the new spellings. As a result, spelling in Dutch is annoying.

So, if you’re planning to learn Dutch, be prepared: forget sense and semantics. Good luck with the spelling!