Wat móét ik nou hiermee? Accents on Dutch Words, Explained Posted by Sten on Feb 21, 2022 in Dutch Grammar
Dutch is pretty straightforward. Unlike German, French, Spanish or some Nordic languages, we don’t put accents on our letters! But then words like ingeënt, kopiëren, reünie, drieënvijftig, geïnd and tweeën say hello. This is what we call het trema (diaeresis), and in the Netherlands, it doesn’t signify that we pronounce the letter differently, but it’s rather an indication that we shouldn’t read klinkers (vowels) together. In our post on trema’s, we explain this further. However, there is something else you might see sometimes in Dutch! Yes, tekens (signs), or accenten (accents) in Dutch: we gaan het er wéér over hebben! (We will talk about it again!)
Hè? Wat is dít nou weer?!
In Dutch, we have three different accents, adopted from French. There are a number of words we adopted from French, and so they sometimes keep their accent to indicate how they’re pronounced. So in this case, they DO change the way the letter sounds!
One of the most common examples is hé, these days often simply written as hee, and hè, which these days is pretty much synonymous to he. Because these simple exclaims are used so frequently, the loss of the accent makes sense. After all, the accent is a rather unusual thing in Dutch, so a lot of people avoid it or forget it was even necessary. While the double e in hee does the trick, just like in other words like mee, he has a different problem. To get the sound, you’d have to write heh – but an h at the end of a word is even weirder than the è. Why some modification of he is necessary becomes clear when you say it. Here’s what they sound like:
Regardless, like I said, he is seen as synonymous these days to hè, because he as you can hear above doesn’t exist in Dutch anyway.
A wonderful explanation is the song above by School TV, which also comes with a quiz and song text!
The streepje (line) to the right (é) is called the accent aigu, the one to the left (è) is the accent grave. There are words where the accent grave is mandatory, such as:
de première (premier)
de barrière (barrier)
de crème (cream)
de scène (scene)
à (each) – as in pak suiker à 5 euro (pack of sugar each 5 euros)
The accent aigu is also seen in English, in many of the same words as in Dutch! Here are a few:
het café (café)
het cliché (cliché)
het decolleté (décolletage)
If this wasn’t enough, there’s also the rare accent circonflexe, which is often simply known as het dakje (the little roof): â, ê, û. This is really only French words where we see it. And they indicate a French pronunciation:
de crème fraîche (creme fraîche)
de enquête (inquiry, poll)
And here’s how we say those three French accents in Dutch:
Now you might ask yourself: “Cool, Sten, but what about the dít in the heading of this section?! That’s not a French loan word.” And you’d be asking rightfully. What is that?!
Let me emphasize this
While it’s often hard to stress or emphasize words in writing, the Dutch have a special trick up their sleeve – a second use of the accent aigu! We also use this accent to show the reader where the word is stressed. Here’s how a Dutch person will read the heading above:
Hè? Wat is dít nou weer?! (Huh? What on Earth is this now?)
Compared to that sentence without the accent on the i:
Hè? Wat is dit nou weer? (Huh? What on Earth is this now?)
As you can hear, there’s a difference in stress, and what the sentence says. With emphasis on the dít, it’s clear that the thing that surprises is the thing dít refers to, not the fact that there’s yet another thing happening.
With some words, it’s also really useful to differentiate between double meanings, and guide pronunciation. Voorkomen is a great example. Listen to the two ways you can read it:
vóórkomen (to occur) – het komt voor (it occurs)
voorkómen (to prevent) – het voorkomt (it prevents)
Normally, it’s clear which word is meant from context, but the accents can help in cases where context doesn’t give you enough information.
And that’s it! Have these accents puzzled you before? Are there other parts of Dutch language that confuse you or give you a hard time? Let me know in the comments below!
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