Some successful modern reforms of writing systems

Dutch spelling reforms

Matching language and writing system

Dutch spelling reforms show both the problems and possibilities of change in a democratic nation whose language, extent of dialects, and international ramifications are similar to English.

The Dutch government makes small modifications periodically and with vicissitudes, amid heated public discussion, to slowly bring the writing system closer to the changing spoken language.

Middle Dutch orthography became inconsistent partly due to scholars' attempts to establish it according to classical grammar and derivation. In 1804 an attempted reform was rejected partly on religious grounds. From 1883 an official reformed dictionary set up a rather difficult system with three rules of conformity, analogy and derivation that overrode the rule of 'cultured pronunciation', but 'One Hundred Years of Spelling Struggle' followed - and that is the title of a book about it. A Dutch simplified spelling society was founded in 1891 with the title of 'Verenging tot vereenvoudeging van onze spelling'. A limited 'New Spelling' that was decreed in 1934 had 'varying fortunes'.

The Dutch Nazis classed spelling reform with the evils of plutocrats, socialists and Jews. Patriotic Netherlanders were therefore ready to consider it to be important part of postwar reconstruction.

Belgium in 1946 and the Netherlands in 1947 adopted a 'New Spelling' which had further omissions of surplus letters and obsolete inflections. An orthographic commission continues to work on changes based on compromise, through the Spelling Law.

Dutch linguists have been interested in the idea of spelling reform on transformational-generative phonological principles but they have had to give way to popular opinions and trends.

All Dutch readers regards themselves as natural authorities on spelling, and as in English-speaking countries, they tend to confuse the spelling system with the language that it mere represents.

Critics of change argue that reforms reduce respect for the mother-tongue, make it unmelodious, threaten the culture, and make it harder to learn a foreign language. However polls show that generally Dutch public opinion is impatient with outdated spellings, and teachers are particularly critical of them. A survey in 1972 found that 65% of Dutch respondents favored further reform, although 83% of Flemish Belgian respondents opposed more phonemic changes, because these push the spelling further from their own dialect.

Interestingly, Afrikaans speakers in South Africa find reformed Dutch spelling easier to read than the more archaic versions, because their own Afrikaans form of the Dutch language has already become radically simplified.