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Making sense of old handwriting



How could language constitute as a challenge when reading records created in the Netherlands and other Dutch native-speaking countries? Most researchers might assume that fluency in speaking or reading Dutch would be enough to interpret records of genealogical value. However, as people start reading older records, they quickly find out that the records are not written in a pure standard form of Dutch but in a variety of Dutch-influenced by local dialects and  other languages,  particularly Latin, which was the main  literary language used by Catholic priests and Dutch scholars such as the Humanist Erasmus. In the South, some documents were written in French.

The process of standardizing the Dutch language with rules regulating the spelling and grammar of Dutch began at the start of the 16th century. The only major language differences from records in standard Dutch are the effects of the six different dialects spoken within the 12 provinces.

Variant Forms of Words 

As you read Dutch records, you will need to be aware that some words vary with usage. The prefix 't is equal to the Dutch word het, which means the. The prefix 's is a part of many place names and means des (of the). All prefixes are disregarded in alphabetized lists, except in Flemish records. The endings of words in a document may differ from what you find in a word list. For example, the document may use the word jonger, but you will find it in a word list as jong. In addition, the suffixes -je, -tje,-tien, or -ke are often added to words to indicate little. These suffixes can also indicate the feminine version of a name. Therefore, the word zoontje means little or young (tje) son (zoon)." The ending -sdr means "daughter of." Thus, Maritje is Mary and Aanke is Anna.

Plural forms of Dutch words usually add -en or -s to the singular word. Thus boer (farmer) becomes boeren (farmers), and tafel (table or index) becomes tafels (tables or indexes).

In Dutch, many words are formed by joining two or more words together. Very few of these compound words are included in this list. You will need to look up each part of the word separately. For example, geboortedag is a combination of two words, geboorte (birth) and dag (day).

Alphabetical Order 

In the Dutch language, the letter combination /ij/ is considered a single letter. It has the same value as /y/, and it is usually alphabetized as if it were a /y/. Some Dutch dictionaries and indexes use the following alphabetical order:

a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, ij (or y), z

Some Dutch dictionaries alphabetize the letter /ij/ under /i/ then /j/.

This word list follows the standard English alphabetical order. However, when working with alphabetized Dutch records, use the Dutch alphabetical order.


Spelling rules were not standardized in earlier centuries. Writers often failed to dot the /ij/, so that it looks like a /y/. The letter y was not used in older records. In Dutch, the following spelling variations are common.

  • /y/ used for /ij/
  • /g/ used for /ch/
  • /d/ and /t/ used interchangeably
  • /j/ and /i/ used interchangeably

Example: echt spelled as egt
                 overlijden spelled as overlyden
                 Arie spelled as Arij

Below is an example of the use of /i/ and /y/ in Arys and Luitjen.


Dutch Around the World 

Dutch is spoken in the Netherlands, northern Belgium, the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean, and Suriname. Flemish, which is spoken in Belgium, is a major dialect (regional variation) of Dutch. It uses words similar to the words in Dutch from the Netherlands. Afrikaans, which is spoken in South Africa, is a different language that is similar to Dutch. Frisian, which is spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland, is a different language from Dutch. In addition, Dutch is found in some early records of the United States (mostly in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Iowa) and in South Africa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Taiwan. Because of the distance between each region, variations of the language occurred and still occur today.



Paleography Introduction