Current focus: wiki, mailing list, news, donate

Portrait photo of Ciaran

Learning Dutch



Compared to English or French dictionaries, Dutch dictionaries are expensive and the quality isn't great. The main quality problem is that many words are left out. This will obviously happen with any dictionary, but in my experience it's a much bigger problem in Dutch dictionaries than it is in English or French dictionaries of the same size or price. The solution is to buy big, not small, and buy dictionaries from multiple publishers so that when your Van Dale dictionary is missing a word, maybe the editors of your Prisma dictionary will have remembered to include it.

Another problem is that the bilingual dictionaries are usually aimed toward Dutch learners of the other language rather than being aimed toward people learning Dutch. This is a problem you just have to live with. There are some publishers that make dictionaries aimed at English speakers, but they're small dictionaries and the quality is bad.

Nothing changes! Don't buy new!

In 1995, the spelling of some Dutch words was changed (by the Taal Unie) and they decided to review the spelling every ten years thereafter. I haven't researched the 1995 reform, so I can't say if much changed (although I do use a 1985 dictionary sometimes and haven't had any problems so far). In the 2005 review, very little changed. There's an overview near the end of this Dutch Wikipedia article:

Don't let the "In de nieuwe spelling" on expensive new dictionaries scare you away from the much cheaper dictionaries in second-hand shops. The problem of incompleteness in Dutch dictionaries is much worse than out-of-dateness, so it's better to buy two or three slightly older dictionaries than one latest-edition dictionary. As I write this (2009), the current version of the big, 3-book Van Dale dictionary is version 14, published in 2005. In the shops it costs €200. I recently got a copy of version 13, published in 1999, for €60 in a bookshop.

Reviews of specific dictionaries

There are three families of decent Dutch dictionaries: Van Dale, Koenen, Prisma. Each family includes unilingual and bilingual dicationaries.

There's a good unilingual Dutch dictionary for learners that I recommend: "Van Dale Pocketwoordenboek Nederlands als tweede taal". It gives definitions and sample sentences in simple Dutch for each entry.

Van Dale
This is the biggest publisher. Quality is ok.
As of May 2010, their biggest single-book dictionary is the Van Dale Middelgroot woordenboek Nederlands. 1,039 pages, €43.
Quality is ok, maybe lower than Van Dale, but they're cheaper and are at least useful as a backup.
Prisma published bilingual dictionaries for the first time in 2005. Each language had a two-part set, such as for French there was a NL->FR dictionary and a separate FR->NL dictionary. In 2008, they published the second edition and this time, each language is in a single book.
As of May 2010, the biggest Dutch dictionary from Prisma is their Handwoordenboek Nederlands: 1,535 pages, €35.
This is a line of dictionaries currently sold by Van Dale. They look very different to the usual Van Dale dictionaries, so I wonder if it was a separate company but was bought by Van Dale. The most recently published dictionaries in this line (as of December 2009), were published in 2006. Three years without new publications is strange, so I wonder if Van Dale are letting this family die out. I don't have one, so no idea about the quality.
As of May 2010, their biggest Dutch dictionary is 1,375 pages, €30, 63,000 head words.

My experience with Van Dale and Prisma is that all their books have quality problems - missing words and missing meanings for words. If you're going to buy two or three dictionaries, make sure you buy different brands each time. That way, if Van Dale have forgotten to add a word or a meaning, you might find it in the Prisma, etc.

I had the bilingual "Le Robert & Van Dale" 3rd edition, published in 1997 - the big hardback one, not the small paperback one. I then bought the 2006 edition of Van Dale's "Studiewoordenboeken Nederlands Frans" (i.e. just fr->nl, no nl->fr). The price was around €35. When I recently wanted to translate "ooit" (which a newspaper had used in the sense of "at one time", "once", or "at some point in the past"), I got these translations:

ooit jamais heeft u ooit zoiets gezien? avez-vous jamais vu ça?; mocht ik ooit in Londen komen si jamais je viens à Londres - wel heb je ooit? ça par exemple!

ooit [ojt] <fr.><adv.> 0.1 jamais - 3.1 heeft u ~ zo iets gezien? avez-vous jamais vu ça?; mocht ik ~ in Londen komen si jamais je viens à Londres 3.p wel heb je ~! ça par exemple!

Practically identical and both missing the sense of "ooit" that I was looking for. I wish I'd bought the Koenen dictionary instead of a second Van Dale dictionary.

Useful links

(Go: homepage of Ciarán O'Riordan)

Valid XHTML 1.1! Powered by GNU Made with Emacs FSF

© Copyright 2009 Ciarán O'Riordan. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved. Distribution of modified versions of all or part of this article are permitted, provided that such works carry three things: (1) this copyright notice, (2) prominent notices stating the that it has been changed, and (3) information for how to obtain the original (such as a URL).