I am trying to learn Dutch and I am struggling to produce the /s/ phoneme in the same way that some (most?) native speakers do. It seems that the usual pronunciation is such that it sounds closer to [ʃ] than to [s]. Actually, it sounds very close to the apical /s/ of Castillian Spanish, but not quite the same. Wikipedia says the following:

In the Netherlands, /s/ and /z/ may have only mid-to-low pitched friction, and for many Netherlandic speakers, they are retracted. In Belgium, they are more similar to English /s z/

But how retracted is it? How much should I retract my tongue? How does it compare to Castillian /s/?

What exactly does “mid-to-low pitched friction” mean? How is the production different from that of regular pitched friction?

Which dialects and sociolects have this distinct pronunciation?

To put it in a single question: how is /s/ produced in Dutch dialects?

  • I hope someone correctly answers this, I am wondering the same thing, though it seems to be understudied as not much online documentation explains this difference. Sep 24, 2018 at 22:19
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    Six years late, but I would say the Dutch /s/ (and /z/) is retracted about as much as Castilian /s/ – it’s alveolar-proper, being produced exactly at the alveolar ridge (the ridges you can feel where the top of your mouth starts curving upward at the hard palate), rather than at the flat part just behind the teeth as in English. Unlike the Spanish /s/, however, the Dutch one is laminal, not apical. Feb 25, 2023 at 2:58

1 Answer 1


Answer to the first question: The Dutch "s" is the same phoneme as English "s" just as Alveolar type of pronunciation and also like Spanish "s" but not that much similar in south-american-Spanish "s"; and dutch "s" is a little bit voiceless which is not tangible often. I guess the sequence and combination of 'S' with another letter makes you a little confused. Just like German, if you have "s" followed by some consonants it will change to [ʃ] phoneme.

German: Stark (ʃtark), spannen (ʃpannen), schlaf (ʃlaf)

Or English "Sh" : shop, shiny , trash, mushroom (I mentioned pronunciation of "s" in these languages if you're more familiar with one of these languages than English.)

And about the "s" sequence in Dutch,in simpler way, it's only about sequence of "sj" that makes it "ʃ" or English "Sh":

"sjaal" = scarf

And about difference of "s" with "z", only in Netherlands (such as the Amsterdam accent) and Frisian accent of Dutch, "z" phoneme can devoice and merge with "s" phoneme .In Frisian accents of Dutch, word-initial "z" phoneme is always realized as "s". And note that, "ʃ" is not native phoneme of Dutch and usually occur only in borrowed words, like "show" or "machine". Depending on the speaker and the position in the word, it may or may not be distinct from the assimilated realisation of the cluster "sj" .

  • The Romanian letter for sh is an s with a comma underneath it. We may avoid using diacriticals when typing on a computer keyboard, but that's something entirely different. In Romanian, s is always s, and sh is always sh.
    – Lucian
    Dec 15, 2016 at 21:04

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