IJ (digraph)


IJ (lowercase ij; Dutch pronunciation: [ɛi]) is a digraph of the letters i and j. Occurring in the Dutch language, it is sometimes considered a ligature, or even a letter in itself – although in most fonts that have a separate character for ij the two composing parts are not connected, but are separate glyphs, sometimes slightly kerned.

An ij in written Dutch usually represents the diphthong [ɛi].[1] In standard Dutch, and most Dutch dialects, there are two possible spellings for the diphthong [ɛi]: ij and ei. This causes confusion for schoolchildren, who need to learn which words to write with ei and which with ij. To distinguish between the two, the ij is referred to as the lange ij ("long ij"), the ei as korte ei ("short ei") or simply E – I.[2] In certain Dutch dialects (notably West Flemish and Zeelandic), as well as the Dutch Low Saxon dialects of Low German, a difference in the pronunciation of ei and ij is maintained. Whether pronounced identically to ei or not, the pronunciation of ij is often perceived as being difficult by people who do not have either sound in their native language. The tendency for native English speakers is to pronounce ij as [aɪ] (like the English vowel y, as in by) which does not normally lead to confusion among native listeners, since in a number of dialects (e.g. in Amsterdam,[3] home of the body of water called the IJ) the same pronunciation is heard.

The ij originally represented a 'long i'.[4] This can still be seen in the etymology of some words, and in the Dutch form of several foreign placenames: Berlin and Paris are spelled Berlijn and Parijs. Nowadays, the pronunciation follows the spelling, and they are pronounced with [ɛi]. The IJ is different from the letter Y. It used to be common, in particular when writing in capitals, to write Y instead of IJ. In fact this was the official spelling in the earlier part of the 19th century. That practice has now long been deprecated, but the standard Dutch pronunciation of the letter Y is ij when reading the alphabet.[5] Also, in scientific disciplines such as mathematics and physics, the symbol y is usually pronounced ij.[6] To distinguish the Y from IJ in common speech however, Y is often called Griekse IJ ("Greek Y"), i-grec (the latter from French, with the stress on grec: [iˈgʁɛk]), or Ypsilon. In Dutch, the letter Y today only occurs in loanwords,[7] proper names, or in (variantly spelled) old Dutch, while in the related language Afrikaans, Y has completely replaced IJ. Furthermore, the names of Dutch immigrants to the United States, Canada and Australia often were anglicised, so that the IJ became a Y; for example, the surname Spijker often became Spyker while Snijder became Snyder.

The words “ijsvrij” and “yoghurt” in various forms. Depending on the form of handwriting or font used, the IJ and Y can look either nearly identical or very different.
Apt to confusion: (1) i + j, (2) ligature ij, (3) y with diaeresis, (4) y in Garamond
Logo of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
The name of a railway station
IJ is here written as one letter
Here, IJ is written as Y


IJ probably developed out of ii, representing a long [iː] sound (which it still does in some cases, such as in the word bijzonder and in several Dutch dialects).[4] In the Middle Ages, the i was written without a dot in handwriting, and the combination ıı was often confused with u. Therefore, the second i was elongated: ıȷ. Later, the dots were added, albeit not in Afrikaans, a language that has its roots in Dutch. In this language the y is used instead.

Alternatively, the letter J may have developed as a swash form of i. In other European languages it was first used for the final i in Roman numerals when there was more than one i in a row, such as iij for "three", to prevent the fraudulent addition of an extra i to change the number. In Dutch, which had a native ii, the "final i in a row elongated" rule was applied as well, leading to ij.

Another theory is that IJ might have arisen from the lowercase y being split into two strokes in handwriting. At some time in the 15th or 16th century, this combination began to be spelled as a ligature ij. An argument against this theory is that even in handwriting which does not join letters, ij is often written as a single sign.

Some time after the birth of this new letter, the sound which was now represented by ij, in most cases, began to be pronounced much like ei instead, but words containing it were still spelled the same. Nowadays, ij in most cases represents the diphthong [ɛi], except in the suffix -lijk, where it is usually pronounced as a schwa. In one special case, the Dutch word bijzonder, the (old) sound [iː] is correct standard pronunciation, although [i] is more common and [ɛi] is also allowed.

In proper names, ij often appears instead of i at the end of other diphthongs, where it does not affect the pronunciation: aaij, eij, oeij, ooij and uij are pronounced identically to aai [aːi], ei [ɛi], oei [ui], ooi [oːi] and ui [œy]. This derives from an old orthographic practice (also seen in older French and German) of writing y instead of i after another vowel; later, when y and ij came to be seen as interchangeable, the spellings with ij came to be used. Spelling reforms and standardization have removed the redundant js in common words, but proper names continue to use these archaic spellings.


A poster showing the letters of the alphabet used for writing education in the Netherlands. The final three letter pairs read "Xx IJij Zz".
This board was used to teach Dutch children to read. Letters which form a single sound are grouped, and this includes 'ij' in 'g ij s'
In this version the ij is a single glyph

As the rules of usage for the IJ differ from those that apply to the many other digraphs in the Dutch language – in some situations behaving more as a single ligature or letter than a digraph – the IJ is not only confusing to foreigners, but also a source of discussion among native speakers of Dutch. Its actual usage in the Netherlands and in Flanders (Belgium) sometimes differs from the official recommendations.

Official status

Both the Dutch Language Union and the Genootschap Onze Taal consider the ij to be a digraph of the letters i and j. The descriptive dictionary Van Dale Groot woordenboek van de Nederlandse taal states that ij is a "letter combination consisting of the signs i and j, used, in some words, to represent the diphthong ɛi."[8] The Winkler Prins encyclopedia states that ij is the 25th letter of the Dutch alphabet, placed between X and Y, though this definition is not generally accepted.[5]

In words where i and j are in different syllables, they do not form the digraph ij.


In the Netherlands, IJ is often used as a ligature:


In Flanders (Belgium), IJ is generally described in schools as a combination of two separate characters.



When a Dutch word starting with IJ is capitalised, the entire digraph is capitalised: IJsselmeer, IJmuiden.[9]

In Flanders, this rule is not followed as strictly, resulting sometimes in spellings such as Ijzer. Although this is not standard usage, one can sometimes even find this type of capitalization on official road signs in Flanders.

Many software packages with automated spelling corrections have the tendency to change the capital "J" to lower case, resulting in the frequent erroneous combination Ij in text prepared in such programs.

Other problems occur as well. Newer versions of Microsoft Word, for example, know that IJsselmeer is the correct spelling: both Ijsselmeer and ijsselmeer are rejected. When the user enters IJsselmeer the previously mentioned error (auto-replacement by Ijsselmeer) no longer occurs. However, when a sentence is started with ijsselmeer (all lower case), only the first letter (i) is capitalised, resulting in Ijsselmeer which is subsequently rejected.


Dutch dictionaries since about 1850 invariably sort ij as an i followed by a j, i.e., between ih and ik. This is the preferred sorting by the Taalunie.[5]

On the other hand, some encyclopedias, like the Winkler Prins, 7th edition, sort ij as a single letter positioned between x and y.

Telephone directories as well as the Yellow Pages in the Netherlands (but not those in Belgium) sort ij and y together, as if they were the same, between x and z. Thanks to this, surnames like Bruijn and Bruyn which sound the same (and even look similar), can be found in the same area. However, Bruin, though it sounds the same as well, is placed with "Brui-" and not with "Bruy-".


When words or (first) names are shortened to their initials, in the Netherlands a word or proper name starting with IJ is abbreviated to IJ. For example, IJsbrand Eises Ypma is shortened to IJ. E. Ypma.[10] Note that the digraph "ei" in "Eises", like other digraphs in Dutch, is shortened to one letter.


The Dutch word "bijna" (almost, nearly) with ad hoc stress on the first syllable indicated by two acute accents on the digraph ij.

In Dutch orthography, ad hoc indication of stress can be marked by placing an acute accent on the vowel of the stressed syllable. In case of a diphthong or double vowel, both vowels should be marked with an acute accent; this also applies to the IJ (even though J by itself is not a vowel, the digraph IJ represents one distinct vowel sound). However, due to technical limitations the accent on the j is often omitted in electronic documents: "bíjna".[11] Nevertheless, in Unicode it is possible to combine characters into a j with an acute accent – "bíj́na" – though this might not be supported or rendered correctly by some fonts or systems. This is the combination of the regular (soft-dotted) j (U+006A) and the combining acute accent  ́ (U+0301).


Vrijdag can be spelled out in two ways, depending on whether the speller considers ij to be one letter or not:

Wide inter-letter spacing

On this signboard of an off-licence (slijterij), IJ occupies the same space as single letters. The I is put over the lower end of the J to reinforce their unity, but this is optional and I and J can also be found separately on other signs

When words are written with large inter-letter spacing, IJ is often, but not always, kept together. F r a n k r ij k or F r a n k r i j k.

When words are written from top to bottom, with non-rotated letters, IJ is usually, but not always, kept together. Keeping it together is the preferred way.[10]




Spelling of proper names

In Dutch names, interchangeability of i, ij and y is frequent. Some names are changed unofficially for commercial reasons or by indifference:

The Dutch football team of Feyenoord changed its name from the original "Feijenoord" to "Feyenoord" after achieving international successes. This was done as a reaction to foreign people often mispronouncing the name. The Feijenoord district in Rotterdam, where the team is from, still writes its name using the original ij.

Phonetic Radio Alphabet

In the Dutch phonetic radio alphabet, the codeword IJmuiden represents the IJ. This is clearly different from the codeword Ypsilon, which is used to represent the Y. Dutch and Belgian armed forces use the official NATO phonetic alphabet, "Y" is "Yankee" and "IJ" is spelled out "India Juliet".

Word games

In crossword puzzles (except for Scrabble – see next paragraph), and in the game Lingo, IJ is considered one letter, filling one square, but the IJ and the Y are considered distinct. In other word games, the rules may vary.

The Dutch version of Scrabble has a Y with a face value of eight. Most players used it to represent IJ or Y. The recent Dutch version comes with an example game, which clearly indicates that Y is only Y, and IJ should be composed of I and J. In previous editions of Scrabble there was a single IJ sign.

In word games that make a distinction between vowels and consonants, IJ is considered to be a vowel, if it is considered one letter. Whether Y is a vowel or a consonant, is another matter of discussion, since Y can represent both a vowel or a (half-)consonant.

Technical details

Lijnbus (public bus, literally "line bus") road marking with IJ as a "broken U" glyph

In print, the letter ÿ (lowercase y with diaeresis) and ij look very different, but in the handwriting of most Dutch speakers, ÿ, ij and Y, IJ look identical. Fortunately, since the y occurs only in loanwords, the letter ÿ is extremely rare (if not altogether non-existent) in Dutch.

The long ij extends below the baseline and is therefore written with a long stroke. Even in handwriting that does not join letters, it is often written as a single sign.

On some road signs in the Netherlands, IJ appears as a single glyph formed like a U with a break in the left-hand stroke.

Uppercase IJ glyph with the distinctive "broken U" ligature in a Helvetica font for Omega TeX
This Dutch shopkeeper wrote 'byoux' instead of 'bijoux'


In Dutch Braille, used in the Netherlands, ij is represented by , which represents y in other varieties of Braille. y is written as .[12]

In Belgium, Dutch is written using French Braille, and so ij is simply written as i + j: .


The Dutch ij is neither present in the ASCII code, nor in any of the ISO 8859 character encodings, and therefore the digraph is most often encoded as an i followed by a j. The ligature does exist in Unicode in the Latin Extended-A range as U+0132 IJ LATIN CAPITAL LIGATURE IJ (HTML IJ) and U+0133 ij LATIN SMALL LIGATURE IJ (HTML ij).[13][14] These characters are considered compatibility-decomposable. They are included for compatibility and round-trip convertibility with legacy encodings. Their use is discouraged.[15] So even with Unicode available, it is recommended to encode ij as two separate letters.[10][16]


While Dutch typewriters usually have a separate key for lowercase ij, Belgian typewriters do not. In the Netherlands, a QWERTY computer keyboard lay-out is common. The standard US layout (often in "International Mode") is widely used, although a specific but rarely used Dutch variant (KBD143) does exist. In Belgium, a specific Belgian variant of AZERTY keyboard layout (KBD120) is widely used. None of these keyboards features a key for ij or IJ.

Not a digraph

If the i and the j belong to different syllables, such as in the mathematical term bijectie (syllablised "bi·jec·tie"), they do not form a ligature or a single letter. Earlier statements about sorting ij on par with y, keeping ij together in wide inter-letter spacing, the single square in crossword puzzles, etc., do not apply.

In the case of loanwords, the combination i+j is sometimes miscorrected to y. This can, among other things, lead to the sale of byoux (instead of the correct bijoux – jewelry).


  1. Booij, GE (1995), The Phonology of Dutch (Google Books), Oxford University Press, p. 4.
  2. Woordenlijst Nederlandse Taal (in Dutch), pp. 22–23.
  3. Onderzoek naar de Amsterdamse Volkstaal
  4. 1 2 "IJ: oorsprong van de lange ij". Genootschap Onze Taal (in Dutch).
  5. 1 2 3 "IJ - alfabetiseren". Nederlandse Taalunie (in Dutch). Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  6. 1 2 3 "IJ: plaats in alfabet". Genootschap Onze Taal (in Dutch). Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  7. "Y (klinker / medeklinker)". Genootschap Onze Taal (in Dutch). Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  8. Van Dale Groot woordenboek van de Nederlandse taal: "lettercombinatie bestaande uit de tekens i en j, gebruikt om, in een aantal woorden, de tweeklank ɛi weer te geven"
  9. "Ijsland / IJsland". Nederlandse Taalunie (in Dutch). Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  10. 1 2 3 Demchenko, Yuri. "European rules for the use of the IJ in public records". UA zone. Retrieved 2012-07-19.
  11. (Dutch) Klemtoonteken (algemeen), Nederlandse Taalunie
  12. Bols, Kim. "Het brailleschrift". BE: Kimbols.
  13. Latin Extended-A.
  14. "Range 0100–017F: Latin Extended-A", Code charts (PDF), Unicode.
  15. "3", The Unicode standard (PDF) (4.0 ed.), The Unicode consortium, 2003, pp. 71–72.
  16. "Unicode two and three Latin letter combinations", Scripts, SIL international.


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