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1.1.1. Nominal features (number, gender and person)

This section briefly discusses the nominal features number, person and gender. These features play an important role in the description of agreement relations: number and person are relevant for subject-verb agreement; number and gender are relevant for agreement between the noun and its determiner and/or attributive adjectival modifier(s). Moreover, we will show that all three types of nominal features are relevant for the characterization of the personal and possessive pronouns in Dutch.

[+]  I.  Number

Noun phrases are normally specified for number. Although some noun phrases are always singular (e.g., noun phrases headed by a substance noun like water) or plural (the so-called pluralia tantum like de tropen'the tropics'), the vast majority of nouns can have either a singular or a plural form. Morphologically speaking, pluralization is generally signaled by adding one of two endings: the ending -(e)n or the ending -s. A small number of nouns, like methode'method', can take either ending. A very small group of nouns form their plural by means of the suffix -eren. Plural formation is illustrated in example (1).

Example 1
Plural formation
suffix singular plural
-en hond‘dog’ honden‘dogs’
-s sleutel‘key’ sleutels‘keys’
-en or -s methode‘method’ methodes/n‘methods’
-eren kind‘child’ kinderen‘children’

The ending is mostly determined by phonological and/or morphological properties of the nominal stem. The ending -en (pronounced as schwa in most varieties of Dutch) is by far the most common one, and is generally found after nouns ending in a stressed syllable; the affix -s, on the other hand, is generally used after stressed syllables. As a result of this, plural nouns generally end in a trochee, that is a sequence of a stressed and an unstressed syllable; cf. Booij (2002). This means that the majority of monosyllabic nouns like hond'dog' in (2a) as well as the majority of polysyllabic nouns with stress on the final syllable, like kanón'gun' in (2b), take the ending -en; nouns like kánon'canon' with penultimate stress, on the other hand, normally take the -s ending.

Example 2
a. honden 'dogs'
b. kanonnen 'guns'
c. kanons 'canons'

There are many exceptional cases, however, which sometimes can be explained by considering the history of the word, but since we do not aim at giving a full description of all the intricacies involved in plural formation, we refer the reader to De Haas & Trommelen (1993: 157ff.) Haeseryn et al. (1997), and Booij (2002: Section 2.2.1) for a complete overview of the rules for pluralization and exceptions to these rules. For a (perhaps somewhat surprising) description of the meaning of the plural morpheme, see Section

[+]  II.  Gender

Dutch nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter. As we will see shortly, the distinction between neuter and non-neuter nouns can be readily observed from the syntactic behavior of the nouns. The difference between masculine and feminine nouns, on the other hand, has no syntactic or morphological reflex in Standard Dutch, and can only be observed if the pronoun hij/zij'he/she' is used to refer to a previously mentioned noun phrase. It therefore does not come as a surprise that for many speakers, this distinction is more or lesss neutralized, so that they have to take recourse to a dictionary when they want to make the distinctions (especially in written language, where distinguishing between masculine and feminine nouns is still the norm). Leaving personal pronouns aside, many (if not most) speakers of most varieties of Dutch actively operate with a binary opposition between +neuter and -neuter nouns; see Section, sub V, for more discussion.
      The most conspicuous difference between +neuter and -neuter nouns is the choice of definite article: singular +neuter nouns take the definite article het, while singular -neuter (and plural) nouns are preceded by the definite article de. For this reason the two types of nouns are often referred to as het- and de-nouns, respectively. Gender also affects the form of demonstrative/possessive pronouns, some quantifiers, attributively used adjectives and relative pronouns. Examples are given in Table 1, which also provides references to the sections where more information about these agreement patterns can be found.

Table 1: Gender
  [+neuter] [-neuter] section
definite articles het boek
the book
de pen
the pen
demonstratives dit/dat boek
this/that book
deze/die pen
this/that pen
possessive pronouns ons boek
our book
onze pen
our pen
quantifiers elk boek
each book
elke pen
each pen
attributive adjectives een rood boek
a red book
een rode pen
a red pen
relative pronouns het boek dat ik las
the book that I read
de pen die ik heb gekocht
the pen that I have bought

The Dutch determiner system differs from the pronominal system, which still has a three-way distinction between masculine, feminine and neuter gender. This mismatch seems to result in the system of pronominal reference, where syntactic agreement in gender features is gradually replaced by a system in which the choice of the pronoun is determined by semantic factors; cf. Section sub III. It is also interesting to note that the determiner systems of many Dutch dialects differ from the Standard Dutch one in exhibiting a three-way distinction between; see Cornips & De Vogelaer (2009) and references given there.

[+]  III.  Person

The person features are relevant for pronouns only, since lexical noun phrases like het boek'the book' and de man'the man' are always third person. Person features can best be described by appealing to notions of discourse, as in (3). First person refers to a set of entities including the speaker (the speaker may of course also exhaust the set). Second person refers to a set of entities including the addressee but excluding the speaker: if the speaker is included the first person is used. Third person refers to a set of entities excluding both the speaker and the addressee.

Example 3
a. First person: +speaker±addressee
b. Second person: -speaker+addressee
c. Third person: -speaker-addressee
[+]  IV.  Illustration: personal and possessive pronouns

All nominal features discussed above are relevant for the classification of the personal and possessive pronouns in Dutch. These pronouns have either a singular or a plural form. We also have to distinguish between the three persons. The third person pronouns are further divided into three groups on the basis of gender. This leads to the classification given in Table 2. Note that a complete classification of the personal and possessive pronouns requires more distinctions, but we postpone the discussion of these to Section 5.2, where the pronouns are discussed more extensively.

Table 2: Personal and possessive pronouns
  singular plural
  personal possessive personal possessive
  subject object   subject object  
1st person ik mij mijn wij ons ons
2nd person jij jou jouw jullie jullie jullie
3rd person masculine hij hem zijn zij hen/hun hun
  feminine zij haar haar      
  neuter het het zijn      

  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Cornips, Leonie & Vogelaer, Gunther de2009Variatie en verandering in het Nederlandse genus: een multidisciplinair perspectiefTaal en Tongval, themanummer 22 (Perspectieven op het genus in het Nederlands)1-12
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
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