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Show full table of contents Proper nouns

The examples in (82) show that proper nouns are normally not preceded by an article in Standard Dutch. Given the fact that proper nouns are normally used to uniquely identify an entity in the domain of discourse (domain D), this is not really surprising. Since the function of an indefinite article is mainly to convey that at least one entity satisfies the description of the NP, its addition is superfluous in the case of a proper noun. And since the function of a definite article is to indicate that the entity referred to can be uniquely identified, its use would lead to redundancy since proper nouns typically have a unique referent. As a consequence, addition of an article to proper nouns like Marie and Rotterdam in (82) would lead to a weird result.

Example 82
a. Marie woont in Rotterdam.
  Marie lives  in Rotterdam
b. Ik zag Marie gisteren.
  saw  Marie  yesterday
c. Ik ga morgen naar Rotterdam.
  go  tomorrow  to Rotterdam

Despite its semantic redundancy, definite articles can co-occur with a proper noun in certain Dutch dialects and in Standard German: cf. German der nom Peter'the Peter'. The fact that a determiner is possible in these cases might be related to the fact that its presence allows case to be morphologically expressed, as is clear from the nominative marking on the German article in the example above. The impossibility of the definite article in Standard Dutch may therefore be related to the absence of morphological case marking in this language. For more discussion on the use of articles with proper nouns, see Alexiadou et al. (2007:183 ff.).
      There are several exceptions to the general rule that proper nouns are not preceded by an article, which we will discuss in the following subsections.

[+]  I.  Articles that are part of the proper noun

In some cases a definite article can be construed as an inherent part of the name. Some examples of such proper nouns are given in (83).

Example 83
a. het Gooi
a region in the center of the Netherlands
b. de Noordzee
the sea between Great Britain and the Netherlands
c. de Westerkerk
a church in Amsterdam
d. (Jan) de Graaf, (Peter) de Vries, (Marie) de Boer
family names

Examples such as (83) are not purely a lexical matter, since all kinds of subregularities can be found. We will not extensively discuss these here, but simply summarize the main findings from Haeseryn et al. (1997), to which we refer for further details and more examples. The definite article is common with geographical names but not with names of continents, nations, counties and cities, except when the name is a syntactic plural ( de Hebriden'the Hebrides') or when the organization form is part of the name ( de Sovjet Unie'the Soviet Union'). Geographical names with a definite article involve the names of mountains ( de Snowdonsg 'the Snowdon'; de Alpenpl 'the Alps'), woods ( het Zwarte Woud'the Black Forest'), seas, lakes and rivers ( de Noordzee'the North Sea'; het IJsselmeer; de Rijn'the Rhine'), and celestial bodies ( de maan'the moon'; de Melkweg'the Milky Way'). Names of buildings, streets, parks, squares, etc. also take a definite determiner ( de Westerkerk, het Damrak, het Vondelpark). The same thing holds for names of organizations and societies ( de Algemene Vereniging voor Taalwetenschap'the general society for linguistics'), and names of papers and magazines, especially if they contain the “kind” name ( het Algemeen Dagblad'the general daily' versus Lingua). Finally, the names of cultural periods and certain festivities also take the definite article ( de Renaissance'the Renaissance'; het Carnaval'Carnival').

[+]  II.  Modified proper nouns
[+]  A.  Restrictive modifiers

In (84), we see that the geographical proper noun Rotterdam cannot be construed with a definite article when on its own, but must be preceded by a definite article if a restrictive postnominal modifier like van mijn jeugd is added. The semantic effect of adding the modifier is that Rotterdam is no longer construed as uniquely identified; the modifier invokes a reading according to which several different instantiations of Rotterdam can be discerned, which can be located in the past, the present and the future. As a result, the use of the definite article is no longer redundant, and hence (84b) is completely well-formed.

Example 84
a. Ik denk vaak aan (*het) Rotterdam.
  think  often  of     the  Rotterdam
b. Ik denk vaak aan *(het) Rotterdam van mijn jeugd.
  think  often  of     the  Rotterdam of my childhood

Under similar conditions, the indefinite article een can be licensed. In example (85a), the indefinite noun phrase refers to an (imaginary) instantiation of Rotterdam that does not have a subway, and again the structure is perfectly acceptable. The acceptability of (86a) perhaps suggests that the indefinite article is optional in this case, but the fact that the negative adverb niet'not' in (86b) can intervene between the proper noun and the PP zonder metro shows that the two do not form a constituent in this case. This conclusion is supported by the topicalization data in (86c&d), which sharply contrast with those in (85c&d)

Example 85
a. Ik kan me een Rotterdam zonder metro niet voorstellen.
  can  refl  a Rotterdam without subway  not  imagine
  'I canʼt picture a Rotterdam without a subway.'
b. * Ik kan me een Rotterdam niet zonder metro voorstellen.
c. Een Rotterdam zonder metro kan ik me niet voorstellen.
d. * Een Rotterdam kan ik me zonder metro niet voorstellen.
Example 86
a. Ik kan me Rotterdam zonder metro niet voorstellen.
  can  refl  Rotterdam without subway  not  imagine
b. Ik kan me Rotterdam niet zonder metro voorstellen.
c. ?? Rotterdam zonder metro kan ik me niet voorstellen.
d. Rotterdam kan ik me niet zonder metro voorstellen.

      A restrictive modifier can also be used if the proper noun fails to uniquely identify the intended referent in domain D. This may happen if domain D contains several entities that are called Jan. The modifier then aids the listener in picking out the intended referent. An example is given in (87b). As is shown in (87c), the modifier van hiernaast may also appear in the absence of the definite article. In this case, the postnominal PP does not function as a restrictive modifier but as a kind of non-restrictive modifier that facilitates the identification of the intended referent of the proper noun by restricting the topic of discourse to the people next door.

Example 87
a. * de Jan
  the Jan
b. de Jan van hiernaast
  the  Jan  of next.door
c. Jan van hiernaast
  Jan  of next.door
[+]  B.  Non-restrictive modifiers

Non-restrictive modifiers may also occur if an article is present, that is, in cases in which reference without the modifier would also be unequivocal. Noun phrases of this kind may be either definite or indefinite. The definite article in (88a) does not, however, imply that there is more than one Peter, one of whom is laughing, but that the property denoted by the adjective lachende'laughing' is applicable to the person referred to as Peter; the implication is that we are dealing with a characteristic property of Peter. The indefinite article in (88b), on the other hand, presents the fact that Peter is laughing as a more incidental property of Peter, and suggests that there must be some particular reason for this. The article-less example in (88c) evokes what may be called a (non-restrictive) “epithet” reading: again, there is no question of there being more than one Peter in the domain of discourse; the extra information, by close association with the person, becomes more or lesss part of the proper noun.

Example 88
a. Voor de deur stond de lachende Peter.
  before the door  stood  the laughing Peter
b. Voor de deur stond een lachende Peter.
  before the door  stood  a laughing Peter
c. Voor de deur stond lachende Peter.
  before the door  stood  laughing Peter

      Other examples are given in (89) and (90). The definite examples in (89a) and (90a) make statements about Rotterdam and Karl Marx that confirm knowledge previously established. Example (89a) is most natural if it has been mentioned earlier in the discourse that Rotterdam is burning, and (90a) reflects the knowledge of the speaker that Karl Marx had a beard. In the indefinite (b)-examples, by contrast, the modifiers introduce novel, out-of-the-ordinary information about the head noun: Rotterdam had not been mentioned to be in flames before; Karl Marx did not use to wear a beard before.

Example 89
a. het brandende Rotterdam
  the  burning  Rotterdam
b. een brandend Rotterdam
  burning  Rotterdam
Example 90
a. de bebaarde Karl Marx
  the  bearded  Karl Marx
b. een bebaarde Karl Marx
  bearded  Karl Marx

Of course, the (a)-examples need not imply that the hearer shares the speakerʼs knowledge at the time at which these examples are uttered; if not, the listener will be led to conclude that this is an established fact, and that the attributive modifier is used as a kind of epithet. The sheer mention of de beeldschone Helena'the ravishing Helen' in a novel invites the reader to infer that the character in question is extremely beautiful.

[+]  III.  Type versus token readings

Compare the examples in (90) with those in (91). The difference in acceptability is due to the fact that the adjective geboren'born' in (91) expresses an individual-level property of the species (here: homo sapiens) to which the referent of the proper noun belongs, which results in a tautology in the case of the definite determiner, and in nonsense in the case of the indefinite article. At least, this holds on the token reading of the proper noun, that is, where the name is used with reference to the actual individual bearing that name.

Example 91
a. $ de geboren Karl Marx
  the  born  Karl Marx
b. $ een geboren Karl Marx
  born  Karl Marx

On a type reading of the proper noun, however, these examples are acceptable. On this reading Karl Marx is not representing the actual individual bearing this name but a set of properties assumed to be embodied by this individual (e.g., being an intellectual with particular leadership capacities). On this reading, the examples in (92) may be equivalent to the ones in (93), in which the common noun volksleider'demagogue' replaces Karl Marx.

Example 92
a. (?) de geboren Karl Marx
  the  born  Karl Marx
b. een geboren Karl Marx
  born  Karl Marx
Example 93
a. de geboren volksleider
  the  born  people.leader
b. een geboren volksleider
  born  people.leader

      The type reading forced upon the proper nouns in (92) also shows up in another context in which proper nouns are combined with the indefinite article een. In (94) een Kluivert denotes the set of salient properties embodied by the individual named Kluivert (a famous Dutch soccer player), not the individual himself. With the indefinite article left out, the meaning changes from the type reading to the token reading, that is, We hebben Kluivert in de ploeg means that the person named Kluivert is playing on our team. The type reading can be enhanced by adding the attributive adjective echt'true' or typisch'typical' to the indefinite noun phrase; in this case dropping the indefinite article does not lead to a token reading but results in ungrammaticality. In passing, note that example (94a) with the indefinite article is also acceptable under the “representative of proper noun set” reading to be discussed in Subsection V below.

Example 94
a. We hebben #(een) Kluivert in de ploeg.
  we  have      a  Kluivert in the team
  'We have a player like Kluivert on our team.'
b. We hebben *(een) echte Kluivert in de ploeg.
  we have      a  true  Kluivert in the team

In the examples in (94) the indefinite article can be replaced by the negative article geen, as in (95a). Note, however, that in some contexts the phrase geen Kluivert can actually designate the specific individual whose name is Kluivert; example (95b) is a case in point.

Example 95
a. We hebben geen (echte) Kluivert in de ploeg.
  we  have  no   real  Kluivert  in the team
b. Ik zat al een uur te kijken, maar al wie ik zag, geen Kluivert.
  sat  already an hour  to watch  but  all who I saw  no Kluivert
  'Iʼd been watching for an hour already, but Kluivert I didnʼt see.'

      The type reading of proper nouns preceded by the indefinite article is shown in a somewhat different way by example (96c). Names of languages cannot normally be construed with an article, either definite or indefinite. But if the noun is postmodified, both the definite and the indefinite article are possible. The difference between (96b) and (96c) is on a par with that found in (84b) and (85a). The semantic contributions of the definite and the indefinite article are, respectively, “the type of” and “a type of”. Note that it is not possible to replace the articles in (96b&c) by their (in)definite counterparts; the reason for this is not clear.

Example 96
a. Hij spreekt Nederlands.
  he  speaks  Dutch
b. Hij spreekt het/*een Nederlands van een aristocraat.
  he  speaks  the/a Dutch  of an aristocrat
  'He speaks the type of Dutch spoken by an aristocrat.'
c. Hij spreekt een/*het Nederlands dat niemand kan verstaan.
  he  speaks  a/the Dutch  that nobody can understand
  'He speaks a type of Dutch that nobody understands.'
[+]  IV.  “For instance”

The indefinite article een, when combined with a proper noun, can have various other semantic effects. The first is what we may somewhat redundantly call a specific interpretation of the een + proper-noun combination, instantiated by examples such as (97). In examples of this type, the indefinite article may be readily omitted without meaning being affected, which is not surprising given that the proper noun itself already designates a specific individual in the universe of discourse.

Example 97
a. Hebben we überhaupt goede kandidaten voor deze baan?
speaker A
  have  we at all  good candidates  for this job
b. Nou, ik noem bijvoorbeeld (een) Jansen of (een) Pieterse.
speaker B
  well  mention  for example   a  Jansen or   a  Pieterse
  'Well, Jansen or Pieterse for instance.'
[+]  V.  Representative of proper noun set

Consider the Dutch indefinite article in combination with the family name Jansen illustrated in (98). Here, Jansen refers to the set of members of the family named Jansen, and the use of een picks out one particular member from among this set. In this particular context, the semantics of een is similar to its +specific meaning found when een is construed with common nouns.

Example 98
a. Ken jij de familie Jansen?
speaker A
  know  you  the family Jansen
  'Do you know the Jansen family?'
b. Ja, ik heb nog met #(een) Jansen op school gezeten.
speaker B
  yes  have  prt  with     a  Jansen  on school  sat
  'Yes, I went to school together with a (member of the) Jansen (family).'

Surnames can also be used in the plural to refer to more members of a family; example (99a), for instance, can be used to refer to a representative set of a family, e.g., a married couple and their children. Example (99b) gives an example where the noun phrase is used for all members of the family.

Example 99
a. De Jansens komen vanavond eten.
  the Jansens  come  tonight  eat
  'The Jansens are coming to dinner tonight.'
b. De Oranjes zijn een oude familie.
  the Oranjes  are  an old family
[+]  VI.  “A certain”

The sentence uttered by speaker B in (98) is unambiguous in the context given; but out of context, it allows an alternative reading in which the semantic contribution of een is that of English a certain, as in (100a). On this reading, the indefinite article is optionally followed by the adjective zekere'certain'. The implication of using this construction is that the speaker does not know the person in question: for him or her, the name is merely a description distinguishing the referent from people with other surnames; the name does not, however, enable the speaker to (uniquely) identify this referent. Moreover, the implication is that the addressee may not know the person either. In this use, the indefinite article may also appear in a schwa-inflected form, spelled as ene and pronounced with the full vowel of the numeral één: [e:nə]. If ene is used, zekere cannot be inserted, as is shown in (100b). Use of ene has a pejorative flavor: not only does the speaker not know the person in question, but in addition the impression given is that this person is unimportant, that is, not worth knowing.

Example 100
a. Er staat een (zekere) Jansen op je te wachten.
  there  stands   certain  Jansen  on you  to wait
b. Er staat ene (*zekere) Jansen op je te wachten.
  there  stands     certain  Jansen  on you  to wait
  'There is a certain (person called) Jansen waiting for you.'

This use of een/ene in combination with proper nouns may be thought of as the opposite of the emphatic use of the definite article in examples of the type in (101). What the emphatic definite article expresses in Bʼs response is that the person in question is not just any mortal by the name of Eunice Burns, but that she is the unmistakable, well-known, famous, etc. Eunice Burns. More discussion of emphatic definite articles is found in Section, sub II.

Example 101
a. Er staat ene Eunice Burns voor de deur.
speaker A
  there  stands  Eunice Burns  in.front.of the door
b. Niet ene Eunice Burns, Eunice Burns.
speaker B
  not  a  Eunice Burns  the Eunice Burns
[+]  VII.  Prototypical/metaphorical reading

With family names, the use of the attributive adjective echt/typisch results in a reading of “prototypical member of the family”. Example (102), for instance, expresses that Philip IV has all the prototypical characteristics (in character or appearance) assumed to be common to the individual members of the house of Habsburg.

Example 102
Philips de vierde is een echte Habsburger.
  Philip IV  is a true Habsburgian
'Philip IV is prototypical member of the house of Habsburg.'

This use of proper nouns comes fairly close to the case where a proper noun is not used to refer to the (set of) entities normally referred to by means of a particular name, but is, instead, used metaphorically to refer to some property normally associated with this entity. Thus in the examples in (103), the names of well-known persons or figures with a remarkable feature or talent are used to ascribe these features or talents to some other person. In these cases the proper noun appears in predicative position and is often accompanied by some form of evaluation.

Example 103
a. Hij is een echte Nero.
  he  is a real Nero
  'Heʼs a bad person.'
b. Hij is bepaald geen Bouwmeester.
  he  is  certainly  no Bouwmeester
  'He isnʼt exactly a great actor.'
c. Ze beschouwen hem als de Nederlandse Pavarotti.
  they  regard  him  as the Dutch Pavarotti
  'They consider him a great tenor.'
[+]  VIII.  “Effected object”

One case in which articles are combined with (personal) proper nouns is instantiated by the examples in (104). Here the proper noun acts as a stand-in for a noun denoting an object created by the bearer of the name in question; een Van Gogh refers to a painting by Van Gogh, a so-called “effected object” (whence the label).

Example 104
a. De Van Gogh bij ons aan de muur is niet echt.
  the Van Gogh with us on the wall  is not real
b. We hebben een Van Gogh aan de muur.
  we  have  a Van Gogh  on the wall

One may wonder whether examples of this type involve direct construal of definite articles with a proper noun. An alternative approach would be to say that what the article is actually being construed with is an elliptic (common) noun denoting the work painted by Van Gogh. In that case, the structure of the relevant noun phrases in (104) will be as indicated in (105a). A potential problem for such an approach is, however, that in the case of definite reference, the “elliptical” construction requires the use of the non-neuter form of the definite article, whereas the overtly expressed head may be either the non-neuter tekening'drawing' or the neuter noun schilderij'painting'. The (a)-example and the two (b)-examples differ also in that the preposition van is obligatory in the latter but impossible in the former.

Example 105
a. een/de [∅ [Van Gogh]]
b. een/de tekening van Van Gogh
  a/the[-neuter]  drawing of  Van Gogh
b'. een/het schilderij van Van Gogh
  a/the[+neuter]  painting  of Van Gogh

This suggests that the analysis in (105a) is not feasible, and that we have to assume that the proper noun is directly construed with the determiner, that is, acts like a regular common noun. This also accounts for the fact illustrated in (106) that these proper nouns allow a plural form.

Example 106
Zij hadden daar minstens drie Van Goghs in de kelder staan.
  they  had  there  at.least  three Van Goghs  in the cellar  stand
'They had at least three Van Goghs standing in the cellar.'

Additional evidence for direct construal of the proper noun and the determiner can be found in Flemish Dutch, which unlike Standard Dutch has different articles for feminine and masculine nouns. The examples in (107) only accept the masculine articles, regardless of the gender of both the “implicit” noun and the creator. In (107a), the masculine articles den/nen (definite/indefinite) are used, despite the fact that the allegedly “implicit” noun schilderye'painting', is feminine. Example (107b) illustrates even more clearly that the choice of the article is independent of the gender of either the understood noun or the biological sex of the creator: the Flemish word for sculpture, beeld, is neuter, while the creator in question is female: the article, on the other hand, must be masculine (Liliane Haegeman p.c.).

Example 107
a. den/nen Matisse
a painting
  the/a  Matisse
b. den/nen Dhaese
a sculpture
  the/a  Dhaese
  • Alexiadou, Artemis, Haegeman, Liliane & Stavrou, Melita2007Noun phrases in the generative perspectiveBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
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