• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show full table of contents
1.4.3. Subjunctive

The semantic distinction between indicative and subjunctive mood is often expressed by means of the terms realis and irrealis; the former expresses actualized whereas the latter expresses non-actualized eventualities. Palmer (2001:121ff.) shows that the distinction is somewhat more complicated since the term subjunctive may also be used to refer to presupposed propositions, and suggests that the distinction can be better described by means the term (non-)assertion: in languages that systematically make the distinction, the speaker uses the indicative to assert some new (non-presupposed) proposition and to indicate that he is committed to the truth of that proposition, whereas the conjunctive is used if the proposition is already presupposed or if the speaker is not necessarily committed to the truth of the proposition. The subjunctive thus can have a wide variety of functions; it is typically used (i) in reported speech, questions, and negative clauses; (ii) to refer to non-actualized (future), hypothetical or counterfactual events; and (iii) to express directives, goals, wishes, fears, etc.
      Palmer (2001:186) also notes that subjunctive markers "are often redundant, in that the notational irrealis feature is already marked elsewhere in the sentence". It is therefore not a real surprise that the subjunctive has virtually disappeared in Dutch: in the earliest written sources the morphological distinction between indicative and subjunctive had already disappeared in many cases, and it seems that from the sixteenth century onwards the subjunctive became more and more a typical property of written texts; cf. Van der Horst (2008). In present-day Dutch, the subjunctive is obsolete both in written language and in speech and seems to have survived only in a small number of fixed expressions.
      The linguistic literature on Dutch differs from that on German in that it normally does not distinguish between the present subjunctive (German: Konjunktiv I) and past subjunctive (German: Konjunktiv II), subsection I will show that the verb forms that are called subjunctive in Dutch normally consist of the stem of the verb plus the suffix -e and mostly seem to correspond with the German Konjunktiv I, subsection II will continue to show that Dutch does not have a morphological past subjunctive, and that many cases of the German Konjunktiv II are simply expressed by means of past-tense forms, which need not surprise us given Palmer's remark cited above that the subjunctive marking is often redundant; see Section 1.5 for ways to derive the "irrealis feature" from the past tense marking of the clause by relying on contextual information.

[+]  I.  Present subjunctive ending in -e

Like the German Konjunktiv I, the morphologically marked subjunctive in Dutch is a relic of older stages of the language. It is mainly found in the formal/archaic register; clear examples can be found in the first five lines of the 1951 translation of het Onzevader (the Lord's Prayer) by theNederlands Bijbelgenootschap in (215a). In colloquial speech, the subjunctive is only found in formulaic expressions such as (215b).

Example 215
a. Onze Vader Die in de Hemelen zijt,
Uw Naam word-e geheiligd;
/ʋɔrd/ + /ə/
Uw Koninkrijk kom-e;
/kom/ + /ə/
Uw wil geschied-e,
/ɣəsxid/ + /ə/
gelijk in de Hemel alzo ook op de aarde.
  'Our Farther which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.(St. Matthew 6:8-9)'
b. Lang lev-e de koningin!
/lev/ + /ə/
  long  live  the Queen

The examples in (215) show that the subjunctive is normally formed by adding the suffix -e to the stem of the verb, but there are also some irregular forms, like the conjunctive forms of the verb zijn in (216a). The Dutch subjunctive is normally used in the formation of clauses that are not declarative or interrogative. It may express incitements/wishes, as in the examples in (215), but also acquiescence, as in (216a). Example (216b) shows that the subjunctive normally occupies the first or the second position in the main clause, and must therefore be considered a finite verb form.

Example 216
a. Het zij zo.
  it  be  so
  'So be it.'
b. (Wel) moge het u bekomen.
  well  may  it  you  agree.with
  'I/We hope youʼll enjoy your meal.'

      That the morphologically marked subjunctive is no longer part of colloquial speech is clear from the fact that wishes, incitements, etc. are generally expressed by other means like modal (ad)verbs and periphrases. A clear example of this can be found in the 2004 Bible translation by theNederlands Bijbelgenootschap, in which the subjunctives in het onzevader in (215a) are replaced by a construction with the verb laten'to make'; see Section, sub VI, for more discussion of the laten-construction in (217).

Example 217
Onze Vader in de hemel,
laat uw naam geheiligd worden,
laat uw koninkrijk komen
en [laat] uw wil gedaan worden
op aarde zoals in de hemel.

For this reason we will not extensively discuss the present subjunctive, but refer the reader to Haeseryn et al. (1997:103ff.) for details concerning the relics of this category in the present-day language, while noting that the present subjunctive can still be recognized in certain lexical items, like the preposition dank zij'thanks to' and fixed lexical expressions like kost e wat het kost'at all costs' and god zij dank'thank God'.

[+]  II.  Past subjunctive

The German past subjunctive (Konjunktiv II) is much more productive than the present subjunctive (Konjunktiv I) and is normally used to refer to non-actualized eventualities or (in literary German) in contexts of reported speech to express lack of commitment to the truth of the proposition by the speaker; see, e.g., Drosdovski (1995:156ff.) and Palmer (2001). Dutch differs from German in that it does not have a special morphological verb form to express the past subjunctive; a case mentioned in Haeseryn et al. (1997) that can occasionally still be found in writing is ware, but it seems that most speakers only use this form in the fixed expression als het ware'so to speak'.

Example 218
Ware hij hier, dan ...
  were  he  here  then
'If he were here, then ....'

      It seems that in many cases, German past subjunctive constructions can simply be translated in Dutch by means of a regular past-tense form. In order to give an impression of the semantic difference between the simple past and the past subjunctive in German, consider the examples in (219), taken from Erb (2001:69).

Example 219
a. War Peter schon in Rom?
German simple past
  wasindicative  Peter already  in Rome
  'Has Peter already been in Rome?'
b. Wäre Peter schon in Rom!
German past subjunctive
  wassubjunctive  Peter already in Rome
  'I wish Peter was already in Rome!'

Placement of the simple past verb in the initial position of the sentence, as in (219a), results in a regular question interpretation, whereas placement of the past subjunctive in first position, as in (219b), triggers an irrealis interpretation: the speaker expresses a wish. The German examples in (219) can readily be translated by means of the examples in (220) with the past-tense form was'was'.

Example 220
a. Was Peter al (eerder) in Rome?
  was  Peter already  before  in Rome
b. Was Peter maar vast in Rome!
  was  Peter prt  already  in Rome

The meaning difference between the two Dutch examples is completely parallel to that between the two German examples in (219). This may suggest that Dutch is like German in that it also has a past subjunctive, albeit that the form of the Dutch past subjunctive happens to be identical to that of the simple past. One argument in favor of this suggestion is that the interrogative construction can readily occur in the present, whereas the irrealis construction cannot.

Example 221
a. Is Peter al in Rome?
  is Peter already  in Rome
b. * Is Peter maar vast in Rome!
  is Peter prt  already  in Rome

The use of the past tense in irrealis contexts is very pervasive in Dutch, and the examples in (222) show that the past tense can be expressed both on main verbs and on non-main verbs.

Example 222
a. Las/*Leest Peter dat boek nu maar!
  read/reads  Peter that book  now  prt
  'I wish that Peter would read that book!'
b. Had/*Heeft Peter dat boek nu maar gelezen!
  had/has  Peter  that book now  prt   read
  'I wish that Peter would have read that book!'

It should be noted, however, that the irrealis meaning only arises in examples like (220b) and (222) if a modal particle like maar is present; the examples in (223) show that without such a particle the irrealis reading becomes impossible. The unacceptability of these examples therefore suggests that the irrealis reading arises as a result of combining the past tense with modal particles of this type.

Example 223
a. * Was Peter (vast) in Rome!
  was  Peter already  in Rome
b. * Las Peter dat boek (nu)!
  read  Peter that book  now
b'. * Had Peter dat boek (nu) gelezen!
  had  Peter that book  now  read

      It is also very common to express irrealis without the use of a modal particle by using a past-tense form of an epistemic modal. Such verbs are used to provide the speaker's judgment on the likelihood that a specific proposition is true: by using, e.g., the modal verb zullen in Jan zal komen morgen'Jan will come tomorrow', the speaker indicates that he has sufficient evidence to support his claim that the proposition morgen komen (Jan) is/will be true; see Section 1.5.2, sub II, for a more detailed discussion. The irrealis reading arises as a result of contextual information: the counterfactual reading of the first conjunct in (224), for example, arises due to the fact that the second conjunct indicates that the assessment of the speaker-in-the-past has been incorrect; see Section 1.5.4 for a more extensive and careful discussion.

Example 224
a. Jan zou morgen komen, maar hij heeft geen tijd.
  Jan would  tomorrow  come  but  he  has  no time
  'Jan would come tomorrow, but he has no time.'
b. Jan zou gisteren komen, maar hij had geen tijd.
  Jan would  yesterday  come  but  he  had  no time
  'Jan would have come yesterday, but he had no time.'

The discussion above suggests that the irrealis reading arises as the result of temporal, modal and contextual information. The syntactic construction as a whole may also provide clues that an irrealis reading is intended. Conditional constructions in the past tense like those in (225), for example, are often construed with a counterfactual reading of the embedded conditional clause. Section 1.5.4 will show that this counterfactual reading is again triggered by contextual information. The primed examples show conditional clauses can also surface with the past-tense form of zullen with no conspicuous change in meaning.

Example 225
a. Als Els nu in Rome was, dan waren de problemen snel opgelost.
  if  Els now  in Rome was  then  were  the problems  quickly  prt.-solved
  'If Els were in Rome now, the problems would be solved quickly.'
a'. Als Els nu in Rome zou zijn, dan waren de problemen opgelost.
  if  Els now  in Rome would be  then were  the problems  prt.-solved
  'If Els were in Rome now, the problems would be solved.'
b. Als Jan dat boek gelezen had, dan had hij die fout niet gemaakt!
  if  Jan that book  read  had  then  had he  that error  not  made
  'If Jan had read that book, he wouldnʼt have made that mistake.'
b'. Als Jan dat boek gelezen zou hebben, dan had hij die fout niet gemaakt!
  if  Jan that book  read  would have  then  had he that error  not  made
  'If Jan had read that book, he wouldnʼt have made that mistake.'

      A special case is the past-tense form of the verb hebben. The finite verb had in (222b) above can be interpreted as the regular perfect auxiliary hebben, but it seems that this is not always the case. Consider the examples in (226a&b) with the deontic modal verb moeten'to be obliged'; it seems that the perfect-tense counterpart of the simple present example in (226a) is as given in (226b). The crucial example is (226c), in which we find a second instance of hebben, which must occur in the past tense and which triggers a counterfactual reading. The fact that there already is a perfect auxiliary in the clause makes it quite implausible that the finite verb had also has this function.

Example 226
a. Peter moet dat boek morgen lezen.
  Peter  is.obliged  that book  tomorrow  read
  'Peter must read that book tomorrow.'
b. Peter moet dat boek morgen hebben gelezen.
  Peter is.obliged  that book  tomorrow  have  read
  'Peter must have read that book by tomorrow.'
c. Peter had/*heeft dat boek morgen moeten hebben gelezen.
  Peter had/has  that book  tomorrow  be.obliged  have  read
  'Peter should have read that book by tomorrow.'

It further seems that "non-perfect" had is much higher in the structure than the perfect auxiliary hebben'to have'. This will be clear from the examples in (227): whereas (227a) shows that the modal verb zullen is like English will in that it normally cannot be embedded as infinitive under some other verb (including the perfect auxiliary) and therefore normally occurs as a finite verb, example (227b) shows that it can readily be embedded as an infinitive under past "subjunctive" had.

Example 227
a. Jan zal hebben gedanst/*heeft zullen dansen.
  Jan will  have  danced/has  will  dance
  'Jan will have danced.'
b. Jan had zullen dansen.
  Jan had will  dance
  'Jan would have danced.'

The examples in (226) and (227) perhaps suggest that in certain cases the past-tense form had should be considered a genuine past subjunctive form. The other examples in this subsection, on the other hand, strongly suggest that with other verbs it is not just the past tense that trigger the irrealis meaning but that certain modal and contextual information is also relevant: Section 1.5.4 will argue that in many cases pragmatic considerations can indeed be used to account for such readings, which suggests that Dutch does not have an abstract past subjunctive that is morphologically identical to the past.

  • Drosdowski, Günther1995Duden Grammatik der deutschen GegenwartsspracheDer Duden in 12 Bänden Bd. 04MannheimDudenverlag
  • Erb, Marie Christine2001Finite auxiliaries in GermanTilburgUniversity of TilburgThesis
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Horst, Joop van der2008Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse syntaxisLeuvenUniversitaire Pers Leuven
  • Palmer, F.R2001Mood and ModalityCambridge University Press
  • Palmer, F.R2001Mood and ModalityCambridge University Press
  • Palmer, F.R2001Mood and ModalityCambridge University Press
Suggestions for further reading ▼
  • Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show more ▼
  • Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
Show more ▼
  • Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Afrikaans
  • 1.3. Inflection
    [93%] Dutch > Syntax > Verbs and Verb Phrases > 1 Characterization and classification
  • 3.3.2. Accusative/PP alternations
    [93%] Dutch > Syntax > Verbs and Verb Phrases > 3 Projection of verb phrases II:Verb frame alternations > 3.3. Alternations of noun phrases and PPs
  • 1.5.2. Epistemic modality
    [93%] Dutch > Syntax > Verbs and Verb Phrases > 1 Characterization and classification > 1.5. Tense, epistemic modality and aspect
  • 4.1.3. The comparative als/dan/van-phrase
    [93%] Dutch > Syntax > Adjectives and Adjective Phrases > 4 Projection of adjective phrases III: Comparison > 4.1. Equative, comparative and superlative formation
  • 1.5.1. Tense
    [93%] Dutch > Syntax > Verbs and Verb Phrases > 1 Characterization and classification > 1.5. Tense, epistemic modality and aspect
Show more ▼
This topic is the result of an automatic conversion from Word and may therefore contain errors.
A free Open Access publication of the corresponding volumes of the Syntax of Dutch is available at OAPEN.org.