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Case - the possessive construction

Remnants of the old Germanic genitive case system are found in nouns functioning as specifiers in Dutch noun phrases. These nouns end in the bound morpheme -s and denote the possessor of what is denoted by the head noun of the noun phrase:

Example 1

specifier = proper name
a. Jan-s hoed
John's hat
b. Amsterdam-s rijke verleden
Amsterdam's rich history
Example 2

specifier = form of address
a. vader-s fiets
father’s bicycle
b. dominee-s studeerkamer
reverend’s study
Example 3

specifier = quantifier
a. ieder-s huis
everybody’s house
b. niemand-s schuld
nobody’s fault
Example 4

specifier = complex proper name
a. koning Salomo-s reputatie
king Solomon’s reputation
b. mijn moeder-s naaidoos
my mother’s sewing box

Such nouns and noun phrases ending in -s can only be used in pre-nominal position: a sentence like *Deze hoed is JansThis hat is John’s is ungrammatical. These possessor nouns or noun phrases impose a definite interpretation on the noun phrase of which they are the specifiers. For instance, Jan-s hoed means ‘the hat of John’.


The morphological marking of nominal specifiers of NPs is usually referred to as possessor marking. However, such specifiers may have other semantic functions than that of possessor, as in Jan-s antwoord op de vraagJohn’s answer to the question, where Jan is the subject of the action denoted by antwoordanswer. Hence, a more general term than ‘possessor’, such as ‘specifier’, is more appropriate.

Historically, the -s is the genitive case ending of masculine and neuter singular nouns. In modern Dutch, however, the -s can also be used for feminine nouns (Scott 2014).

The Dutch nouns and noun phrases that end in -s function as definiteness markers, and can therefore not be preceded by a determiner in the noun phrase: *de Jan-s huisthe John’s house is ungrammatical, as is *een Jan-s huis a house of John. The definiteness of the whole NP is also manifested by the form of a pre-nominal adjective in this construction: Peter-s {nieuw-e/*nieuw} boek Peter’s new book: the definite nature of this NP headed by the neuter noun boekbook requires the definite form of the adjective with a final -e, the regular inflectional ending in definite noun phrases.

The nouns that can be used pre-nominally are proper names, mainly but not exclusively for human beings, or nouns that can be used as forms of address, like vaderfather and domineereverend. Instead of a single noun we also find noun sequences with a function name or a possessive pronoun preceding a proper name. There is a trend in present-day Dutch to also use specifier noun phrases with a definite determiner and a singular noun denoting a human being, as in de auteur-s grootvaderthe author’s grandfather, with the noun auteur denoting a human being that is not used as a form of address. In the latter case, the presence of the determiner de is required since auteur is not a proper name and *auteur-s grootvader is an ungrammatical noun phrase (Horst 1999: 320). However, this construction is usually considered to be sub-standard.

Complex names that consist of two words can also appear in this construction:

Example 5

a. koning Salomo-s reputatie
king Solomon’s reputation
b. Prins Bernhard-s zes dochters
Prince Bernhard’s six daughters

The -s always appears on the final noun. For instance, in the phrase prins Bernhard it is the second noun that hosts the -s. The generalization that the -s is always phrase-final is confirmed by the fact that this is also the case when the possessor phrase is a case of coordination:

Example 6

a. Jan en Piet-s vader
John and Pete’s father
b. Pa, Ma, en de kinderen-s verjaardag
Dad, Mum, and the children’s birthday

These examples belong to more informal registers of language use; not all speakers accept them. On the other hand, some speakers of Dutch can even mark plural nouns as possessor (data from a Google search):

Example 7

de kinderen-s {belangen / naam / toekomst}
the children’s {interests / name / future}

Compared to the bound morpheme -s in English possessor constructions, the Dutch -s in pre-nominal position has a much more restricted distribution. A phrase like *De koning van Engeland’s kroonThe king of Englands crown is impossible in Dutch. Instead of the bound morpheme -s, the possessive pronoun zijnhis or haarher has to be used in such cases: de koning van Engeland zijn kroonthe king of England his crown, de gravin van Buren haar fietsthe dutchess of Buren her bicicle. Thus, there is a difference with languages such as English and Swedish, where -s can be attached to nouns that are not the phrasal head, and to phrase-final words of other categories than nouns, such as verbs (English example from Weerman (1998:33), Swedish one from Norde (2006: 205); see also Börjars (2003: 145)):

Example 8

a. the man that I saw’s friend
b. a friend of mine’s house
Example 9

den som jobbar-s halva lön
[the.one who works]s half salary
half the salary of the one who has a job
  • Börjars, Kersti2003Morphological status and (de)grammaticalisation: the Swedish possessiveNordic Journal of Linguistics26133-163
  • Horst, Joop van der & Horst, Kees van der1999Geschiedenis van het Nederlands in de twintigste eeuwDen Haag/AntwerpenSDU Uitgevers & Standaard Uitgeverij
  • Norde, Muriel2006Demarcating degrammaticalization: the Swedish s-genitive revisitedNordic Journal of Linguistics29201-238
  • Scott, Alan2014The Genitive Case in Dutch and German. A Study of Morphosyntactic Change in Codified LanguagesLeidenBrill
  • Weerman, Fred & Wit, Petra de1998De ondergang van de genitiefNederlandse Taalkunde318-46
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