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Possessive pronouns

Possessive pronouns are elements such as mijnmy or de mijnemine. They express the fact that one entity is owned by or belongs to another entity. Though traditionally called pronouns, they have little in common with pronouns. Possessives such as mijn occur as attributive elements in noun phrases, as in mijn vadermy father. The possessive de mijne, by contrast, is a noun phrase with a definite article; it appears as an independent NP, e.g. in copular constructions such as Dat zijn jouw woorden, niet de mijne.Those are your words, not mine..

Possession involves two entities, a possessor and a possessum. Possessives in Dutch show agreement with the possessor noun in person, number and - for third person singular possessors - gender. For singular possessors, we have the following options:

Example 1

a. mijn moeder/huis/ouders
my mother/house/parents
b. jouw moeder/huis/ouders
your mother/house/parents
c. zijn moeder/huis/ouders
his/its mother/parents
d. haar moeder/huis/ouders
her mother/house/parents

For plural possessors, there is an exceptional situation: if the possessor is 1st person plural, the gender and number of the possessum noun can also have an influence on the form of the possessive. This gives the following options:

Example 2

a. onz-e moeder
POSS.1PL-C.SG mother.C
our mother
b. ons huis
POSS.1PL.N.SG house.N
our house
c. onz-e ouders
POSS.1PL-PL parents.PL
our parents
d. jullie moeder/huis/ouders
your mother/house/parents
e. hun moeder/huis/ouders
their mother/house/parents

In (2a), the possessive indicates a first person plural possessor and a common gender singular possessum. In (2b), the possessor is again first person plural, but the possessum has neuter gender. In (2c), both possessor and possessum are plural.

Free NP possessives are in some respects similar to anaphoric pronouns; they can have an antecedent noun that refers to the possessum (example (3)).

Example 3

Deze tas is bruin maar de mijne is zwart.
This bag is brown but mine is black.

The form with the definite article de is used for common gender singular and for all plural antecedents. If the antecedent is a neuter gender noun, the possessive changes to het mijne.

Example 4

Dit hondje is bruin maar het mijne is zwart.
This doggie is brown but mine is black.

In informal speech, possessive pronouns can occur in a combination of two NPs, as an alternative to a genitive (for which see here). Examples are provided in (5).

Example 5

a. Marc z'n fiets
Marc POSS.3SG.M bike
Marc's bike
b. mijn overleden moeder d'r broer
POSS.1SG die.PTCP mother POSS.3SG.F brother
my late mother's brother
[+] Forms

Possessive pronouns occur in two positions in the sentence, either attributively within the noun phase (e.g. mijnmy) or as free possessives (e.g. de mijnemine). The term "pronoun" is problematic in both cases: a better label for the attributive possessive is "possessive determiner", while the free possessive is in fact a noun phrase with a definite article. However, both are conventionally named "possessive pronouns".

The possessive paradigm shows three grammatical features: person, gender and number. Below is the paradigm of the attributive possessives, including, where available, the full form associated with stressed pronunciation (and writing) and the reduced form typical of colloquial speech (this phenomenon also occurs in personal pronouns). For ease of exposition, the paradigm is split into singular and plural.

Table 1
Singular possessors
1st person possessor mijn/mɛın/, m'n/mən/
2nd person possessor jouw/jau/, je/jə/
3rd person masculine possessor zijn/zɛın/, z'n/zən/
3rd person feminine possessor haar/ha:r/, (d)'r/dər//ər//r/
3rd person neuter possessor zijn/zɛın/, z'n/zən/
The 1st person singular pronoun also has the substandard pronunciation /mə/my. The polite form uyou (polite) has a possessive form uw/uʋ/your (polite).
Table 2
Plural possessors Plural
1st person possessor, common gender or plural possessum onze/ɔnzə/
1st person possessor, neuter gender possessum ons/ɔns/
2nd personpossessor jullie/jʏli/, je/jə/
3rd person possessor hun/hʏn/, (d)'r/dər//ər//r/
The free NP possessives have seven forms, again split into singular and plural. Note that there is always a choice in definite determiner, which can be common or neuter gender depending on the possessum noun. For plural possessums, the determiner is always de.

Table 3
Singular possessor
1st person possessor de/het mijne
2nd person possessor de/het jouwe
3rd person masculine possessor de/het zijne
3rd person feminine possessor de/het hare
3rd person neuter possessor de/het zijne

The forms of the plural have a gap in the second person.

Table 4
Plural possessor
1st person possessor de/het onze
2nd person possessor -
3rd person possessor de/het hunne
For the polite second person u, there is the free possessive de/het uwe. Not all of the above forms are equally common in use: judging by occurrences in the Corpus Gesproken Nederlands de/het mijne and de/het jouwe are not uncommonly found in speech, while the other forms seem to be more frequent in writing.

There are a few archaic possessives that bear case inflections. Forms with a genitive -s (singuar) or -er (plural) as in de nagedachtenis zijns vadersthe memory of his father or een vriend onzer burena friend of our neighboursoccur occasionally in very formal writing. Case-inflected possessives can also be found in fixed expressions, e.g. mijns inziensto my knowledge. The same holds for historically dative forms with -er, e.g. in the fixed expression te zijner tijdat his timeat the proper time.

A different type of archaic possessive is formed by means of the suffix -ent. These forms are used occasionally in a constructional idiom with the schema [te POSS-ent] meaning at Xs place, e.g. te mijnentat my place.

A special case are forms of address such as Hare Koninklijke HoogheidHer Royal Majesty of Zijne ExcellentieHis Excellency. While these are possessive forms by origin, they have nothing to do with possession synchronically.

[+] Use

The choice between the forms of the attributive possessive is determined by the person and number of the possessor; in the third person singular, gender is an additional factor. There is one exception: the first person plural possessive has two forms,ons and onze, which depend on the gender and number of the possessum (see example (2a-b)).

If the possessor is a person referred to by a neuter gender noun, the possessive does not have the expected neuter gender. Instead, the masculine or feminine possessive is used, depending on the sex of the person.

Example 6

Dat meisje daar is met *zijn/haar vader gekomen.
DEM.SG.N girl(N) there AUX.3SG.PRS with POSS.3SG.N/POSS.3SG.f father(C) come.PTCP
That girl over there has come with her father.

This preference of natural over grammatical gender is similar to the agreement mismatches that are common in personal pronouns, the difference being that semantically agreeing personal pronouns are often seen as incorrect, while for the possessives, the semantically appropriate gender is regarded as correct. Thus, in a sentence such as (6), the neuter form zijn is ungrammatical both from a descriptive and a prescriptive perspective.

[show extra information]

The associations between feminine gender and high style (a consequence of the developments discussed here have led to a usage phenomenon popularly known as "haar-ziekte" (haar-sickness). It is characterized by the use of the feminine gender possessive haar in inappropriate places, such as after inanimate neuter nouns. An example:

Example 7

Het ijshockey in Nederland probeert alles om haar imago te verbeteren
Ice hockey in the Netherlands is trying everything to improve its (lit. her) public image.

This phenomenon is typical of administrative and journalistic writing; it is also frequently employed to upgrade products in marketing texts. The usage is restricted to the full form possessive haar and is not attested in the spoken language (Audring 2009). In the linguistic literature it has been suggested that the high percentage of collective nouns among the haar-antecedents is due to the fact that haar used to function as a third person plural possessive, a place in the paradigm now occupied by hun(Van der Sijs 2004). However, most modern speakers will not be aware of this historical fact. In the spoken language, collective nouns often get the plural possessive hun.

Example 8

In Bonn is een delegatie van het Poolse parlement gearriveerd, voor besprekingen met hun Duitse collega's.
A delegation of the Polish parliament has arrived in Bonn, for a meeting with their German colleagues.
[+] Special possessive constructions

The special construction Jan z'n fietsJan's bike, consisting of an NP and a possessive and referring to the possessor, is typical of the spoken language. The construction works with simple and complex NPs (which can contain a second possessive, as in (9b)), as well as with pronouns, as in (9c-9e):

Example 9

a. Marc z'n huis
Marc POSS.3SG.M house
Marc's house
b. mijn grote zus d'r auto
POSS.1SG big sister POSS.3SG.F car
my big sister's car
c. die d'r broer
her brother
d. Wie z'n hond is dit?
who POSS.3SG.M dog is this
Whose dog is this?
e. iemand z'n jas
somebody POSS.3SG.M jacket
somebody's jacket

Possessives have special uses in other constructions. Examples are given in (10). The choice of the possessive in each case depends on the person, gender and number of the possessor (only a selection of the options are given).

Example 10

a. op z'n/hun gemak
at his/their leisure
b. in m'n/z'n blootje
in my/his altogether
c. in d'r/z'n eentje
on her/his own
d. met z'n vieren
the four of us/you/them
e. op m'n/haar mooist
looking my/her best
f. op z'n kop
upside down
g. op z'n beurt
in turn
h. in z'n geheel
as a whole

Sometimes, the third person possessive z'n acts as a kind of default and is used even with possessors that are not masculine or not singular. (11) lists examples with plural possessors; the constructions are equivalent to (10d) to (10h).

Example 11

a. We komen met z'n vieren.
the four of us (lit. him) will be there.
b. De appels zijn op z'n best.
The apples are at their (lit. his) best.
c. Dit heeft mijn gedachten op z'n kop gezet.
This has turned my thoughts upside down (lit. on his head).
d. Dat biedt de mensen op z'n beurt ook weer mogelijkheden.
This is giving the people new opportunities in turn (lit. on his turn).
e. De capsules kunt u het beste in z'n geheel doorslikken.
The capsules can best be swallowed whole (lit. as his whole).

This shows the progressing idiomization of the expressions. (For the story behind 11a, see here.) Not all of the above cases are equally frequent.

In other idioms, the possessive is fixed, but another part of the idiom is variable. Two examples are given in (12), where Rotterdams and onzin can be replaced by any noun that fits the construction semantically.

Example 12

a. op z'n Rotterdams
in the Rotterdam way
b. je reinste onzin
pure nonsense

In yet other cases, the idiom is fully fixed and invariant. A case in point is op z'n laatstat the latest.

  • Audring, Jenny2009Reinventing Pronoun GenderAmsterdamFree UniversityThesis
  • Sijs, Nicoline van der2004Het ontstaan van het ABNAmsterdamAthenaeum
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