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Verbal inflection

Verbal inflection is the name for the phenomenon that verbs take different forms depending on the grammatical function they serve. Dutch verbal inflection is stem-based, mostly suffixal, with a lot of syncretism: a few forms serve a considerable number of functions. The basic division in verbal inflection is between finite and non-finite forms. There are three non-finite forms: the infinitive, the past participle, and the present participle. The finite forms of the indicative mood express the categories Tense (present, past), Number (singular, plural), and Person (1st, 2nd, 3rd); the imperative singular is quite common, the imperative plural is almost obsolete, just like the subjunctive. There is only one infinitive form.

Two tenses are marked morphologically: present and past. Almost all verbs are regular in the present tense, but there are some 200 verb stems, many of them frequent, that are more or less irregular with respect to past tense formation. All verbal forms are based on two base forms (Haeringen 1950): the verbal stem is the basis for the present tense forms, as well as for the infinitive, the imperative and the present participle, whereas a secondary form, itself either derived from the stem by means of a suffix d(e)[də] or t(e)[tə] or irregularly, is the basis for the past tense forms and the past participle.

The table below gives an overview of the inflectional forms of four sample verbs: werkento work (regular), leidento lead (regular but with spelling effects), wordento become (irregular) and zittento sit (irregular). Hyphens in the orthography denote morpheme boundaries, dots in the phonological representation denote syllable boundaries. Two forms are given of the second person singular; the choice is dependent on the relative positions of verb and subject. Quite often, final [n] after schwa is not pronounced.

Table 1
werken 'work' leiden 'lead' worden 'become' zitten 'sit'
Present indicative
1SG werk [wɛrk] leid [lɛɪt] word[wɔrt] zit[zɪt]
2SG werk-t/werk[wɛrkt]//wɛrk/ leid-t/leid[lɛɪt] word-tword[wɔrt] zit[zɪt]
3SG werk-t[wɛrkt] leid-t[lɛɪt] word-t[wɔrt] zit[zɪt]
PL werk-en[wɛr.kən] leid-en[lɛɪ.dən] word-en[wɔr.dən] zitt-en[zɪ.tən]
Present subjunctive (obsolete)
SG werk-e[wɛr.kə] leid-e[lɛɪ.də] word-e[wɔr.də] zitt-e[zɪ.tə]
PL werk-en[wɛr.kən] leid-en[lɛɪ.dən] word-en[wɔr.dən] zitt-en[zɪ.tən]
Imperative singular werk[wɛrk] leid[lɛɪt] word[wɔrt] zit[zɪt]
Imperative plural (obsolete) werkt[wɛrkt] leidt[lɛɪt] wordt[wɔrt] zit[zɪt]
SG werk-te[wɛrk.tə] leid-de[lɛɪ.də] werd[wɛrt] zat[zɑt]
PL werk-te-n[wɛrk.tən] leid-de-n[lɛɪ.dən] werd-en[wɛr.dən] zat-en[za.tən]
Infinitive werk-en[wɛr.kən] leid-en[lɛɪ.dən] word-en[wɔr.dən] zitt-en[zɪ.tən]
Present participle werk-en-d[wɛr.kənt] leid-en-d[lɛɪ.dənt] word-en-d[wɔr.dənt] zit-en-d[zɪ.tənt]
Past participle ge-werk-t[gə.wɛrkt] ge-leid[gə.lɛɪt] ge-word-en[gə.wɔr-dən] ge-zet-en[gə.ze.tən]

Dutch verbal inflection is fusional: a single inflection fulfills multiple grammatical roles. Pertinent categories in verbal inflection in languages around the world are, among others, finiteness, tense, aspect, mood, voice, person and number.

  • finiteness. Most Dutch verbal forms are finite. Dutch verbs have three nonfinite forms: the infinitive and the past and present participle.
  • tense. Two tenses are expressed morphologically in Dutch, viz., the present and the (simple) past (also known as preterite and imperfect); all other tenses are expressed periphrastically. E.g., future tense is formed by means of an auxiliary verbgaango or zullenwill and the infinitive (we gaan zwemmenwe go swimwe are going to swim, we zullen zwemmenwe will swim), perfect tense by means of the auxiliary hebbenhave or zijnare and the past participle (we hebben geslapenwe have slept, ze zijn gestorventhey are diedthey have died). All past tense forms, as well as the infinitive and the present participle, are based on the stem, all preterite forms and the past participle are based on a form that is either derived from the stem by means of a suffix d(e)[də] or t(e)[tə], or irregularly.
  • aspect. Aspect is not expressed systematically in the Dutch verbal system, although there is no lack of aspectual constructions in the language; so-called "tenses" have aspectual properties as well. E.g., the Dutch past participle is perfective to a certain extent, and so are tenses construed with this form (Verkuyl 1993): one can only use the "perfect tense" ik heb gelezenI have read felicitously if the act of reading has come to an end, otherwise the preterite (ik lasI read) or a progressive construction (ik zat te lezenI sat to read, I was aan het lezenI was reading) is in place. This perfective meaning aspect is also observable in constructions such as the passive: dit boek is gelezenthis book is readthis book has been read can only be used if the reading act has been finished and/or the book shows reading traces. The perfective meaning can be stressed by means of verbal particles, e.g. de sigaar is opgerooktthe cigar has been smoked completely.
  • mood. The moods expressed morphologically in Dutch are the indicative, the imperative and the subjunctive, of which the last one is obsolete.
  • voice. Only the active voice is expressed morphologically in Dutch, passive is formed periphrastically by means of a combination of an auxiliary verb (wordenbecome, zijnbe) and a past participle (de vogel wordt gevoerdthe bird is being fed, de teerling is geworpenthe die has cast). There is no morphologically distinct middle voice.
  • person. Dutch distinguishes first, second and third person, but these are marked only in the present singular (ik zwemI swim, jij zwemtyou swim, zwem jijdo you swim, zij zwemtshe swims): in most current varieties of Dutch, there is only one plural form wij/jullie/zij zwemmenwe/you/they swim: second person plural forms in t (jullie zwemtyou swim are obsolete); in the past tense, person is neutralized completely: there is one form for singular ik/jij/hij/zij zwomI/you/he/she swam and one for plural (wij/jullie/zij zwommenwe/you/they swam).
  • number. Dutch verbs distinguish singular and plural; there is no dual.

Dutch verbal inflection shows massive syncretism: all the work is done by only two base forms, one for the present and one for the past, plus a very small number of affixes. In the present tense: the bare verb stem is used for 1sg pres (ik loopI walk), 2sg pres inverse (loop jewalk youdo you walk) and the imperative (loop!walk!). Stem + t is for sg pres 2 and 3 (je/hij looptyou walk/he walks) (and for the obsolete imperative plural loopt!walk!). Stem + ən is used for pres plural (wij/jullie/zij lopenwe walk) and infinitive (het begint te lopenit starts to walk/run). The present participle is the infinitive + d (lopendwalking) (which is used far less often than English -ing forms); as it is adjectival, it shows adjectival inflection in attributive use (een lopende vrouwa walking woman). The past tense uses even less forms: there is one form for all singular functions (ik, jij, hij liepI, you, he walked), and one form for all plurals (wij, jullie, zij liepenwe, you, she walked).

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There is a special past tense form for the very formal, almost obsolete 2nd person sg pronoun gijthou: gij lieptthou walked. This is reflected in spelling: verbs with a past tense form in [d] get [dt], e.g. gij hadtthou haddest. The irregular verb zijnto be has (gij) zijtthou art for the present and (gij) waartthou wast for the past.

There are areas in the Netherlands and Belgium where gij and the reduced form ge are the default forms for the 2nd person pronoun; cf. MAND II 39 (De Schutter et al. 2005) for an overview.

The regular (traditionally called weak) past tense is derived from the present stem by means of a suffix that takes the form -tə (spelled –te) after stems ending in voiceless consonants, and -də (spelled -de) elsewhere, i.e. after voiced consonants and vowels. To illustrate, the past tense forms of the verb werkwork are werkte (sg) and werkten (pl), because werk ends in voiceless /k/, whereas the past tense forms of the verb tippeltrot are tippelde (sg) and tippelden (pl), as tippel ends in voiced /l/. Regular past participles consist of a prefix gə-, the present stem, and a suffix d/t, usually pronounced [t]. The distribution of this suffix is completely parallel to that of past tense de/te, that is, –t after stems ending in voiceless consonants, and -d elsewhere, i.e. after voiced consonants and vowels. The prefix gə- is left out in verbs with unstressed prefixes be-, ver-, her-, ont- (e.g. the past participle of ontdekkento discover is ontdekt rather than *geontdekt or *ontgedekt) and in complex verbs whose leftmost part is an unstressed preposition or adverb (e.g achter'halento overtake, hunt down has as past participle achterhaald, whereas 'achterstellento disadvantage, subordinate has achtergesteld).

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According to Booij (1995), there is no straightforward fully phonological account of the alternation between -de and -te (by assuming a common underlying form /də/) because there is no independently motivated phonological rule of (progressive) voice assimilation that could derive the correct surface forms. The generalization that there is agreement with respect to voice between the last segment of the stem and the suffix-initial consonant can be expressed by assuming an underlying form for the past tense suffix with an initial coronal consonant that is not specified for voice; we then have to assume a process (Laryngeal Spreading) that spreads the voice specification of the stem-final segment to that suffix-initial coronal. This is the analysis given in Booij (1995: 62). Alternatively, this alternation may be accounted for by assuming two lexically given competing allomorphs, -de and -te(Booij 2002). The choice between these two allomorphs can then be made by an output condition Agree that requires two adjacent segments to agree in voice. This condition will select -te after voiceless obstruents, and -de elsewhere. Yet another analysis has been proposed by Zonneveld (1983) and endorsed recently by Nieuwenhuijsen (2012). Here it is assumed that the past tense suffix is a /ð/ (voiceless labiodental fricative) underlyingly - a phoneme that never surfaces in Dutch.

Ernestus and Baayen (2003) show the importance of frequency and analogy in past tense formation: informants tended to produce forms like krabte rather than regular krabdescratched from krabben, probably because the sequence short vowel + plosive is followed much more often (in past tenses) by -te than by -de.

The participial prefix gə- is left out in verbs with unstressed prefixes be-, ver-, her-, ont- and in complex verbs whose leftmost part is an unstressed preposition or adverb, e.g achterhalenovertake, hunt down. There are small regional differences, e.g. one finds aanhoordto-listenedlistened to in Belgium where the North has aangehoordlistened to; this may correlate with a difference in stress: 'aanhoren vs. aan'horen.

The simple system depicted above is obfuscated by intricacies of Dutch phonology, on the one hand, i.e. phenomena like final devoicing and vowel lengthening in open syllables, and of Dutch spelling rules on the other hand. For instance, as double consonants are not allowed word-finally, the third person singular form of zitsit is zit and not *zitt (stem +t); that is, all singular forms of this verb are zit. In the case of leidenlead, however, we get the regular third person singular form leidt (stem +t), although it is pronounced the same way as first person singular form leid (bare stem). Moreover, as long vowels are written with a single letter in open syllables and with a digraph in closed ones, the third person singular form of lopenloop is loopt. Following the same logic, short vowels in open syllables are indicated by doubling of the consonant following that vowel, which explains why the infinitive and plural present form of zitsit is zitten and not *ziten.

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In large parts of the Netherlands, the /n/ part of the ə(n) suffix is rarely realized, just like in other uses of final /ən/, so we werktenwe worked is often realized as [wə wɛrktə]. The /n/ is retained, however, if the verb is followed by a vowel-initial clitic: we werkten het hardstwe worked hardest can be realized as [wə wɛrktən ət hɑrtst](Booij 1996).

Archaic dialects may have 2nd sg –s(t), e.g. do hestyou have rather than jij hebtyou have (see Goeman 2008: Ch 4). In /t/-deletion variants (Goeman 1999), differences within the sg paradigm may be neutralized: ik werk, jij werk, hij werk, but there are also dialects where neutralization is obtained by generalizing the /t/: ik werkt, jij werkt, hij werkt(Goeman 2008: Ch 4).

There is a group of ca. 200 verb stems, a considerable number of them highly frequent, with irregular formation of past tense and past participle, with certain subregularities that can be traced back to the Germanic ablaut system; most strong past participles have the prefix -gə and end in ən. Cases in point are lopenwalk, past tense liep, past participle gelopen and zittensit, past tense zat, past participle gezeten. A few verbs are completely irregular, e.g. kopenbuy, past tense kocht, past participle gekocht.

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The expression of number and person in finite verbal forms is a case of contextual inflection: finite forms have to agree in person and number with the subject of the clause in which the finite form appears. Tense, on the other hand, is a case of inherent inflection: the choice of the correct tense form is not determined by the syntactic structure in which it appears, but rather by the meaning the speaker wishes to convey. It is the role of Tense to locate the state or event referred to on the time axis with respect to the time of speaking. In general, contextual inflection is peripheral to inherent inflection; Dutch verbal inflection is not exceptional in this respect (Booij 2002).

Some compound verbs, such as zweefvliegenglide-flyglide, have incomplete paradigms; the modal verbs zullenshall, (be)horenought, plegenuse to and dienenshall lack a past participle.

The usage possibilities of the various verbal forms are diverse. The following overview is not meant to be exhaustive:

  • present tense can be used to refer to the present moment (het regentit rainsit is raining), but also to the future (morgen gaan we niet fietsen want dan regent hettomorrow go we not bike since then rains ittomorrow we are not going to ride our bikes, because it will be reaining then), the past (the so-called historical present) (25 september 2006. Het regent alweerSeptember 25th, 2006. It rains again), generic and categorical statements (als het regent worden de straten natif it rains become the streets wetif it rains, the streets get wet), etc.
  • in embedded clauses, the tense of the verb may be the same of that of the matrix clause (the so-called sequence of tense: e.g., in hij zei dat hij morgen kwamhe said that he tomorrow camehe said he would come tomorrow the embedded verb form kwam is past tense, although it refers to some moment in time later than the moment of speaking.
  • first person singular can be use to talk about ego, but also to address others, e.g. as polite directives: ik zou het niet doenI would it not doI would not do it, i.e., don't do it.
  • second person can be used to address the other, but also for generic statements, e.g. je hebt van die dagen dat alles misgaatyou have of those days that everything wrong-goessome days, everything goes wrong.
  • infinitives can be used in verbal clusters (laten we gaan zwemmenlet we go swimlet's go swimming), but also as nouns (het roken van sigarenthe smoke of cigarsthe smoking of cigars) and in certain modifying constructions, e.g. the modal infinitive construction (de te nemen maatregelenthe to take measuresthe measures to be taken).
  • the past participle can be part of the verbal cluster to express certain past tenses (ik heb een fiets gestolenI have a bike stolenI have stolen a bike), to express the passive voice (mijn fiets is gestolenmy bike is stolenmy bike has been stolen), and as an adjective (de gestolen fietsthe stolen bike).
  • the present participle functions mostly as attributive adjective, and shows adjectival inflection (een werkende moedera working-e mothera working mother). Predicative usage (ik ben werkendI am working) is very rare.
  • there is lexicalisation and grammaticalisation of participles: gegevengiven and gedurendeduring may be used as prepositions, aanstaandeon-standingfirst-coming, next can be an adjective, just like the fixed combinationeerst volgendefirst followingnext, uitsluitendexcludingonly functions as a focus adverb, and wetendeknowing, can be combined with the complementizer datthat: wetende dat het ging regenen ...knowing that it went rainknowing that it was going to rain.

Morphological potential: Given that inflection is normally peripheral to word formation processes, it is usually the verbal stem that enters into compounding (e.g. boormachinedrill.machinedrill, denkwijzethink.waymentality) and derivation (eetbaareat-SUFFedible, mededeelzaamcommunicate-SUFFcommunicative). Occasionally, we find the infinitive form as the left part of a compound: zienswijzesee-n-s-wijzeopinion, etenstijddinner time, which may be taken as indicative for the phrasal origin of the construction. Compound verbs usually have the same inflectional pattern as their verbal stem, but irregular simplex verbs may be (more) regular in compounds and derivations (e.g. irregular zuigen zoog gezogensuck sucked sucked shows regular inflection in stofzuigen stofzuigde gestofzuigddust-suckto vacuum. Verbs prefixed with be-, her-, ont- and ver- usually do not get ge- in the past participle, so next to be-dekkencover we get bedektcovered rather than *gebedekt or *begedekt, and the past participle of ontbijtenhave breakfast is ontbeten. To this rule, however, there are a few counterexamples such as hergebruiktre-used.

The participles are adjectival and show adjectival inflection (de lopend-e manthe walking-e man, de verkocht-e bruidthe sold-e bride), if semantics permits, comparative and superlative (deze taart is geslaagder dan dezethis cake is successful-COMP than this one), and other morphological possibilities that are typical for adjectives, e.g. nominal derivation by means of the suffix -heid (verslagenheiddejection < verslagendefeated, meegaandheidcompliance < meegaandgoing along, accomodating).

  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert1996Cliticization as prosodic integration: the case of DutchThe Linguistic Review13219-242
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Ernestus, Mirjam T.C. & Baayen, R. Harald2004Analogical effects in regular past tense production in DutchLinguistics42879-903
  • Goeman, Ton1999T-deletie in Nederlandse dialecten. Kwantitatieve analyse van structurele, ruimtelijke en temporele variatieVrije Universiteit AmsterdamThesis
  • Goeman, Ton, Oostendorp, Marc van, Reenen, Pieter van, Koornwinder, Oele, Berg, Boudewijn van den & Reenen, Anke van2008Morfologische atlas van de Nederlandse dialectenAmsterdam University Press
  • Goeman, Ton, Oostendorp, Marc van, Reenen, Pieter van, Koornwinder, Oele, Berg, Boudewijn van den & Reenen, Anke van2008Morfologische atlas van de Nederlandse dialectenAmsterdam University Press
  • Haeringen, Coenraad B. van1950De hoofdvormen van het Nederlandse werkwoord. Proeve van synchronische grammatica.De nieuwe taalgids4320-28
  • Nieuwenhuijsen, Peter2012We hebben een D! We hebben een I!De Hondsrug Pers
  • Schutter, Georges de, Berg, Boudewijn van den, Goeman, Ton & Jong, Thera de2005Morfologische atlas van de Nederlandse dialectenAmsterdamAmsterdam University Press
  • Verkuyl, Henk1993A theory of aspectuality. The interaction between temporal and atemporal structureCambridgeCambridge University Press
  • Zonneveld, Wim1983Lexical and phonological properties of Dutch voicing assimilationvan den Broecke, M., van Heuven, V. & Zonneveld, W. (eds.)Sound Structures: Studies for Anthonie CohenDordrechtForis Publications
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