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Case in collective constructions

Remnants of the old genitive case occur in a number of Dutch collective constructions:

Example 1

Appositive collective
wij / ons drie-en
we / us three-en
the three of us (SUBJ. / OBJ.)
Example 2

Collective adverbial I
met ons / jullie / hun drie-en
with our / your / their three-en
the three of us / you / them together
Example 3

Collective adverbial II
met zijn [zәn] drie-en
with his three-en
the three of us / you / them

The common property of these three constructions is that the cardinal numeral is marked by the ending -en.


In Middle Dutch, the appositive collective had the form of a personal pronoun followed by a cardinal that could be used predicatively, as illustrated by the following examples (from Duinhoven (1988:81) and Van Helten (1887:443), respectively):

Example 4

a. Wi waren vier-e
We were four-NOM.PL
We were four in number
b. Dat gi ons vier-en hebt gesien
That you us four-ACC.PL have seen
That you saw the four of us

Such NPs with a numeral could also be preceded by the preposition met with that assigns dative case (example Duinhoven (1988:87)):

Example 5

Alexander ginc inwaert met hem drie-en
Alexander went in with them three-DAT.PL
Alexander went in together with the three of them

These constructions underwent both semantic and structural reinterpretation (Duinhoven (1988), Heeroma (1948), Tinbergen (1949), Van Haeringen (1949). The preposition met, like its English counterpart with, also carries the meaning of circumstance, as in met Jan als directeur with John as director. Thus, a PP like met hem seven-en could also be re-interpreted as the seven of them, seven in total. This is the interpretation of the absolute met-construction in present day Dutch. The structural re-interpretation was made possible by the fact that some case forms of the personal pronouns were homophonous with possessive pronouns.

This made the following structural reinterpretation of phrases like met ons drie-en possible:

[Preposition - Personal pronoun – Numeral-en]

was reinterpreted as

[Preposition - Possessive pronoun – Numeral-en].

This possessive pronoun reinterpretation can also be seen in the third type of construction, exemplified below, with a fixed 3SG possessive pronoun zijn his that does not agree with another NP, as shown in example above with a 1PL subject:

Example 6

Wij kwamen met zijn drie-en
We came with his three-en
We came the three of us

The phonological form of this zijn is always the weak form /zәn/, which underlines the special nature of this PP-construction.

The effect of these historical developments is that Modern Dutch has three collective constructions that are marked by the suffix -en.

What is the status of this suffix (Booij 2010: Chapter 9)? Historically it is a case ending, but Dutch no longer has a morphological case system. It appears that the case ending -en has been reinterpreted as a plural suffix. Its presence is obligatory, since phrases like *wij vier we four and *met ons vier with us four the four of us are ungrammatical in the standard language. Dutch has two plural suffixes, -s and -en (the choice between these two suffixes is determined by an array of prosodic, morphological, and lexical factors). Evidence that the case ending was reinterpreted as a plural ending is the replacement of the form twee-n two-DAT.PL by the form twee-en, with a clear plural ending -en(Van Loey 1959: 154).

  • Booij, Geert2010Construction morphologyOxford/New YorkOxford University Press
  • Duinhoven, A.M1988Middelnederlandse syntaxis. Synchroon en diachroonLeidenMartinus Nijhoff
  • Duinhoven, A.M1988Middelnederlandse syntaxis. Synchroon en diachroonLeidenMartinus Nijhoff
  • Duinhoven, A.M1988Middelnederlandse syntaxis. Synchroon en diachroonLeidenMartinus Nijhoff
  • Haeringen, Coenraad B. van1949Een paar aantekeningen bij telwoordenDe Nieuwe Taalgids42255-258
  • Heeroma, Klaas H1948De telwoordenDe Nieuwe Taalgids4184-95
  • Helten, W. L. van1887Middelnederlandsche spraakkunstGroningenJ.B. Wolters
  • Loey, Adolphe van1959Schönfelds historische grammatica van het Nederlands: klankleer, vormleer, woordvormingZutphenThieme
  • Tinbergen, Dick C1949Nog enkele opmerkingen over telwoordenDe Nieuwe Taalgids4296-99