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Concrete nouns are used to denote objects that have physical properties: typically they can be perceived by means of the human senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch), although the observation might also be more indirect. The physical properties of the entities denoted by concrete nouns include color, size, weight, intensity, strength, etc. Obvious examples of concrete nouns are auto'car', tafel'table', gebouw'building', water'water' and hout'wood'.

a. De grote, rode auto reed langzaam voorbij.
  the large red car  drove  slowly  passed
  'The large, red car slowly drove by.'
b. Jan tilde de zware tafel op.
  Jan lifted  the heavy table  prt.
  'Jan lifted the heavy table.'
c. Het zwarte hout maakte de kamer erg somber.
  the black wood  made  the room  very gloomy

This section is organized as follows. Section I starts by distinguishing four types of concrete nouns on the bases of two semantic features (±shape and ±set). Subsection II discusses the semantic and distributional differences between the four types of concrete nouns on their prototypical use, which is followed in Subsection III by a discussion of the non-prototypical uses of these subclasses. Subsection IV concludes with a discussion of a number of special uses of these concrete nouns.

[+]  I.  Subclassification

The class of concrete nouns can be subdivided on the basis of the features ±shape and ±set in (41); cf. Rijkhoff (2002).

Features of concrete nouns
a. +shape: entities denoted are conceptualized as having a definite outline.
b. -shape: entities denoted are not conceptualized as having a definite outline.
c. +set: entities denoted are conceived of as a group or a non-singleton set.
d. -set: entities denoted are conceived of as individuals.

The combination of these features results in the four subclasses in Table 5, where the names given in bold are the names that we will use for these noun classes in what follows.

Table 5: Four subclasses of concrete nouns
[-set] [+set]
[-shape] substance nouns:
hout‘wood’, water‘water’,
gas‘gas’, brood‘bread’
mass nouns:
vee‘cattle’, meubilair‘furniture’,
politie‘police’, gebeente‘bones’
[+shape] individual nouns:
man‘man’, hond‘dog’,
huis‘house’, auto‘car’
collective nouns:
groep‘group’, kudde‘flock’,
set‘set’, horde‘horde’

The semantic difference between -shape and +shape nouns corresponds to a number of formal differences with regard to countability and pluralization. The distinction between +set and -set, on the other hand, seems purely semantic in nature and does not seem to correspond to any obvious formal difference.

[+]  A.  -shape: non-count nouns

Substance and mass nouns (i) cannot co-occur with the indefinite article een, but require the use of the zero-article instead, (ii) cannot be pluralized, and (iii) can be modified by -count quantifying expressions as veel'much', weinig/een beetje'a little', wat'some', niet genoeg'not enough' and een hoeveelheid'an amount'. It is on account of these features that these nouns have traditionally been called mass or non-count nouns. We will use these terms in a slightly different way: the notion of non-count noun will be used to refer to the superset comprising the mass and substance nouns, whereas the notion of mass noun will be used for the more restricted concept defined by Table 5.

[+]  B.  +shape: count nouns

The most conspicuous difference between the +shape and -shape nouns is that the former can be pluralized whereas the latter cannot. It is on account of this fact that the two sets have traditionally been called count and non-count nouns. Singular +shape nouns further differ from the -shape nouns in that they can be preceded by the indefinite article but not by quantifying expressions like wat/een beetje'a little'. Plural +shape nouns also differ from the -shape nouns in that they can be modified by quantifying expressions like enkele'some/a few' and een aantal'a number'.

Comparison of +shape and -shapenouns
individual/collective [+shape] substance/mass [-shape]
pluralization possible not possible
articles definite: de/het
indefinite: een
definite: de/het
indefinite: ∅
quantifiers *wat/een beetje + Nsg
een aantal/enkele + Npl
wat/een beetje + Nsg
*een aantal/enkele + Nsg

Note in this connection that Dutch differs from English in that it does not distinguish between -count quantifiers like little/much and +count quantifiers like few/many; Dutch uses weinig'little/few' and veel'much/many' both for non-count nouns and for plural count nouns. Nevertheless, the quantifier een beetje (but not wat) can be considered a -count quantifier given that it cannot be used on the intended quantificational meaning with (singular or plural) count nouns: *een beetje boek(en)'a little books'. Similarly, quantifiers like een aantal/enkele can be considered +count quantifiers given that they can only co-occur with plural count nouns. For a detailed discussion of the distribution and function of the various determiners and quantifiers, see Chapter 5 and Chapter 6.

[+]  C.  +set and -set

Mass and collective nouns are +set nouns and denote entities that themselves consist of two or more members. Substance and individual nouns are -set nouns and denote unitary entities that do not consist of more members. It should be noted, however, that plural individual noun phrases like (de) mannen'(the) men' also refer to a set; the feature ±set must therefore be considered a feature of the bare noun, which can be overridden by the feature of the plural morpheme.

[+]  II.  Differences between the subclasses

This subsection discusses in more detail some differences between the four subclasses of concrete nouns on their prototypical uses; the non-prototypical uses of these subclasses will be discussed in Subsection III.

[+]  A.  Substance nouns -shape-set

Substance nouns like water'water' or hout'wood' have the feature -shape: the entities described by such nouns have measure (weight, volume) but no outline, and for this reason they can be included in the supercategory of non-count nouns. The entities denoted by the substance nouns do not qualify as sets either, given that the entities denoted by substances do not consist of individual members.
      Since substance nouns lack a definite outline, they cannot co-occur with the indefinite article, but require the use of the zero-article instead, as is shown by example (43a). Example (43b) shows that substance nouns cannot be pluralized either; consequently, if noun phrases headed by these nouns function as subjects, there is always singular agreement on the verb.

a. In het glas zat ∅/*een water.
  in the glass  satsg  ∅/a  water
  'There was water in the glass.'
b. * In het glas zaten drie waters.
  in the glass  satpl  three waters

Substance nouns can be modified by a -count quantifying expression like een beetje'a little' in example (44a), but not by +count quantifying expressions like enkele'some/a few' in example (44b).

a. In het glas zat wat/een beetje water.
  in the glass  satsg  a.little/a little  water
  'There was a little water in the glass.'
b. * In het glas zat enkele/een aantal water.
  in the glass  satsg  some/a number  water
[+]  B.  Individual nouns +shape-set

Individual nouns have the feature +shape: they denote entities with a definite outline, such as auto'car' or tafel'table', and for this reason they can be included in the supercategory of count nouns. They can be used to refer to persons, animals and things (e.g., man'man', hond'dog', auto'car'). Since the entities denoted by individual nouns are conceived of as individuals, they also have the feature -set.
      Example (45a) shows that, in singular indefinite noun phrases, individual nouns cannot be preceded by the indefinite zero-article ∅, but must be preceded by the indefinite article een'a'. If more than one entity is referred to, the plural form of the noun is preceded by the zero-article, as in (45b). If they function as subjects, noun phrases headed by individual nouns trigger number agreement on the verb: the verb is singular in (45a) and plural in (45b).

a. Op de tafel lag een/* boek.
  on the table  laysg  a/∅  book
  'There was a book on the table.'
b. Op de tafel lagen ∅ boeken.
  on the table  laypl  ∅ books
  'There were books on the table.'

Note in passing that Section 8.2.2 will show that there is an exception to the general rule that singular individual nouns must be preceded by the indefinite article een'a': predicatively used individual nouns denoting a profession, function or position can be used without the indefinite article: Jan is leraar'Jan is a teacher'.
      Plural individual nouns refer to non-singleton sets and can therefore be modified by +count quantifying expressions like enkele'some/a few'. Singular individual nouns, however, cannot co-occur with -count quantifiers like een beetje'a bit'. This is illustrated by (46a) and (46b), respectively.

a. Op de tafel lagen enkele/een aantal boeken.
  on the table  laypl  some/a number [of]  books
  'There were some/a number of books on the table.'
b. * Op de tafel lag/lagen wat/een beetje boek.
  on the table  laysg/pl  a.bit/a bit  book
[+]  C.  Mass nouns -shape+set

Mass nouns have the features +set and -shape: they denote entities that are conceived of as a non-singleton set, but the set as a whole lacks a definite outline. Examples of these nouns are vee'cattle', politie'police', geboomte'trees' and meubilair'furniture'. Example (47a) shows that, like substance nouns, mass nouns cannot co-occur with the indefinite article, but use the zero-article instead, and (47b) shows that they cannot be pluralized. Accordingly, they only combine with singular verb forms when heading a subject noun phrase.

a. In de kamer stond ∅/*een meubilair.
  in the room  stoodsg  ∅/a  furniture
b. * In de kamer stonden drie meubilairs.
  in the room  stoodpl  three furnitures

Being non-count nouns, mass nouns can be modified by -count quantifying expressions like een beetje'a little', but not by +count quantifiers like enkele'some/a few'. This is shown by (48a) and (48b), respectively.

a. In de kamer stond wat/een beetje meubilair.
  in the room  stoodsg  a.little/a little  furniture
  'There was a bit of furniture in the room.'
b. * In de kamer stond/stonden enkele/een aantal meubilair.
  in the room  stoodsg/stoodpl  some/a.number.of  furniture

      A further distinction can be made according to whether the set denoted by the mass nouns is homogeneous (consisting of identical or similar members) or heterogeneous (consisting of members differing in shape, color, function etc.). Nouns belonging to the former category, such as politie'police', do not allow modification by means of allerlei'all sorts of' or velerlei'many sorts of', whereas nouns belonging to the latter class, like vee or meubilair, speelgoed'toys', snoepgoed'sweets' do (Vossen 1995).

a. ?? Er was allerlei politie op straat.
  there  was all.sorts.of  police  in the.street
  'There were all sorts of police in the street.'
b. De kinderen kregen allerlei speelgoed/snoepgoed.
  the children  got  all.sorts.of  toys/sweets
  'The children were given all sorts of toys/sweets.'
[+]  D.  Collective nouns +shape+set

Collective nouns differ from mass nouns in that they have the feature +shape: they denote entities that are conceived of as a non-singleton set that has a definite outline in the sense that it consists of a restricted (though possibly unknown) number of members and is, as such, bounded. Examples of collective nouns are groep'group', kudde'flock', verzameling'set', club'club', vereniging'club/society', regering'government' and collectie'collection'. Collective nouns behave largely like individual nouns; example (50a) shows that they can be preceded by the indefinite article een, but not by the zero-article, and (50b) shows that the plural is used when more than one set is referred to. Consequently, if noun phrases headed by these nouns function as subjects, they will trigger number agreement on the verb.

a. Op de foto stond een/* regering afgebeeld.
  on the photo  stoodsg  a/∅  government  depicted
  'The photo showed a government.'
b. Op de foto stonden twee regeringen afgebeeld.
  on the photo  stoodpl  two governments  depicted
  'The photo showed two governments.'

Plural collective nouns can be modified by +count quantifying expressions like enkele'some/a few'; singular collective nouns, however, cannot be preceded by -count quantifiers like een beetje'a little'. This is shown by (51a) and (51b), respectively.

a. Op de foto stonden enkele/een aantal regeringen.
  on the photo  stood  some/a number  governments
  'The photo showed some/a number of governments.'
b. * Op de foto stond wat/een beetje regering.
  on the photo  stood  a.little/a little  government

      A substantial subclass of collective nouns exhibit special behavior in the sense that they cannot readily occur on their own, but are preferably followed by a plural individual noun, specifying their members. Collective nouns like kudde therefore normally occur as the first noun in a binominal noun phrase. An example involving the collective noun kudde'flock' is given in (52).

a. In de wei stond een kudde ?(schapen).
  in the meadow  stood  a flock [of] sheep
  'There was a flock of sheep in the meadow.'
b. In de wei stonden twee/enkele/een aantal kuddes ?(schapen).
  in the meadow  stood  two/some/a.number.of  flocks [of] sheep
  'There were two/some/a few/a number of flocks of sheep in the meadow.'

Although binominal noun phrases often contain collective nouns (because these denote a designated number of members), it is not a prerequisite that the first noun be a collective noun; Chapter 4 will show that the collective nouns form only one subtype of a wider range of nouns that can be used in binominal noun phrases.

[+]  III.  Non-prototypical uses

This subsection shows that the classification presented in the preceding subsections is characterized by a certain degree of flexibility in the sense that it is sometimes possible to use nouns belonging to one category in a way that is more appropriate for another category. In what follows. we will discuss three cases of such non-prototypical uses, which all involve a shift in the value of the feature ±shape. The most common shift from the feature -shape to +shape involves the use of a substance noun as an individual noun, but there are also some more marked cases in which a substance noun is used as an individual noun. There is just a single case that involves a shift from the feature +shape to -shape, namely, the use of an individual noun as a substance noun.

[+]  A.  Substance nouns used as individual nouns (-shape+shape)

Substance nouns can occasionally be used as individual nouns. This may take place through conversion (∅-derivation), by adding the diminutive suffix -je or one of its allomorphs, or by combining the noun with the indefinite article een'a'. We will discuss the three cases in the order indicated.

[+]  1.  Conversion

Individualization through conversion may result in a noun denoting objects made of the substance in question. Example (53) shows that the converted noun can be combined with either an indefinite or a definite article and be pluralized. Note that in these cases both uses are common, with the result that it is difficult to establish whether one use is dominant over the other or in what direction the conversion goes.

Conversion to count noun
substance noun individual noun
singular plural
glas‘glass’ een/het glas‘a/the glass’ glazen‘glasses’
steen‘stone’ een/de steen‘a/the stone’ stenen‘stones’
brood‘bread’ een/het brood‘a/the loaf of bread’ broden‘loaves of bread’

Conversion can also result in a noun denoting a specific type of the substance denoted by the substance noun; the individual noun gas in (54) denotes a particular gas, and the individual nouns bier and wijn denote certain kinds or brands of beer and wine. In both cases, the converted noun can be combined with an indefinite article and be pluralized. Not that, when we want to maintain that we are dealing with a shift in the feature ±shape, we again have to give the feature +shape a wide interpretation by assuming that, cognitively speaking, types of gases and liquids do have a certain definite outline in the sense that, e.g., different types of gases do, chemically speaking, have different, characteristic structures.

Conversion to count nouns denoting a specific type of substance
substance noun individual noun
singular plural
gas‘gas’ een/#het gas‘a/the gas’ gassen‘gases’
wijn‘wine’ een/#de wijn‘a/the wine’ wijnen‘wines’
bier‘beer’ een/#het bier‘a/the beer’ bieren‘beers’

Example (54) also shows that definite determiners are not possible with the intended reading; a definite noun phrases like het gas'the gas' instead seems to refer to a contextually determined quantity of gas. Still, definite determiners are possible on the type reading in examples such as (55), in which the restrictive modifiers create a contrastive context.

a. De witte wijn is erg goed (maar de rode niet).
  the white wine  is very good   but  the red  not
  'The white wine is very good (but the red wine isnʼt).'
b. De Franse wijn was erg duur (maar de Italiaanse niet).
  the French wine  was very expensive   but  the Italian  not
  'The French wine was very expensive (but not the Italian wine).'

It is not only in cases such as (55) that restrictive modifiers facilitate the type reading. Conversion often leads to very marked results: using an example such as een melk to refer to a particular type of that substance is only possible in very specific contexts, but the addition of a restrictive modifier often makes such indefinite noun phrases fully acceptable.

a. een melk ??(met extra veel calcium)
  a milk     with extra much calcium
b. een zand ??(dat zeer geschikt is voor het bouwen van zandkastelen)
  a sand     that very suitable is for the building of sand castles
  'a kind of sand that is very suitable for building sand-castles'
c. een ??(voor quiches en soepen erg geschikte) spinazie
     for pies and soups  very suitable  spinach
  'a type of spinach that is very suitable for pies and soups'
[+]  2.  Diminutive

The diminutive form of substance nouns denotes a small object made (up) of the substance in question, usually of a very specific type or character. For example, while krijt denotes chalk in general, krijtje denotes a piece of chalk used for writing on a blackboard. The derived nouns in (57) can be combined with either an indefinite or definite article and can be pluralized.

Derivation of count nouns by means of the diminutive suffix
substance noun individual noun
singular plural
krijt‘chalk’ een/het krijtje‘a/the piece of chalk’ krijtjes‘pieces of chalk’
stof‘dust’ een/het stofje‘a/the particle of dust’ stofjes‘particles of dust’
ijs‘ice-cream’ een/het ijsje‘an/the ice-cream’ ijsjes‘ice-creams’

Derivation by means of the diminutive suffix is restricted in its application. The diminutive forms in (57), for example, are so commonly used that they may be said to have gained full lexical status, each having a specific meaning transcending the sum of head noun and diminutive suffix. Other combinations of substance noun and diminutive suffix, however, lead to varying degrees of markedness, as can be seen in (58).

a. ?? een melkje
b. ? een theetje
c. *? een zilvertje

Judgments on the acceptability of the diminutive forms in the examples in (58) will doubtlessly vary from speaker to speaker, and they largely depend on socio-cultural phenomena. For example, a diminutive form like melkje'little milk' will definitely be marked (although acceptable in baby-talk), whereas a form like yoghurtje'little yogurt' is acceptable, due to the fact that yogurt is often sold in small cups. Similarly, the diminutive form often refers to drinks served in certain quantities without explicit mention of that quantity.

a. een cognacje
  'a glass of cognac'
b. een biertje
  'a glass of beer'
[+]  3.  Combining the indefinite article een and a substance noun

The combination of indefinite article and substance noun can also be used to refer to (culturally defined) fixed quantities or individual entities in constructions such as those given in (60). This particular use is more or less restricted to situations in which listed or displayed items (especially food) are ordered. In these and some of the earlier cases, there is reason for assuming that we are dealing with ellipsis. Thus, the phrase een koffie'a coffee' in (60a) might be taken as the elliptical form of the binominal noun phrase een kop(je) koffie'a cup of coffee'. Similarly, the noun phrase een melk'a milk' in example (56a) above may be taken as the simplified form of the noun phrase een soort melk'a kind of milk'. Evidence in favor of such an analysis can be found in the fact, illustrated in example (60b), that it is possible to use a cardinal numeral to indicate that we are referring to a non-singleton set in combination with a singular substance noun. This can be accounted for by assuming that agreement holds between the numeral and the empty or elided noun; cf. the primed examples.

a. Een koffie, alstublieft.
  a coffee  please
a'. een (kop) koffie
  cup of  coffee
b. Mag ik twee bier van u?
  may  two beer  from you
b'. twee (glazen) bier
  two  glasses of  beer
c. Een spaghetti, graag.
  a spaghetti  please
c'. een (bord) spaghetti
  plate of  spaghetti

Note that the northern variety of Dutch may differ in this respect from other varieties of Dutch; in Flemish Dutch, for example, twee koffie/bier is not acceptable. Instead a plural (diminutive) form is used: Twee koffies/biertjes'two coffees/beers'.
      Not all of the non-prototypical uses of substance nouns discussed earlier can be analyzed as involving ellipsis. For example, the fully lexicalized nouns in examples (53) and (54) do not seem to have an appropriate semantic correlate that can be taken as its basic form. This will be clear from the examples in (61), which show that when the noun bier refers to a certain kind of beer, it must be pluralized if preceded by a cardinal numeral, whereas this is not possible in the corresponding binominal construction; an ellipsis account is therefore not plausible.

a. Ze hebben hier honderden bieren/*bier.
  they  have  here  hundreds  beers/beer
  'They have hundreds of kinds of beer over here.'
b. Ze hebben hier honderden soorten bier/*bieren.
  they  have  here  hundreds  kinds [of]  beer/beers
  'They have hundreds of kinds of beer over here.'

Something similar holds for the noun phrase een biertje in (59b). The fact that the diminutive ending attaches to the substance noun bier suggests that this noun must be the underlying head and that there is no reason for assuming the presence of another (empty or elided) noun: see the contrast in (62), which shows that in the binominal construction the diminutive suffix cannot be attached to the substance noun.