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Dutch, like many other Indo-European languages, has gradually moved its nominal morphology from synthetic to chiefly analytic. It has retained some vestiges of the original case system, more so than English, but to a much lesser extent than German. In modern Dutch, nouns and articles are no longer inflected for case, although an elaborate case system was used in the written language until the middle of the 20th century. In addition, many surnames, toponyms and set expressions still exhibit fossilised inflected forms of the article and noun.
In Middle Dutch, a productive case system was still in existence, which was very similar to that of modern German. Given below is the so-called "strong" inflection.
(adjective clein = small, noun worm = worm, daet = deed/action, broot = bread)
|Nominative (sing)||die cleine worm||die cleine daet||dat cleine broot|
|Genitive (sing)||des cleins worms||der cleiner daet||des cleins broots|
|Dative (sing)||den cleinen worme||der cleiner daet||den cleinen brode|
|Accusative (sing)||den cleinen worm||die cleine daet||dat cleine broot|
|Nominative (pl)||die cleine worme||die cleine dade||die cleine brode|
|Genitive (pl)||der cleiner worme||der cleiner dade||der cleiner brode|
|Dative (pl)||den cleinen wormen||den cleinen daden||den cleinen broden|
|Accusative (pl)||die clene worme||die cleine dade||die cleine brode|
16th to 18th centuries
It was already observed in the 15th century that there existed no distinction between the nominative and accusative forms of nouns and articles in the northern dialects. From the Renaissance onward, the view that the Dutch language should somehow be 'ennobled' with an extensive case system after the model of Latin was widespread. Hendrik Louwerisz. Spieghel, an influential 16th-century grammarian, tried to reform and standardize the Dutch case system in his book on grammar, Twe-spraack van de Nederduitsche Letterkunst (1584). In particular, Spieghel wanted to create a distinction in grammatical function between two existing forms of the definite article, de and den, having de pertain to subjects and den to objects. (In this system, no distinction was made between masculine and feminine nouns, as was later done; des vrouws, den vrouwe (f) would stand alongside des heers, den here (m).) Another artificial distinction, still in use today, between the plural personal pronouns hun (for the indirect object) and hen (for the direct object) was created by Christiaen van Heule, who wrote the De Nederduytsche spraec-konst ofte tael-beschrijvinghe (printed in 1633). In the same vein, the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns was rigidly maintained, although this distinction was felt only vaguely at best in the northern dialects. (In the dialects of the Southern Netherlands, however, the distinction did indeed exist and is still in existence today.) Celebrated poets such as Joost van den Vondel and Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft often disagreed in assigning gender to nouns, which they arbitrarily based on equivalents in Latin, German, or other languages whenever they saw fit. Their choices were adopted by the grammarian David van Hoogstraten in his Aenmerkingen over de Geslachten der Zelfstandige Naemwoorden (1700); where Vondel and Hooft disagreed, Van Hoogstraten would assign a gender to a noun by his own choice. These "gender lists" were steadily extended, especially by professor Adriaan Kluit (1735-1807), who revised Van Hoogstraten's work. Kluit's list formed the basis of later 19th-and early 20th-century practice.
19th and early 20th centuries
This artificial approach to the Dutch language remained the prevailing practice through the 17th and 18th centuries, but attitudes began to change in the 19th century. The rigidity of the written language was satirized in 1865 by Jacob van Lennep in his De vermakelijke spraakkunst, in which he noticed that the case system was hardly used in the spoken language. The practice of approaching Dutch as if it were a classical, inflecting language comparable to Latin and Greek was gradually abandoned in the 19th century, and it was recognized that word order played a far greater role in defining grammatical relationships. R.A. Kollewijn (1857-1942) advocated radical spelling reforms for the whole of the Dutch language, at a time when a rather extensive case system was maintained in the written language by the De Vries-Te Winkel spelling. The table below shows the conventions of the written language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only the "strong" inflection is shown here.
|Nominative (sing)||de kleine worm||de kleine daad||het kleine brood|
|Genitive (sing)||des kleinen worms||der kleine daad||des kleinen broods|
|Dative (sing)||den kleinen worm||de kleine daad||het kleine brood|
|Accusative (sing)||den kleinen worm||de kleine daad||het kleine brood|
|Nominative (pl)||de kleine wormen||de kleine daden||de kleine broden|
|Genitive (pl)||der kleine wormen||der kleine daden||der kleine broden|
|Dative (pl)||den kleinen wormen||den kleinen daden||den kleinen broden|
|Accusative (pl)||de kleine wormen||de kleine daden||de kleine broden|
Later 20th century to present
Kollewijn's proposals for a much simplified spelling, which included the effective abandonment of the case system, were adopted by Minister of Education Marchant for use at schools in 1934, which meant that the case endings were no longer taught at school. Kollewijn's spelling was officially implemented by the Belgian and Dutch governments in 1946 and 1947 respectively.
|singular||de kleine worm||de kleine daad||het kleine brood|
|plural||de kleine wormen||de kleine daden||de kleine broden|
- For the "weak" inflection, see the corresponding section in Middle Dutch.
- Exercitium puerorum, 1485. Het verhaal van een taal, p. 72.
- The authorship is not entirely certain; the book originated in the circles of the rederijkerskamer "In Liefde bloeyende" in Amsterdam.
- E. Rijpma and F.G. Schuringa, Nederlandsche spraakkunst, fifth edition, The Hague 1930, p. 128
- Van Heule invented an analogous distinction for the singular hum and hem, which did not slip into common practice, where hem has always been used for both cases. Het verhaal van een taal, p. 79.
- The title means: Comments on the Genders of the Nouns
- E. Rijpma and F.G. Schuringa, Nederlandsche spraakkunst, fifth edition, The Hague 1930, p. 129
- Het verhaal van een taal, pp. 104-105
- The "weak" inflection (which mostly, but not exclusively, consists of masculine nouns) differs only in having a genitive singular ending in -en instead of -(e)s: de vorst (= monarch, prince), des vorsten.
- Nouns ending with a sibilant had a genitive in -es: het huis, des huizes.
- Officially, the inflected forms of adjectives in -n remained optional, but they were only rarely used in publications after 1946 and quickly disappeared over the next decennium or so.
- The plural form of the genitive case, though by no means common, is still sometimes used in formal language, typically to give an expression an archaic, more solemn ring: het rijk der Azteken, "the empire of the Aztecs".
A remnant of the genitive case also appears when a relation is expressed between proper names in adjectival slots and their associated subjects, for example Peters fiets ("Peter's bicycle"). In general, only names can be used in such genitive case constructions; where a subject is desired as the head of a clause, Dutch prefers to place the subject as head and add a prepositional phrase as complement (much more so than in English) by way of the preposition "van" (of) which denotes possessiveness. For example, the Dutch word group het eind van de dag can be rendered in English as transliteratively "the end of the day" or, alternatively, "the day's end". However, to render the latter equivalent in Dutch as "des dages eind" would be to invoke an extremely archaic tone. The reasons for this are historical and manifold.
- It has to be noted that although modern Dutch no longer has a productive case system, many fossilized expressions have preserved ancient case endings. Examples are in genen dele, "not at all" (litt: "in no part"), and terzelfdertijd, "at the same time" (both old dative forms).
- Cases in Dutch
- Dutch Grammar on nouns and pronouns
- DutchGrammar.com on pronouns
- Jan de Vries, Roland Willemyns and Peter Burger, Het verhaal van een taal. Negen eeuwen Nederlands. Amsterdam 1993 (Dutch)
- Taalunieversum, website of the Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch Language Union): information on the Dutch case system (with examples, in Dutch)
- E. Rijpma and F.G. Schuringa, Nederlandsche spraakkunst, fifth edition, The Hague 1930