Gender in Dutch grammar

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In the Dutch language, the gender of a noun determines the articles, adjective forms and pronouns that are used in reference to that noun. Gender is a complicated topic in Dutch, because depending on the geographical area or speaker either a three-gender structure or a two-gender structure (with vestiges of a three-gender structure) is identified and maintained.

Overview[edit]

Traditionally, nouns in Dutch, like in German and Icelandic, have retained the three grammatical genders found in the older forms of all Germanic languages: masculine, feminine, or neuter. Almost all Dutch speakers maintain the neuter gender, which has distinct adjective inflection, definite article and some pronouns. The picture is less clear for the masculine and feminine gender, because in the standard language the adjective inflection of both is identical, and both share the same article and the same demonstrative pronouns. The standard language mostly distinguishes masculine and feminine genders by the use of the personal pronoun, which is hij for masculine nouns and zij for feminine nouns. It is also distinguished in the case forms of the definite article an some pronouns, but those have fallen out of use and are only retained in literary or archaic usage and fixed expressions.

In Belgium and southern dialects of the Netherlands, the distinction between the three genders is usually, but not always, maintained. Words that were traditionally feminine are still referred to with zij, whereas traditionally masculine words retain the use of hij. However, in the case of persons and animals of known sex the pronouns used are generally determined by the biological sex rather than by the grammatical gender of the word.

In most remaining parts of the Netherlands and in Suriname, the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns has disappeared, producing a common gender that uses the same inflections and pronouns as the original masculine. The pronouns hij and zij are used when the referent has a natural gender, so hij is used for a male person, zij for a female person. However, when the noun is inanimate and has no natural gender, the pronoun hij is used not only for traditionally masculine nouns, but for traditionally feminine nouns as well. Thus, the situation in these areas resembles that of English, although there is still a distinction among inanimate nouns between common hij and neuter het (English uses it for both, having lost all gender distinctions in inanimate nouns).

The standard language[edit]

In the written tradition, which forms the base for the (prescribed) standard language, there are some remains of the traditional three genders. The following table shows the use of various articles and pronouns in the standard form of Dutch, as well as how the use of gender in the two language areas aligns with this. In areas maintaining the three genders, there is no common gender. In areas with only two genders, only nouns referring to people have a distinction between masculine and feminine, all other nouns that are not neuter are common.

Masculine/
Common
Feminine Neuter
Indefinite article een een een
Definite article de de het
Adjective, no preceding article groene groene groen
Adjective, with preceding article groene groene groen(e)
Subject pronoun hij zij het
Object pronoun hem haar het
Possessive zijn haar zijn
Inflected possessive
zijn as example
zijn zijn zijn
Proximal demonstrative deze deze dit
Distal demonstrative die die dat
Interrogative wie wie wat

The standard as prescribed by the Dutch Language Union categorises most nouns into one of four categories:

  • neuter, marked o (for onzijdig) in Dutch or n in English;
  • masculine, marked m;
  • feminine, marked v (for vrouwelijk) in Dutch or f in English; and
  • feminine but optionally masculine, marked v/m in Dutch or f/m in English.

Thus, the standard only mandates the feminine gender for a subset of all historically feminine nouns. These are nouns with an overtly recognizable feminine suffix. However, this distinction is maintained only in formal or written standard Dutch, whereas many speakers do not make such a distinction in informal speech; they use only the common gender. Such speakers must therefore remember which endings are feminine, because they cannot rely on their own language intuition. Although some speakers do follow the standard in this respect, others do not and simply use the genders the way they are accustomed to them in their own everyday speech (either masculine/feminine/neuter or common/neuter).

In more formal, poetic or archaic language, a stronger distinction exists between the masculine and feminine genders, especially in the genitive forms as shown in the table below:

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Indefinite article (genitive form) enes ener enes
Definite article (genitive form) des der des
Distal demonstrative pronoun (genitive form) diens dier diens
Relative pronoun (genitive form) wiens wier wiens

The trend so far is towards the increasing use of the common gender in favour of the masculine/feminine distinction. Although this process has long been completed in the spoken language of the north, the three gender structure is still widespread in the south, though some suggest it is slowly losing ground due to the increase of language contact through mass media like television and the Internet. Some dictionaries have dropped the distinction between the two genders entirely, preferring to mark words with their definite article de (common) or het (neuter), whereas others like the Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal—the largest Dutch dictionary—retains it. Because the feminine gender of nouns tends to be respected in formal or written language, which tends to follow the standard more strictly, this sometimes also results into hypercorrection, caused by the perceived formality of the feminine gender, with feminine pronouns occasionally used for nouns that are historically masculine, and even for nouns that are neuter.

The following list reflects the use of gender that is prescribed for standard Dutch and used by the Language Union and educational material for teaching gender. It is not exhaustive, and covers only cases that follow some recognizable pattern. Many words have unpredictable gender and simply have to be memorized (and will be f/m in the standard, if not neuter).

Masculine nouns[edit]

Words referring to animate entities whose natural gender is masculine:

  • oom "uncle"
  • hengst "stallion"

However, diminutives such as jongetje "little boy" are neuter nouns. Nouns for professions (which are often historically masculine) may also be treated as gender-neutral, and are then either masculine or feminine depending on the referent.

Words ending in the following suffixes, which mostly form agent nouns, are masculine:

  • -aarhandelaar "merchant"
  • -aarddronkaard "drunkard"
  • -erbakker "baker"
  • -erdengerd "creep"
  • -eurdirecteur "manager"
  • -orkolonisator "colonizer"
  • -uspoliticus "politician"

There are a few exceptions, such as:

  • moeder "mother", fem.
  • baker "midwife", fem.
  • offer "offer", neuter

Abstract deverbal nouns are normally masculine:

  • bloei "blossoming", from bloeien "to blossom"
  • dank "thanks", from danken "to thank"
  • groei "growth", from groeien "to grow"
  • schrik "fear", from schrikken "to be frightened"
  • slaap "sleep", from slapen "to sleep"

New abstract nouns formed in this way are always masculine. However, some may be feminine, particularly if they are older words.

Feminine nouns[edit]

Words referring to animate objects whose natural gender is feminine:

  • tante "aunt"
  • merrie "mare"

This includes words ending in a suffix that derives a noun for a female person from either a masculine noun or from another word:

  • -eadvocate "female lawyer"
  • -ege/-eggedievegge "female thief" - this suffix is no longer productive; it can also be encountered in its contracted form -ei, e.g., klappei and labbei [1][2]
  • -eszangeres "female singer"
  • -ingodin "goddess"
  • -sterverpleegster "nurse"
  • -apolitica "female politician" and theoretica "female theoretician" - this suffix can only be used on masculine loan words of Latin origin ending on -us, like politicus "male politician" or theoreticus "male theoretician".

The Dutch language leaves in many cases some liberty to individual users on how to derive the female form of a noun; for example apothekeres, apothekerin and apotheekster would all be considered correct forms for "female apothecarian".

However, diminutives such as meisje "girl" are neuter.

Words for abstract concepts ending with the following suffixes are feminine:

  • -deliefde "love"
  • -heidwaarheid "truth"
  • -ijvoogdij "custody"
  • -erijbrouwerij "brewery"
  • -ingopleiding "education"
  • -niskennis "knowledge"
  • -teziekte "illness"
  • -schapvriendschap "friendship"
  • -stwinst "profit"

There are a few exceptions, e.g. dienst "service", which is masculine, or vonnis "verdict", which is neuter. There are also many nouns ending in -schap that are neuter, such as gereedschap "tool", landschap "landscape". These usually refer to concrete objects rather than abstract concepts, but the distinction is not always clear. For example, ouderschap "parenthood" is neuter but abstract, whereas gemeenschap "community" is feminine but concrete.

Suffixes that are borrowed from Latin or Greek often retain their feminine gender from those languages. This includes:

  • -iefilosofie "philosophy"
  • -iekmuziek "music"
  • -icalogica "logic"
  • -theekbibliotheek "library"
  • -logiezoölogie "zoology"
  • -teitkwaliteit "quality"
  • -tuurnatuur "nature"
  • -suurcensuur "censorship"
  • -adetirade "tirade"
  • -ideasteroïde "asteroid"
  • -odeperiode "period"
  • -udeamplitude "amplitude"
  • -agetuigage "rigging"
  • -inediscipline "discipline"
  • -seanalyse "analysis"
  • -siscrisis "crisis"
  • -xissyntaxis "syntax"
  • -tisbronchitis "bronchitis"

There are, as always, a few exceptions. For example, kanarie "canary" is masculine and ministerie "ministry" is neuter.

Neuter nouns[edit]

Diminutives are always neuter. They end in -je in the standard language, but the suffix -ke is also used in many dialects.

  • bloempje "little flower"
  • lammetje "little lamb"
  • meisje "girl" (etymological translation "little maid") Counterintuitive as clearly feminine.

When a diminutive refers to a person, masculine or feminine pronouns may be used to refer to the person instead of the neuter het. However, the definite article, demonstrative pronouns, and adjective inflection remain neuter.

Nouns prefixed with ge- with no suffix are neuter, especially if they are collectives derived from a verb stem:

  • gezicht "face"
  • geslacht "gender, sex"
  • geluid "sound"
  • geloop "walking"
  • gezeur "whining"

Collective nouns prefixed with ge- and suffixed with -te are neuter:

  • gebergte "mountain range"
  • geraamte "frame (of person), skeleton"
  • gesteente "stones, minerals"

Nouns prefixed with ge- and suffixed with -te are feminine if they are abstract concepts, such as gedachte "thought".

Names of towns, countries and languages are always neuter, even if they are clearly derived from a masculine, feminine or even plural noun:

  • Brussel "Brussels"
  • Nederland "the Netherlands" (land is also neuter)
  • Frans "French"
  • Denemarken "Denmark" (marken is plural)
  • Roermond (mond is masculine)

The following suffixes that are borrowed from Latin or Greek are neuter:

  • -ismesocialisme "socialism"
  • -ummuseum "museum"
  • -mathema "theme"

There is one notable exception, datum (date), which is masculine, and has both a "regular" plural in datums and the original Latin neuter plural in data.

The Southern Dutch regiolect[edit]

Southern Dutch consists roughly of all dialects south of the river Meuse. In these dialects, there was a tendency towards accusativism in early modern Dutch (16th and 17th centuries). This was the tendency to use the accusative case in the role of the nominative. When cases fell out of use later, the nominative was the one that survived, but in areas with accusativism these forms historically belonged to the accusative case. Unlike the old nominative, the accusative had a clear distinction between masculine and feminine forms. As it was these forms that survived in southern Dutch, the genders remained naturally distinct, and remain so up to the present day.

In addition, Southern Dutch developed a separate indefinite article for neuter words—"e" or "ee(n)"—which is pronounced as a schwa (IPA: ə).[3][4][5] Similar to English "an" versus "a", this article is not used when the following word starts with a vowel or a h-; rather "een" ('n) is used in those cases.

The following table shows the points where the southern dialects differ from the standard language. As the dialects themselves are not standardised, different forms may be found in different areas, although differences have lessened in the Tussentaal, the Dutch regiolect in the Region of Flanders.

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Indefinite article ne(n) een e, een
Definite article de(n) de het
Inflected possessive
zijn as example
zijne(n) zijn zijn
Proximal demonstrative deze(n) deze dit
Distal demonstrative diene(n) die dat

Example 1: (vrouw is feminine)

  • Southern: Heeft u mijn vrouw gezien?
  • Standard: Heeft u mijn vrouw gezien?
  • English: Have you seen my wife?

Example 2: (auto and boom are masculine)

  • Southern: Ik heb mijnen auto onder dienen boom geparkeerd.
  • Standard: Ik heb mijn auto onder die boom geparkeerd.
  • English: I parked my car beneath that tree.'

Example 3: (appartement and dorp are neuter)

  • Southern Ik woon in een appartement in e klein dorp.
  • Standard: Ik woon in een appartement in een klein dorp.
  • English: I live in an appartement in a small village.

Gender-neutral language[edit]

Unlike English (with the use of "they" as the singular gender-neutral pronoun) or Swedish (which developed the new gender-neutral pronoun "hen"), Dutch did not develop a gender-neutral pronoun. As a consequence, Dutch employs a variety of means to accommodate cases where the gender of a person is not known.

See also[edit]

References[edit]