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 difficult and controversial topic in Dutch, because different speakers may distinguish different genders, and therefore there may be disagreement over the gender of any given noun.
Traditionally, nouns in Dutch, like in other (sometimes older) Germanic languages, have one of three grammatical genders: 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 the adjective inflection of both is identical, and both share the same article and the same demonstrative pronouns. The standard language only 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, but those have fallen out of use and are only retained in archaic usage and fixed expressions.
In Belgium, 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 some dialects, such as West Flemish, there are exceptions: de koe bij zijn horens vatten "to catch the cow by his horns" and Greta zijn hoed "Greta his hat".
In most parts of the Netherlands, 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 following table shows the use of various articles and pronouns in these two language areas. 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.
|Adjective, no preceding article||groene||groene||groen|
|Adjective, with preceding article||groene||groene||groen(e)|
The standard language
In the written tradition, which forms the base for the (prescribed) standard language, there are some remains of the traditional three genders. 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, since 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).
The trend so far is towards the increasing use of the common gender in favour of the masculine/feminine distinction, even in more formal writing. While this process has long been completed in the spoken language of the north, it is now slowly gaining ground in the south, with 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). However, because the feminine gender is normally used (at least for inanimate nouns) only in formal or written language, which tends to follow the standard more strictly, an opposite trend has also arisen. As a result of hypercorrection, caused by the perceived formality of the feminine gender, the feminine pronouns are now 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).
Words referring to animate entities whose natural gender is masculine:
- oom "uncle"
- dief "(male) thief"
- 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 with the following suffixes, which mostly form agent nouns, are masculine:
- -aar — handelaar "merchant"
- -aard — dronkaard "drunkard"
- -er — bakker "baker"
- -erd — engerd "creep"
- -eur — directeur "manager"
- -or — kolonisator "colonizer"
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.
Words referring to animate objects whose natural gender is feminine:
- tante "aunt"
- dievegge "female thief"
- 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:
- -es — zangeres "female singer"
- -in — godin "goddess"
- -ster — verpleegster "nurse"
However, diminutives such as meisje "girl" are neuter.
Words for abstract concepts ending with the following suffixes are feminine:
- -de — liefde "love"
- -heid — waarheid "truth"
- -ij — voogdij "custody"
- -ing — opleiding "education"
- -nis — kennis "knowledge"
- -te — ziekte "illness"
- -schap — vriendschap "friendship"
- -st — winst "profit"
There are a few exceptions, e.g. dienst "service", which is masculine. 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, while gemeenschap "community" is feminine but concrete.
Suffixes that are borrowed from Latin or Greek often retain their feminine gender from those languages. This includes:
- -ie — filosofie "philosophy"
- -iek — muziek "music"
- -ica — logica "logic"
- -theek — bibliotheek "library"
- -logie — zoölogie "zoology"
- -teit — kwaliteit "quality"
- -tuur — natuur "nature"
- -suur — censuur "censorship"
- -ade — tirade "tirade"
- -ide — asteroïde "asteroid"
- -ode — periode "period"
- -ude — amplitude "amplitude"
- -age — tuigage "rigging"
- -ine — discipline "discipline"
- -se — analyse "analysis"
- -sis — crisis "crisis"
- -xis — syntaxis "syntax"
- -tis — bronchitis "bronchitis"
There are, as always, a few exceptions. For example, kanarie "canary" is masculine and ministerie "ministry" is neuter.
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:
- -isme — socialisme "socialism"
- -um — museum "museum"
- -ma — thema "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.
Gender in southern Dutch
In the local dialects of southern Dutch (south of the river Meuse), a difference is still made between masculine and feminine words, unlike in northern/Standard Dutch. Masculine words have different articles, possessives and demonstratives than feminine words:
- Indefinite article: (e)ne(n) - versus standard een
- Definitive article: often remains de (like standard Dutch), but is sometimes den (unlike Standard Dutch)
- Possessives: mijne(n), jouwe(n)/je, zijne(n), hare(n), onze(n), uwe(n), hunne(n) - versus standard mijn, jouw/je, zijn, haar, ons, uw, hun "mine, your (sg.), his, her, our, your (pl.), their"
- Demonstratives: diene(n), deze(n) - versus standard die, deze
Example 1: (vrouw is feminine)
- Southern: Heeft u mijn vrouw gezien?
- Standard: Heeft u mijn vrouw gezien?
- English: Have you seen my wife?
versus: (auto and boom are masculine)
- Southern: Ik heb mijnen auto onder diene boom geparkeerd.
- Standard: Ik heb mijn auto onder die boom geparkeerd.
- English: I parked my car beneath that tree.
While Standard Dutch only has one indefinite article (een) for all three genders, spoken southern Dutch has a more complex set of articles:
- Masculine: ne(n), as in ne man "a man" and nen avond "an evening" - this form comes from the archaic accusative eenen. Nen is used when the word following it starts with a vowel or h-.
- Feminine: een, as in een vrouw "a woman".
- Neuter: e(en), as in e kind "a child" and een huis "a house". Een is used when the word following it starts with a vowel or h-.
- Chapter 2 of van Berkum, J.J.A. (1996) The psycholinguistics of grammatical gender: Studies in language comprehension and production, "The linguistics of gender"[dead link] (PDF)
- Geerts, G. (2003) . "Genus en geslacht in de Gouden Eeuw. Een bijdrage tot de studie van de nominale klassifikatie en daarmee samenhangende adnominale flexievormen en pronominale verschijnselen in Hollands taalgebruik van de zeventiende eeuw". Retrieved 2010-09-24. (Dutch)