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Demonstrative pronouns

Demonstratives appear as attributes to nouns or as free pronouns. Usually, the term "demonstrative pronoun" is restricted to the free pronominal usage, but this section will cover both uses. Demonstratives assist in referring to an entity by singling out a particular referent from a set of possible referents. The commonest lexical elements performing this function are deze this.SG.C, die that.SG.C, dit this.SG.N and dat that.SG.N. Deze and die also serve as as plural forms. The singular forms differ in gender (common versus neuter). Both singular and plural forms encode distance (proximal (deze, dit) versus distal (die, dat)). In addition to the four basic demonstratives, there are the forms zulk(e) such and zo'n such a, as well as the complex pronouns d(i)egene the one (person) and datgene the one (thing). These words show some special behaviour and are discussed here.

Within the noun phrase, demonstratives are similar to articles. The functional difference between the two sets of words is that demonstratives highlight a particular referent amongst several. The examples in (1) contrast indefinite articles (1a), definite articles (1b), proximal demonstratives (1c) and distal demonstratives (1d).

Example 1

a. een man/een huis
INDF.SG man.C/INDF.SG house.N
a man/a house
b. de man/het huis/de boek-en
DEF.SG.C man.C/DEF.SG.N house.N/DEF.PL book.PL
the man/the house/the books
c. deze man/dit huis/deze boek-en
this man/this house/these books
d. die man/dat huis/die boek-en
that man/that house/those books

As free pronouns, demonstratives serve anaphoric or deictic purposes, similar to personal pronouns. The following examples illustrate anaphoric demonstrative pronouns. For deictic demonstratives, see here.

Example 2

a. de deur... deze/die sluit niet goed
DEF.SG.C door.C DEM.C.SG.PROX/DIST close.3SG.PRS not well
the door... it doesn't lock properly
b. het huis... dit/dat staat leeg
DEF.SG.N house.N DEM.SG.N.PROX/DIST stand.3SG.PRS empty
the house... it is empty
c. de koekje-s.... deze/die zijn lekker
DEF.PL cookie.PL DEM.PL.PROX/DIST be.3PL.PRS tasty
the cookies... they are nice

Demonstrative pronouns distinguish singular and plural. In the singular, there is a split between common and neuter gender. In both singular and plural the pronouns have two distance forms, expressing conceptual closeness (proximal) or distance (distal), very similar to English this versus that.

Table 1
Gender Singular Plural
proximal distal proximal distal
common deze die deze die
neuter dit dat deze die
Case is not marked on demonstratives, with the exception of two genitive forms that belong to the formal register: diens his and dier her. These two forms are discussed with the possessive pronouns. Other archaic case forms survive in fixed expressions such as dezer dagen these days or van dien aard of this sort.

The common gender form die is often formally indistinguishable from the masculine clitic pronoun ie, especially after words ending in /t/. This is due to regular phonological processes, i.e. assimilation and degemination. Such situations arise frequently as all verbs in the third-person singular end in /t/, as do a number of conjunctions (such as omdat because, want because), both frequently preceding a pronoun. The result is that hearers cannot always perceive the difference between a demonstrative and a personal pronoun.

[+]Use: attributive

As attributes, demonstratives introduce noun phrases. They are, in fact, more similar to articles than to pronouns and should probably be called demonstrative determiners. They precede the noun, either immediately or with one or more words in between, e.g. adjectives. The choice between proximal and distal forms depends on the communicative intention, the appropriate number and gender is a matter of agreement of the demonstrative with the noun it belongs to. Thus, in (3a), the demonstrative has the properties common gender and singular because these are the features of bloemflower. In (3b), the demonstrative is neuter because glasglass is.

Example 3

a. deze bloem
DEM.SG.C.PROX flower.C
this flower
b. dit glas
this glass

In other contexts, the demonstratives zulk(e) such and zo'n such a can be used. The first appears with mass nouns and plural nouns; the second, which in fact is a reduced form of the adverbial zoand the indefinite article een, can be used in all other contexts. There is a gender differentiation between zulk (neuter singular) and zulke (common gender singular and plural), see (4a). The form zo'n is invariant, as is the indefinite article which constitutes its right-hand part.

Example 4

a. zulk water/zulk-e honing/zulk-e berg-en
such.SG.N water.N/such-SG.C honey.C/such-PL mountain-PL
such water/ such honey/such mountains
b. zo'n berg/zo'n dal
such_a mountain.C/such_a valley.N
such a mountain/valley

The form zulk(e) can also be used as a free anaphoric pronoun (see example (5)), the form zo'n only occurs attributively.

Example 5

Wil je deze bloem-en of liever zulk-e?
want.2SG.PRS PRO.2SG DEM.PL.PROX flower-PL or rather such-PL
Would you like these flowers or rather those?
[+]Use: anaphoric

In their usage, demonstratives resemble third person pronouns. In most cases, they are used to refer to a conceptual entity mentioned or otherwise made salient in the previous discourse. This entity can be a person, an object or anything else that can be expressed by a noun. In the normal case, the referent is first introduced by a noun called the antecedent and later picked up by the pronoun. In the example, the referent, a car, is first referred to by a noun and then by a pronoun. The pronoun agrees with the antecedent noun in gender (common) and number (singular).

Example 6

Ik verkoop mijn auto zolang die nog waarde heeft.
PRO.1SG sell.1SG.PRS POSS.1SG car.C.SG while DEM.C.SG PRT value have.3SG.PRS
I'm selling my car so long as it has some value

The use of a pronoun in order to take up an already established referent is known as anaphoric. Pronouns that precede rather than follow the noun, as in (informal) Toen die gegeten had ging Jos weer aan het werk When he had eaten, Jos went back to work, are called cataphoric. Anaphoric or cataphoric usage is different from deictic usage, discussed below.

In many contexts, demonstratives can be used interchangeably with personal pronouns.

Example 7

Is Frank er al? Nee, maar hij/die zou komen
be.3SG.PRS Frank there already no but PRO.3SG.M/DEM.SG.C AUX.3SG.PST.CONJ come.INF
Is Frank there yet? No, but he was going to come

In colloqiual speech, demonstratives are used more often than in formal writing. However, note again the phonological similarity between the common gender demonstrative die and the masculine clitic pronoun ie , due to assimilation, which makes many utterances ambiguous as to the nature of the pronoun used.

Demonstratives are sometimes preferred to personal pronouns as they do not require a decision between masculine and feminine gender.

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Personal pronouns can be problematic as anaphors because they distinguish three genders while their antecedents distinguish only two. Because of this mismatch and because of normative pressures dictating artificial knowledge, speakers are often uncertain whether to use a masculine or a feminine personal pronoun for a common gender antecedent. For example, in the following Dutch sentence, translated from English,

Example 8

Het is onze plicht om de toorts van vrijheid hoog genoeg te houden, zodat iedereen in de wereld die kan zien
PRO.3SG.N be.3SG.PRS POSS.1PL duty.C PRT DEF.SG.C torch.C of freedom.C high enough to hold.INF such_that everybody in DEF.SG.C world.C DEM.C.SG can.3SG.PRS see.INF
Is is our duty to hold the torch of freedom high enough for everyone in the world to see.

the question emerges as to whether the common gender noun toorts torch should be followed by a masculine or a feminine pronoun. As language users do not know whether the noun was masculine or feminine at the time when this distinction was still alive (in fact, for this particular noun even the standard dictionary does not provide an answer), the common gender demonstrative is an easy choice that circumvents the decision and produces a correct sentence. It is difficult to investigate how frequent such choice patterns are. Increasing frequency weakens the functional differences (discussed below) between demonstrative pronouns and ordinary personal pronouns, bringing them closer together. The development from demonstrative to personal pronoun is not uncommon cross-linguistically. In Scandinavian, for example, former demonstratives have entered the domain of the personal pronouns and are now considered to be part of their paradigm.

Yet, there are contexts where personal pronouns and demonstratives differ functionally. In a text, a new referent is usually introduced by a noun (e.g. proper names such as Arie), or a complex noun phrase such as mijn jongere broer my younger brother. The first pronoun for this referent is often a demonstrative. In the continuing discourse, personal pronouns are used. Yet, speakers' preferences vary.

Example 9

Ik ben gisteren Arie tegengekomen. Die/?hem had ik al in jaren niet meer gezien. Hij/?die was in het buitenland geweest, vertelde hij/die.
PRO.1SG AUX.1SG.PRS yesterday Arie meet.PTCP.DEM.C.SG/PRO.M.SG.OBL AUX.1SG.PST PRO.1SG already in years not see.PTCP. PRO.3SG.M.NOM AUX.3SG.PST in DEF.N.SG foreign-country be.PTCP
'I met Arie yesterday. I hadn't seen him for years. He'd been abroad, he said.

Moreover, a demonstrative often creates more emphasis than a personal pronoun, which is useful when singling out a particular referent among several, e.g. in answering a which-question: Welke wijn wil je? - Deze. Which wine would you like? - This one.

When two available referents are active in the discourse, a demonstrative can be used to disambiguate between the two. Personal pronouns usually refer to the topical or first-mentioned referent, while the demonstrative picks out the second-mentioned or non-topical referent (Ellert 2010).

Example 10

Jan ging zijn vriend opzoeken voor die hem zou missen.
Jan go.3SG.PST POSS.3SG friend.C visit before DEM.C.SG PRO.3SG.M.OBL AUX.3SG.PRS.CONJ miss.INF
Jan went to visit his friend before he (i.e. the friend) would miss him (i.e. Jan).

Thus, demonstratives can be used to promote a referent to the new topic.

Example 11

Mijn vriend is ambtenaar. Hij werkt bij de overheid. Die heeft de laatste jaren veel nieuwe mensen aangesteld.
POSS.1SG friend.C be.3SG.PRS clerk. PRO.3SG.M work.3SG.PRS by DEF.C.SG government.C.SG. DEM.C.SG.DIST AUX.3SG.PRS DEF.C.SG last years many new.PL people.PL hire.PTCP
My friend is a civil servant. He works for the government. They have hired a lot of new staff recently.

Topic-shifting pronouns are often, though not always, stressed. The strongest topic-shifting force is associated with the proximal common gender pronoun deze. However, this pronoun in anaphoric use is restricted to formal language usage.

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The functional difference between personal pronouns and demonstratives appears to be weakening, as demonstratives are often used for topical rather than non-topical antecedents. A spectacular example is the following :

Example 12

Het vervoermiddel mag niet langer dan 7 dagen ongebruikt in de stalling worden geplaatst, daarna kan deze worden verwijderd.
DEF.N.SG vehicle.N may.3SG.PRS not longer than 7 days unused in DEF.C.SG shelter.C become.INF put afterwards can.3SG.PRS DEM.C.SG.PROX become.INF removed
The vehicle may not be left unused in the storage for more than 7 days, after that it can be removed.

The demonstrative deze is intended to refer to the vehicle rather than the storage. This is clear from the context. Grammatically, however, stalling storage is a much better antecedent: it is the second-mentioned, non-topical entity and it matches the pronoun in gender. Such cases illustrate that the demonstrative may be taking over functions that used to be associated with the personal pronoun. (The reasons for gender mismatches such as between the neuter gender antecedent vervoermiddel vehicle and the common gender pronoun deze are discussed here).

Sometimes, demonstratives can be used where ordinary personal pronouns cannot:

Example 13

Jouw voorstel lijkt me beter dan dat/*het van Paul.
POSS.2SG suggestion.N seem.3SG.PRS PRO.1SG.OBL better than DEM.N.SG.DIST/PRO.3SG.N of Paul
Your proposal seems better to me than Paul's

This usage only works with the distal pronouns die and dat, not with proximal deze or dit.

[+]Use: deictic

The demonstrative pronouns can also be used to introduce a new discourse referent directly, without an antecedent noun. This usage is called deictic. Singling out the intended referent normally requires a pointing gesture. As for personal pronouns, the referents are animate, preferrably human.

Example 14

Die daar is mijn nieuwe buurman/?kat/*kast.
DEM.C.DIST there be.3SG.PRS POSS.1SG new.C.SG neighbour(C)/cat(C)/wardrobe(C)
That one there is my new neighbour/cat/wardrobe
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In copular constructions such as example (14), the neuter demonstratives dit or dat can be used in all cases, irrespective of the gender or number of the noun, or the semantics of the referent. In such constructions, the pronoun is always neuter and is not sensitive to the features of its antecedent. See also here.

Even though deictic reference often does not involve an overt antecedent, deictic pronoun needs to agree in gender with an implicit noun that describes the intended referent (see Corbett (1991: 243) for discussion and references). For example, uttering (15) while pointing at some water (Dutch water water, a neuter gender noun) only works if the pronoun has neuter gender.

Example 15

Dat/*die is nog warm.
DEM.N/C.DIST is still warm
That's still warm.

Deictic pronouns always carry stress.

[+]Use: other

Similar to the neuter personal pronoun het, the neuter demonstratives participate in fixed expressions such as dat werd tijd that was about time or dat weet ik niet I don't know that as well as in copular constructions of the type dit/dat zijn aardige jongens those are (lit.: this/that are) nice boys. Other constructions contain combinations of pronouns, as in Was dat ’et/’m? Was that it? (the inquiry of a shop assistant whether an order is complete).

A special use of the neuter distal demonstrative dat is to express a negative attitude towards a person or a group.

Example 16

Pubers/ Zo'n puber. Dat zit de hele dag thuis en doet niks.
adolescents/such INDF.SG adolescent. DEM.SG.N.DIST sit.3SG.PRS DEF.SG.C whole day.C at_home and do.3SG.PRS nothing
Adolescents./ An adolescent. Sitting at home all day doing nothing.

Sometimes, demonstratives are used right after their antecedent noun phrase in what looks like a redundant construction.

Example 17

Geert die was er gisteren weer.
Geert DEM.SG.C be.3SG.PST PRT yesterday again.
Geert, he was back yesterday

These pronouns are called "steunpronomina" (supporting pronouns)

The pronouns diegene the one (person) and datgene the one (thing) are only used pronominally, never attributively. They are often combined with a restrictive relative clause. Sometimes these pronouns are called "aankondigende voornaamwoorden" (announcing pronouns).

Example 18

Diegene die als laatste binnenkomt...
Whoever comes in last...
Example 19

Datgene dat/wat verkeerd ging ...
What went wrong...

This usage is changing. Nowadays, speakers can use diegene as a normal demonstrative pronoun:

Example 20

Ik heb diegene gisteren gebeld
PRO.1SG AUX.1SG.PRS DEM.SG.C yesterday PRT call.PTCP
I called that person yesterday
  • Corbett, Greville G1991GenderCambridgeCambridge University Press
  • Ellert, Miriam2010Ambiguous Pronoun Resolution in L1 and L2 German and DutchMPI Series in Psycholinguistics