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Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are the most heterogeneous group of pronouns. The term usually covers words such as iedereen everybody, iemand somebody, anybodyniemand nobody, iets something, anything and niets nothing. These words can often be arranged into pairs of positive and negative, as in iemand somebody, anybody and niemand nobody, with languages typically lacking a special word for concepts such as 'not everybody' or 'not all' (Horn 1989). The category borders on indefinite adverbials like ergens somewhere, nergens nowhere, ooit ever and nooit never on the one hand, and on indefinite numerals like sommige some or ieder(e) each, any, every on the other. Grammars differ in what is covered by the term "indefinite pronoun". The standard Dutch grammar ANS excludes the indefinite adverbials but includes many indefinite numerals such as enkele a few, sommige some, ieder(e) each, any, every or elk(e) each, any, every. Dutch indefinite pronouns are more interesting semantically and syntactically than morphologically, as they are formally invariant, with the exception of ieder(e) and elk(e) which agree in gender with the noun they belong to.

Example 1

a. ieder-e/elk-e man
each-C/every-C man.C
every man
b. ieder/elk kind
each.N/every.N child.N
every child

Historically, the classic indefinite pronouns iemand somebody, anybody and iets something, anything originated as compounds with the element ie some, any and a noun (in the case of iemand somebody, anybody, the noun is still recognizable as man man). For modern speakers, these words, including even the relatively transparent iedereen everyone, are felt to be single words (for example,iedereen is syllabified without regard for the historical morpheme boundary, making /r/ the onset of the second syllable).


Indefinite pronouns in Dutch can refer to persons: iedereen everybody, iemand somebody, anybodyniemand nobody. Others refer to things, masses or abstracts: iets something, anything, niets nothing. These elements are pronouns because they appear in places in the sentence where nouns can stand. The term "indefinite" captures their way of referring to an unspecified or unknown referent, or a vague number of referents. For example, the referent of iemand in (2a) is specific and known (to the speaker), while in (2b) it is specific but unknown. In (2c), the referent is nonspecific as well as vague in number: it can be one person or several.

Example 2

a. Er heeft vanmiddag iemand gebeld, raad eens wie.
Somebody called this afternoon, guess who.
b. Er heeft vanmiddag iemand gebeld, maar ik weet niet wie.
Somebody called this afternoon, but I don't know who.
c. Is er iemand bij de vergadering geweest?
Has anybody been to the meeting?

Indefinite adverbials, which are sometimes included among the indefinite pronouns (Haspelmath 1997) make reference to places: ergens somewhere, nergens nowhere or time ooit ever, nooit never. In addition, quantifying elements are sometimes categorized as indefinite pronouns. This choice is made by the ANS for a number of items, which are presented as two classes, the "collectivizing" (group-forming) as in (3) and the "non-collectivizing" (non-group-forming) as in (4).

Example 3

a. ieder(e) every, any
b. elk(e) every, any
c. alle all
d. allemaal all of them
Example 4

a. enige some
b. enkele a few
c. ettelijke several
d. genoeg enough
e. menig(e) many a
f. sommige some
g. verscheidene several
h. verschillende different
i. voldoende sufficient
j. wat a few
k. zat plenty

Indefinites differ as to where they can appear within a sentence. Normally, they are used attributively with a noun (5a), but some can appear alone when the suffix -n is added (5b).

Example 5

a. sommige mensen sliepen op de grond
some people slept on the floor
b. sommigen sliepen op de grond
some slept on the floor

The collectivizing indefinites under (3) can also occur predicatively.

Example 6

a. Ze kregen ieder een prijs.
They got a prize each.
b. Ze kregen allemaal een zoen.
They all got a kiss.

In addition to the lexical pronouns, there are sequences of elements that fulfil similar functions. For example, Dutch lacks a specific word for somehow, for what-/who-/which-/whenever and for free choice any. These gaps are filled by multi-word expressions. (7a) is similar to the English expression "in one way or another". The expression X dan ook accommodates a variety of question words; three examples are given in (7b) to (7d). The semantic effect is an indefinite who-/where-/what(so)ever.

Example 7

a. Het gaat op de een of andere manier gebeuren.
pro.3SG.N go.3SG.PRS on DEF.C.SG one or other.C.SG way.C.SG happen.INF
It will happen somehow
b. Ik ken jou beter dan wie dan ook
PRO.1SG know.2SG.PRS PRO.2SG.OBL better than who then also
I know you better than anyone (lit. whoever)
c. waar dan ook ter wereld
where than also at_the.DAT world
wherever in the world
d. geen energie voor wat dan ook
no energy for what than also
no energy for whatsoever
  • Haspelmath, Martin1997Indefinite pronounsOxfordClarendon Press
  • Horn, Laurence R1989A natural history of negationChicagoUniversity of Chicago Press