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Ordinal numerals

Ordinal numerals denote a position in an ordered series: third, last. In Dutch, most ordinal numerals are formed on the basis of cardinal numerals by means of a regular suffixation process (acht-ste eighth, zeventiende seventeenth), with some irregularities in the smallest numerals (eerste first < een one, derde third < drie three), and a dedicated element for the final one, viz. laatst last, which has no cardinal counterpart. Indefinite ordinal numbers like de zoveelste the umpteenth and de tigste the umpteenth denote vague positions.

Table 1
1 eerste
2 twee-de
8 acht-ste
10 tien-de
11 elf-de
12 twaalf-de
15 [vijf-tien]de
16 [zes-tien]de
50 [vijf-tig]ste
51 [een-en-[vijf-tig]]ste
100 [honderd]ste
151 [honderd-[een-en-[vijf-tig]]]ste

In general, ordinal numerals behave like (absolute) adjectives that can be used both attributively:hij woont in het derde huis he lives in the third house and predicatively: hij is derde geworden he has third become he finished third.


Ordinal numerals are usually formed regularly on the basis of cardinal numerals, by means of a suffix. The form of the suffix is determined by the last element of the base: the form is -de [də] after twee vier vijf zes zeven negen tien elf twaalf and -ste [stə] after acht -tig honderd duizend -joen -jard.

Table 2
cardinal ordinal
1 een eerst(e)
2 twee twee-de
8 acht acht-ste
10 tien tien-de
11 elf elf-de
12 twaalf twaalf-de
15 vijftien [vijf-tien]de
50 vijftig [vijf-tig]ste
51 eenenvijftig [een-en-[vijf-tig]]ste
100 honderd [honderd]ste
151 honderdeenenvijftig [honderd-[een-en-[vijf-tig]]]ste

The ordinal numeral is irregular in the case of een and drie: we get eerste and derde rather than regular eende and driede. Note moreover that the allomorph der- in derde is found in the cardinal numerals dertien 13 and dertig 30 as well. In the case of vier 4, however, the ordinal numeral is regular (vierde) although we do find an allomorphveer- in veertien 14 and veertig 40.

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Cross-linguistically, it is far from uncommon for ordinal numerals of 1 to be irregular, i.e., to be morphologically unrelated to the cardinal numeral 1, cf. German erste, English first, French premier, Latin primus, etc. (see wals.info). Veselinova (1997) and Hurford (1987) argue that the strong universal tendency to use a suppletive form for FIRST is a relic of earlier stages in the evolution of language in which languages did not have an ordinal system yet. Barbiers (2007), on the other hand, claims that the strong universal tendency for suppletive forms for FIRST is neither an underivable irregularity of languages nor a relic of earlier language stages. His claim is that cardinal numeral ONE is inherently indefinite and ordinal suffixes require inherently definite numerals.

Note that in Dutch and German, the second ordinal numeral is regular (tweede, zweite < twee, zwei), whereas in French and English it is not (second (< Lat. secundusfollowing) is not morphologically related to deux, two).

Laatst(e) final, last is an ordinal numeral without an cardinal numeral counterpart. On the other hand, certain indefinite cardinal numerals such as weinig few, little and veel many, much do not have a corresponding ordinal numeral. Just like eerste first, laatste last is a superlative form. Given, however, that the category of numerals is defined semantically and that eerste and laatste clearly are part of a paradigm with the regular ordinal numerals, and share a number of syntactic properties with them, they are treated here.

The ordinal numeral suffix takes the form -ste after bases ending in /-t/ (as it is pronounced, not underlyingly), that is after cardinal numerals (ending in) acht honderd duizend -jard, and after the suffixes -tig and -joen, and it is -de elsewhere. This -de vs. -ste allomorphy is only minimally different from the verbal preterite suffix pair -de vs. -te. In the verbal case, the choice of the suffix is determined by the underlying phonological properties of the last segment of the stem: if it is voiceless we get -te, and -de in all other cases. A different mechanism, however, is at work in the ordinal numeral suffix case: if we extend the verbal regularities to the ordinal numeral suffix, we correctly predict forms such as vierde fourth and tiende tenth on the one hand, and achtste eighth on the other. However, we also incorrectly predict forms such as *miljoende parallel to zoende kissed (as opposed to correct miljoenste millionth), as well as *honderdde and *duizendde, as opposed to the correct forms honderdste hundredth and duizendste thousandth (the plural forms honderden hundreds and duizenden thousands clearly show that the final segment of the stem is voiced underlyingly).

A suffix -de [də] is found in verbal morphology (wandel-de walk-ed) as well, but there it alternates with -te [tə], with a different distributional pattern (-te after segments that are underlyingly voiceless); a suffix -ste [stə] is also found in adjectival morphology (groot-ste great-est), whithout alternation.

According to Hoeksema (1984), the type of suffixation found in ordinal formation is a head operation: the form of the ordinal numeral suffix is only dependent on the rightmost part of the cardinal numeral. It is questionable, however, whether there is any independent evidence for the head status of the righthand part of compound numerals. Note moreover that Haeseryn et al. (1997) accept honderdeneende next to honderdeneerste ().

In general, ordinal numerals behave like (absolute) adjectives that can be used both attributively and predicatively:

Example 1

attributive use
hij woont in het derde huis
he lives in the third house
Example 2

predicative use
hij is derde geworden
he is third become
he finished third

From the absolute meaning of ordinal numerals it follows that degree modification and comparison are impossible: *hij was meer tweede dan zijn broer he was more second than his brother*hij was even tweede als zijn broer he was as second as his brother. Approximative modification, however, is possible: na zijn ongeveer derde buitenspel after his approximately third off-side Certain approximators can occur both before and after the determiner dit is de ongeveer honderdste keer dat je dit zegt// dit is ongeveer de honderdste keer dat je dit zegt this is about the hundredth time you say so.

Ordinal numerals do not show adjectival inflection, that is, they invariably end in -e [ə]. Normal adjectives such as rood red have two forms: een rood huis a red house vs. het rode huis the red house, but ordinal numerals do not: een/het tweede huis a/the second house.

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Examples such as nog een laatst lied voor het slapen gaan PRT a last song before the sleeping go a last song before going to bed, with laatst last behaving like an ordinary adjective (showing agreement to the neuter noun), are easy to find, but sound old-fashioned.

Morphological potential of ordinal numbers
Ordinal numerals are one of the building blocks for fractions (drievierde three fourth ) and for a number of univerbations such as tweedemacht second power, derderangs third rank, vierdeklasser fourth grader, etc.

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The univerbations mentioned are all exemplars of subconstructions with their own syntactic properties and morphological potential. For instance, tweedemacht second power is the first of a potentially infinite series that may occur in larger syntactic constructions such as vier-tot-de-derde-macht the third power of four and morphological constructions like derde-machts-vergelijking cubic equation.

Apart from this, ordinal numerals have very little morphological potential: although they behave syntactically more or less like adjectives, they do not show adjectival inflection, and comparative and superlative formation is impossible. Derivational processes taking adjectives as input (on- prefixation, -achtig suffixation, etc.) fail to apply to ordinals as well.

The elements eerste first and laatste last are superlatives originally and, just like most other superlatives, they can be prefixed with the strengthening prefix aller, as in de aller-eerste auto the first car ever. Laatste is also part of the construction een-na-laatste, twee-na-laatste one-after-last, two-after-last last but one, last but two, etc.

Derived from the indefinite numerals hoeveel how-many, zoveel so-many and tig umpteen we find hoe-veel-ste how-many-eth, zo-veel-ste so-many-eth, tigste umpteenth.

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In eerste first and laatste last we are dealing with the superlative suffix -ste, at least historically, but this analysis does not apply to 'normal' ordinals like achtste eighth, as this would leave the form -de in tiende tenth, etc., unexplained: the superlative suffix -ste has no allomorphs. As Booij (2010) points out, the ordinal suffix has (semantic) scope over the the complete numeral, including possible en elements (that look like the phrasal coordinator), yielding a bracketing paradox. That is, the meaning of eenenveertigste 41st is [40+1]ste and not [1+[40-ste]], as one would expect given standard ideas about the respective ordering of morphological and syntactic processes.

  • Barbiers, Sjef2007Indefinite numerals ONE and MANY and the cause of ordinal suppletionLingua117859-880
  • Booij, Geert2010Construction morphologyOxford/New YorkOxford University Press
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Hoeksema, Jack1984Categorial morphologyGroningenPh. D. dissertation, University of Groningen
  • Hurford, James R1987Language and number: the emergence of a cognitive systemOxfordBasil Blackwell
  • Veselinova, Ljuba1997Suppletion in the Derivation of Ordinal Numerals: a Case StudyBruening, Benjamin (ed.)Proceedings of the 8th Student Conference in LinguisticsMIT Working Papers in LinguisticsCambridge, MA429-447