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Verbal inflection

Verbal inflection is the name for the phenomenon that verbs take different forms depending on the grammatical function they serve. Dutch verbal inflection is stem-based, mostly suffixal, with a lot of syncretism: a few forms serve a considerable number of functions. The basic division in verbal inflection is between finite and non-finite forms. There are three non-finite forms: the infinitive, the past participle, and the present participle. The finite forms of the indicative mood express the categories Tense (present, past), Number (singular, plural), and Person (1st, 2nd, 3rd); the imperative singular is quite common, the imperative plural is almost obsolete, just like the subjunctive. There is only one infinitive form.

Two tenses are marked morphologically: present and past. Almost all verbs are regular in the present tense, but there are some 200 verb stems, many of them frequent, that are more or less irregular with respect to past tense formation. All verbal forms are based on two base forms (Haeringen 1950): the verbal stem is the basis for the present tense forms, as well as for the infinitive, the imperative and the present participle, whereas a secondary form, itself either derived from the stem by means of a suffix d(e) [də] or t(e) [tə] or irregularly, is the basis for the past tense forms and the past participle.

The table below gives an overview of the inflectional forms of four sample verbs: werken to work (regular), leiden to lead (regular but with spelling effects), worden to become (irregular) and zitten to sit (irregular). Hyphens in the orthography denote morpheme boundaries, dots in the phonological representation denote syllable boundaries. Two forms are given of the second person singular; the choice is dependent on the relative positions of verb and subject. Quite often, final [n] after schwa is not pronounced.

Table 1
werken 'work' leiden 'lead' worden 'become' zitten 'sit'
Present indicative
1SG werk [wɛrk] leid [lɛɪt] word [wɔrt] zit [zɪt]
2SG werk-t/werk [wɛrkt]/ /wɛrk/ leid-t/leid [lɛɪt] word-tword [wɔrt] zit [zɪt]
3SG werk-t [wɛrkt] leid-t [lɛɪt] word-t [wɔrt] zit [zɪt]
PL werk-en [wɛr.kən] leid-en [lɛɪ.dən] word-en [wɔr.dən] zitt-en [zɪ.tən]
Present subjunctive (obsolete)
SG werk-e [wɛr.kə] leid-e [lɛɪ.də] word-e [wɔr.də] zitt-e [zɪ.tə]
PL werk-en [wɛr.kən] leid-en [lɛɪ.dən] word-en [wɔr.dən] zitt-en [zɪ.tən]
Imperative singular werk [wɛrk] leid [lɛɪt] word [wɔrt] zit [zɪt]
Imperative plural (obsolete) werkt [wɛrkt] leidt [lɛɪt] wordt [wɔrt] zit [zɪt]
SG werk-te [wɛrk.tə] leid-de [lɛɪ.də] werd [wɛrt] zat [zɑt]
PL werk-te-n [wɛrk.tən] leid-de-n [lɛɪ.dən] werd-en [wɛr.dən] zat-en [za.tən]
Infinitive werk-en [wɛr.kən] leid-en [lɛɪ.dən] word-en [wɔr.dən] zitt-en [zɪ.tən]
Present participle werk-en-d [wɛr.kənt] leid-en-d [lɛɪ.dənt] word-en-d [wɔr.dənt] zit-en-d [zɪ.tənt]
Past participle ge-werk-t [gə.wɛrkt] ge-leid [gə.lɛɪt] ge-word-en [gə.wɔr-dən] ge-zet-en [gə.ze.tən]

Dutch verbal inflection is fusional: a single inflection fulfills multiple grammatical roles. Pertinent categories in verbal inflection in languages around the world are, among others, finiteness, tense, aspect, mood, voice, person and number.

  • finiteness. Most Dutch verbal forms are finite. Dutch verbs have three nonfinite forms: the infinitive and the past and present participle.
  • tense. Two tenses are expressed morphologically in Dutch, viz., the present and the (simple) past (also known as preterite and imperfect); all other tenses are expressed periphrastically. E.g., future tense is formed by means of an auxiliary verbgaan go or zullen will and the infinitive (we gaan zwemmen we go swim we are going to swim, we zullen zwemmen we will swim), perfect tense by means of the auxiliary hebben have or zijn are and the past participle (we hebben geslapen we have slept, ze zijn gestorven they are died they have died). All past tense forms, as well as the infinitive and the present participle, are based on the stem, all preterite forms and the past participle are based on a form that is either derived from the stem by means of a suffix d(e) [də] or t(e) [tə], or irregularly.
  • aspect. Aspect is not expressed systematically in the Dutch verbal system, although there is no lack of aspectual constructions in the language; so-called "tenses" have aspectual properties as well. E.g., the Dutch past participle is perfective to a certain extent, and so are tenses construed with this form (Verkuyl 1993): one can only use the "perfect tense" ik heb gelezen I have read felicitously if the act of reading has come to an end, otherwise the preterite (ik las I read) or a progressive construction (ik zat te lezen I sat to read, I was aan het lezen I was reading) is in place. This perfective meaning aspect is also observable in constructions such as the passive: dit boek is gelezen this book is read this book has been read can only be used if the reading act has been finished and/or the book shows reading traces. The perfective meaning can be stressed by means of verbal particles, e.g. de sigaar is opgerookt the cigar has been smoked completely.
  • mood. The moods expressed morphologically in Dutch are the indicative, the imperative and the subjunctive, of which the last one is obsolete.
  • voice. Only the active voice is expressed morphologically in Dutch, passive is formed periphrastically by means of a combination of an auxiliary verb (worden become, zijn be) and a past participle (de vogel wordt gevoerd the bird is being fed, de teerling is geworpen the die has cast ). There is no morphologically distinct middle voice.
  • person. Dutch distinguishes first, second and third person, but these are marked only in the present singular (ik zwem I swim, jij zwemt you swim, zwem jij do you swim, zij zwemt she swims): in most current varieties of Dutch, there is only one plural form wij/jullie/zij zwemmen we/you/they swim: second person plural forms in t (jullie zwemt you swim are obsolete); in the past tense, person is neutralized completely: there is one form for singular ik/jij/hij/zij zwom I/you/he/she swam and one for plural (wij/jullie/zij zwommen we/you/they swam).
  • number. Dutch verbs distinguish singular and plural; there is no dual.

Dutch verbal inflection shows massive syncretism: all the work is done by only two base forms, one for the present and one for the past, plus a very small number of affixes. In the present tense: the bare verb stem is used for 1sg pres (ik loop I walk), 2sg pres inverse (loop je walk you do you walk) and the imperative (loop! walk!). Stem + t is for sg pres 2 and 3 (je/hij loopt you walk/he walks) (and for the obsolete imperative plural loopt! walk!). Stem + ən is used for pres plural (wij/jullie/zij lopen we walk) and infinitive (het begint te lopen it starts to walk/run). The present participle is the infinitive + d (lopend walking) (which is used far less often than English -ing forms); as it is adjectival, it shows adjectival inflection in attributive use (een lopende vrouw a walking woman). The past tense uses even less forms: there is one form for all singular functions (ik, jij, hij liep I, you, he walked), and one form for all plurals (wij, jullie, zij liepen we, you, she walked).

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There is a special past tense form for the very formal, almost obsolete 2nd person sg pronoun gij thou: gij liept thou walked. This is reflected in spelling: verbs with a past tense form in [d] get [dt], e.g. gij hadt thou haddest. The irregular verb zijn to be has (gij) zijt thou art for the present and (gij) waart thou wast for the past.

There are areas in the Netherlands and Belgium where gij and the reduced form ge are the default forms for the 2nd person pronoun; cf. MAND II 39 (De Schutter et al. 2005) for an overview.

The regular (traditionally called weak) past tense is derived from the present stem by means of a suffix that takes the form -tə (spelled –te) after stems ending in voiceless consonants, and -də (spelled -de) elsewhere, i.e. after voiced consonants and vowels. To illustrate, the past tense forms of the verb werk work are werkte (sg) and werkten (pl), because werk ends in voiceless /k/, whereas the past tense forms of the verb tippel trot are tippelde (sg) and tippelden (pl), as tippel ends in voiced /l/. Regular past participles consist of a prefix gə-, the present stem, and a suffix d/t, usually pronounced [t]. The distribution of this suffix is completely parallel to that of past tense de/te, that is, –t after stems ending in voiceless consonants, and -d elsewhere, i.e. after voiced consonants and vowels. The prefix gə- is left out in verbs with unstressed prefixes be-, ver-, her-, ont- (e.g. the past participle of ontdekken to discover is ontdekt rather than *geontdekt or *ontgedekt) and in complex verbs whose leftmost part is an unstressed preposition or adverb (e.g achter'halen to overtake, hunt down has as past participle achterhaald, whereas 'achterstellen to disadvantage, subordinate has achtergesteld).

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According to Booij (1995), there is no straightforward fully phonological account of the alternation between -de and -te (by assuming a common underlying form /də/) because there is no independently motivated phonological rule of (progressive) voice assimilation that could derive the correct surface forms. The generalization that there is agreement with respect to voice between the last segment of the stem and the suffix-initial consonant can be expressed by assuming an underlying form for the past tense suffix with an initial coronal consonant that is not specified for voice; we then have to assume a process (Laryngeal Spreading) that spreads the voice specification of the stem-final segment to that suffix-initial coronal. This is the analysis given in Booij (1995: 62). Alternatively, this alternation may be accounted for by assuming two lexically given competing allomorphs, -de and -te(Booij 2002). The choice between these two allomorphs can then be made by an output condition Agree that requires two adjacent segments to agree in voice. This condition will select -te after voiceless obstruents, and -de elsewhere. Yet another analysis has been proposed by Zonneveld (1983) and endorsed recently by Nieuwenhuijsen (2012). Here it is assumed that the past tense suffix is a /ð/ (voiceless labiodental fricative) underlyingly - a phoneme that never surfaces in Dutch.

Ernestus and Baayen (2003) show the importance of frequency and analogy in past tense formation: informants tended to produce forms like krabte rather than regular krabde scratched from krabben, probably because the sequence short vowel + plosive is followed much more often (in past tenses) by -te than by -de.

The participial prefix gə- is left out in verbs with unstressed prefixes be-, ver-, her-, ont- and in complex verbs whose leftmost part is an unstressed preposition or adverb, e.g achterhalen overtake, hunt down. There are small regional differences, e.g. one finds aanhoord to-listened listened to in Belgium where the North has aangehoord listened to; this may correlate with a difference in stress: 'aanhoren vs. aan'horen.

The simple system depicted above is obfuscated by intricacies of Dutch phonology, on the one hand, i.e. phenomena like final devoicing and vowel lengthening in open syllables, and of Dutch spelling rules on the other hand. For instance, as double consonants are not allowed word-finally, the third person singular form of zit sit is zit and not *zitt (stem +t); that is, all singular forms of this verb are zit. In the case of leiden lead, however, we get the regular third person singular form leidt (stem +t), although it is pronounced the same way as first person singular form leid (bare stem). Moreover, as long vowels are written with a single letter in open syllables and with a digraph in closed ones, the third person singular form of lopen loop is loopt. Following the same logic, short vowels in open syllables are indicated by doubling of the consonant following that vowel, which explains why the infinitive and plural present form of zit sit is zitten and not *ziten.

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In large parts of the Netherlands, the /n/ part of the ə(n) suffix is rarely realized, just like in other uses of final /ən/, so we werkten we worked is often realized as [wə wɛrktə]. The /n/ is retained, however, if the verb is followed by a vowel-initial clitic: we werkten het hardst we worked hardest can be realized as [wə wɛrktən ət hɑrtst](Booij 1996).

Archaic dialects may have 2nd sg –s(t), e.g. do hest you have rather than jij hebt you have (see Goeman 2008: Ch 4). In /t/-deletion variants (Goeman 1999), differences within the sg paradigm may be neutralized: ik werk, jij werk, hij werk, but there are also dialects where neutralization is obtained by generalizing the /t/: ik werkt, jij werkt, hij werkt(Goeman 2008: Ch 4).

There is a group of ca. 200 verb stems, a considerable number of them highly frequent, with irregular formation of past tense and past participle, with certain subregularities that can be traced back to the Germanic ablaut system; most strong past participles have the prefix -gə and end in ən. Cases in point are lopen walk, past tense liep, past participle gelopen and zitten sit, past tense zat, past participle gezeten. A few verbs are completely irregular, e.g. kopen buy, past tense kocht, past participle gekocht.

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The expression of number and person in finite verbal forms is a case of contextual inflection: finite forms have to agree in person and number with the subject of the clause in which the finite form appears. Tense, on the other hand, is a case of inherent inflection: the choice of the correct tense form is not determined by the syntactic structure in which it appears, but rather by the meaning the speaker wishes to convey. It is the role of Tense to locate the state or event referred to on the time axis with respect to the time of speaking. In general, contextual inflection is peripheral to inherent inflection; Dutch verbal inflection is not exceptional in this respect (Booij 2002).

Some compound verbs, such as zweefvliegen glide-fly glide, have incomplete paradigms; the modal verbs zullen shall, (be)horen ought, plegen use to and dienen shall lack a past participle.

The usage possibilities of the various verbal forms are diverse. The following overview is not meant to be exhaustive:

  • present tense can be used to refer to the present moment (het regent it rains it is raining), but also to the future (morgen gaan we niet fietsen want dan regent het tomorrow go we not bike since then rains it tomorrow we are not going to ride our bikes, because it will be reaining then), the past (the so-called historical present) (25 september 2006. Het regent alweer September 25th, 2006. It rains again), generic and categorical statements (als het regent worden de straten nat if it rains become the streets wet if it rains, the streets get wet), etc.
  • in embedded clauses, the tense of the verb may be the same of that of the matrix clause (the so-called sequence of tense: e.g., in hij zei dat hij morgen kwam he said that he tomorrow came he said he would come tomorrow the embedded verb form kwam is past tense, although it refers to some moment in time later than the moment of speaking.
  • first person singular can be use to talk about ego, but also to address others, e.g. as polite directives: ik zou het niet doen I would it not do I would not do it, i.e., don't do it.
  • second person can be used to address the other, but also for generic statements, e.g. je hebt van die dagen dat alles misgaat you have of those days that everything wrong-goes some days, everything goes wrong.
  • infinitives can be used in verbal clusters (laten we gaan zwemmen let we go swim let's go swimming), but also as nouns (het roken van sigaren the smoke of cigars the smoking of cigars) and in certain modifying constructions, e.g. the modal infinitive construction (de te nemen maatregelen the to take measures the measures to be taken).
  • the past participle can be part of the verbal cluster to express certain past tenses (ik heb een fiets gestolen I have a bike stolen I have stolen a bike), to express the passive voice (mijn fiets is gestolen my bike is stolen my bike has been stolen), and as an adjective (de gestolen fiets the stolen bike).
  • the present participle functions mostly as attributive adjective, and shows adjectival inflection (een werkende moeder a working-e mother a working mother). Predicative usage (ik ben werkend I am working) is very rare.
  • there is lexicalisation and grammaticalisation of participles: gegeven given and gedurende during may be used as prepositions, aanstaande on-standing first-coming, next can be an adjective, just like the fixed combinationeerst volgende first following next, uitsluitend excluding only functions as a focus adverb, and wetende knowing, can be combined with the complementizer dat that: wetende dat het ging regenen ... knowing that it went rain knowing that it was going to rain.

Morphological potential: Given that inflection is normally peripheral to word formation processes, it is usually the verbal stem that enters into compounding (e.g. boormachine drill.machine drill, denkwijze think.way mentality) and derivation (eetbaar eat-SUFF edible, mededeelzaam communicate-SUFF communicative). Occasionally, we find the infinitive form as the left part of a compound: zienswijze see-n-s-wijze opinion, etenstijd dinner time, which may be taken as indicative for the phrasal origin of the construction. Compound verbs usually have the same inflectional pattern as their verbal stem, but irregular simplex verbs may be (more) regular in compounds and derivations (e.g. irregular zuigen zoog gezogen suck sucked sucked shows regular inflection in stofzuigen stofzuigde gestofzuigd dust-suck to vacuum. Verbs prefixed with be-, her-, ont- and ver- usually do not get ge- in the past participle, so next to be-dekken cover we get bedekt covered rather than *gebedekt or *begedekt, and the past participle of ontbijten have breakfast is ontbeten. To this rule, however, there are a few counterexamples such as hergebruikt re-used.

The participles are adjectival and show adjectival inflection (de lopend-e man the walking-e man, de verkocht-e bruid the sold-e bride), if semantics permits, comparative and superlative (deze taart is geslaagder dan deze this cake is successful-COMP than this one), and other morphological possibilities that are typical for adjectives, e.g. nominal derivation by means of the suffix -heid (verslagenheid dejection < verslagen defeated, meegaandheid compliance < meegaand going along, accomodating).

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