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1.2.1.Proper nouns

We start the discussion of the typology of nouns with what appears to be the most basic distinction: that between proper nouns and common nouns. Common nouns are nouns with descriptive content or meaning in the sense that they denote entities by providing an appropriate description of the entities. Syntactically, common nouns constitute the head of a noun phrase: they are preceded by a determiner (an article, demonstrative or possessive pronoun, etc.), they may be modified by adjectives or postnominal adjuncts and they may take one or more complements. Proper nouns like Jan, on the other hand, have little or no descriptive content. Typically, they form noun phrases all by themselves and lack modifiers and complements.

Difference between proper nouns and common nouns
proper nouns common nouns
have descriptive content +
can be preceded by a determiner +
can be modified +
may take complements +

This section is mainly devoted to a discussion of the class of proper nouns: Subsections I and II discuss, respectively, their semantic syntactic properties.

[+]  I.  Semantic properties

Proper nouns can refer to both concrete and abstract entities. Some obvious examples are given in (21), which simply provides some examples and is certainly not intended as an exhaustive classification.

Types of proper nouns (not exhaustive)
type name of example
Concrete persons, animals and brands Jan, Flipper, Heineken
cities and countries, etc. Amsterdam, België‘Belgium’
De Verenigde Staten‘the United States’
buildings, restaurants, etc. de Westertoren, Villa des Roses
books, paintings, etc. Karakter (novel by Bordewijk)
De aardappeleters (by Van Gogh)
Abstract historic events de Franse Revolutie‘the French Revolution’
historical and geological periods de Renaissance‘the Renaissance’
het Quartair‘the Quaternary’
theories and ideologies Relativiteitstheorie‘Theory of Relativity’
days, months, etc. maandag‘Monday’, januari‘January’, Pasen‘Easter’

Semantically, these proper nouns are characterized by the fact that they normally contain little or no descriptive content; they can be said to have no denotation, only reference. In other words, whereas common nouns enable the addressee to pick out the intended referent (set) by means of the descriptive content of the noun, proper nouns normally do not have such descriptive content (they do not denote a set with the property mentioned). As a result, proper nouns will normally not be translatable; the English rendering of Dutch Jan is just Jan (and not John or something of the sort), although there are many exceptions to this general rule. For example, de Franse Revolutie'the French Revolution' does have descriptive content and can, indeed, be translated. The same thing holds for geographical names that have descriptive content: het Zwarte Woud'the Black Forest', de Dode Zee'the Dead Sea' and de Verenigde Staten'the United States'. Note that many other geographical names have their own form in different languages (e.g., Duitsland'Germany', Noorwegen'Norway'), but these, obviously, are not true instances of translation.
      Let us compare common nouns and proper nouns to clarify matters. The noun phrase de aansteker'the lighter' in (22a) has denotation as well as reference: its head noun, aansteker'lighter', denotes the set of things with the particular property of being a lighter; the noun phrase de aansteker as a whole refers to a unique entity (in the given context) which is identifiable on account of this description. The noun Jan in (22b), on the other hand, lacks a denotation: it has no meaning and does not denote a set of entities by providing an appropriate description of these entities. It does, however, have (unique) reference: the proper noun by itself is sufficiently informative (in the given context) for any addressee to identify the person referred to.

a. Mag ik de aansteker, alsjeblieft?
  may  the lighter  please
  'Can I have the lighter, please?'
b. Heb jij Jan nog gezien?
  have  you  Jan  yet  seen
  'Have you seen Jan (lately)?'

      In essence, what distinguishes proper nouns from common nouns is that the former by definition “uniquely identify” their referent: when using a proper noun, the speaker assumes that the addressee will be able to pick out the intended referent without any need for further description.

[+]  II.  Syntactic properties

Subsection A will show that, with regard to syntactic behavior, proper nouns behave differently from common nouns in a number of ways. As will be discussed in Subsection B, however, there are cases in which proper nouns can be used as regular common nouns. Conversely, there are also cases in which common nouns are used as proper nouns, and these cases are discussed in Subsection C.

[+]  A.  Proper nouns: prototypical and non-prototypical use

Proper nouns behave differently from common nouns in a number of ways. In their prototypical use, proper nouns exhibit a number of restrictions with respect to pluralization, restrictive modification, and the selection of determiners. These restrictions can all be related to the fact that a proper noun normally has unique reference: this makes the addition of restrictive modifiers superfluous and the addition of a determiner and pluralization impossible. There are, however, numerous occasions where proper nouns exhibit deviant behavior; this is generally the result of failure of the proper noun to refer uniquely within the given context. A more detailed discussion of these non-prototypical uses of the proper nouns can be found in Section and (to a lesser extent) in Section

[+]  1.  Restrictive modification

The (a)-examples in (23) show that proper nouns normally do not allow any form of modification aimed at restricting the number of potential referents: example (23a) is acceptable but only if the attributive adjective is used non-restrictively, that is, provides additional information about the referent of the noun phrase; example (23a') becomes acceptable if the relative clause is preceded by an intonation break, which is the landmark of the non-restrictive use of such clauses. Example (23b) is added to show that if the proper noun itself contains a (restrictive) modifier, this cannot be omitted without the noun phrase losing its status of proper noun.

a. # de hoge Westertoren
  the  high  Westertoren
a'. * De Westertoren die hoog is.
  the  Westertoren that high is
b. de #(Franse) Revolutie
  the    French  Revolution

In some cases a restrictive modifier is allowed, but then it forces a reading in which there is more than one accessible referent which can be referred to by the same proper noun or, to say it differently, adding a modifier is acceptable if unique identification is not possible on the basis of the proper noun alone. This is shown in the examples in (24).

a. Wie bedoel je? Kleine Bob of grote Bob?
  who mean you  Little Bob or big Bob
  'Who do you mean? Little Bob or big Bob?'
b. de Zwitserse Alpen
  the  Swiss  Alps
c. Hij komt de woensdag na Pasen.
  he  comes  the Wednesday  after Easter
  'He is coming the Wednesday after Easter.'
[+]  2.  Pluralization

The primeless examples in (25) show that proper nouns cannot be pluralized, unless the proper noun phrase itself is formally plural; example (25b') shows that in the latter case the singular will not be available (at least not as a proper noun).

a. * de Jannen/de Maries
b. de Alpen/de Verenigde Staten
  the Alps/the United States
b'. een #Alp/Verenigde Staat

This differences in syntactic behavior between common nouns and proper nouns can again be accounted for by the fact that proper nouns are supposed to refer “uniquely” within a given context, providing the addressee with sufficient information to identify the intended referent. If the proper noun fails in this respect, as in the examples in (26), pluralization becomes possible.

a. Er zitten drie Barten bij mij in de klas.
  there  sit  three Barts  with me in the class
  'There are three Barts in my class.'
b. De twee Duitslanden zijn voorgoed verenigd.
  the two Germanies  are  permanently  united
  'The two Germanies have been united permanently.'
[+]  3.  Determiners

Unlike common nouns, proper nouns typically are not acceptable with an article in Standard Dutch; they similarly fail to co-occur with demonstrative pronouns or with other determiners. These restrictions are illustrated in (27). It should be noted, however, that in certain southern dialects of Dutch, use of the definite article or a possessive pronoun is acceptable with proper nouns referring to persons: de/onze Jan.

a. * de Jan/Marie
  the Jan/Marie
b. * die Jan/Marie
  that  Jan.Marie

Articles are used when they can be regarded as part of the proper name (sometimes spelt with a capital: De Volkskrant). The examples in (qq) show that in such cases the use of other determiners is still prohibited.

a. het Zwarte Woud
  the  Black  Forest
b. * dit/dat Zwarte Woud
  this/that  Black  Forest

The examples in (28) contain the proper nouns Jansen and Italië and show that restrictive modification requires the addition of a determiner: singular proper nouns denoting an animate object co-occur with a non-neuter determiner like the article de in (28a), whereas singular proper nouns denoting a geographical name take a neuter determiner like the article het in (28b).

a. (*De) Jansen die ik ken woont in Den Haag.
  the  Jansen  that I know  lives  in Den Haag
b. (*het) Italië uit de middeleeuwen
  the  Italy  from the Middle Ages
  'Italy in the Middle Ages'

If an article is used in combination with proper nouns that themselves already include a definite article, like De Volkskrant in the (a)-examples in (29), the latter is typically left out. This does not hold, however, if the article is an old case form like den in example (29b), which suggests that present-day speakers no longer recognize these elements as articles.

a. Heb jij de (*De) Volkskrant van gisteren gelezen?
  have  you  the     De  Volkskrant  of yesterday  read
  'Did you read yesterdayʼs Volkskrant?'
a'. Heb jij vandaag al een (*De) Volkskrant gekocht?
  have  you  today  already     De  Volkskrant  bought
  'Did you buy a Volkskrant today?'
b. Het Den Haag uit mijn jeugd was een prachtige stad.
  the  The Hague  from my childhood  was a wonderful town
  'The The Hague of my childhood was a wonderful town.'

      As illustrated in example (24c), the names of the days of the week can also be used in combination with the definite article and an identifying modifier. When we are referring to a particular day close to the moment of speech, the determiner is normally left out, even if the noun is modified. However, if the intended day is more remote, the definite article is normally used. This is shown in (30).

a. Hij is (afgelopen) woensdag hier geweest.
  he  is last Wednesday  here  been
  'He has been here on Wednesday.'
b. Hij komt komende woensdag hier.
  he  comes  next Wednesday  here
  'Heʼll come here next Wednesday.'
c. Hij komt de (tweede) woensdag voor/na Pasen hier.
  he  comes  the second Wednesday  before/after Easter  here
  'Heʼll come here the (second) Wednesday before/after Easter.'

The indefinite article is also possible, indicating a specific but not further identified, or a nonspecific, Wednesday, as in (31a) and (31b), respectively.

a. Hij is op een woensdag gekomen.
  he  has  on a Wednesday  come
  'He came on a Wednesday.'
b. Hij wil op een woensdag komen (maakt niet uit welke).
  he  wants  on a Wednesday  come  matters  not  prt.  which
  'He wants to come on a Wednesday (doesnʼt matter which one).'

      Proper nouns referring to seasons and names of the months are more restricted with respect to the determiner. The examples in (32) show that the names of the seasons must be preceded by a definite determiner, regardless of whether a restrictive modifier is present or not.

a. Zij is in de herfst (van 1963) geboren.
  she  is in the autumn   of 1963  born
b. * Zij is in herfst (van 1963) geboren.
  she  is in autumn   of 1963  born

The examples in (33), on the other hand, show that the names of the months cannot be preceded by a definite determiner, again regardless of whether a restrictive modifier is present or not. Note that, for one reason or another, it is not possible to modify the names of months by means of a PP like van 1963; either the proper noun is immediately followed by the year or (more formally) by the PP van het jaar 1963.

a. Zij is in januari (1963/*van 1963/van het jaar 1963) geboren.
  she  is in January   1963/of 1963/of the year 1963)  born
b. * Zij is in de januari (1963/van 1963/van het jaar 1963) geboren.
  she  is in the January   1963/of 1963/of the year 1963  born

The examples in (34) show that neither the names of seasons nor the names of months can be preceded by an indefinite article, again regardless of whether a restrictive modifier is present or not.

a. * Zij is in een herfst (tussen 1963 en 1965) geboren.
  she  is in the autumn  between 1963 and 1965  born
b. *? Zij is in een januari (tussen 1963 en 1965) geboren.
  she  is in a January  between 1963 and 1965  born

      Finally, proper nouns can co-occur with the demonstrative determiner die in the informal expressions given in example (35), which are used to express surprise, usually combined with a touch of admiration (“who would have thought it!”) or commiseration (“poor fellow/girl”). Note that die is the only form available, even if it precedes a +neuter noun like the diminutive in (35b); see Section, sub IIE, for more discussion.

a. Die Jan toch!
  that  Jan part
b. Die Marietje toch!
  that  Mariedim  part
[+]  B.  Proper nouns used as common nouns

Proper nouns often shift in the direction of a regular common noun. This is a very frequent phenomenon with the names of artists (painter, sculptor, author, designer), in which case the noun can be used to refer to work by the particular artist; this may involve a specific creation of the artist, as in (36a), in which case the noun behaves as a count noun, or to the work of the artist in general, as in (36b), in which case we are dealing with a mass noun. As shown in example (36c), the name of an artistic school can refer to the creations/artistic objects produced by this school; in this case the noun exhibits the behavior of a mass noun.

a. Ik heb een Van Gogh/twee van Goghs gezien.
  have  a Van Gogh/two Van Goghs  seen
  'Iʼve seen a Van Gogh/two Van Goghs.'
b. Hij leest veel Vondel.
  he  reads  much  Vondel
  'He reads a lot of Vondel.'
c. Hij heeft heel wat Art Deco in huis.
  he  has  quite some Art Deco  in house
  'He has quite a lot of Art Deco in his house.'

      The names of well-known brands are often used to refer to specific products. The noun phrase eenHeineken in example (37), for example, can be used to refer to a glass of beer of that particular brand. Other well-known examples include een Miele (a washing machine), een Batavus (a bicycle), een Renault (a car), and een Kleenex (a paper tissue).

Geeft u mij maar een Heineken.
  give  you  me  prt  a Heineken
'Can I have a Heineken?'

In some cases, the use of the brand name becomes more common than the use of the common noun denoting the product. This may result in substituting the brand name for the common noun denoting the product: for example, the brand names Aspirine and Spa are often used to refer to, respectively, pain-killers and mineral water in general, so that the examples in (38) have actually become ambiguous.

a. Mag ik een aspirientje?
  can  an aspirin
  'Can I have an Aspirine/a painkiller?'
b. Een Spa, graag!
  one Spa  please
  'One Spa/mineral water, please!'
[+]  C.  Common nouns used as proper nouns

The examples in (39) illustrate the use of common nouns as proper nouns, which is restricted to nouns referring to members of the family (vader'father', moeder'mother', oom'uncle', zus'sister/sis') or to uniquely identifiable and well-respected members of the community (dominee'vicar', dokter'doctor', meester'teacher'). This use of common nouns tends to be regarded as rather old-fashioned.

a. Heb je het al aan vader gevraagd?
  have  you  it  already  to father  asked
  'Have you asked father?'
b. Dokter heeft gezegd dat ...
  doctor  has  said  that
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