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Dutch nouns can be sorted into two genders, labelled common and neuter. Common gender comprises the historical masculine and feminine gender, which have merged in most varieties. Common and neuter can be distinguished with the help of the definite article. Common gender nouns take the article de, neuter gender nouns take het. This is in line with the fact that gender is a morphosyntactic feature, expressed through agreement on associated words. In Dutch, gender agreement is visible on definite articles, adjectives in attributive position and a variety of pronouns: the relative, the personal, the demonstrative and the possessive pronoun, as well as on the indefinite pronouns ieder and elk. The two relative pronouns wiens whose (masculine) and wier whose (feminine) are becoming archaic, and are often used incorrectly.

For the nouns themselves, gender is a fixed lexical property. There are no gender distinctions in the plural. Gender affiliation is not morphologically marked on the noun, so the Dutch system is one of "covert" gender.

Table 1
common neuter
de stoel DEF.SG.C chair.C the chair het raam DEF.SG.N window.N the window
de groene stoel DEF.SG.C green-INFL chair.C the green chair het groene raam DEF.SG.N green-INFL window.N the green window
die stoel, die DEM.SG.C chair.C REL.SG.C that chair that... dat raam, dat DEM.SG.N window.N REL.SG.N that window that...

About 75% of the nouns in the lexicon belong to the common gender. However, many neuter nouns are highly frequent, so the imbalance is less marked in actual language use.

There are a number of rules for assigning nouns to genders. Nouns referring to humans usually belong to the common gender; this is a semantic rule. Moreover, there are morphological and phonological rules (read more on gender assignment in Dutch). For the majority of nouns, however, gender affiliation is unpredictable.

Dutch personal pronouns are special because they distinguish three genders rather than two. The three pronominal genders have the values masculine, feminine and neuter. The mismatch between the nominal and the pronominal genders goes hand in hand with difficulties and extensive variation.

[+]Gender assignment

The gender of nouns is unpredictable in most cases. However, there are some regularities. These can be semantic, morphological or phonological. The clearest semantic rule is that nouns referring to persons have common gender. Thus, man man, vrouw woman, oom uncle, tante aunt and many nouns in this semantic field are de-words. Exceptions to this rule are all diminutives (see below), as well as neuter nouns such as wijf woman (derogatory), kind child (sometimes, the reason is given that children do not participate fully in personhood, from a grammatical point of view, though note that the English loanword baby belongs to the common gender), slachtoffer victim and lid member (of a group).

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There are a few more links between semantics and gender. For example, the names of days, months and seasons are all de-words. Also, letters and numbers consistently get de when used as nouns. There seems to be only a single semantic regularity for the neuter: a rule concerning proper names for countries, cities and similar geographical entities. If these are used with a definite determiner, which is rarely the case, the determiner will be neuter. Examples are het Amsterdam van mijn jeugd the Amsterdam of my youth, het middeleeuwse Utrecht the medieval Utrecht or het Europa van mijn dromen the Europe of my dreams. It is questionable whether this is a case of lexically stored gender. It may be the case that neuter gender is assigned on the spot on those few occasions when such geographical names are used in constructions requiring an article.

A genuine rule is that all diminutive nouns are neuter, even when they refer to persons. Thus, meisje girl is neuter because it is a diminutive (even though its morphological structure may be synchronically opaque). This is not a semantic, but a morphological rule. Morphological rules refer to a part of a complex noun, usually the rightmost part, which can be a suffix or the head of a compound. This element will impose a particular gender on the whole derived word. For example, nouns ending in -er, such as vlieger kite, have common gender. Compounds normally inherit the gender of their head. Thus, boekenwinkel bookstore has the common gender of winkel store, while woordenboek dictionary is neuter due to boek book. Such rules are nearly always categorical. Exceptions are exocentric compounds such as de domoor the fool, idiot, which literally means stupid-ear but does not have the neuter gender of oor ear.

There are few morphological gender rules that make reference to prefixes or to derivations that do not involve an affix at all. Here are three examples:

Example 1

nominalizations with ge- have neuter gender
a. het gezeur
the nagging
b. het gedoe
the fuss and bother
Example 2

nominalizations of verbal infinitives have neuter gender
a. het fietsen
the cycling
b. het eten
the eating, the food
Example 3

Suffixless nominalizations of verbs have common gender
a. de sprong
the jump
b. de schreeuw
the scream

These cases are theoretically interesting because they contradict claims about the role of right-headedness for gender assignment in Dutch.

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Most morphological gender rules can be subsumed under the Righthand Head Rule proposed for English by Williams (1981), but also valid for Dutch (De Haas and Trommelen 1993), (Smessaert 2013). This rule says that the rightmost constituent of a complex word is the head of that word, and hence determines its syntactic (sub)category and other properties. One of these properties is gender. However, the cases in which gender rules apply to prefixes or to affixless derivations suggest that an analysis in terms of headedness does not cover all the facts. A possible solution would be to formulate the rules in constructionist terms. From this perspective, it is not the affix that determines the category; instead, gender assignment is part of the derivational template the word belongs to. V-to-N-conversions may then be schematized as [[V]](N(C)).

Aside from semantic and morphological, gender assignment rules can be phonological. These rules are not well understood for Dutch, not to which patterns they apply, nor whether they have any psychological reality for the speakers. One candidate for such a rule is that all nouns ending in /ɪŋ/ take common gender, irrespective of their morphological complexity. This applies, for instance, to haring herring, koning king, paling eel, ring ring, sering lilac (the last example, which is stressed on the second syllable, shows that the rule works independently of stress) (cf. also the discussion here). The only exception to this regularity is the noun ding thing which is neuter.

[+]Nouns of variable gender

There are a few nouns that appear with agreements from both genders. Examples are schilderij painting, kaft cover, liniaal ruler, matras mattress, schort apron and zadel saddle (see E-ANS for more examples). Preferences for one or the other option differ between speakers. These words retain their meaning irrespective of gender. Homonyms or polysems that differ in gender are a different matter: obviously, for such nouns the semantics differs with the gender. Such pairs are, for example:

Table 2
Common gender Neuter gender
de blik the look, the gaze het blik the can, the tin
de bos the bunch het bos the wood
de portier the doorkeeper het portier the door (of a car)
de veer the feather het veer the ferry
de pad the toad het pad the path
Some of the doublets reflect a semantic rule in Dutch: material nouns may have a counterpart with an item reading, in which case the material reading often correlates with neuter gender, the item reading with common gender. There are only a few of such pairs. Examples are:
Table 3
Common gender Neuter gender
de diamant the diamond (item) het diamant the diamond (material)
de steen the stone (item or material) het steen the stone (material)
de doek the cloth, rag, sheet, wrap het doek the textile, fabric
However, the split is not always neat: de steen can denote an item or a material, while het doek can also mean screen, which is more of an object than a material.

[+]Gender agreement

For elements in attributive function, i.e. determiners and adjectives, gender agreement is straightforward. Nouns (with the exception of variable gender nouns) trigger consistent agreement choices, and these cannot be manipulated by the speaker. The forms are:

Table 4
Gender Definite article Indefinite article Demonstrative pronoun indefinite pronoun each adjective
common de een deze, die iedere/ elke -e
neuter het een dit,dat ieder/ elk

For the conditions on adjectives marking gender agreement, see Adjectival inflection. Outside the attributive domain gender agreement is less neat. The pronouns differ in the gender values they can mark morphologically. The relative pronouns are homophonous with the demonstratives and have the same two-gender split. In colloquial language, the neuter relative pronoun dat is regularly replaced by the interrogative wat what.

Table 5
Gender Relative pronoun
common die
neuter dat/ wat

The possessive pronouns match the gender of the possessor (though not of the possessum) and distinguish feminine and non-feminine gender. The pronouns have a full form, which reflects written usage, and a reduced or clitic form that is closer to actual pronunciation.

Table 6
Gender Possessive pronoun
feminine haar /har/, 'r /ər/, d'r /dər/
masculine/neuter zijn /zɛɪn/, z'n /zən/

The personal pronouns distinguish three genders and two cases. Again, each pronoun has a full form and a reduced form.

Table 7
Gender Nominative Oblique
masculine hij /hɛɪ/, ie /i/ hem /hɛm/, 'm /əm/
feminine zij /zɛɪ/, ze /zə/ haar /har/, 'r /ər/, d'r /dər/
neuter het /hɛt/, 't /ət/ het /hɛt/, 't /ət/

The distribution of the pronominal genders is particularly complex because there is no straightforward match between the two nominal genders and the three pronominal genders. Knowledge as to which common gender nouns were masculine, respectively feminine, in the past is no longer alive in the standard language in the Netherlands (it is preserved better in Belgian Dutch; there the merger of masculine and feminine is not yet complete and the difference is still marked on the articles). The rules for written language, which demand that pronoun choice should reflect the historical gender, thus require conscious effort by the language user. This leads to a marked difference between formal (written) and informal (spoken) language. The tables below show the selection of the personal pronoun (only full forms are given) and the anaphoric demonstrative, contrasted for formal writing and colloquial speech. The actual choice depends on the degree of formality of the text or of the interaction, as well as on the age of the speaker.

Formal writing:

Table 8
Noun Personal pronoun Demonstrative pronoun
het meisje (N) the girl het (N) dat (N)
het boek (N) the book het (N) dat (N)
de groente (C) the vegetables zij (F) die (C)

Colloquial speech:

Table 9
Noun Personal pronoun Demonstrative pronoun
het meisje (N) the girl zij (F) die (C)
het boek (N) the book het (N), hij (M) dat (N), die (C)
de groente (C) the vegetables het (N) die (C), dat (N)

Examples for colloquial pronoun usage (source: Corpus Gesproken Nederlands):

Example 4

dat jong-etje zeg-t hij vind-t de taal vind-t ie moeilijk
DEM.SG.N boy-DIM.SG(N) say-3SG.PRS PRO.SG.M find-3SG.PRS DEF.SG.C language.SG(N) find-3SG.PRS PRO.SG.M difficult
that little boy says that he finds the language... he finds it difficult
Example 5

ken je 't lied-je niet? hij is echt leuk
know.2SG.PRS PRO.2SG DEF.SG.N song-DIM.SG(N) not PRO.3SG.M be.3SG.PRS really nice
Don't you know the song? It's really nice.
Example 6

een decanteerfles. daar stop je je wijn in en dan kan t luchten
INDF.SG decanter.SG(C) there put.2SG.PRS PRO.2SG POSS.2SG wine.SG(C) in and then can.3SG.PRS PRO.3SG.N breathe.INF
A decanter. You put your wine in there and then it can breathe.

The difference between spoken and written language can be illustrated as follows. Example a) is a speaker reading out text from a bottle, b) and c) are the same speaker's own pronoun choices. The noun in all cases is olie oil.

Example 7

a. deze olie is niet om in te bakken maar u druppelt haar op uw salade uw pasta of waarop dan ook
DEM.SG.C oil(C) be.3SG.PRS not for in to bake.INF but PRO.2SG sprinkle.2SG.PRS PRO.3SG.F.OBL on POSS.2SG salad(C) POSS.2SG pasta(C) or what_on then also
this oil is not for frying, but you sprinkle it over your salad, your pasta or over whatever
b. dan hebben ze van 'tzelfde gebied ook de olijfolie. dus dat kom-t uit 'tzelfde gebied
then have.3PL.PRS PRO.3PL from the_same.N region(N) also DEF.SG.C olive_oil(C) so DEM.SG.N come-3SG.PRS from the_same.N region(N)
then they also have the olive oil from the same region. So that comes from the same region.
c. 't zit toch ook bij olijfolie wel een beetje in hoe=t ge-conserveer-d word-t. - ja=k weet ook niet precies hoe ze dat maken
DEF.SG.N sit.3SG.PRS PRT also with olive_oil(C) PRT INDF.SG little in how=PRO.3SG.N PTCP-conserve-PTCP become-3SG.PRS - yes=PRO.1SG know.1SG.PRS also not exactly how PRO.3PL DEM.SG.N make.3PL.PRS
Because also with olive oil it matters a little how it's preserved. - Yes, I also don't know exactly how they make it

Recent research has shown that syntactically mismatching pronouns in speech can be explained on semantic grounds (Audring 2006, Audring 2009).

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The semantic rules that seem to operate in the pronominal domain reflect two conceptual splits. The first, which is known and widely accepted as a motivation behind pronoun choice, is the split between male and female persons. Even if the antecedent noun is neuter, the pronoun may be masculine or feminine, depending on the sex of the referent. Thus, jongetje little boy is referred to as hij he and meisje girl as zij she. For animals, natural gender determine pronoun choice if it salient (e.g. in pets), otherwise the masculine is used, even when the animal is female. The second split is less well-known. It holds between objects and substances. For object nouns, masculine gender is often chosen, even if the noun itself is neuter. Thus, we get masculine pronouns for boek book and masker mask, but also for countable abstracts such as verhaal story or tentamen exam. Conversely, mass nouns often appear with neuter gender pronouns, even if these nouns have common gender. This leads to neuter gender pronouns for groente vegetables and koffie coffee, as well as for uncountable abstracts such as informatie information. The syntactic forces that require a gender match between noun and pronoun and the intervening influence of the semantics lead to large-scale variation in pronoun usage. Yet, variation is not unconstrained. Corpus data shows that pronoun usage in spontaneous speech conforms to the Agreement Hierarchy (Corbett 1979). attributive > predicative > relative pronoun > personal pronoun The likelihood of semantic agreement overriding syntactic agreement increases from left to right on the scale. In Dutch, semantic agreement on relative pronouns is less frequent than semantic agreement on personal pronouns. (See Audring 2006 and Audring 2009 for data and analysis).

The situation is different in eastern and southern varieties of Dutch, notably in Belgium, where the traditional three-gender system is still (partly) intact. Here, syntactically matching pronoun usage is more frequent and more natural (Vogelaer 2006, Vogelaer 2010).

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  • Audring, Jenny2006Pronominal gender in Spoken DutchJournal of Germanic Linguistics1885-116
  • Audring, Jenny2009Reinventing Pronoun GenderAmsterdamFree UniversityThesis
  • Audring, Jenny2009Reinventing Pronoun GenderAmsterdamFree UniversityThesis
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