Semantic agreement in xdery

In the original Dutch case system, the relationship between der and y was one of gender and number agreement: the genitive determiner der was selected to agree with feminine singular nouns and plural nouns of any gender. However, as was noted in section 2, present-day standard Dutch no longer has a distinct feminine lexical gender, masculine and feminine having fallen together to form the “common” gender. Thus, the notion that the (ex-)feminine marker der is still involved in gender-based agreement today appears far-fetched.

In modern standard (Netherlandic) Dutch, pronoun assignment is often determined by the semantic characteristics of the noun to which the pronoun refers rather than the lexical gender of the noun (e.g. Audring 2006; Kraaikamp 2012). Of particular relevance to the present investigation, which deals with the continued use of a former feminine determiner (i.e. der), nouns denoting collective human referents, and some nouns denoting an abstract concept, may be referred to with a feminine pronoun (Audring 2006: 92). The nouns denoting these referents are often derived nouns ending in a formerly feminine suffix (13),[1] i.e. the singular nouns which occur in position y of the x der y construction.

(13) a. Wat vreemd dat de overheid haar eigen regels niet kent

what strange that the government her own rules not knows ‘How strange that the government doesn’t know its (literally: her) own rules.’

( ander-niet-voor-de-overheid-zelf/ [accessed 17.7.13])

b. en toen de Fransen in 1672 binnenvielen sloot de and when the French in 1672 invaded closed the

universiteit haar poorten university her gates

‘and when the French invaded in 1672, the university closed its (literally: her) gates’

( universiteit_nijmegen_wordt_opgericht [accessed 17.7.13])

Many of the singular nouns which occurred in x der y when the case system was intact would have denoted abstract concepts and collective human referents. The association between der and such nouns would have been preserved within the x der y construction as it became entrenched. A hypothesis to be tested is, therefore, that the placement of a noun in y is based on the noun’s semantics; any connection to morphological structure would be, on this view, coincidental. In order to test this hypothesis, it is necessary to concentrate on the simplex nouns that occur in y, and the complex nouns in y that do not end in a “feminine” suffix. If the simplex nouns in y also denote abstract concepts and collective human referents, the assignment of nouns to position y is likely to be semantics- based. If the complex nouns that occur in y may also end in a “masculine” or neuter suffix, this too would suggest semantically based agreement between der and y.

In Table 8, the 170 simplex nouns occurring in position y in novel examples are categorised according to the semantic nature of their referent. When the semantic nature of the simplex nouns - regardless of their gender - in position y is considered, the hypothesis that nouns appear in y on the basis of their semantics is supported. The simplex nouns tend to denote abstract entities or collective human referents.

Table 8: The semantic nature of the referents of the simplex singular nouns occurring in y. (Examples from the Eindhoven corpus.)

Semantic nature



abstract inanimate

de grondleggers der moraal ‘the founders the.GEN morality'



het middelpunt der provinciale hoofdstad ‘the middle-point the.GEN provincial capital'


collective human

de opkomst der arbeidersklasse ‘the rise the.GEN working class'


concrete inanimate

de wanden der lichtbeuk ‘the walls the.GEN clerestory'


human (individual)

de heiligheid der moeder ‘the holiness the.GEN mother'



de droeve klachten der reine duif ‘the sorrowful laments the.GEN pure dove'


The referents of the simplex nouns in x der y are only rarely concrete inanimate referents, individual humans, or animals. Thus, position y is associated with abstract and collective human nouns, regardless of whether or not those nouns are morphologically transparent. If derived nouns ending in non-“feminine” suffixes, but denoting abstract or collective human referents, appeared in position y, the semantic agreement hypothesis would be further supported. Nouns ending in -dom, which occurs on neuter and ex-masculine nouns, and -schap, which occurs on neuter and ex-feminine nouns, generally denote abstract and collective human referents and therefore could be used in position y. In the data, however, only one -dom-noun occurs in the adnominal genitive (14); otherwise, the van-construction is used.

(14) de vaagheid der ouderdom

the vagueness the.GEN.FEM.SG parenthood

‘the vagueness of parenthood’ (INL 27 Mil., January 1994)

The -schap-nouns are particularly useful when testing whether the nouns that appear in y do so on the basis of morphologically based or semantically based principles. They all denote collective human or abstract referents so, under the “semantic” hypothesis, any -schap-noun should be able to occur in y. However, in the data, only the formerly feminine -schap-nouns occur in y. To test whether this is a general trend or whether it is specific to the data studied, all the neuter -schap-nouns which occurred in the van-construction in the data were searched for on the web in combination with the determiner der. Only isolated occurrences were found; examples are given in (15). One of the reviewers considers the examples in (15) to be errors made by a writer using a high-register construction that he/she does not master; another reviewer notes that a formation with the common/“feminine” zwangerschap, i.e. x der zwangerschap, is more acceptable than one with the neuter moederschap, i.e. x der moederschap; see also the example in (15c). The evidence here suggests that language users are aware of which -schap-nouns may occur in x der y.

(15) a. ?ter bevordering der gezelschap

to-the encouragement the.GEN party ‘for the encouragement of the party’ ( Rijmelarij_2_-.html [accessed 17.7.13])

b. ?het stokje der leiderschap the stick.DIM the.GEN leadership ‘the baton of leadership’

  • ( [accessed 17.7.13]; occurs in a quotation from a book written in 1983) c. ?in naam der moederschap in name the.GEN motherhood ‘in the name of motherhood’
  • ( deel-3.html?page=12 [accessed 17.7.13])

Accordingly, even though it would fit with modern Dutch pronoun gender assignment, the hypothesis that there is a semantically determined relationship between der and the noun in y is not wholly supported by the data. Despite the semantic patterns observed in Table 8, the dubiousness of formations such as those in (15) suggest that semantics alone cannot be the basis of the agreement between der and y; semantics can at most only be part of the explanation.[2] Therefore, a morphologically based hypothesis is tested in the following section.

  • [1] This is confirmed, for instance, by a wildcard-based search for nouns ending in particularsuffixes, in the electronic dictionary van Dale (2005-2008).
  • [2] I am grateful to the editors for encouraging me to clarify my thoughts on this matter.
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