Grammatical Gender in Dutch

Introduction

One of the most difficult aspects of learning Dutch is guessing or memorising the grammatical gender of nouns. There are three genders in Dutch — masculine, feminine and neuter — but only two definite articles, namely de for masculine and feminine nouns and het for neuter nouns. As a consequence, there is no straightforward mapping between definite articles and grammatical gender for masculine and feminine words. (Compare with German, where the definite articles der, die and das are consistently used for masculine, feminine and neuter words, respectively.) In Dutch, the three genders are known as mannelijk / m. (masculine), vrouwelijk / v. (feminine) and onzijdig / o. (neuter). In addition to the definite articles de and het and the indefinite article het, Dutch also has a negative article: geen, which can be used with nouns of any grammatical gender.

The Netherlands Versus Flanders

To complicate things, the gender system in the Duch language is not stable: since a few decades there has been a tendency for the masculine and feminine genders to become amalgamated into a common gender. This tendency started in the Netherlands several centuries ago but did not affect Belgian speakers of Dutch, because Flemish dialects helped maintain the distinction between the masculine and feminine gender of nouns (see Heidbuchel & Luyten, 1986: 45; Luyten, 1998: 70). Even in the Netherlands the development of the common gender exhibited geographical differences: in the 1970s, J. P. M. Tacx noted that the disctinction had almost completely disappeared in the west of the country, but not in the east (Tacx, 1972: 110).

As a result of this evolution, many de words can now be treated as both masculine and feminine. (See mannelijk / vrouwelijk / onzijdig on taaltelefoon.be.) However, this does not imply that the distinction between masculine and feminine has completely disappeared (see below). In addition, the distinction between de words and het words still exists.

The Dutch treat most de words for objects and animals as masculine, except when referring to biologically female persons or animals. In the Netherlands, de kat, de krant, de tafel and de tas are masculine, whereas in Flanders they may still be treated as feminine. In order to acknowledge this difference between the Netherlands and Flanders, dictionaries identified the gender of such words as v. (m.). The Woordenlijst Nederlandse taal of 1995 used de for words that are masculine in the Netherlands and feminine in Flanders; the other categories of nouns were marked with de (m.), de (v.) or het.

Rules for Grammatical Gender

Below are a few categories of words for which the gender and definite article is easy to derive. For all other words, learners will need to memorise the definite article. For plural nouns, the definite article is always de.

Neuter Nouns

When a noun is neuter, this means that you refer to back to it using the pronouns het and zijn.

Masculine Nouns

When a noun is masculine, this means that you refer back to it using the pronouns hij, hem and zijn.

Feminine Nouns

When a noun is feminine, this means that you refer back to it using the pronouns zij / ze and haar.

Proper Nouns

Names of places, i.e. towns, cities, countries, provinces and continents, are neuter, even when derived from a masculine, feminine or plural noun. For example: het Europa van morgen, het middeleeuwse Vlaanderen. This also affects the choice of pronouns: Europa wil zijn grenzen strenger bewaken.
Mond is masculine, but Roermond is neuter. Marken is a plural form, but Denemarken is neuter.

However, if a country name is a compound that contains a noun, the gender of the country name is determined by the gender of the noun. For example: de Chinese Volksrepubliek, de DDR (Duitse Democratische Republiek) (feminine) and de Sowjet-Unie (feminine).

Names of companies are neuter, unless the name is based on a noun that is not neuter. This is reflected in the personal pronouns that are used to refer to these companies. For example, Bekaert, C&A, Ford, Lannoo and Siemens are neuter. Hence, Volkswagen voert zijn productie op.

However, the gender of company names that contain a noun is determined by the gender of that noun. For example, de Bandencentrale, de Standaard Uitgeverij and de Vlaamse Uitgeversmaatschappij.

Nouns with More Than One Gender

Some names for occupations have a masculine and a feminine form, e.g. leraar and lerares. However, it is often also possible to use the adjective vrouwelijke before a “masculine” occupation name, e.g. vrouwelijke redacteur. In such cases, you refer back to this person using the pronouns zij / ze and haar. In addition, some names for occupations that were traditionally “masculine” don't have a feminine counterpart, e.g. dokter, monteur and professor, so you need to use the same form for both men and women with that occupation. (In fact, there have even been female gladiators, but the word gladiatrice is still rarely used.) In such cases, there is no alternative to saying, for example, vrouwelijke monteur if you want to make explicit that you are referring to a woman.

Many de words are masculine or feminine depending on whether the person being referred to is a man or a woman. For example: de deskundige (the expert), de getuige (the witness), de hippie, de lieveling, de nomade, de verloofde, de zeur, etcetera. For such words, dictionaries will typically say (de (m./v.)). If the person is a man, you refer back to him using the pronouns hij, hem and zijn; if the person is a woman, you refer to them using the pronouns zij / ze and haar.

There are many nouns that don't fit into any of the categories listed above. This is especially the case for inanimate objects, plants and materials.

Nouns for geographic concepts and celestial bodies are of the common gender (masculine and feminine), except when they aren't. For example: de komeet, de maan, de planeet, de rivier, de (rivier)delta, de stad, de ster, de vallei, de zee, de zon. However, the following nouns are masculine: de berg, de gletsjer, de mangrove, de oceaan, de vulkaan. The following nouns are feminine: de gemeente, de (rivier)monding, de supernova. Finally, the following nouns are neuter: het estuarium, het gebergte, het dorp, het eiland, het meer.

Some nouns may cause confusion. For example: het paard (the horse) versus de luipaard (the leopard). (It should be obvious that a leopard is not a kind of horse, but this distinction doesn't provide a clue about what the right article would be.) For some nouns, the grammatical gender depends on the meaning; some of these words even confuse native speakers of Dutch. For example:

Some words can be used with de or het without a difference in meaning. For example:

As mentioned above, many de words can be treated both as masculine and as feminine words. For some of these words, this ambiguity was already registered in reference works dating back to the 1950s (notably the Woordenlijst (reference work for spelling) from 1953). Hence, purists who wish to check the grammatical gender of de words are better off with older dictionaries than with current ones.

Tips for Learning the Grammatical Gender of Dutch Nouns

How can the lists of rules for grammatical gender be turned into practical tips for learning vocabulary? When using flashcards or a spaced repetition system, this should be straightforward. The front of the flashcard contains the concept you want to learn (typically as a word in your native language, a picture or a combination of these). This side of the card should not contain a hint for the word's grammatical gender in Dutch. The back of the flashcard then displays the Dutch noun with the correct article and the grammatical gender. If the word fits into one of the categories listed above, add a note to the card stating the applicable rule, for example, all nouns on -heid are feminine.

References