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One Word, Two Genders

Categorization and Agreement in Dutch Double Gender Nouns


Chiara Semplicini

Dutch is a peculiar language in that certain nouns have more than one gender. This first academic study of double gender nouns (DGNs) in the Dutch language investigates this anomaly. First assigned a lexicological classification, the DGNs are then analysed contextually by means of a corpus study. DGNs are shown to be part of a generalized restructuring of Dutch gender as a whole. No longer a fringe phenomenon in the Dutch gender system, this study shows them to be catalysts in the transition towards a (more) semantic system, a process that is much more advanced than commonly assumed.
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In his masterpiece on the subject, Corbett (1991) describes genders as agreement classes. This definition captures the multifaceted nature of a category that has to do with both nominal classification and agreement. On the one hand, gender is an inherent nominal property, assigned by means of language-specific rules that divide nouns into distinct classes; on the other hand, gender is ‘reflected in the behaviour of associated words’ (Hockett 1958: 231) allowing discourse coreference through agreement.

Due to its double nature, gender is a very interesting field for linguistic enquiries: it allows speculations about the way we classify the world and which mechanisms are at work in discourse reference. Accordingly, any analysis of grammatical gender has to take into account two main facts: each noun is assigned to a certain gender by means of language-specific rules; and, in language usage gender is not necessarily visible on the noun itself, but must be visible on those elements that agree with it. Thus, gender can be analysed in terms of assignment rules (i.e. the way each noun is assigned to a gender feature), and agreement patterns (i.e. the way gender surfaces in context on elements other than the noun).

Over time the special status of gender has raised many discussions and controversies, especially regarding the insistence on its arbitrariness and redundancy. In contemporary approaches, however, the insistence on semantic or referential meaning underlies the claims for a common semantic basis in all gender systems (Greenberg 1978; Aksenov...

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