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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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At the time I was prompted to investigate the phenomenon of ‘double gender’ in Dutch – more than five years ago for my PhD project – I did not imagine the variety of issues that would arise upon analysing the subject deeply. Though gender is commonly described as a morphosyntactic category (like number and case) and as a nominal classification system (like noun classes and classifiers), it is non-prototypical in so far as – apart from its agreement-creating effects – it seems to lack a defining function. This state of affairs, however, suggests that gender may have a more subtle function, which may become visible through the emergence of mismatches like those displayed by Dutch double gender nouns (DGNs), i.e. de/het-words. Indeed, when I became intrigued with this subject I started from the assumption that gender variation may also be related to semantic or pragmatic functions, but this hypothesis necessarily needed to be proved through careful analysis of literature and linguistic data.

To better understand the way gender flexibility in Dutch could be motivated by reasons other than dialect or chance, I spent a lot of time getting familiar with nominal classification and agreement in typological perspective. In particular, I searched for cross-linguistic evidence that real-world entities are basically categorized according to common features and that, in language usage, different perceptions of a certain entity may be responsible for different choices on the part of the speaker. Indeed, in a cross-linguistic perspective there are lots of cases which demonstrate not...

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