Monday, February 28, 2011

Het geslacht van zelfstandige naamwoorden

Illustration taken
from SLRevolution

Although I have only been a Livemocha-user shortly (*), I have noticed that Dutch learners have troubles with defining the gender of nouns in Dutch. This is quite a hurdle in the road of mastering the Dutch language and even native speakers make mistakes regarding this one, but the solution is simple: use a dictionary. I recommend to use Van Dale (also for Linux users) or the Wiktionary.

Now, why is this so important?

Definite articles

First of all, it will determine the definite article. Just some linguistic term for the word "the". In English it is easy, you just use "the" all the time and you are done. But not with the Dutch (oh no...).
A noun can have three genders, it is either male, female or neutral. If a noun is male or female, then the definite article in Dutch is "de", is the noun neutral and singular, then you should use "het". If the neutral noun is plural, then it becomes "de" as well. For example:
  • huis (house) is neutral, which means it is "het huis" (singular), "de huizen" (plural)
  • auto (car) is male, which means it is "de auto" (singular), "de auto's" (plural)
  • handtas (handbag, purse) is female, which means it is "de handtas" (singular), "de handtassen" (plural)

A good tip that I read at Wikibooks is that, when you are memorizing vocabulary, memorize the nouns together with their definite article. So, learn "het huis", not just "huis" and "de auto" not just "auto".

Want to know more about articles in Dutch? Read this Wikipedia entry.


Now here comes a nasty one... No don't worry, once you have practiced it two or three times, you will definitely get it, but I just want to say that I recognize a smelly cesspit when I spot one, uggh...

Adjectives are placed between the article and the noun: "een groot huis".

Every adjective has a basic form and an inflicted form. The basic form is as you see it in the dictionary, and you use it in a sentence after the verb "zijn" (to be: conjugation). For example:
Het huis is groot.The house is big.
De auto is zwart.The car is black.
De man is dik.The man is fat.

In most cases, the inflicted form is simply the basic form with the suffix -e.

But there are some rules for this one. Let me try to keep it simple:
  1. If we have a double vowel (two of the same vowels, making a long sound) in the adjective, immediately followed by one consonant before the suffix -e, then in the inflicted form, that double vowel will only be written once while the long sound ("oooooo", "aaaa", "uuuu", ...) stays:
    groot (big)grote
    laag (low)lage
    zuur (sour)zure
    mooi (beautiful)mooieit is the single vowel 'i' that comes before the suffix
    blauw (blue)blauwe'au' is not two times the same vowel
  2. If we have a single vowel (making a short sound) in the adjective, followed by a single consonant before the suffix -e. then in the inflicted form we will have to double that consonant to preserve the short sound of the vowel:
    wit (white)witte
    vol (full)volle
    dik (fat)dikke
    dun (thin)dunne
    zwart (black)zwarteit is more than one consonant already, the short sound of the vowel will be guaranteed
    groen (green)groeneas 'oe' is not a single vowel
  3. If an adjective already ends on 'e' or 'en', then nothing has to change:
    oranje (orange)oranje
  4. Other adjectives just get an -e attached to it without any hassle

These rules are also the same for defining the plural of nouns and conjugating verbs. Maybe I will elaberate on that one in a future blog entry.

So why is all of this so important? If we want to put an adjective between the article and the noun itself, then we will always have use the inflicted form except when the article is the undefined article een and the noun is neutral and singular, because then we use the basic form. For example:

het grote huisthe big house
de zwarte autothe black car
de dikke manthe fat man
de grote huizenthe big houses
de zwarte auto'sthe black cars
de dikke mannenthe fat men
een groot huisa big houseneutral, singular and indefinite
een zwarte autoa black car
een dikke mana fat man
grote huizenbig houses
zwarte auto'sblack cars
dikke mannenfat men

Want to know more about adjectives in Dutch? Read this Wikipedia entry.


Yes, actually there are more reasons why the gender of a noun is important in the Dutch language, but I am sure that you will agree that this is enough for now.

For further reading (and more details), I would recommend the following articles:

(*) Yesterday, I became a user of Livemocha as announced it will stop its free service starting 31st of March 2011.


  1. Can you do a blog post about the difference between 'kun' and 'kan', and when you use those or when you use 'mag'? because I am totally lost.

  2. 'Kan' is used as common. Examples: Kan ik je helpen? ( kan is here the only possibility). Kan( Kun) jij me helpen?( Two possibilities)
    Kan hij al zwemmen? ( no other possibility).
    Kunnen wij afrekenen? ( No other possibility)
    Kunnen jullie vanavond komen? ( No other possibility)
    Kunnen zij (plural) ook komen?( No other possibility)

  3. Examples for 'mag': Mag ik met je mee? = toestemming. Kan ik met je mee ? = Is er een mogelijkheid dat ik meekan?

  4. Thank you Weijenberg, "mogen" en "kunnen" is indeed very similar to "may" and "can" in English.

    "mag/mogen" is referring to "permission".
    "kan/kunnen" is more related to "possibility" (although it could also be a less formal form for "permission")

    "Mag je hier zwemmen?" (is it _allowed_ to swim here? or is this a private pool?)
    "Kan je hier zwemmen?" (is it _possible_ to swim here? or is the current too strong?)

  5. For more information, see the new blog post: kunnen vs mogen