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A grammatical comparison of English and Dutch

Hannah De Mulder

As I am a bilingual person, raised to speak both Dutch and English, I thought that it would be very easy for me to alternate between the two languages. When I came to England to study, however, this proved to be a slightly more difficult task than I had expected. Simple things like telling other people the time suddenly required a lot of thought (and caused me to be the recipient of quite a few strange looks, when it took me about five minutes to tell the person concerned the time). The reason why I had this problem was that in Dutch time seems to be looked at in a different way than in English. In Dutch we say half to six instead of half past five when we are both talking about 17:30. It gets even more difficult when we want to say 17:40, in Dutch this is referred to as ten past the half to six. Luckily though, I am not the only person who seems to have had problems in alternating between the two languages. My Dutch father is a good source of Dutch-English anecdotes. My mother, for instance, fondly remembers the time when he wrote the sentence: I cant miss you at the end of a love letter to her. In Dutch this is a perfectly acceptable way to communicate the fact that you cannot bear to be without somebody, but to my English mother this was a slightly strange ending to a love letter.

These anecdotes show that there are definitely differences between Dutch and English, but just how much do the two languages truly differ? How great is the contrast going to turn out to be when we pass the superficial level of these anecdotes and take a look at the grammatical structure of the languages? To try to find out the

answer I will take a look at certain grammatical features of both languages, namely word order and inflectional morphology.

To start with I will talk about word order, as that is probably the most significant difference between Dutch and English. In declarative sentences, the finite verb (which agrees in number with the subject) is in second position in the main clause. The main difference with English word order is that the finite verb is separated from the nonfinite verb by adverbials. Example: Jan zal morgen zijn haar wassen. Jan will tomorrow his hair wash. (Jan will wash his hair tomorrow) (The order of the two adverbials is free, it is equally fine to say: Jan zal zijn haar morgen wassen). As we can see the non-finite verb typically comes at the end of the clause. This becomes even more clear when we look at the word order of subordinate clauses. Example: omdat Jan morgen zijn haar wast Because Jan tomorrow his hair is washing (because Jan is washing his hair tomorrow) Another difference in word order occurs when the sentence is started with a subordinate clause, as the normal subject-verb pattern has to be inverted to form a verb-subject pattern. Example: Als jij naar de dansschool gaat, kom ik mee When you to the dance school go, come I with you (when you go to the dance school, Ill come with you) Of course, these differences all have their consequences for the dependency arrows. As you can see, the arrows are more left-orientated than they would be in their

English counterparts. Nonetheless, Dutch, like English, is a head first language. Evidence for this is that determiners and prepositions are the heads of their phrases, which means that a great deal of the arrows will point to the right. A sentence like: De naam van dit boek over de grammatica van het Engels. (The name of this book about the grammar of the English) shows that in a noun expansion the arrows are right-orientated.

An interesting thing about Dutch in relation to English is the way interrogatives are formed. It is not necessary to have an auxiliary in a sentence to make it a question, a main verb can fulfill this task as well. There is therefore no dummy do equivalent in Dutch. This does not mean, however, that there is a difference in the direction of the arrows, as both in Dutch and in English the arrows are to the right in an interrogative. Example: Eten jullie brood? Eat you bread? (Do you eat bread?) I find this aspect of the comparison between Dutch and English especially interesting as English used to have the same system as Dutch for making sentences interrogative. If we compare a sentence from Shakespeare to its Dutch counterpart, the word order is exactly the same : Sits the wind in that corner? compared to: Zit de wind in die hoek?. It would be interesting to know when and why this change occurred in English.

Dutch inflectional morphology, the other grammatical feature I am going to take a look at, has been drastically simplified since the period of Middle Dutch. Most of the inflectional endings have been lost, nouns therefore have practically no case distinctions. The only case form left is the use of the genitive s, it differs from the

English genitive s however, by the fact that it can only be used with proper nouns. So you could say: Johans auto, meaning Johans car, but you could not say: *het meisjes auto (the girls car). The girls car would translate: het meisje haar auto in which haar is the third person female singular possessive pronoun. The fact that the s cliticizes onto the word has some consequences for the dependency structure. There are two possibilities: either the One-arrow principle is violated, or the proper noun with the clitic pronoun s is regarded as one word. The analysis can therefore either be: Johans auto is mooi (meaning Johans car is beautiful) or Johans auto is mooi. I personally think the second analysis is the better one, as I feel not violating the Onearrow principle is to be aimed at. The only problem with this second analysis comes when we consider: Frits auto is mooi. In this case the double s sound makes it necessary to indicate that there is a clitic s, but that it cannot actually be written, as this would cause problems with the pronunciation. We could consider the apostrophe as a separate word and thus have two arrows pointing at Frits, but I think this would make things unnecessarily complicated and therefore still opt for the second analysis. I have called the genitive s a clitic pronoun for two reasons. The first is that I think the fact that the s is replaced by a pronoun in all other cases when possession is indicated is good evidence that it is a clitic pronoun. The second is that in proper nouns ending in s the apostrophe is present, thereby indicating that there is actually another s after the apostrophe, like the English clitic pronoun s, but that it has to be left out for phonetic reasons. This means that Dutch is like English in that it has clitic pronouns.

Another aspect in which Dutch inflectional morphology differs from English is the fact that the adjective has two different forms. The choice of the strong (non-suffixed) form is determined by the gender of the noun and the article preceding the noun. In Dutch we have two definite articles, het, for neuter words, and de for words that are either male or female, this is in contrast with English, as English only has one definite article, the. The indefinite article has one form, een. If a noun is preceded by the indefinite article and its gender is neuter (i.e. it has het as its definite article) the adjective for that noun will have the strong form. Compare: het grote huis the big house een groot huis a big house de grote huizen the big houses de grote boom the big tree een grote boom a big tree de grote bomen the big trees

Having looked at (part of) Dutch word order and inflectional morphology, I might have come closer to answering the question I posed at the beginning. How different are Dutch and English when you look at the grammatical features of both languages? There are certainly important differences in word order and morphology, especially concerning subordinate clauses and inflection of adjectives, but at the same time there are also clear similarities, the fact that they are both head first and that they both have lost most of their inflection, for instance. In the end therefore, we seem to end up with the fairly middle of the road theyre not that dissimilar as an answer. While this might not be the most satisfying answer ever given, it certainly makes me happy I wasnt raised speaking Chinese and English. As where you probably will be more or less understood if you literally translate Dutch into English, like I was doing with my time telling problems, I cant imagine what kind of strange stares I would have gotten if I had tried to do the same with Chinese.

Bibliography: Asher, Ronald. 1994. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press Toorn van der, M.C. 1982. Nederlandse Grammatica. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff Zandvoort, R.W. 1969. A Handbook of English Grammar. Groningen: WoltersNoordhoff