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De Nieuwe Spelling

Two Dutch words for "the"

In the 21st century, distinction between two forms of definite article is diminishing in informal speech, a change impelled partly by the influence of young speakers who are second-generation immigrants.

There is precedent for this shift in the Surinaams-Nederlands dialect of Suriname, and in the South-African language Afrikaans, derived from 16th-century Dutch — both of which have only one bepaalde lidwoord.

A strange and difficult feature of the Dutch language is that it employs two definite articles.

De and het both mean the same thing — "the" — but for each noun, only one of them is correct.

There is a rule, but it doesn't usually apply to anything that you can hear. Usage is based upon "gender" — but the average noun has no gender-identifying characteristic.

Gender affiliation of nouns, of course, is not unusual. Although odd to the native-English ear, nouns in much of Europe have an assigned gender that is not semantically meaningful. A feminine noun does not necessarily describe anything that a reasonable person would consider feminine.

But in Spanish, for example, there is at least an indication in the way that a noun is spelled. There are exceptions: mano and dia seem to be masculine and feminine, respectively; and they're not. But these are merely exceptions in an orderly scheme. Almost all Spanish nouns are clearly masculine or clearly feminine, so the definite articles (el and la) are easy to use.

In Dutch (I reiterate) you can't tell whether a noun is masculine or feminine. But, stranger yet, that's not what matters: what matters is whether it's "one-or-the-other," or "neither."

The definite article for all masculine and feminine nouns is "de." For nouns without gender, it is "het." That is what determines that you call an apple core "het klokhuis" ["huis" being gender-neutral]) but you call an apple "de appel." And it's either right or wrong. (Well, almost always,* according to some.)

"The definite article het is used with neuter nouns; de with feminine and masculine nouns and with plural forms of het-words and de-words." — from "Taaluniversum.org."

In addition, het is always used for nouns in their diminutive form, the verkleinwoord, which is analogous to the Spanish "ito / ita."

So, the critical matter is whether or not the noun has a gender. In older Dutch, there is a concern about the gendering of nouns — one might refer to an apple with the pronoun "he," as opposed to "it," for example. Some older Dutch people (and writers adhering to a higher tone] still assign the gender in pronouns. Amongst young people and in colloquial speech, the practice is mostly absent.)

There is a sense amongst the Dutch that they "just know" whether "de" or "het" is appropriate. This does seem to be true, but the grasp of usage is probably formed in childhood rote learning. Some claim that the native Dutch speaker would even know which definite article to use with a nonsense word. That doesn't seem possible, and is probably not true.

For the foreigner there is one general rule, simple but not very elegant. You have to memorize each noun's definite article.

There are a lot of nouns in any language. Tens of thousands, let's say. There are some groups of Dutch nouns — for example, the names of animals, languages, and colors — within which the usage is consistent. This brings down the number that one must learn by rote — to a few thousand, maybe.

But that's it, as far as I can tell. From there you're on your own.


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* A couple of Dutch people have told me that there are a few nouns that can be either "de" or "het" words, but I don't know if this consists of truth or mythology. The only example I remember for sure is the word for "salt," which a co-worker once told me was both a "de" word and a "het" word.

The particular example does not seem to bear out this contention, considering that the authoritative Van Dale dictionary calls it "het zout;" and that comparative searches on Google show "het zout" as predominating.

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Note: A native-speaking reader has written that "het zout" refers to the salt itself, but "de zout" refers to the saltshaker on the table.

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