The gender problem revisited
As we have seen before the three gender system that Dutch inherited from West-Germanic is evolving into something different. The situation today differs a bit from region to region and is still evolving, the South (Flanders) retaining much of the old system, but let us try to summarize northern usuage.
- there is a growing rift in how animate (persons) and inanimate (things) nouns are treated
- for persons natural gender (masc.-fem.) dominates
- for things grammatical gender (common - neuter) dominates
- personal, possessive even relative pronouns are increasingly reserved for persons
- for things demonstrative pronouns and pronominal adverbs dominate
Approximately we can summarize current usage as follows:
|contrast||masc-fem||common - neuter|
hij,zij, hem, haar,
(het,) hen, hun,ze
die,dat het, ze
zijn, haar, hun
Diminutives of persons are an interesting group of words because they straddle the growing animate-inanimate rift. They often show signs of both natural and grammatical gender:
- Zij is een mooi meisje. Zij heeft een klein broertje. Hij is ziek.
Grammatically meisje and broertje are grammatically neuter as all diminutives. Mooi en klein therefore have no inflections after the indefinite article. These words are however frequently referred to by the feminine and masculine personal pronouns hij and zij, following natural gender.