Last modified on 19 May 2011, at 23:43

Dutch/Lesson 11

Les 11 ~ Lesson 11

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Word orderEdit

Many English speakers who set out to learn the Dutch language succeed in their effort to a considerable extent. Some of them become quite fluent. They do encounter a few problems. One is that Dutch speakers consider it polite to reply in English when detecting an English accent and it takes some insisting to break through that barrier. Another major stumbling block is the fact that Dutch has retained West-Germanic word order and English has abandoned it in favor of one that resembled that of the French-speaking nobility that ruled the land after 1066. We'll examine a number of aspects.


We have already seen a number of examples of inversion. For example, that of the of verb and subject in questions:

Jij hebt een mooi huis.
Heb je een mooi huis?

Apart from the fact that the final -t is lost for the jij-form of the verb, this is not unfamiliar, as inversion also occurs in some English phrases like:

Hi, how goes it?
What say you?

Another example of inversion occurs when the order is changed for the sake of emphasis by putting an item at the beginning of the sentence.

Een mooi huis heb je!
That's a fine house you've got!
Morgen ga ik naar huis.
Tomorrow I'm going home.

Sometimes this is not so much a question of emphasis. It is more a way to stuff a few more items in the same sentence, particularly adverbs or adverbial expressions.

Zonder twijfel gaat hij morgen naar huis.
Undoubtedly he will go home tomorrow.

Notice that the adverb of time (morgen) precedes the indication of place here, because naar huis gaan is felt as a verbal expression and verbs tend to end up at the end of the sentence.

Verbs in final positionEdit

Another feature we have already encountered is that in tenses that use an auxiliary the participle or infinitive is put at the end of the sentence:

Ik heb gezien
Gisteren heb ik vanaf de dijk een aantal kluten gezien
Morgen zal ik nog eens op de dijk gaan kijken.

Notice that in this case the inversion is applied on the auxiliary (heb ik..., zal ik...) and that in compounds with more that one infinitive as gaan kijken (go have a look) they both end up at the end. Whether gaan or kijken goes first varies a little from region to region; one can also hear—particularly in the south:

Morgen zal ik nog eens op de dijk kijken gaan.

Indirect clauses and conjunctionsEdit

In Dutch, word order is used to mark what role a clause plays with respect to the rest of the sentence. The indirect clause has a different order, particularly in the position of the verb.

jij hebt een mooi huis
ik zie dat je een mooi huis hebt

In this case it is the persoonsvorm, i.e. the conjugated part of the verb (that carries the -t ending) that moves to the end of the clause to indicate that it has become the direct object of the main clause ik zie....

This is also true if the persoonsvorm is an auxiliary:

jij bent gisteren met de trein naar huis gegaan
ik betwijfel dat je gisteren met de trein naar huis gegaan bent

Again there is some variation possible:

ik betwijfel dat je gisteren met de trein naar huis bent gegaan.

The same principle applies after a conjunction like omdat (because).

Je hebt gelijk omdat ik met de auto gegaan ben.

Onderschikkend and nevenschikkendEdit

Not all conjunctions produce a hierarchical relationship. Conjunctions (voegwoorden) like want (for) of (or) and en (and) maar (but) simply link two equivalent phrases. Compare:

Je hebt ongelijk want ik ben gisteren wel degelijk met de trein naar huis gegaan
Je hebt ongelijk omdat ik gisteren wel degelijk met de trein naar huis gegaan ben

In the case of want (for) the two clauses are on equal footing, in the case of omdat (because) the first part je hebt gelijk (you are right) is the master program and the rest a subroutine initiated with omdat (because).

Conjunctions that produce a subordinate clause are known as onderschikkend, in English, they are known as subordinating conjunctions; the ones that link two phrases in equality are called nevenschikkend, in English, co-ordinating conjunctions.

(Sometimes the onderschikkend kind is called subjunctions rather than conjunctions (see e.g. the German wiktionary), but in English where the distinction is of no consequence for the syntax this is unusual.)

Onderschikkend Nevenschikkend
omdat want
hoewel en
zodat maar
of (if,whether) of (or)
wanneer dus

Most other voegwoorden are onderschikkend

Because the relative role of the clauses is more clearly marked by their word order, it is possible to make longer sentences in Dutch without generating ambiguity. In English compound sentences become confusing and ambivalent more easily. When writing English, a speaker of Dutch needs to fight the tendency to produce convoluted sentences. Conversely Dutch may look somewhat long-winded to an English speaker.


Use the conjunction in brackets to unify into one sentence:

Het is niet mogelijk. Dit is niet op deze manier gebeurd. (omdat)
Het is niet mogelijk. Het is wel op deze manier gebeurd. (hoewel)
Het is heel erg. Het is wel op deze manier gebeurd. (maar)
Jan is met de trein gekomen. Hij is met de auto gekomen. (of)
Jan is met de trein gekomen. Hij blijft hier een paar dagen. (en)
Jan is met de trein gekomen. Hij blijft hier een paar dagen. (zodat)