This is a story about a bug in a natural language. Namely, a bug in the gender system in Dutch.

Dutch is linguistically a German dialect that tends to English.

This shows in its gender and case system. German has 3 grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, neuter. It also has 4 grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative, although with some collapse, e.g. the neutral forms are essentially a simplification of the masculine forms. English on the other hand has all but lost these distinctions: apart from some special cases, it only distinguishes gender and case in pronouns, with the forms: he, she, it (nominative); him, her, it (dative/accusative); his, her, its (possessive pronoun).

Another difference is that in German, gender is a property of nouns, while in English, it is not determined by the noun itself, but by what it refers to: "she" and "her" refer to everything that is are actually female, with a few exceptions (a ship); "it" and "its" to everything that is actually impersonal, and "he"/"him"/"his" to everything else, while in German you have to learn the gender of many pronouns by heart before you know which form of the pronoun to use with it.

The native speakers of Dutch are in limbo, stuck between the German and English system..

Unlike English, and like German, we have a noun-by-noun distinction between neutral nouns (with article "het", e.g. "het huis" = "the house") and other nouns (with article "de", e.g. "de soep" - "the soup").

This is a problem for all learners of Dutch, because the assignment of gender is quite unpredictable. But learners of German, French, Spanish, Latin, Russian, or any other language with such a gender system, have this problem, too. It's awkward, but I won't call it a bug.

The real problem arises with pronouns referring back to non-neutral nouns. These have the same three-gender distinction as in English, using neutral "het" to refer to neutral nouns, and masculine ("hij") or feminine ("ze") to refer back to "de"-words like "soep".

Now, several millions of native speakers of Dutch (roughly, those in Belgium) systematically distinguish between masculine and female nouns on a noun-by-noun basis, like German does; for them, there is no problem, once they have picked up the gender of each noun, which they do when they learn the noun in question. But the majority of speakers (mostly in the Netherlands) do not, applying the English system for them instead. This is inconsistent: for many nouns, the two groups of native speakers use different forms for the pronouns.

The reason I call this a bug is that it causes this majority to not know which form of the pronoun to apply for many nouns. We tend to apply the English system; but we are aware, and were taught in school, that Dutch is supposed to make a systematic distinction between masculine and female nouns, so we feel the need to apply this principle in written or formal language. As a consequence, we have to look up the gender of many nouns in the dictionary every time we want to replace them with a pronoun - or in any other situation where the exact gender is called for, e.g. when contributing to Wiktionary.

Perhaps an example will make you see how completely silly this situation is. Consider the sentence

   De soep wordt niet altijd zo heet gegeten als hij wordt opgediend.
Literally, "the soup isn't always eaten as hot as it is served". This is a common proverb in Dutch, but more importantly, a very common type of sentence that we may use hundreds of times a day.

Well, I already ran into the gender problem here. Notice that in English we refer back to "the soup" using "it" - the impersonal relative pronoun. In Dutch, I must pick either "hij" - if "soup" is masculine - or "ze" - if it is feminine.

But I - a native speaker of Dutch - do not actually know whether "soep" is masculine or feminine. I have to look it up in a dictionary.

In practice, I do what most of the Dutch do: in spoken language, I always use the masculine form, except when the object is personal and clearly feminine; in formal writing, I use schoolbook rules to use the feminine in a very limited range of cases, such as nominalizations formed with the suffix -ing or -ie ("regering" - government, "democratie" - democracy). In informal writing, I often don't know which gender to use, and completely avoid the construction instead.

Another way of coping with the situation is to develop new rules for making the distinction, and this is indeed happening: there is a tendency among Dutch speakers to make all abstract nouns female, something that isn't true in either the German or in the English system.

Others, especially from Flanders, have a better awareness of when to use the feminine. They do not hesitate which pronoun to use, and may find my use of "hij" here incorrect; as I said, I'd have to look it up in a dictionary to find out if this is the case.

I think gender in Dutch is a good example of language evolution in action; there really isn't a uniform set of rules for using gender that all native speakers agree with, and this is a nice example of the kind of messy, undetermined, grey area one expects to see in languages all the time, considering that so many different languages and dialects are out there.

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