Hun hebben: a Dutch usage problem

About 18 months ago, a great uproar arose as a result of a discussion on television between Helen de Hoop, who has a chair in theoretical linguistics at the University of Nijmegen, and the then minister of education in the Netherlands, Ronald Plasterk.

De Hoop had just presented a paper analysing the widespread and increasing use of a much stigmatised grammatical feature, hun hebben, while Plasterk merely maintained that it was an error and thus should be avoided. The interview, which was in Dutch, proved not very successful, and could be interpreted as a failure of communication between a linguist and a member of the general public.

The issue is of interest to the topic of this blog, in that it illustrates how wide a gap there is between the two parties involved. And the interesting question arises as to what precisely went wrong in the interview, and the gap could have been bridged for real communication to have taken place. Comments are therefore invited on this.

The article has meanwhile been published (in Dutch); further details about the article as well as the debate are available online.

Hun hebben: the standard subject pronoun to use would be zij; in standard Dutch, hun functions either as a possessive pronoun (hun huis) or as an indirect object pronoun (ik gaf hun een boek).

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2 Responses to Hun hebben: a Dutch usage problem

  1. robin4roundrobin says:

    This interview shows the role that terminology plays in communication between linguists, descriptivists and the general public. In this case it concerns the word ‘grammar’ in its technical and non-technical uses. Plasterk, the then-Minister of Education says that something is the case in Dutch ‘grammar’, in which he is immediately interrupted by De Hoop correcting him that it isn’t. This is a typical example when two parties use the same word to refer to different things. As a linguist, De Hoop uses the word ‘grammar’ to refer tot the system of the language that can be observed from people’s usage, while Plasterk refers a codified, normative form of that system.

  2. Some materials related to this interview (what preceded it, and what followed) can be found here.

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