Hen and hun in Dutch. Or: How to Make a Usage Problem Go Away

This is Amos van Baalen’s second blogpost for last semester’s MA course Non-Standard English:

Modern Dutch technically does not have a case system anymore. Remnants of this system occur in many set expressions, such as te allen tijde “at all times”, in which the final –en and –e attached to, respectively, the adjective and the noun are dative case endings. Just like in English, there is also a distinction for personal pronouns between a ‘subject’ form and a general ‘object’ form, e.g. ik “I” vs. mij “me”. However, there is one very interesting exception: the Dutch forms hen and hun both correspond to the English personal pronoun form them, with the difference that hen should be used for direct objects and hun for indirect objects: e.g. Ik zie hen “I see them” vs. Ik geef hun een cadeau “I give them a present”. Furthermore, hen should always be used as the object of a preposition, e.g. Ik geef een cadeau aan hen “I give a present to them”.

There is a reason for this salient exception in the Dutch pronoun system: according to the relevant article on the webpage of Genootschap Onze Taal “Our Language Society” (mainly known for publishing the magazine Onze Taal, which deals with various aspects of language), the rule governing hen and hun is artificial and was made up in the seventeenth century by a scientist named Christiaen van Heule. In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ANS (Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst “General Dutch Grammar”), which is seen as the most authoritative grammar of the Dutch language, mentions that native speakers use hen and hun indiscriminately and that they often feel uncertain about which form to use in any given context (Haeseryn et al. 1997). It is worth noting that the ANS emphasises that incorrect usage of these pronouns should certainly not be seen as a mistake (Haeseryn et al. 1997).

What are the preferences of native speakers? According to Wouter van Wingerden’s usage guide Maar zo heb ik het geleerd!’ “But that’s what I was taught!”, 47% of the nearly 17,000 respondents to his survey consider hen to be the only correct form (van Wingerden 2007: 32). This finding is in line with the ANS, in which it is noted that hen is considered to be stylistically superior to hun (but both the ANS and van Wingerden note that hun occurs more frequently than hen in spoken language) (Haeseryn et al. 1997; van Wingerden 2007: 33). Consequently, van Wingerden’s (2007: 33) advice (for written language) is to write hen in all cases, although he also provides the ‘classic rule’ for reference in the same section.

In my opinion, this creates a very interesting situation: the use of hen and hun may be said to be a usage problem in Dutch, because it is an aspect of the language that many speakers are unsure about (and, therefore, something that they need to look up in a grammar or usage guide). However, while they acknowledge the existence of the hen/hun rule, it appears that the ANS and van Wingerden downplay its importance; van Wingerden even explicitly advocates a different, simplified rule.

This type of tendency in grammars and usage guides is the beginning of the end for a usage problem. First of all, these recommendations have the positive effect of reassuring speakers who are unsure of the rule that they are not technically incorrect when they use the ‘wrong’ form. In addition, pedantic speakers who know the rule and wish to correct others can no longer use an authoritative grammar or usage guide to back up their claim. In time, the old rule may become characteristic of archaic language and may eventually not even be a part of grammars and usage guides anymore. To me, this approach seems like quite an effective way of solving a usage problem!

References:

Haeseryn, W., K. Romijn, G. Geerts, J. de Rooij and M.C. van den Toorn. 1997. Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst. (Vols. 1-2; 2nd ed.). Groningen: Martinus Nijhoff.

Wingerden, Wouter van. 2017. ‘Maar zo heb ik het geleerd!’: De waarheid achter 50 taalkwesties. Utrecht / Antwerpen: Van Dale Uitgevers.

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