Semantic versus lexical gender:synchronic and diachronic variation in Germanic gender agreement
Gender agreement typically involves agreement between the lexical gender of a noun and associated words such as determiners, adjectives and pronouns. However, pronouns in particular do not always show agreement with the lexical gender of the noun. They sometimes show ‘semantic gender agreement’ instead, that is, agreement based on certain properties of the referent. In Dutch, and other Germanic varieties, a semantic agreement pattern exists that is based on the degree of individuation of the referent: masculine pronouns are used with referents that have a high degree of individuation and neuter pronouns with referents that have a low degree of individuation. This semantic agreement competes with lexical gender agreement in Dutch pronouns.
The aim of this dissertation is to investigate the origin of agreement based on individuation in Dutch, when it has developed and what factors could be involved in its surfacing. This work consists of four studies that address these questions, including a historical corpus study of Middle Dutch and experimental studies with speakers of German and speakers of Dutch.
The results of this dissertation show that the semantic agreement pattern in Dutch pronouns relates to an existing semantic interpretation of the genders that possibly reflects the semantic roots of the Germanic genders. It appears that the competition between semantic and lexical gender has long existed and that the extent to which semantic agreement surfaces is connected with the visibility of lexical gender in the noun phrase, a factor that varies both synchronically and diachronically in Germanic gender systems.