Evie Coussť

Word order variation in Dutch

One of my main research interests is word order variation in Dutch. I have mainly studied word order alternations in the right periphery of subordinate clauses.

A typical feature of Dutch (and other West-Germanic languages such as German and Frisian) is that verbs appear together in the end of the subordinate clause in a so-called verbal complex or verb cluster . The verb cluster is marked in italics in example (1).

(1) Ik geloof dat ze nog met gestencilde cursussen les heeft gegeven.
      ‘I believe that she still has taught with stenciled courses.’

Word order variation in verb clusters

The internal word order of verb clusters varies a great deal in Dutch. The word order auxiliary – past participle in example (1), for instance, alternates with the opposite word order past participle – auxiliary, as illustrated in example (2).

(2) Ik geloof dat ze nog met gestencilde cursussen les gegeven heeft.
     ‘I believe that she still has taught with stenciled courses.’

This word order alternation has puzzled linguists for decades, as the word order variants do not appear to correlate with a clear difference in meaning or function. An exhaustive list of publications on the topic can be found on this page. State-of-the-art research shows that the choice for one word order variant over another is a multivariate phenomenon involving semantic, pragmatic, rhythmic, register, regional and even psycholinguistic factors.

I have studied verb order alternations from a diachronic perspective in my doctoral dissertation. The central claim of the dissertation is that the word order variation in examples (1) and (2) can be considered as an intermediate stage in an ongoing language change whereby the auxiliary – past participle word order variant is gradually taking over from the other word order variant.

The study is based on a sample of more than 6000 subordinate clauses containing a verb cluster with an auxiliary and one infinite verb (past participle or infinitive), taken from the Compilation Corpus Historical Dutch.

Some representative publications (in Dutch only)

Variable placement of constituents around the verb cluster

Another example of word order variation in Dutch is in the variable placement of constituents before and after the verb cluster. The position of verb clusters in the end of subordinate clauses in not absolute in Dutch. It is possible to place one (sometimes even two) constituent(s) after the verb cluster, as in illustrated in (3).

(3) Ik geloof dat ze nog les gegeven heeft met gestencilde cursussen.
      ‘I believe that she still has taught with stenciled courses.’

The placement of these constituents before or after the verb cluster is determined by a number of factors such as phonological weight, structural complexity and discourse status. I have studied the placement of subjects and direct objects relative to the verb cluster in a historical perspective.

Some representative publications (in Dutch only)