We or Wij? How To Use Dutch Personal Pronouns Posted by Sten on Aug 16, 2021 in Dutch Grammar, Dutch Language
Persoonlijke voornaamwoorden (personal pronouns) in Dutch are pretty straightforward. There’s ik, jij, hij/zij/het, wij, jullie and zij. But then there are also je, ze, we and ze (plural). What are those?
Basic personal pronouns in Dutch
Before we get to that difference, let’s start with the basics.
Ik – I
Jij – You
Hij/zij/het – He/she/it
Wij – We
Jullie – You (plural)
Zij – They
Verbuigen (to conjugate) for these pronouns is pretty easy, too. Let’s use the verb fietsen (to bike) as an example:
So, as you can see, this is pretty easy! From the stam (root) of the werkwoord (verb) you just add some stuff. Most often, the stam is simply the hele werkwoord (full verb) without the -en. So: the stam of fietsen is fiets. For I, it’s just the stam. For You and He/She/It, it’s the stam +t. Then, for the plural pronouns, you just add -en, which in many cases looks the same as the hele werkwoord. Pretty good, no?
Little curious thing for the jij fietst: In some cases, the order is reversed, and the werkwoord comes before the pronoun: fiets jij? (do you bike?) That’s for another post, but be aware that this exists!
So, what’s up with those other forms?
What are the pronouns je, ze and we?
In Dutch, we have so-called onbenadrukte (unemphasized) and benadrukte (emphasized) voornaamwoorden. Between the forms je and jij, ze and zij and we and wij, you can probably guess which is which. Je, ze and we roll off the tongue quickly, without much attention. If you replace that e with an lange ij, it suddenly gets a lot more air time! Here’s what they all sound like:
Little curious thing ONLY about the plural emphasized zij: that one only works for persons. If you want to refer to objects, you should use die. So:
De mensen zijn al in Amsterdam. Zij hebben de goede trein gepakt, ik niet! (The people are already in Amsterdam. They took the right train, not me!)
De Egyptische kasten worden naar Amsterdam gebracht. Die zijn pas oud! (The Egyptian wardrobes are brought to Amsterdam. Those ones are old!)
Again, this is ONLY for plural zij. Plural ze is not affected by this! Ze can refer to kasten, mensen, whatever else that’s “they”.
So, je, ze and we are the unemphasized voornaamwoorden. Ik, hij, het and jullie don’t have emphasized versions. The emphasized versions are likely the ones you see when studying Dutch voornaamwoorden for the first time. They’re the “official” forms. It makes sense, of course, as they are the emphasis in any lesson on pronouns. In use, together with stressing the tone of the sentence on the pronoun, it emphasizes the pronoun. Listen to the difference here:
The first sentence NEEDS to be with the emphasized zij. The second one can be either ze or zij. Most times, people use the unemphasized version, as there’s no need for making speaking harder. It is similar to how English verbs get apostrophes. Because “aren’t” is simply quicker, easier and the same as “are not”. Unless – you got it – you need to put emphasis on the not.
Because you don’t often emphasize pronouns, and because, like in English, the Dutch also prefer a quicker way of speaking, the unemphasized forms are used a lot more. Just like aren’t and are not. There’s no real difference between formal or informal settings. Both are used in those cases. If it is very formal, you might encounter the emphasized forms more. Not for emphasis, but, like I said, it is the more “official” form. And if speaking more slowly, this form sounds more clear and natural. So in a speech by King Willem-Alexander, you might hear them more. Like in his COVID speech above!
Where have you encountered these different forms? What other grammar in Dutch confuses you? Did this explainer help you, how could it improve? Let me know in the comments below!
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