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Learn Dutch: Addressing pronouns

Pronouns are part of every beginners’ language course and may even appear in the first lesson. These words are used to address someone and refer to people, objects and possessions. You would expect them to be pretty straightforward, but in Dutch even the pronouns come with their own peculiarities. In this blog I will look into some of these peculiarities, based on my students’ questions.

Emphasized or unemphasized: jij vs. je

One of the most frequently asked questions about Dutch pronouns is ‘What is the difference between jij and je?’. Many of my students often are aware of the fact that there are two Dutch pronouns for ‘you’: a formal and an informal one. Yet they wrongly assume that ‘je’ belongs to one and ‘jij’ the other. ‘U’ is the formal pronoun, whereas ‘jij’ and ‘je’ are both informal and actually mean the same thing.

Why are there two different words then? The short answer to this question is that ‘je’ is the unemphasized form of ‘jij’. When you listen to someone speak you will hear that there’s a certain rhythm to the words. The important words in a sentence are usually emphasized, which means that they are pronounced in a slightly louder and more prolonged way. In the examples below the emphasized words are in bold:

English Dutch
1.      “Did you do the dishes?” “Heb je de afwas gedaan?”
2.      “Did you do the dishes?” “Heb jij de afwas gedaan?”


Even though the words are exactly the same there is a slight difference in meaning. The first sentence is an inquiry about a chore and it sounds neutral. The second one, however, is a surprised exclamation. ‘Je’ generally sounds more neutral because of the lack of emphasis, so if you choose to use ‘jij’ there has to be a reason for it. This is why most Dutch people perceive the use of ‘jij’ as accusing and ‘in your face’.

Referring to objects

Pronouns are not only used to refer to people but are also used for animals and inanimate objects. The English language is very clear on that matter: if you’re human you’re either a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ and everything else is referred to as ‘it’. There are also languages where the choice of the pronoun depends on whether a noun is masculine or feminine.

In Dutch it’s a little bit of both. As you may know there are two articles in Dutch: ‘de’ for masculine and feminine words and ‘het’ for words that have no gender. Nouns which have ‘de’ as an article are referred to as ‘hij’ (he) and if the article is ‘het’ the pronoun is also ‘het’. So far so good. The tricky part though is there’s no real way of knowing what the right article is. It’s just one big lottery, where ‘de’ is your safest bet.

Reflexive pronouns

Sentences like ‘I wash myself’ and ‘He shaves himself’ contain reflexive pronouns. These words tell us that a person performs and undergoes the same action, as opposed to washing or shaving the cat for example (both not recommended).

The Dutch reflexive pronouns appear to be very similar to the English ones: me(zelf), je(zelf), ons(zelf), etc. There are, however, some subtle differences to keep in mind when you’re using them:

  1. Words like ‘myself’ can also mean that you do something on your own/without help. Many of my students assume that the very similar sounding Dutch words like ‘mezelf’ mean the same thing and start using them that way. Be careful, though! The only word you can use in Dutch to indicate you did something (by) yourself is ‘zelf’.
  2. In Dutch there are verbs that are always reflexive, such as ‘zich schamen voor’ (to be ashamed of) and verbs that are sometimes reflexive, such as ‘(zich) scheren’ (to shave). This therefore affects the choice of reflexive pronoun. You can only say ‘Ik schaam me’, yet ‘Ik scheer me’ and ‘Ik scheer mezelf’ are equally correct.
  3. Some of the reflexive verbs in Dutch are quite unexpected, for instance ‘zich vervelen’ (to be bored), ‘zich concentreren’ (to focus/concentrate) and ‘(zich) voelen’ (to feel). So if someone says ‘Ik voel me niet goed.’ it doesn’t mean that they’re losing their sense of touch, only that they’re feeling unwell.

Of course all of the above are very small parts of the language. These words though are frequently used, so once you’ve mastered them your general level of Dutch will certainly improve. So in this case putting in a little effort really does go a long way!

Read more from Vika:

Small words, little meaning?
Small words in the Dutch language: toch, nog, maar, eens, even. Do we really need these words?
Wat is er toch met ‘er’?
Maar wat maakt dit kleine woordje toch zo lastig?

Vika Lukina
Vika Lukina
Vika werkt als NT2-trainer voor Language Partners. Ze is gespecialiseerd in de branches ICT, onderwijs en voeding.

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