Choosing referring expressions in Belgian and Netherlandic Dutch: Effects of animacy

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It has been argued that animate entities are referred to with more attenuated expressions than inanimate entities, because they are more accessible in memory. Two previously untested claims made for Dutch suggest that the situation may be more complex. Firstly, it has been stated that full pronouns can only refer to animate entities, while reduced pronouns can also refer to inanimate entities. This seems to be inconsistent with the accessibility account. Secondly, inanimate entities may be pronominalized less to avoid gender-marked expressions when grammatical gender is unclear. Using a sentence completion task, we tested these claims by investigating the effect of animacy on both the choice of pronouns versus more specific expressions and the choice of reduced versus full pronouns in Dutch. We compared speakers of Netherlandic Dutch, who have generally lost intuitions about masculine and feminine grammatical gender of nouns, with speakers of Belgian Dutch, for whom these intuitions are still relatively intact. Both groups showed an effect of animacy on pronominalization, suggesting that this effect cannot only be explained as a gender avoidance strategy. At the same time, the choice between full and reduced pronouns cannot be explained by accessibility. Implications for theories of reference production are discussed. © 2014 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)104-121
Number of pages18
JournalLingua. International review of general linguistics
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2014


  • Animacy
  • Accessibility
  • Pronouns
  • Grammatical gender
  • Dutch


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