By analogy

The day before yesterday (yes, I nearly always start my articles with a time clause) I heard my eldest granddaughter (who bears the name of the first women ever alive, according to legend) say something that sounded quite un-Dutch, although from her point of view, as a rather advanced learner of her native language, I do understand it made a lot of sense. Yesterday evening, I suddenly remembered it and talked about it with my wife, her grand­mother, who, also quite understandably, didn’t quite grasp what I was getting at. The point is that what you have been familiar with all your life, is difficult to view objectively, really for what it is – but children, with that benign blessing of having much less life experience, still can.

What the girl said was [nøwə], or perhaps rather [nøβə], because I think there wasn’t much rounding. The intended meaning was <nullen>, the plural of <nul>, which is the Dutch word for ‘zero’.

She has been strongly interested in numbers and digits for quite some time, she can perfectly count to twenty, but she’s still too young to learn arithmetic, at something like fifty months old. Much too early. Those fifty months were quite enough to build up an awareness that by adding [ə] to many Dutch words (though not all) you can create a plural. Officially that suffix is <-en>, but the final n is usually omitted in speech.

In many regions where Dutch is spoken, including ours, a final l is velarised, made darker, and sometimes also somewhat vocalised, deconsonated, meaning the tongue is somewhat raised in the back, but also lowered in front, so that the air can flow not only laterally, as is normal for a lateral consonant, but also medially.

We see something similar in Portuguese: the /l/ is rather dark already in Portugal, but in Brazil, for final /l/ this goes a bit further, so that Brasil sounds almost like [braziw].

Back to Dutch again: the words <vernieuwd> and <vernield> (past participles and adjectives, meaning ‘renewed’ and ‘destroyed, devastated, ruined’ respectively) sound hardly different at all. (Only in certain regions, though; in Dutch speaking Belgium, they probably are very different.)

The infinitives however, <vernieuwen> and <vernielen> do sound different. (Note that <ie> = /i/ and [i], and the letter <u> is purely orthographical.) Somehow in these words, the l loses its final posi­tion status, and it is therefore not velarised. The same happens with the Dutch words for ‘zero’ and ‘zeroes’: the l in <nul> is velarised, but in <nullen> it is not.

But how is a young child to know that? She never saw the words in writing, she cannot read yet. The singular (the numeral and the digit) is much more frequent than the rather rare plural – which refers to digits. Or persons.

So what could be more logical than simply adding the familiar plural suffix to the singular word as she knows it? But the result is something that is in fact impossible in Dutch. An automatic adjustment of the pronunciation is mandatory.

Certainly she will learn soon enough. No need to worry. I won’t insist.

Update 21 February 2022: Today I heard our other grand­daughter, almost three, make the same ‘mistake’, but then with the word wiel, plural wielen.