Ode to -e*
A lovely letter, letter e; e is a lovely letter.
Z’s both rarer, quirkier—and w is better
(Aesthetically, I mean; it has both symmetry and clarity);
But e gets simply everywhere, a letter without parity.
In English -e is magical, turns hat to hate, etc.
And takes an accent sometimes: for those ‘I can go one better-ers’
A swift and cheeky accent on financée or on café
Can be the language high-point of an otherwise dull day.
In Spanish e’s a word! Oh yes; Verdad, amigo! Si!
Cheeky e’s an allomorph for more familiar y.
I’ll let you figure out the allomorphy for yourself;
I did! And it brought me fame—and vast material wealth.
We could go on to epsilon, the Hellenic analogue,
Or study the Phoenician e which looks like half a frog.
Instead we turn to Nederlands where -e, like a chief executive,
Performs a simply crucial role in adjectives attributive.
Adjective-y predication doesn’t take an -e!
Het meisje is erg mooi_: there’s no -e as you can(n’t) see.
But if we go attributive, like all our darkest fears
And say het mooie meisje, lo! a magic -e appears!
Let’s test this pattern out once more (coz one could just be luck):
Mijn broer is erg intelligent_. however hard you look
There ain’t no suffix -e there. Now try this on for size:
Mijn erg intelligente broer: The magic -e’s arrived.
So we could now wax lyrical ’bout attributivity
And go and find examples of it cross-linguistically.
If that’s your bag, go do it! Begin your quest at once!
But this sweet poemette restricts itself to Nederlands.
(Why Dutch? you ask. Fair question. And thereby hangs a tale
’Bout flying back through Schiphol on a homeward-heading trail
And seeing, with surprised eyes, how Nederlands and Engels
Were like two distant twins: it gave me linguistic tingles.
So off I journeyed into Dutch and had a lovely time.
And learned how zijn and mijn et al. do not quite rhyme with mine;
How prepositions float around; unstressed and stressed pronominals;
And er; and V2 order: it was neat. No! More: phenomenal.)
Fairly soon in learning Dutch you come to de and het
They’re just two nominal classes; it isn’t hard to get.
De is common gender (masc. and fem. combined);
And het is so called neuter—but includes things like het kind.
And now we’re back to adjectives, and here’s the truth of it
De nouns take -e adjectives attrib’tively; but het ...!
Indefinite singular neuter nouns with adjectives before ’em
Don’t want to see or hear that -e; in fact, they’ll just ignore ’im!
Example time: een kleine kind. Can you spot the slip?
Singular, indefinite and neuter (kind is het)
Which means that little adjective does not want any -e
Escape, oh suffix! We release you! Dance away, be free!
The phrase of course should read instead like this: just Een klein kind
(This line is just a visual rhyme and on your eyes is kind)
Because the noun is neuter and indefinite semantically—
And singular—the -e removed, hard, fast and unromantically.
Indefinite singular neuter nouns take adjectives sans -e
If that there self-same adjective is used attributively.
It may be I repeat myself but such schemata unrepeated
Are easily forgot and leave the learner’s quest defeated.
A broader question now arises: what defines ‘indefinite’?
A hybrid set of quantifiers: genoeg, veel, welk and wat
And ieder, geen and weinig; and zulk and elk and een
The list is long—but worse than that: it’s indefinitely insane.
Coz geen which is the lexeme for a nominal negation
(Equivalent to English no in ‘the North Pole is no nation’)
Is hardly an indefinite: it means ‘none of the set’.
This is about as random as the classes de and het!
And elk and ieder (each and every) reference collectives.
Once again although they’re non-specific, it’s defective
To think of these two lexemes as indefinite in meaning:
The learner now is on his knees and sobbing, crying, screaming.
Whatever! That’s just languages. The high gods never said
That language would be logical, that blue could not be red.
So we’ll just use ‘indefinite’ and leave the term at that;
Logic in your metalanguage? Ha! Fat chance of that!
But it gets worse! There’s other times where -e is out; like when
The adjectival terminates in letters E and N
Like open or gebroken; or zilveren or gouden;
They avoid the -e like it’s related to Rasputin.
Loanwords too despise the -e: rubber, prima, plastic.
There’s other cases—but let’s not get too enthusiastic.
We’re starting to meander through the grammar jungle-maze
Get lost in there, my friend, and you may not come out for days.
The central point is -e, of course, and now we’ve told the tale
About how adjectival -e is Dutch’s holy grail.
It’s there when used attributively if the noun is common class
But indefinite singular neuter nouns: it’s thrown out on its ass.
How strange that human language should manifest such idiocies.
Why should this occur at all? I ask the question seriously.
Linguistics has some answers; but here there’s still some mystery
Why sometimes attrib. adjectives in Dutch don’t take an -e.
We’re on the final verse now; negen honderd words on -e
And how it does and doesn’t get used adjectivally
In Nederlands noun phrases. And we’ve had a lot of fun
And very soon we’ll finish on this journey we’ve begun.
As now we know when -e’s not there:
The noun is neuter, fair and square,
And singular and indefinite
(Defined by that long list we got)
(And there’s some other cases when
The -e’s missed off); recap again
Neuter singular adjectives
Don’t take an -e it’s plain to see
As I see you and you see me;
It’s rather tricky, lingui-sticky
Strange and mazy, somewhat crazy
Hard to learn but somehow fun
But in the end, a simple letter
Nothing longer, nothing better;
Just a suffix, there or not
Which gives us something—not a lot—
A Dutch-y funfest, language learnquest,
Mad and magic; morpheme-y:
The adj-y affix -e.
* As an adjective ending in Dutch.