Once upon a time, ‘er’ was a little word
Anyone who learns Dutch as a foreign language gets to take on the fun challenge presented by the simple combination of two letters: the word 'er'. ‘Er’ seems to be an insignificant word which doesn’t mean much of anything, yet it is used all over the place in Dutch and you cannot just omit it.
Why is the word ‘er’ so difficult to use for someone who has not grown up with Dutch?
- There are several ways to use 'er'.
- Where it falls in the sentence depends on how it is used.
- Due to how it is pronounced, it is often difficult to pick up on.
For this reason, our students only start working on 'er' when they have a reasonable command of the Dutch language.
The roles of ‘er’
The word 'er' has roughly two different functions:
- It can be the subject of a sentence.
- It refers to something else.
‘Er’ as the subject of a sentence
Er wordt geroepen. (There is a call.) Er staat een paard in de gang. (There is a horse in the hall.) In both instances, 'er' is the subject of the sentence, and yet it actually means nothing. In the first example, we are dealing with a passive sentence in which it does not matter who is calling. In the second one, ‘er’ is an indefinite subject—a horse is different to the horse, and the Dutch do not put an indefinite subject at the beginning of a sentence. In other words, it is incorrect to say ‘Een paard staat in de gang’ (A horse is in the corridor). The word 'er' solves this Dutch word order issue.
‘Er’ as an indicator
‘Er’ may be a reference to something else, namely to:
1. A place
Hij reist naar Vught voor een taaltraining. Over een half uur is hij er.
He’s on his way to Vught for a language course. He will be there in a half an hour.
2. A thing or an abstract concept
Hij heeft een fiets. Ik heb er twee.
He has a bike. I have two (of them).
Hij houdt van taal leren. Hij houdt ervan.
He loves learning languages. He loves it.
Compound words with ‘er’
‘Er’ can also be tagged on to prepositions. Then you end up with a number of completely new words, such as ervan, eraan, ermee, ervoor, etc, the translations of which would be too numerous and complex to name here.
‘ur’, ‘dur’ and ‘r’
The word 'er' is becoming less common in written form. This is due to the increasing tendency to write more both concretely and in the active voice. In conversation, there is still plenty of 'er-ing'. It often goes undetected by non-native speakers of Dutch, because the Dutch have bastardized the word to 'ur', 'dur' or simply 'r'. This makes things fairly tricky for new and temporary residents of the Netherlands.