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on-
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On-[ɔn] is a category-neutral Germanic prefix, related in form and meaning to English un-[ʌn] and German un-[un]. The general meaning of on- is 'not', in nouns often weakened to 'bad, uncomfortable'. On- attaches productively to adjectives, yielding adjectives like onaardigun-kind, and is further found in nouns like onmensun-manbrute and onweerun-weatherthunderstorm, and in adverbs like onwelun-wellsick; new nouns or adverbs with on- are rare or impossible. In nouns with on-, the prefix carries stress, in adjectives with on-, stress is on the base part when used predicatively, otherwise it varies. The counterpart of on- in the verbal domain is ont- (in its negative (privative) sense), as in ontharendepilate (< haarhair). Many formations with on- are lexicalized and have a meaning that is not or not completely transparent, e.g. onkostenun-costscosts (cf. kostencostscosts, but in Belgium also onkost) and onguursinister (cf. guurbleak). Within the area of negative morphology, there is a rather complex division of labour with other prefixes such as niet-not, non-non, in- and its allomorphs, with the suffix -loos-less and with adjectives developing into suffixes such as -vrijfree and -armpoor. Adjectives with on- occur often in litotes constructions (niet onaardignot un-nicenot bad, quite good), and quite a few, such as onverdienstelijkunmeritorious, have developed into full-fledged negative polarity items, occurring in negative contexts only (Van der Wouden 1997).

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[+] General information

On-[ɔn] is a non-cohering prefix, forming a prosodic domain that is separate from the base it attaches to. Syllabification respects the morphological boundary, so onaardigun-niceunkind is realized as [ɔn.ˈardəχ] rather than [*ɔ.nardəχ], notwithstanding the Maximal Onset Principle. The /n/ of on- can assimilate in place to the consonant following, so in allegro speech a formation such as onpartijdigimpartial is pronounced like [ɔmpɑrˈtɛidəχ], onmensun-manbrute may be like [ˈɔmɛns] and onkiesindelicate will be realized as [ɔŋˈkis]; this assimilation is not reflected in spelling.

[+] Morphosyntactic properties

On- combines productively with adjectives and unproductively with nouns and adverbs.

On- is found with adjectives of various subclasses, e.g.:

  • with morphologically simplex bases, either of Germanic origin and monosyllabic such as ondiepun-deepshallow and onechtun-realfake, bisyllabic Germanic such as oneffenun-evenuneven, onevenun-evenodd, or foreign such as onfairun-fair, onplesantun-pleasant and the recent formation oncoolun-cool.
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    Given that many non-native bases seem to prefer in-, one would expect he form *ininteressant rather than much more frequent oninteressant. Dutch, however, seems in general to dislike repetition of identical syllables.

  • with derived bases:
    • prefixed adjectives, especially with the prefix be-. e.g. onbekwaamun-skilledincompetent and onbewustun-consciousunconscious.
    • suffixed adjectives, especially with native suffixes like -ig, -isch, -baar, -lijk and -zaam:
      • onaardigunkind, ondubbelzinnigun-double-sense-ishunambiguous;
      • on-islamitischun-islamiticun-Islamic, onpraktischun-practicimpractical;
      • onaantastbaarun-on-touch-ableuntouchable, ondeelbaarun-divide-ableindivisible;
      • onbehaaglijkun-comfort-lyuncomfortable, onfatsoenlijkun-decency-lyindecent;
      • onbehulpzaamun-be-help-lyunhelpful, onbuigzaamun-bend-lyinflexible, rigid;
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        WNT also mentions adjectives derived with -sch (nowadays often -s), but these forms appear to have become obsolete, with the exception of onheus(ch)uncourtly, unfairly (which is found predominantly in fixed expressions like onheus bejegenen/behandelento treat unfairly). This suffix, however, is productive in the formation of adjectives based on geographical names such as KazakstaansKazakh and Amsterdamsfrom/related to Amsterdam. These formations are productively prefixed with on-, yielding on-Kazakstaansun-Kazakh and on-Amsterdamsun-Amsterdam, not typically Amsterdam-like (spelling may vary), that is, with a stereotype negation reading in the sense of Bauer (2013: 354-384).

    • but also with foreign suffixes such as -abel, -eel and -air:
      • onacceptabelun-accept-able, oncomfortabelun-comfort-able;
      • onconventioneelun-convention-al, onprofessioneelun-profession-al;
      • onpopulairun-popular.
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      Booij 2002: (112-3) points to the existence of on- formations based on derived bases that do not occur on their own, such as onafscheidelijkinseparable where *afscheidelijkseparable is virtually non-existent, ondeugendnaughty without *deugend (< deugento suit, to be right). Booij proposes a complex constructional schema [[on](V)[suff](A)](A), i.e., a merger of two suffixes. "This template expresses the correlation of two independently established word formation processes, on- prefixation, and deverbal adjectivalization. Note that these are not instances of synaffixes, because here, each affix has its own regular meaning contribution." To this he adds: "It is not possible to explain these cases as derivation from a possible instead of from an existing word since some of the adjectives involved, in particular -elijk and -zaam are no longer productive. This is in line with the observation that if the positive counterpart adjective is used, this is felt by speakers of Dutch as a back formation. What we observe here is that one derivational process, on- prefixation, triggers (or presupposes the result of) another derivational process, deverbal adjectivalization." Smessaert (2013: 145), on the other hand, postulates two circumfixeson...lijk and on...baar to cover the facts. Given that the same effect can be observed with other suffixes as well (e.g. onherbergzaaminhospitable where there is no herbergzaam), Smessaert's approach leads to a proliferation of circumfixes. The somewhat more abstract approach of Booij's therefore seem preferable, but his complex schema with an underspecified second suffix might overgenerate, predicting classes of formations that do not occur.

    • compound adjectives, e.g. onaangenaamunpleasant, onbelangrijkun-importance-richunimportant, ongastvrijun-guest-freeinhospitable.
  • with participles used as adjectives:
    • present participles: onroerendimmovable, ondoorschijnendun-through-shiningopaque, onvoldoendeun-full-doinginsufficient (present participles of simplex verbs appear to be rare);
    • past participles: ongeslagenunbeaten, onaangeroerdun-on-toucheduntouched, onbedektun-be-cover-duncovered, also with non-native stems: ongeïnspireerdun-inspired, ongegeneerdunembarassed;
    • bases only looking like participles (participia praeverbalia according to Rijpma and Schuringa 1978): onbewolktun-be-cloud-edcloudless, ongerijmdun-be-rime-dabsurd, ongeloodun-be-lead-edunleaded.
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    There are also cases such as ongetwijfelddoubtless where the participial base without on- (getwijfelddoubted) cannot be used adjectivally.

    De Haas and Trommelen (1993: 48) claim that there are hardly any formal restrictions on on- prefixation of adjectives, only semantic ones. They list the following categories of adjectives that seldom or never combine with the prefix:

    • Colour denoting adjectives like blauwblue and knalroodbang-redbright red.
    • Absolute adjectives denoting properties like cilindrischcylindrical and prachtigbeautiful.
    • Adjectives denoting states like dronkendrunk and kleinsmall.
    • Adjectives denoting the material something is made of like ijzereniron and papierenpaper.
    • Spatio-temporal adjectives like huidigcurrent, jaarlijksannual and middelstemiddle.
    • Modal adjectives like stomstupid and vermoedelijkpresumably.
    • Adjectives derived by means of the suffix -er from geographical names like enkhuizerfrom Enkhuizen and edammerfrom Edam.
    • Negative adjectives derived by means of the suffix -loos-less like bodemloosbottomless, very deep and zinloossenseless.
    To De Haas and Trommelen's list of adjectives (most of which have an absolute meaning) we can add other privative adjectives derived by means of suffixes like -arm -poor and -vrij -free such as calorie-armcalory-poor, light and kogelvrijlit. bullet-free, bulletproof. One might want to think of a semantic explanation for the lack of on- derivations with formations with these suffixes in terms of a general constraint on double negation, but note that on- formations occur abundantly in double negation constructions - see below on litotes. Moreover, formations with antonyms of the suffixes mentioned, such as -vol-full and -rijk-rich, are also very rarely prefixed with on- (the only serious cases of onomvangrijkun-size-richunsizable occurred under another negation, that is, in a litotes construction: niet onomvangrijknot unsizablelarge). Note further that the alleged impossibility of on- prefixation of geographical adjectives in -er cannot be not a simple case of semantics, as geographical adjectives in -s productively enter into on- prefixation.

On- is also found in combinations with nouns. Following the WNT, three classes of bases can be distinguished:

  • abstract nouns: ondeugdun-virtuevice, onrechtun-rightinjustice, onlogicaun-logicillogicality, onwilun-willunwillingness, onweerun-weatherstorm, onzinun-sensenonsense, ongeloofun-beliefdisbelief, onvermogenun-capital, un-abilityinability. Note that the prefix combines both with Germanic and non-native bases, and with simplex and prefixed ones (Haas 1993). Various nominal on- formations are restricted to fixed expressions, e.g. in onbruik rakento become obsolescent and ondank is 's werelds looningratitude is the world's wageingratitude is the way of the world.
  • names of persons, humans and animals: onmensun-manbeast, brute, monster, ondierun-animalmonster. Most examples given in WNT are obsolete (onchristenun-christianpagan, ongodun-godidol, onvriend un-friendenemy).
  • names of objects and stuff: ondingun-thingnonentity, rubbish, garbage, onkruidun-herbweeds. Many examples given in WNT are obsolete: onhoutunwoodbad timber, onpadun-pathbad road, onspijsun-foodsomething that is eaten but doesn't deserve the name 'food.
New cases of on- prefixation of nouns are almost exceptionlessly interpreted pejoratively (e.g. onwoordun-worda word I don't like, a word that should not be used, etc. from the ANS).

on- also occurs with a few adverbs: ongaarneunwillingly, onwelunwell (both quite formal) and oneens (mainly in the construction het oneens zijnto disagree). New forms are very unlikely.

[+] Semantics

The general meaning of un- is not, which may be interpreted in a number of ways (Horn 1989, Wouden 1997, Verhagen 2005, Bauer 2013: 354-384), for instance as contradictory (things are either P or un-P) as in onbezieldun-be-soul-edinanimate, as contrary (things can be P, or un-P, or neither P nor un-P) as in onaardigunkind and as pejorative onmensun-manbeast, brute monster.

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Scholars have different opinions on the existence of a division of labour between the various morphological means to express negation. The answer in Booij (2002: 112) tends toward the positive: "The basic division of labour between the negative prefixes on- and niet- is clear: the prefix on- denies the property expressed by the base, and assigns a contrary property, whereas niet- only denies the property or relation expressed by the base word. For instance, there is a clear difference between onchristelijkunchristian, an adjective that assigns a specific property, and niet-christelijknon-Christian that only states the absence of the property christelijk. Therefore, niet- can be used with more adjectives than on-." He adds, however: "there are also negative adjectives where there is no clear meaning difference between the two adjectives; for instance, onproductiefunproductive and niet-productiefunproductive are synonymous, as the glosses show." Bauer (2013: 366), on the other hand, are more negative: "What is most interesting to note with the cohort of negative affixes is that they do not carve up the semantic nuances of negation in any neat one-to-one fashion. While a few affixes appear to have more or less fixed semantic content, and a few have a tendency towards one reading or another, the majority of them are polysemous, with specific readings depending on the nature of the base, the degree of lexicalization, and in novel form often on the context in which a given form is used. In other words, for some affixes, multiple readings are available and result from the interaction of a general affixal meaning not with the semantic composition of a base."

Adjectives with on- are found very frequently in litotes constructions. If you ask me how I am, a possible answer would be that I am not unhappy, that is, neither happy nor unhappy, but something in between these states. By the independent mechanism of understatement this can also be used to express something like extremely happy. niet onaardignot un-nice can thus denote any position on a scale between reasonably good and extremely good(Horn 1989, Wouden 1997). (Note, however, that the effect is not restricted to negative prefixed adjectives: the same holds for inherently negative adjectives such as slechtbad: niet slechtnot bad, quite good, very good). niet onaardignot un-nicenot bad, quite good). In principle, litotes constructions are possible only with adjectives that can be interpreted as relative: *niet onzwangernot unpregnant is not well-formed or extremely marked. Sometimes, on- prefixation can force a relative reading, e.g. in the attested een nogal ongeleid projectiela rather unguided projectile (< geleid projectielguided missile).

Quite a few adjectives prefixed with on-, such as onverdienstelijkunmeritorious, have developed into full-fledged negative polarity items, occurring in negative contexts only (Van der Wouden 1997: III: 3).

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Pluralia tantum in onkostencosts (cf. kostencostst) and onlustenriots (cf. lustenbenefits). Both examples are semantically opaque, just like in onguursinister. The base is no longer used independently in cases like onnozelsilly (see Etymologiebank).

[+] Morphological potential

Adjectives prefixed with on- show standard adjectival inflection; the gradable ones can be made into comparatives and superlatives (oninteressanterun-interesting-erless interesting, onbelangrijkstun-important-stmost unimportant, least important), although one also finds periphrastic forms with meermore (ik ben meer ongerust over mensen die ineens last van hoofdpijn hebbenI am more anxious about people who suddenly suffer from headache) and meestmost (de meest onvermijdelijke daad van zijn levenThe most inevitable act of his life), which is expected given the preference for these forms with longer adjectives. Nominalisations of adjectives with on- are typically with the suffix -heid, e.g. onbekendheidun-beknown-AFFobscurity, unfamiliarity, ignorance. Nouns with on- inherit gender (weerweather is neuter so onweerstorm is neuter as well) and plural formation (onmensenun-man-enbrutes, cf. mensenman-enpeople). Nouns with on- have, in principle, the same morphogical potential as any other noun: they can be turned into adjectives (onweersachtigun-weather-s-ishthunderstormlike), be part of (synthetic) compounds (onkruidbestrijdingsmiddelenun-weed-be-fight-ing-s-mean-sweed killers), etc.

References:
  • Bauer, Laurie, Lieber, Rochelle & Plag, Ingo2013The Oxford Reference Guide to English MorphologyOxford University Press
  • Bauer, Laurie, Lieber, Rochelle & Plag, Ingo2013The Oxford Reference Guide to English MorphologyOxford University Press
  • Bauer, Laurie, Lieber, Rochelle & Plag, Ingo2013The Oxford Reference Guide to English MorphologyOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Horn, Laurence R1989A natural history of negationChicagoUniversity of Chicago Press
  • Horn, Laurence R1989A natural history of negationChicagoUniversity of Chicago Press
  • Rijpma, E. & Schuringa, F.G1978Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenWolters-Noordhoff
  • Smessaert, Hans2013Basisbegrippen morfologieBasisbegrippen taalkundeLeuven/Den HaagACCO
  • Verhagen, Arie2005Constructions of intersubjectivity: discourse, syntax, and cognitionOxford/New YorkOxford University Press
  • Wouden, Ton van der1997Negative Contexts. Collocation, polarity, and multiple negationRoutledge
  • Wouden, Ton van der1997Negative Contexts. Collocation, polarity, and multiple negationRoutledge
  • Wouden, Ton van der1997Negative Contexts. Collocation, polarity, and multiple negationRoutledge
  • Wouden, Ton van der1997Negative Contexts. Collocation, polarity, and multiple negationRoutledge
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