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ont-[ɔnt] is a Germanic prefix that derives verbs from other verbs, nouns or adjectives. This process is productive for nouns, though not for verbs or adjectives. There are some typical semantic patterns:


  • if X is a verb, there are four systematic meanings:
    1. to begin with X (inchoative meaning, ontwaken to wake up)
    2. to do the reverse of, to undo X (ontladen to unload)
    3. to complete an action (resultative meaning, ontdooiento thaw)
    4. to avoid or get/take away by X (ontvluchten to flee)
  • if X is a noun: to remove X (ontmaskeren to unmask) or to remove the state of being an X (ontmaagden to deflower)
  • if X is an adjective, there are two systematic meanings:
    1. to be/become/make X (ontbloten to bare)
    2. to make/become less X, to stop being X (ontheiligen to desecrate)
However, the meaning of ont-verbs is often not predictable from the meaning of their base. Examples are ontslaan ont-beatto dismiss, to sack, ontstaan ont-standto come into being and ontkomen ont-cometo get away from. Sometimes the stem is not or no longer an independent word in present-day Dutch ( ontberen to lack, but *beren).

[+] Morphosyntactic properties

ont- is an inseparable verbalizing prefix.

[+] Subcategorization

Ont- verbs based on transitive verbs, on nouns or on adjectives are often transitive, while intransitive verbs have intransitive ont- counterparts. Yet, there are exceptions: lopen to walk is unergative, while ontlopen to avoid is transitive. For some transitive bases, the arguments switch places and roles. Compare the direct object and the prepositional object in the following example:

Example 1

a. Hij neemt geld van de vrouw
3SG take-3SG.PRS money.N from DEF.C.SG woman(C).SG
He’s taking money from the woman
b. Hij ont-neemt de vrouw het geld
3SG ont-take-3SG.PRS DEF.C.SG woman(C) DEF.N.SG money(N)
He’s depriving the woman of the money

Intransitive ont-words are, for example, ontstaan to come into being, ontbijten to have breakfast or ontwaken to wake up. Some ont-verbs are obligatorily reflexive; examples are zich ontkleden to undress, zich ontwikkelen to develop, zich ontspannen to relax. Sometimes, these verbs also have a prepositional object with a fixed preposition, e.g. zich onttrekken aan to withdraw from or zich ontfermen over to take pity on.

[+] Stratum

The suffix attaches to Germanic verbs, nouns and adjectives and to non-Germanic verbs with the suffix –(is)eer (ontmagnetiseren to demagnetize, ontmythologiseren to demythologize).

[+] Input and input restrictions

ont- cannot be attached to prefixed verbs; forms such as *ontopmaken to ont-make-up are impossible. Also, auxiliary verbs are not available as input (*ontzullen to ont-shall). It is not entirely clear to what extent such restrictions are merely semantic: these words may simply make no sense. Derivations based on suffixed Germanic verbs are scarce, an example is the rarely used verb ontnestelen to disentangle which is bears a formal, if not a semantic relation to the verb nestelennest-el-ennest-SUFF-INFto nest. By contrast, suffixed nouns and adjectives are unproblematic: we find words likeontraadselen to solve a riddle, which contains the nominal suffix –sel and ontmenselijken to dehumanize, with the adjectival suffix –lijk. If the stem is an irregular verb, the derived verb with ont- is also irregular (komen come > kwam came, ontkomen to get away > ontkwam got away). Some ont-verbs have stems of uncertain category status. Words such as ontplooiendevelop, unfold could be derived from the noun plooifold or the verb plooien to fold. In some cases, the meaning can disambiguate the structure: onteren to dishonour means to take away somebody’s honour, so the stem is probably the noun eer honour rather than the verb eren to honour. In other cases, there are no such clues: the verb ontketenento unchain, to launc could be derived from the noun keten chain or the verb ketenen to chain, and there is no systematic meaning correlation that can serve as the basis for disambiguation. In some cases, the base is not or no longer an independent word of Dutch. Examples are ontberen to lack, ontwrichten to disrupt, ontfutselen to worm a secret out of somebody, to diddle somebody out of their money and zich ontfermen over to take pity on.

[+] Productivity

New ont- verbs can be formed with nouns as input, though not with verbs or adjectives. With a nominal base X, the meaning is always to remove X. However, in actual usage, new formations appear to be rare; a popular exception is onthaasten to slow down (deliberately).

[+] Phonological properties

ont- is always unstressed. In the rare cases when the prefix is followed by a vowel, the syllable boundary corresponds to the morpheme boundaries, thus /t/does not become the onset of the next syllable.

[+] Morphological potential

The prefix ont- blocks other prefixes. However, verbs with ont- can be the base for nominalizations (ontboezeming confession, outpouring, ontbijt breakfast, ontvangst reception). Adjectivizations are rare; examples are ontvankelijk susceptible (< ontvangento receive) and ontcijferbaar decipherable (< ontcijferento decipher). In some cases, there is an adjective with the negative prefix on-, but without a prefixless positive counterpart. Examples are onontkoombaar  inescapable (*ontkoombaar), onontwarbaar inextricable (*ontwarbaar) or onontbeerlijk indispensable (*ontbeerlijk). Past participles of ont-verbs always lack the prefix ge- : ontwapend disarmed, ontvangen received. Some ont- verbs are antonyms of verbs with be- or ver-. For example, we find the word pairs bebossen to afforestontbossen to deforest and vergrendelen to bolt, to lockontgrendelen to unbolt, to unlock.

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