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In compounding two or more words are combined into a new word. For instance, the word bureaulade desk drawer is a compound formed from the nouns bureaudesk and ladedrawer, and the compound driekamerwoningthree-room-house, house with three rooms from the words drie three, kamer roomand woning house.

Most Dutch compounds have a head which determines the overall semantic and morpho-syntactic properties of the compound as a whole. Compounds with a head are called endocentric compounds. Dutch endocentric compounds are right-headed: the constituent on the right is the head, it determines the semantic class, the syntactic category, and - in the case of nouns - the gender of the compound. This is illustrated by minimal pairs such as (het) leidingwater the tap water(de) waterleiding the water pipe. Leidingwater is a non-neuter noun and denotes a kind of water, whereas waterleiding is a type of leiding pipe. The left constituent of endocentric compounds functions as a semantic modifier of the meaning of the head constituent. For instance, leidingwater is a type of water that has something to do with leiding pipe. Here, the specific interpretation of this general semantic relationship is that leiding denotes the means of transport of the water to the user.

In some compounds a semantic head seems to be lacking. For instance, a domoor stupid-earstupid person is not a type of ear but a type of person. Such compounds are called exocentric compounds.

A third category of compounds consists of coordinative compounds such as geneesheer-directeur medical doctor-director and rood-wit-blauw red-white-blue in which all constituents contribute equally to the semantics of the whole. For instance, a geneesheer-directeur is both a geneesheer medical doctor and a directeur director.

In Dutch, the formation of nominal compounds is productive, whereas the formation of verbal compounds is unproductive. The productive formation of adjectival compounds is restricted to four subcategories: colour adjectives, compounds with affixoids or participles as heads, and elative compounds. Last but not least, Dutch has phrase-based compounds.

Complex words formed both by compounding and derivation are known as synthetic compounds.

[+] Compounds and their heads

Dutch compounds can be classified according to the word class of their heads. The most productive type is the nominal compound, with a noun in head position. Adjectival compounds such as autovrijcar free’, lichtgrijslight grey and spilziekwaste sickwasteful also form a productive class. Verbal compounds cannot be formed productively, but may be created through backformation, for instance bloemlezen to make an anthology, back-formed from the nominal compound bloemlezing anthology.

The right-headedness of Dutch compounds can be accounted for by a general template of the following type:  [X Y]Y. Having the Y variable both as the label of the right constituent and of the dominating node expresses that the properties of the constituent Y are identical to those of the dominating node Y.

Exceptionally, we find left-headed compounds, for example secretaris-generaalsecretary-general, which takes the plural secretarissen-generaal, marked on the left-hand element.

[+] Special types of compounds

Compounds such as bleekgezicht pale face have a different semantics, since they denote persons possessing the property denoted by the compound, in this case a pale face. These compounds are called bahuvrihi compounds.

A special class of compounds is formed by the reduplicative compounds in which the first constituent is a (partial) copy of the second, as in klop-klopknock-knock and tik-tak tick-tock. Another type is koffie-koffie real coffee, where the repetition stresses the defining properties of the entity denoted by the head word.

[+] Linking elements and other cases of stem allomorphy

A constituent word of a compound may have a specific form that does not occur as a word by itself. For instance, the word schaapsheep may have an extra s or en, as in schaapskop schaap-s-kopsheep's head and schapenwolschap-en-wolsheep's wool respectively. These additional sounds are referred to as linking elements.

There are more types of stem allomorphy in compounds. For instance, the noun schip ship has an allomorph scheep used in the plural form and in compounds (scheepsrechtscheep-s-rechtship’s law). The word panpan has an old allomorph panne, as in pannekoekpancake (but the present spelling rules require this compound to be written as pannenkoek). The word aarde earth has an allomorph aard (shortened by apocope), which is used in compounds like aardschok earth shock.

[+] Compounding and univerbation

Compound words of non-lexical categories such as conjunctions have not been formed through compounding but through univerbation. This is the case for conjunctions like omdat because and doordat because, and complex prepositions such as achterop at/on the back, behind.

[+] Further reading

There is a plethora of publications on Dutch compounding. Key publications are (Hoeksema 1984), (De Caluwe 1991)(De Haas and Trommelen 1993) and (Booij 2002). The orthography of and allomorphy in Dutch compounds is discussed in (Booij 1992), (Booij 1996) and (Booij 2005).

  • Booij, Geert1992De spelling van een samenstellingOnze Taal61229-230
  • Booij, Geert1996Verbindingsklanken in samenstellingen en de nieuwe spellingregelingNederlandse Taalkunde1126-134
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2005Compounding and derivation: evidence for construction morphologyDressler, Wolfgang U., Kastovsky, Dieter, Pfeiffer, Oskar E. & Rainer, Franz (eds.)Morphology and its demarcationsAmsterdam / PhiladelphiaJohn Benjamins109-132
  • Caluwe, Johan de1991Nederlandse nominale composita in functionalistisch perspectiefSDU Uitgeverij.
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Hoeksema, Jack1984Categorial morphologyGroningenPh. D. dissertation, University of Groningen
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