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Meaning of affixes

Affixes can have more than one meaning. Polysemy (as well as homonymy, synonymy, and antonymy) can be associated with different base categories: when affixes attach productively to words of more than one category, this may correlate with a different semantic effect. An example of polysemy is the nominal suffix -er. This suffix creates personal nouns from verbs and from other nouns. The difference in meaning is that deverbal -er creates specifically subject names, i.e. nouns that refer to the subject of the base verb, whereas denominal -er is used for creating all kinds of personal nouns.

Schema: [[V]er]
a. et·er < eet·er
b. hardlop·er < hardloop·er
Schema: [[N]er]
a. Pretoria·n·er
person from Pretoria
b. boodskapp·er < boodskap·er

Polysemy of Afrikaans affixes corresponds to a large degree with affixal polysemy in Dutch. The discussion below is therefore largely based on the same Dutch topic.

[+]Polysemy across categories

For some affixes, meaning differences correlate directly with the word class of the base. An example is the verbalising prefix be- whose meaning can be characterised as follows (the variable x represents the base):

  • [[be](CN)[x](V)](V) ↔ [to focus action SEM(V) upon something], read as: if x is a verb, then interpret is as ‘to focus the action x upon something’ (e.g. kyk to look > be·kyk to look at).
  • [[be](VBZ)[x](N)](V) ↔ [to provide with SEM(N)], read as: if x is a noun, then interpret it as ‘to provide with x’ (e.g. man man > be·man to man (a ship)).
  • [[be](VBZ)[x](ADJ)](V) ↔ [to be/become/make SEM(ADJ)], read as: if x is an adjective, then interpret it as ‘to be/become/make x’ (e.g. veilig safe > be·veilig to protect.)

While not every be- verb fits these patterns, each of the three systematic meaning correlations is typical for one particular input category.


Note that polyfunctionality (the ability to attach to bases of different lexical categories) and polysemy are independent phenomena. As pointed out by Hüning (1999: 232), a polyfunctional affix can show the same range of polysemy for all types of base words. For example, the nominalising suffix -ery can be used with verbal and nominal bases, and the resulting nouns can either be action nouns (e.g. lagg·ery laugh·NMLZ the laughing), or nouns that refer to a place/institution (e.g. melk·ery milk·NMLZ dairy).

[+]Polysemy within a category

Differences in meaning do not always align with the word sort of the base. The suffix –agtig, for example, can be associated with a variety of meanings, three of which are typical for nominal bases.

Table 1
Base Meaning Example
N [similar to SEM(N)] aap·agtig monkey-ish
[full of SEM(N)] rots·agtig rocky
[like SEM(N)] pasta·ägtig like pasta
A [similar to SEM(A)] groen·agtig greenish
V [inclined to SEM(V)] vergeet·agtig forgetful

Where such polysemy exists within a category, it is often the case that only one of the semantic patterns is productive. An example is the prefix ge-, which exists in a substantial number of deverbal nouns, such as ge·bak pastry < bak to bake, ge·bou building < bou to build, ge·sprek conversation < spreek to talk. In these ge- nominalisations, the semantic relations between prefix and base are manifold, and none of the patterns is productive. However, note the following productive pattern: [[ge](NMLZ)[x](V)](N) ↔ [continuous SEM(V)] (often with a pejorative meaning). Examples are ge·trommel continuous drumming < trommel to drum, ge·lag continuous laughing < lag to laugh. The freedom of deriving new ge- nouns of this sort can lead to polysemous formations such as ge·voel which means feeling, emotion (from voel to feel), but could also mean continuous feeling, or less literal excessive emotionality. Sometimes an older form can be distinguished from a younger, productive formation by a difference in the stem vowel. Compare ge·sing (continuous) singing (pejorative connotation) versus ge·sang singing (no particular connotations). The latter form has ablaut, which is no longer productive in Afrikaans and Dutch.

  • Hüning, Matthias1999Woordensmederij. De geschiedenis van het suffix -erijUtrechtLOT
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