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The meaning of affixes

Affixes can have more than one meaning. Their polysemy 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 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, nouns that refer to the subject of the base verb, whereas denominal -er is used for creating all kinds of personal nouns (see more on -erhere and on its use with place names here):

a. eter
b. loper
a. Amsterdammer
person from Amsterdam
b. wetenschapper
[+]Polysemy across categories

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

- if X is a verb: ‘to focus action X upon something’ (kijken to look > bekijken to look at)

- if X is a noun: ‘to provide with X’ (man man > bemannen to man)

- if X is an Adj: ‘to be/become/make X’ (veilig safe > beveiligen 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 nominalizing suffix -erij can be used with verbal and nominal bases, but in both uses the resulting noun can be an action noun or refer to the place/institution where the action takes place.

These facts pose a problem for the Uniform Base Hypothesis proposed in (Aronoff 1976: 48) which claims that productive word formation processes are restricted to one specified type of base. As Aronoff notes, the hypothesis can be rescued by defining, for instance, N and A as a single class by means of the feature [-V]. In the case of -erij with nominal and verbal bases, the class of bases could be defined as [-A]. In cases of bases with three different word classes, the only way to maintain the Uniform Base Hypothesis is then to assume several homophonous affixes, one for each class of input words. This solution may work for affixes for which the meaning varies with the class of words to which they are attached, but it does not easily cover cases such as -erij, where the meaning contribution does not co-vary with word class of the base.

[+]Polysemy within a category

Differences in meaning do not always align neatly with the word sort of the base. The suffix –achtig, 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' aapachtig monkeyish
'full of' rotsachtig rocky
'liking' pasta-achtig like pasta, also: crazy about pasta
A 'similar to' groenachtig greenish
V 'inclined to' vergeetachtig forgetful


The meaning crazy about X can be found in utterances with negative polarity such as Ik ben niet zo circus-achtig I'm not crazy about circus or Ik ben niet zo Paas-achtig, doe er eigenlijk nooit meer wat aan I'm not crazy about Easter, never really celebrate it any more.

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 gebak pastry < bakken to bake, gebouw building < bouwen to build, gesprek conversation < spreken to talk. In these ge--nominalizations, the semantic relations between prefix and base are manifold, and none of the patterns is productive. However, there is a productive pattern where ge-X means ‘continuous Xing’ (often with a pejorative touch). Examples are getrommel drumming < trommel to drum, geïmproviseer improvising < improviseren to improvise or geijsbeer pacing up and down < ijsberen ice-bear-INF to pace up and down. The freedom of deriving new ge--nouns of this sort can lead to polysemous formations such as gevoel which means ‘feeling, emotion’ (from voelen 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 gezing (continuous) singing (pejorative connotation) versus gezang singing (no particular connotations). The latter form has ablaut, which is no longer productive in Dutch.

Read more on:

Inputs and input restrictions: impossible and improbable combinations

Non-native morphology

  • Aronoff, Mark1976Word formation in generative grammarCambridge Mass.MIT Press
  • Hüning, Matthias1999Woordensmederij. De geschiedenis van het suffix -erijUtrechtLOT
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