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Univerbation is the historical process in which phrases change into (complex) words. The process is an important source for the creation of new prepositions, adverbs and particles, and complementizers, among others. Examples are:

from now on, in the future

As the last example shows, syllabification in univerbations need not respect the original word boundaries.

The process of univerbation is epitomized in Givón's aphorism that "Today's Morphology is Yesterday's Syntax" (Hopper and Traugott 2003:25 ).


"Univerbation is the merging of two (or more) words due to their frequent co-occurrence in discourse" (Bauer 2013: 213, cf. also Brinton and Traugott 2005: 48). Univerbation is a historical process, a kind of language change. A clear Dutch case is the adverb tegelijkertijd te gelijker tijd at same-DAT time simultaneously, which still shows its history as a prepositional phrase, with remnants of the case system that is no longer productive.


Hopper and Traugott (2003: 135) have a somewhat more restricted use of the term univerbation: "Morphologization involves the creation of a bound morpheme (i.e. an affix) out of an independent word by way of clitcization. The final stage of this proces, the uniting of the affix with its stem, is referred to as 'univerbation'." A case in point in the Germanic languages is the development of the past tense dental suffix from a form of doen to do. Hickey (2003), on the other hand, uses the term univerbation to refer to "a more general structural shift in the language by which phrases are reduced to single words" (p. 94), giving examples such as they overnighted for they stayed overnight, to minibus for to take the minibus and separated (father) for (father) who is separated from his wife.

Demarcation is a recurring problem in the study of univerbations: when can we say that a fixed phrase has attained word status? Spelling cannot be taken to be the decisive factor, as spelling is arbitrary to a certain extent. Prescriptive sources love minimal pairs such as ten minste at least and tenminste still (onzetaal), ter zijde by the way vs. terzijde side remark, ten slotte finally and tenslotte indeed (onzetaal), where a spelling difference (with or without a space) is supposed to correspond to a meaning difference. On the other hand, fixed combinations with opaque meanings and idiosyncratic distribution patterns in other word classes, e.g. particle combinations such as ook maar even, at all and dan wel or are written together only rarely (untranslatable weleens is a notable exception), but are comparable lexicalized signs in the sense of fixed word-meaning pairs. An alternative criterion could be syllabification overriding word boundaries, but then, univerbation is everywhere, witness the following examples of colloquial realizations (after De Vries (2001: 45, cf. also Ernestus 2000):

Table 1
orthography gloss meaning possible realization
Hoe is het nou how is it now how are you doing these days? [hust.nau]
Dat is niet waar that is not true that is not true [sni.war]
Wat moet ik d'r mee? what must I there with? what should I do with it? [wa.muk.tər.me]

A separate but related problem exists in the case of lexical items that are separable in certain syntactic contexts and inseparable in others, for instance certain combinations of question words and prepositions (the so-called "voornaamwoordelijke bijwoorden" (Van Riemsdijk 1978)) such as waardoor where through through what, cf. waardoor is dat gekomen where-through is that come how did this happen? and waar is dat door gekomen? where is that through come how did it come.

Various types of univerbation can be distinguished in Dutch (the list is not exhaustive).

  • many complementizers are the result of univerbation, e.g. hoewel hoe-wel how-well although, ofschoon of-schoon or-though although, zoals zo-als such-if just like, alsof als-of as if like, indien in-die-n in-that-DAT if, naar mate to measure the more..., verbal ones such as hetzij het-zij it be.3SG.CONJ either (or), tenzij het-en-zij it not be.3SG.CONJ unless, zoja zo-ja such yes if so. There is a whole class of subordinators ending in dat (which appears to be a case of regularization cum specialisation): doordat through-that in that, nadat after-that after, omdat to-that becauseopdat up-that so that, voordat before-that before, zodat so-that, as well as less accepted combinations such as zonder dat without that, hoewel dat although that and alsdat that ( WNT ).

    The WNT suggests that the complementizer voordat before may have developed from the preposition voor for, before via an intermediate step voor dien dat before that which with a cataphoric dien that-DAT/ACC.

  • Dutch has quite some complex adverbs that are the result of univerbation, e.g. onder-tussen under-between meanwhile, des-al-niet-te-min the-GEN-M.already.not.too.less nevertheless, des-nood-s the-GEN-M.need-GEN if necessary, voor-uit for-out forward, ahead, achter-af after-off afterwards,nog-maal.s yet-time-GEN again
  • Dutch uses quitte a number of particles, and frequent combinations tend to develop new, specialized, non-compositional meanings or distributions (Van der Wouden 2002):
    • modal particles (untranslatable): weleens, alsook, alsmede, alweer, weeral, almaar, alsmaar, althans. alsook alsmede, niet eens, aldoor, al met al, al bij al, zowaar, zomaar;
    • focus particles, e.g. the near synonyms ook maar also but even and zelfs maar even but even(Rullmann 1997)), met name with name-e especially;
    • discourse particles (often untranslatable) zeg maar, let wel, op zich, zeker weten sure know absolutely(Van der Wouden 2012), kortom short-around in brief, to summarize.
    In all cases, the semantics is non-transparent, and often the distribution is indiosyncratic, which can be taken as arguments in favor of word status.
  • The distributive quantifier alle can fuse with a following numeral. If this numeral is bei(de) both, the combination is spelled as one word (allebei both), but if the numeral is a standard cardinal, the official spelling is as two words alle twee both, the two of them. Aller- is the old genitive plural of alle that has developed into a prefix that combines with superlative forms of adjectives allermoeilijkst aller-difficult-SUP most difficult.
  • Dutch has many complex prepositions (transitive or intransitive), e.g. bovenop boven-op above-on on top of, tegenover tegen-over against-over across, onderdoor onder-door under-through underneath. The distinction between composition and univerbation may seem arbitrary here, even if meaning specialization occurs (as e.g. in the case of overdwars across, crosswise < over over, about and dwars cross), as meaning specialization is quite common in composition as well.

    behalve except, besides, which functions both as a preposition and a conjunct (Komen 1994: Ch. 6), derives from a prepositional phrase (Etymologiebank).

  • "Many nominal compounds in Germanic languages have a phrasal origin. For instance, the Dutch compound koningskroon king’s crown originated as a phrase in which the noun koning was marked as the possessor through the genitive case ending -s. The case ending thus trapped inside a word was then reinterpreted as a semantically empty linking element or stem extension. The system of linking elements became subsequently part of the compounding system of Dutch." (see Morphological analysis).
  • Several complex inseparable verbs such as omsingelen to encircle derive from particle verbs but are no longer separable: the following type of usage (given in the WNT) was possible in Middle Dutch So quam die gloriose Here Jezus omgecingelt met grote scharen der englen thus came the glorious Lord Jesus en-ge-girdle-d with great multitude the-GEN angels thus came the glorious Lord Jesus encircled by great multitudes of angels.
  • Determiner-like zo'n such a is a univerbation of zo so, such and the indefinite article een a (Olmen 2014).
  • The conjunct maar but has a phrasal origin: ne warenot be(-it) (Etymologiebank).
  • The adjective achterbaks underhand, secret(ly) derives from a prepositional phrase behind back (Etymologiebank).

  • Bauer, Laurie, Lieber, Rochelle & Plag, Ingo2013The Oxford Reference Guide to English MorphologyOxford University Press
  • Brinton, Laurel J. & Traugott, Elizabeth Closs2005Lexicalization and language changeCambridge UKCambridge University Press
  • Ernestus, Mirjam T.C2000Voice Assimilation and Segment Reduction in Casual DutchUtrecht: LOTVrije Universiteit te AmsterdamThesis
  • Hickey, Raymond2003Tracking lexical change in present-day EnglishAndrew Wilson, Paul Rayson and Tony McEnery (ed.)Corpus Linguistics by the Lune. A Festschrift for Geoffrey LeechFrankfurtPeter Lang93-105
  • Hopper, Paul J. & Traugott, Elisabeth C2003GrammaticalizationCambridge U.K.Cambridge University Press
  • Hopper, Paul J. & Traugott, Elisabeth C2003GrammaticalizationCambridge U.K.Cambridge University Press
  • Komen, J.A.M1994Over de ontwikkeling van absolute constructiesUniversity of AmsterdamThesis
  • Olmen, Daniel van & Auwera, Johan van der2014Over zo'n en zo meerVan de Velde, Freek, Smessaert, Hans, Van Eynde, Frank & Verbrugge, Sara (eds.)Patroon en argument. Een dubbelfeestbundel bij het emeritaat van Willam Van Belle en Joop van der HorstLeuvenUniversitaire Pers Leuven215-228
  • Riemsdijk, Henk C. van1978A case study in syntactic markedness: the binding nature of prepositional phrasesPeter de Ridder Press
  • Rullmann, Hotze & Hoeksema, Jack1997De distributie van ook maar en zelfs maar: een corpusstudieNederlandse Taalkunde2281-317
  • Vries, Jelle de2001Onze Nederlandse spreektaalDen HaagSdu Uitgevers
  • Wouden, Ton van der2002Partikels: naar een partikelwoordenboek voor het NederlandsNederlandse Taalkunde720-43
  • Wouden, Ton van der2012Zeker wetenTABU40110-133
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