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The spelling of linking elements in compounds

A constituent word of a compound may have a specific form that does not occur as a word by itself. For instance, the word schaap /sxap/ sheep may have an extra s or e, as in schaapskop schaap-s-kop [sxapskɔp] sheep's head and schapewol schap-e-wol [sxapəʋɔl] sheep's wool respectively. These additional sounds are referred to as linking elements. The word pan /pɑn/ pan has an old allomorphpanne [pɑnə], as in pannekoek pann-e-koek [pɑnəkuk] pancake. There are also compounds of which the first constituent has an allomorph in -en (an old genitive case ending), for instance herenhuis her-en-huis [herə(n)hœys] (lit.) lord's house, mansion. Another source of -en in the middle of compounds is the plural suffix -en, since the first constituent of a Dutch compound can be a plural noun, as in stedenraad sted-en-raad sted-en-raad [stedə(n)rat] cities' council (steden /stedə(n)/ being the plural of stad /stɑd/ city), which contrasts with stadsraad stad-s-raad [stɑtsrat] city council. The present spelling rules of Dutch requires compounds of which the first constituent ends in -e /ə/ or -en /ən/ to be always written as en (with a few exceptions). Hence the spelling of these compounds is schapenwol, pannenkoek, herenhuis and stedenraad. The rationale behind this orthographical rule is the following: Since a syllable-final /n/ after schwa is not pronounced in Western varieties of Northern standard Dutch (cf. topic about n-deletion), it is hard for language users to determine if, when a schwa is heard in that position, this sound should be represented by e or en. Hence, the decision has been made to always spell en.

Exceptions to this rule of Dutch orthography are compounds like zonneschijn [zɔnəsxɛin] sun shine and koninginnedag [konɪŋɪnədɑx] Queen's Day (the plural forms of the first constituents are zonnen /zɔnə(n)/ and koninginnen /konɪŋɪnə(n)/ respectively), as there is supposed to be only one sun and one queen for speakers of Dutch. These exceptions presuppose that the linking element en has the potential flavour of a plural suffix -en after all. The compound herenhuis shows that en cannot always be associated with plurality, as it denotes the house of a single heer /her/ lord. In other cases, it is hard to decide: the compound boekenplank [bukə(n)plɑŋk] book shelf does not require a plural interpretation of the constituent boeken /bukə(n)/, but it is not excluded either. The association between the spelling en and the plural suffix -en is also presupposed in another class of exceptions to this spelling rule: when a noun ending in schwa allows for both a plural form in -s and one in -en, the noun is written with e in a compound. For instance, since the noun bode /bodə/ messenger has both bodes /bodəs/ and boden /bodə(n)/ as the plural form, the compound bodedienst bod-e-dienst [bodədinst] messenger service is spelled without an internal n.

The choice of the correct linking element is codified in the Woordenlijst der Nederlandse Taal (Het Groene Boekje), an official publication of the Nederlandse Taalunie, as an attempt to avoid uncertainty and debate about the proper spelling of compounds. However, this codification is not accepted by all language users.

More information can also be found in Booij (1992, 1996), Hanssen et al. (2013) and Banga et al. (2013).

  • Banga, Arina, Hanssen, Esther, Neijt, Anneke & Schreuder, Rob2013Preference for linking element -en- in Dutch noun-noun compounds: native speakers and second language learners of DutchMorphology2333-56
  • Booij, Geert1992De spelling van een samenstellingOnze Taal61229-230
  • Booij, Geert1996Verbindingsklanken in samenstellingen en de nieuwe spellingregelingNederlandse Taalkunde1126-134
  • Hanssen, Esther, Banga, Arina, Schreuder, Robert & Neijt, Anneke2013Semantic and prosodic effects of Dutch linking elementsMorphology237-32
  • Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie1995Het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT)
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