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The prefix ûnt- derives verbs, in the first place on the basis of other verbs. Most ûnt-verbs share the semantic aspect of losing or removing something or going away from somewhere. An example is nimme to take > ûntnimme to take away. Another category of ûnt-verbs have an inchoative meaning: they denote the start of something, for example in bloeie to bloom > ûntbloeie to start to bloom. However, the meaning of a derivation with ûnt- is often not clearly correlated with the meaning of its base form, for instance in jaan to give > ûntjaan to sprout. Derivations with ûnt- may have an effect on subcategorization: we often see that an argument of the base verb couched in the form of an Adposition Phrase (PP) turns into a Noun Phrase (NP) argument of the derived verb.

The prefix may also take nouns and adjectives as its base. The basic semantic contribution is again privative, i.e. an object or a property is taken away. Examples are kalk lime > ûntkalkje to decalcify and eigen own > ûnteigenje to dispossess. However, some opaque bases may also be noted.

The prefix shows a dialectical split in its pronunciation: [unt] in the west (corresponding to the standard spelling ûnt-), [ont] in the east. The latter also has a dissimilated variant [omt], which is no getting obsolete, however.

[+]General properties

The Germanic prefix ûnt- derives verbs. The main lexical category to act as a base is formed by verbs, but also nouns and adjectives may figure as base. The latter categories will be dealt with separately nouns and adjectives as base below.


Prefixation with ûnt- often results in a change of the subcategorization frame of the base verb. An intransitive verb may thus turn into a transitive verb, where at the same time an accompanying PP turns to a direct object. Here is an example:

Example 1

a. De lju flechten foar it geweld
the people fled [(PP) for the violence]
The people fled from the violence
b. De lju ûntflechten it geweld
the people PREF-fled [(NP) the violence]
The people escaped from the violence
Example 2

a. De lju flechten [út Afrika wei]
de people fled [(PP) out Africa away]
The people fled out of Africa
b. De lju ûntflechten Afrika
the people PREF-fled [(NP) Africa]
The people escaped from Africa

Other intransitive verbs that obey this pattern are:

Table 1
Base form Derivation
flechtsje to flee ûntflechtsje to escape from
komme to come ûntkomme to get away
glippe to slip ûntglippe to get away
rinne to walk ûntrinne to outrun

We see something similar with transitive verbs, which likewise may show that a PP corresponds an "extra" object, and in this way become ditransitive. An example is:

Example 3

a. Hja krige it mes fan it bern
she took the knife [(PP) from the child]
She took the knife away from the child
b. Hja ûntkrige it bern it mes
she PREF-got [(NP) the child] the knife
She took the knife away from the child

The meaning of such ûnt-derivations is to snatch something from someone by the action expressed by the base form. Other examples are listed below:

Table 2
Base form Derivation
nimme to take ûntnimme to take away
biddelje to beg ûntbiddelje to cadge
frije to neck ûntfrije to take by necking
naderje to take ûntnaderje to take dishonestly or with violence
hâlde to hold ûnthâlde to withhold
helje to fetch ûnthelje to steal

Derivations of this sort have been very productive in Frisian. The same process may even turn intransitive verbs may into ditransitive verbs, like prate to talk > ûntprate to take something from someone by talking and wrakselje to wrestle > ûntwrakselje to snatch something from someone by wrestling.

[+]Semantic aspects

As has been shown above, many derivations with ûnt- express the action of going or taking away. The meaning contribution could therefore be characterized as privative. In another group of derivations with ûnt- the result of the action expressed by the base form is reversed. These verbs could be called reversive. Examples are listed below:

Table 3
Base form Derivation
dekke to cover ûntdekke to discover
besmette to infect with ûntsmette to disinfect (with truncation of be-)
spanne to stretch ûntspanne to relax
wikkelje to wind ûntwikkelje to develop
hilligje to consecrate ûnthilligje to desecrate
bine to bind ûntbine to dissolve
siere to adorn ûntsiere to mar
woartelje to be rooted ûntwoartelje to uproot

In some cases, however, the reversive relation with the base may be relatively abstract.

Yet another group of derivations with ûnt- refers to the start of the action expressed in the base form, and could therefore be characterized as inchoative. Some examples are listed below:

Table 4
Base form Derivation
bloeie to bloom ûntbloeie to start to bloom
flamje to flame ûntflamje to inflame
kime to come up ûntkime to germinate
gluorje to gleam ûntgluorje to start to glow
teie to thaw ûntteie to thaw
stekke to stick ûntstekke to light
litte to let ûntlitte to thaw
jaan to give ûntjaan to sprout

However, the reversive and inchoative groups can hardly be considered productive. For the greater part, the existing derivations are established Dutchisms and therefore not typically Frisian. Those Dutch ont-verbs which can be placed in these categories often require an alternative construction or formulation in Frisian, for instance a particle verb or a different lexical item. Some telling examples are listed below:

Table 5
Dutch verb with ont- Frisian verb with ûnt- Frisian alternative
ontkleden to undress ûntklaaie to undress útklaaie to undress
ontvouwen to unfold útteare to unfold or iepenteare
ontraden to dissuade from ôfriede advise against
ontwennen to get out of the habit ûntwenne to cure of ôfwenne to cure of
ontkoppelen to declutch loskeppelje to disconnect
ontknopen to unbutton losknoopje to untie
ontsieren to mar skeine to damage
ontkiemen to germinate útsprute to sprout, bud
ontwaken to awake wekker wurde awake becoming to wake up
ontbijten to have breakfast moarns ite morning eating to have breakfast
[+]Nouns and adjectives as base

The prefix ûnt- may also take a nominal base, a pattern that is productive. The meaning is always that the derived verb "takes away" what is denoted or implied by the base noun. The derived verbs are usually transitive. Derivations with a more metaphorical or abstract meaning may be under the influence from Dutch:

Table 6
Nominal base Derivation
haad head ûnthaadzje to behead
kalk lime ûntkalkje to decalcify
lús louse ûntlúzje to delouse
man man ûntmanje to castrate
mantel mantle ûntmantelje to dismantle
masker mask ûntmaskerje to unmask
sifer figure ûntsiferje to decipher

A few derivations might be the reverse of formations with the prefix be-, with the implication that this prefix is truncated. This could be the case with ûntboskje to deforest and ûntwapenje to disarm.

The verb ûntfolkje to depopulate usually lacks an agentive subject, as in

Example 4

It plattelân ûntfolket
The countryside depopulates

Moreover, some adjectives can figure as a base for derivation with the prefix ûnt-, although this pattern does not seem to be very productive. Again, the meaning contribution is one of removing a property expressed by the adjectival base. Some examples are:

Table 7
Adjectival base Derivation
bleat naked ûntbleatsje to bare
Frysk Frisian ûntfryskje to defrisianize
grien green ûntgrienje to rag, to tease unkindly
eigen own ûnteigenje to dispossess
tsjerklik ecclesiastical ûnttsjerklikje to secularize
tsjuster dark ûnttsjusterje to de-obscure

The last example ûnttsjusterje seems to be the reverse of fertsjusterje to black out; if so, with truncation of the prefix fer-.

[hide extra information]
Ûnt- from ûn-

For a few existing ûnt-derivations with an adjectival base, the prefix historically derived from the negative prefix ûn-, as Hoekstra (1993:12-13) claims. Strikingly, the Dutch counterparts of these words all start with an extra prefix ver-. Examples are Frisian ûntskuldigje to excuse, from ûnskuldich un-guilty innocent (cf. Dutch verontschuldigen) and Frisian ûntreinigje to pollute, from ûnrein un-clean unclean(cf. Dutch verontreinigen).

[hide extra information]
An alternative analysis

It is assumed here that the derivations above have a noun or an adjective as base. Hoekstra (1998) claims that they actually have a verbal base. This would be the result of conversion of the nominal or adjectival base to a verb, even in those cases where the converted verb is not in use, and hence where it would have to be interpreted as a possible word. An advantage of this view would be that ûnt- only takes verbal bases. Moreover, Williams' Williams (1981)Right Head Hand Rule could be upheld.

[+]Opaque bases

Some derivations with ûnt- do not contain a base that independently exists as a separate word. Worth mentioning are ûntfermje to take care, ûntfytmanje to cheat, ûntfotselje to diddle, ûntriivje to incommode and the now obsolete verb ûntwaaie to unwrap. The verb ûntginne to reclaim is even a strong verb.

[+]Phonological properties

In the western part of the language area the prefix is pronounced as [unt], reflected in the standard spelling ûnt-. In the greater part of the east, the pronunciation is [ont], however. The prefix never bears the main stress, e.g. ûntRInne to outrun.

Some speakers, also in the eastern area, still have a third variant, viz. omt-, pronounced as [omt], probably an instance of dissimilation with respect to final dental [t]. This variant omt- is mainly used for semantically opaque derivations like hâlde to keep > omthâlde to remember and hjitte to bid > omthjitte to promise. Possibly, the omt-variant was more common before than it is today. Examples of omt-derivations can already be found in the writings of the seventeenth-century poet Gysbert Japicx (1603-1666). The only dialects in which they are still fully in use nowadays are the peripheric ones of the island of Schiermonnikoog and the eastern part of island of Terschelling.

[hide extra information]

This topic is primarily based on Hoekstra (1998:148-149). For a semantic overview, see also Veen (1984-2011) s.v. ûnt-. Important for the semantics is also Hoekstra (2007), who lumps together several submeanings that have been put forward in the literature, especially with respect to Dutch ont-, into one abstract category "pragmatically negative" (next to the inchoative meaning, which he maintains). For some Frisian alternatives to Dutch ont-verbs, see Hoekstra (2000).

For the distribution of the dialectical variants ûnt- en ont-, see Hof (1948:104-105). Some examples with the variant omt- can be found in Tamminga (1973:126-128). He assumes, following Sytstra and Hof (1925:131), influence of the particle om around, which is probably incorrect. The idea that the change of ont- to omt- is an instance of dissimilation was put forward in Hoekstra (1988). For the dialect of Schiermonnikoog, see Visser and Dyk (2002). For the eastern part of Terschelling: Roggen (1976).

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