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Geographical adjectives ending in -isch

The suffix -isch /ıs/ appears in a variety of adjectives (see here); a special use is in geographical adjectives such as Russisch Russian, Belgisch Belgian or Aziatisch Asian. It is a close competitor of the suffix -s, described here.

Like -s, the suffix -isch often takes inhabitant names as base, see Azië Asia > Aziaat Asian person > Aziatisch Asian and Cyprus Cyprus > Cyprioot (a) Cypriot > Cypriotisch Cypriot. Yet, the meaning of the adjectives is related to the place and not to its inhabitant: Belgisch Belgian means 'from Belgium', 'belonging to Belgium' or 'associated with Belgium', not 'like a Belgian person'.

Geographical adjectives generally have a relational meaning, which implies that they are not gradable. If such an adjective is used in comparation, the meaning is coerced from relational to qualifying ('typical for X'): het meest Belgische bier the beer most typical for Belgium. The phenomenon is illustrated here for geographical -s.

[+]General properties, input, stratum, productivity

Geographical adjectives in -isch occur in a more restricted set of environments than its competitor -s. It mainly appears after non-Germanic inhabitant suffixes such as -aat, -iet or -oot(Heynderickx 1994):

Table 1
Place name Inhabitant name Geographical adjective
Azië Aziaat Aziatisch
Jemen Jemeniet Jemenietisch
Cyprus Cyprioot Cypriot
Moreover, the affix -isch appears when the place name ends in -ië and/or the inhabitant name in -iër, as in Australië Australia > Australiër (an) Australian > Australisch Australian and Kaukasus Caucasus > Kaukasiër Caucasian > Kaukasisch Caucasian.

Moreover, the affix appears in Russisch Russian, Saksisch Saxon and Koerdisch Kurdish, where -s might have been expected (compare Friesland > Fries (a) Frisian > Fries Frisian but Rusland Russia > Rus (a) Russian > Russisch Russian).

Geographical adjectives inflect normally: they take schwa under the usual conditions (see here):

Example 1

a. een Aziat-isch eiland
INDF Asian-N.SG island(N)SG
a Asian island
b. een Aziat-ische vrouw
INDF Asian-C.SG woman(C)SG
a Asian woman
c. Aziat-ische tal-en
Asian-PL language-PL
Asian languages

The geographical adjectives refer to a property connected with the place name, roughly: 'from X', 'belonging to X' or 'associated with X'. This means that the inhabitant name that often serves as the base only contributes to the form, not to the meaning of the adjective (Booij 1988). Generally speaking, all geographical adjectives are relational adjectives, which means that they express an absolute property and cannot be used in the comparative and the superlative. If a geographical adjective is used in comparation, with a modifier or with the negative prefix on-, the meaning shifts to qualifying, translatable as 'typical for X'. This process is known as coercion(Pustejovsky 1991), (Pustejovski 1995), (Jackendoff 1997), (Booij 1988), (Booij 2005). Examples are discussed here.

[+]Phonological properties

The suffix -isch is cohering and does not influence the stress of the base word; however stress differences between the place name and the adjective are possible due to the influence of the inhabitant suffix (Kaukasus /'kɑukasʏs/ Caucasus > Kaukasiër /kɑu'kaziɛr/ Caucasian > Kaukasisch /kɑu'kasıs/ Caucasian).


[+]Morphological potential

Geographical adjectives ending in -isch serve as input for nominalization with the suffix -e, resulting in female inhabitant names: Russisch Russian > Russische Russian woman. -isch adjectives can be prefixed with on-, which produces a semantic change towards the reading 'untypical for X': een onaziatisch gezicht an un-Asian face.

  • Booij, Geert1988Polysemie en polyfunctionaliteit bij denominale woordvormingSpektator17268-276
  • Booij, Geert1988Polysemie en polyfunctionaliteit bij denominale woordvormingSpektator17268-276
  • Booij, Geert2005The grammar of words. An introduction to linguistic morphologyOxford textbooks in linguisticsOxfordOxford University Press
  • Heynderickx, Priscilla & Marle, Jaap van1994Over het hybride karakter van -isch: op de grens van inheems en uitheemsSpektator23229-39
  • Jackendoff, Ray1997The architecture of the language facultyCambridge Mass.MIT Press
  • Pustejovski, James1995The Generative LexiconMIT Press
  • Pustejovsky, James1991The Generative LexiconComputational Linguistics17(4)409-441