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On- [ɔn] is a category-neutral Germanic prefix, related in form and meaning to English un- [ʌn] and German un- [un]. The general meaning of on- is 'not', in nouns often weakened to 'bad, uncomfortable'. On- attaches productively to adjectives, yielding adjectives like onaardig un-kind, and is further found in nouns like onmens un-man brute and onweer un-weather thunderstorm, and in adverbs like onwel un-well sick; new nouns or adverbs with on- are rare or impossible. In nouns with on-, the prefix carries stress, in adjectives with on-, stress is on the base part when used predicatively, otherwise it varies. The counterpart of on- in the verbal domain is ont- (in its negative (privative) sense), as in ontharen depilate (< haar hair). Many formations with on- are lexicalized and have a meaning that is not or not completely transparent, e.g. onkosten un-costs costs (cf. kosten costs costs, but in Belgium also onkost) and onguur sinister (cf. guur bleak). Within the area of negative morphology, there is a rather complex division of labour with other prefixes such as niet- not, non- non, in- and its allomorphs, with the suffix -loos -less and with adjectives developing into suffixes such as -vrij free and -arm poor. Adjectives with on- occur often in litotes constructions (niet onaardig not un-nice not bad, quite good), and quite a few, such as onverdienstelijk unmeritorious, have developed into full-fledged negative polarity items, occurring in negative contexts only (Van der Wouden 1997).

[+]General information

On- [ɔn] is a non-cohering prefix, forming a prosodic domain that is separate from the base it attaches to. Syllabification respects the morphological boundary, so onaardig un-nice unkind is realized as [ɔn.ˈardəχ] rather than [*ɔ.nardəχ], notwithstanding the Maximal Onset Principle. The /n/ of on- can assimilate in place to the consonant following, so in allegro speech a formation such as onpartijdig impartial is pronounced like [ɔmpɑrˈtɛidəχ], onmens un-man brute may be like [ˈɔmɛns] and onkies indelicate will be realized as [ɔŋˈkis]; this assimilation is not reflected in spelling.

[+]Morphosyntactic properties

On- combines productively with adjectives and unproductively with nouns and adverbs.

On- is found with adjectives of various subclasses, e.g.:

  • with morphologically simplex bases, either of Germanic origin and monosyllabic such as ondiep un-deep shallow and onecht un-real fake, bisyllabic Germanic such as oneffen un-even uneven, oneven un-even odd, or foreign such as onfair un-fair, onplesant un-pleasant and the recent formation oncool un-cool.
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    Given that many non-native bases seem to prefer in-, one would expect he form *ininteressant rather than much more frequent oninteressant. Dutch, however, seems in general to dislike repetition of identical syllables.

  • with derived bases:
    • prefixed adjectives, especially with the prefix be-. e.g. onbekwaam un-skilled incompetent and onbewust un-conscious unconscious.
    • suffixed adjectives, especially with native suffixes like -ig, -isch, -baar, -lijk and -zaam:
      • onaardig unkind, ondubbelzinnig un-double-sense-ish unambiguous;
      • on-islamitisch un-islamitic un-Islamic, onpraktisch un-practic impractical;
      • onaantastbaar un-on-touch-able untouchable, ondeelbaar un-divide-able indivisible;
      • onbehaaglijk un-comfort-ly uncomfortable, onfatsoenlijk un-decency-ly indecent;
      • onbehulpzaam un-be-help-ly unhelpful, onbuigzaam un-bend-ly inflexible, rigid;
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        WNT also mentions adjectives derived with -sch (nowadays often -s), but these forms appear to have become obsolete, with the exception of onheus(ch) uncourtly, unfairly (which is found predominantly in fixed expressions like onheus bejegenen/behandelen to treat unfairly). This suffix, however, is productive in the formation of adjectives based on geographical names such as Kazakstaans Kazakh and Amsterdams from/related to Amsterdam. These formations are productively prefixed with on-, yielding on-Kazakstaans un-Kazakh and on-Amsterdams un-Amsterdam, not typically Amsterdam-like (spelling may vary), that is, with a stereotype negation reading in the sense of Bauer (2013: 354-384).

    • but also with foreign suffixes such as -abel, -eel and -air:
      • onacceptabel un-accept-able, oncomfortabel un-comfort-able;
      • onconventioneel un-convention-al, onprofessioneel un-profession-al;
      • onpopulair un-popular.
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      Booij 2002: (112-3) points to the existence of on- formations based on derived bases that do not occur on their own, such as onafscheidelijk inseparable where *afscheidelijk separable is virtually non-existent, ondeugend naughty without *deugend (< deugen to suit, to be right). Booij proposes a complex constructional schema [[on](V)[suff](A)](A), i.e., a merger of two suffixes. "This template expresses the correlation of two independently established word formation processes, on- prefixation, and deverbal adjectivalization. Note that these are not instances of synaffixes, because here, each affix has its own regular meaning contribution." To this he adds: "It is not possible to explain these cases as derivation from a possible instead of from an existing word since some of the adjectives involved, in particular -elijk and -zaam are no longer productive. This is in line with the observation that if the positive counterpart adjective is used, this is felt by speakers of Dutch as a back formation. What we observe here is that one derivational process, on- prefixation, triggers (or presupposes the result of) another derivational process, deverbal adjectivalization." Smessaert (2013: 145), on the other hand, postulates two circumfixeson...lijk and on...baar to cover the facts. Given that the same effect can be observed with other suffixes as well (e.g. onherbergzaam inhospitable where there is no herbergzaam), Smessaert's approach leads to a proliferation of circumfixes. The somewhat more abstract approach of Booij's therefore seem preferable, but his complex schema with an underspecified second suffix might overgenerate, predicting classes of formations that do not occur.

    • compound adjectives, e.g. onaangenaam unpleasant, onbelangrijk un-importance-rich unimportant, ongastvrij un-guest-free inhospitable.
  • with participles used as adjectives:
    • present participles: onroerend immovable, ondoorschijnend un-through-shining opaque, onvoldoende un-full-doing insufficient (present participles of simplex verbs appear to be rare);
    • past participles: ongeslagen unbeaten, onaangeroerd un-on-touched untouched, onbedekt un-be-cover-d uncovered, also with non-native stems: ongeïnspireerd un-inspired, ongegeneerd unembarassed;
    • bases only looking like participles (participia praeverbalia according to Rijpma and Schuringa 1978): onbewolkt un-be-cloud-ed cloudless, ongerijmdun-be-rime-d absurd, ongelood un-be-lead-ed unleaded.
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    There are also cases such as ongetwijfeld doubtless where the participial base without on- (getwijfeld doubted) cannot be used adjectivally.

    De Haas and Trommelen (1993: 48) claim that there are hardly any formal restrictions on on- prefixation of adjectives, only semantic ones. They list the following categories of adjectives that seldom or never combine with the prefix:

    • Colour denoting adjectives like blauw blue and knalrood bang-red bright red.
    • Absolute adjectives denoting properties like cilindrisch cylindrical and prachtig beautiful.
    • Adjectives denoting states like dronken drunk and klein small.
    • Adjectives denoting the material something is made of like ijzeren iron and papieren paper.
    • Spatio-temporal adjectives like huidig current, jaarlijks annual and middelste middle.
    • Modal adjectives like stom stupid and vermoedelijk presumably.
    • Adjectives derived by means of the suffix -er from geographical names like enkhuizer from Enkhuizen and edammer from Edam.
    • Negative adjectives derived by means of the suffix -loos -less like bodemloos bottomless, very deep and zinloos senseless.
    To De Haas and Trommelen's list of adjectives (most of which have an absolute meaning) we can add other privative adjectives derived by means of suffixes like -arm -poor and -vrij -free such as calorie-arm calory-poor, light and kogelvrij lit. bullet-free, bulletproof. One might want to think of a semantic explanation for the lack of on- derivations with formations with these suffixes in terms of a general constraint on double negation, but note that on- formations occur abundantly in double negation constructions - see below on litotes. Moreover, formations with antonyms of the suffixes mentioned, such as -vol -full and -rijk -rich, are also very rarely prefixed with on- (the only serious cases of onomvangrijk un-size-rich unsizable occurred under another negation, that is, in a litotes construction: niet onomvangrijk not unsizable large). Note further that the alleged impossibility of on- prefixation of geographical adjectives in -er cannot be not a simple case of semantics, as geographical adjectives in -s productively enter into on- prefixation.

On- is also found in combinations with nouns. Following the WNT, three classes of bases can be distinguished:

  • abstract nouns: ondeugd un-virtue vice, onrecht un-right injustice, onlogica un-logic illogicality, onwil un-will unwillingness, onweer un-weather storm, onzin un-sense nonsense, ongeloof un-belief disbelief, onvermogen un-capital, un-ability inability. Note that the prefix combines both with Germanic and non-native bases, and with simplex and prefixed ones (Haas 1993). Various nominal on- formations are restricted to fixed expressions, e.g. in onbruik raken to become obsolescent and ondank is 's werelds loon ingratitude is the world's wage ingratitude is the way of the world.
  • names of persons, humans and animals: onmens un-man beast, brute, monster, ondier un-animal monster. Most examples given in WNT are obsolete (onchristen un-christian pagan, ongod un-god idol, onvriend un-friend enemy).
  • names of objects and stuff: onding un-thing nonentity, rubbish, garbage, onkruid un-herb weeds. Many examples given in WNT are obsolete: onhout unwood bad timber, onpad un-path bad road, onspijs un-food something that is eaten but doesn't deserve the name 'food.
New cases of on- prefixation of nouns are almost exceptionlessly interpreted pejoratively (e.g. onwoord un-word a word I don't like, a word that should not be used, etc. from the ANS).

on- also occurs with a few adverbs: ongaarne unwillingly, onwel unwell (both quite formal) and oneens (mainly in the construction het oneens zijn to disagree). New forms are very unlikely.


The general meaning of un- is not, which may be interpreted in a number of ways (Horn 1989, Wouden 1997, Verhagen 2005, Bauer 2013: 354-384), for instance as contradictory (things are either P or un-P) as in onbezield un-be-soul-ed inanimate, as contrary (things can be P, or un-P, or neither P nor un-P) as in onaardig unkind and as pejorative onmens un-man beast, brute monster.

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Scholars have different opinions on the existence of a division of labour between the various morphological means to express negation. The answer in Booij (2002: 112) tends toward the positive: "The basic division of labour between the negative prefixes on- and niet- is clear: the prefix on- denies the property expressed by the base, and assigns a contrary property, whereas niet- only denies the property or relation expressed by the base word. For instance, there is a clear difference between onchristelijk unchristian, an adjective that assigns a specific property, and niet-christelijk non-Christian that only states the absence of the property christelijk. Therefore, niet- can be used with more adjectives than on-." He adds, however: "there are also negative adjectives where there is no clear meaning difference between the two adjectives; for instance, onproductief unproductive and niet-productief unproductive are synonymous, as the glosses show." Bauer (2013: 366), on the other hand, are more negative: "What is most interesting to note with the cohort of negative affixes is that they do not carve up the semantic nuances of negation in any neat one-to-one fashion. While a few affixes appear to have more or less fixed semantic content, and a few have a tendency towards one reading or another, the majority of them are polysemous, with specific readings depending on the nature of the base, the degree of lexicalization, and in novel form often on the context in which a given form is used. In other words, for some affixes, multiple readings are available and result from the interaction of a general affixal meaning not with the semantic composition of a base."

Adjectives with on- are found very frequently in litotes constructions. If you ask me how I am, a possible answer would be that I am not unhappy, that is, neither happy nor unhappy, but something in between these states. By the independent mechanism of understatement this can also be used to express something like extremely happy. niet onaardig not un-nice can thus denote any position on a scale between reasonably good and extremely good(Horn 1989, Wouden 1997). (Note, however, that the effect is not restricted to negative prefixed adjectives: the same holds for inherently negative adjectives such as slecht bad: niet slecht not bad, quite good, very good). niet onaardig not un-nice not bad, quite good). In principle, litotes constructions are possible only with adjectives that can be interpreted as relative: *niet onzwanger not unpregnant is not well-formed or extremely marked. Sometimes, on- prefixation can force a relative reading, e.g. in the attested een nogal ongeleid projectiel a rather unguided projectile (< geleid projectiel guided missile).

Quite a few adjectives prefixed with on-, such as onverdienstelijk unmeritorious, have developed into full-fledged negative polarity items, occurring in negative contexts only (Van der Wouden 1997: III: 3).

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Pluralia tantum in onkosten costs (cf. kosten costst) and onlusten riots (cf. lusten benefits). Both examples are semantically opaque, just like in onguur sinister. The base is no longer used independently in cases like onnozel silly (see Etymologiebank).

[+]Morphological potential

Adjectives prefixed with on- show standard adjectival inflection; the gradable ones can be made into comparatives and superlatives (oninteressanter un-interesting-er less interesting, onbelangrijkst un-important-st most unimportant, least important), although one also finds periphrastic forms with meer more (ik ben meer ongerust over mensen die ineens last van hoofdpijn hebben I am more anxious about people who suddenly suffer from headache) and meest most (de meest onvermijdelijke daad van zijn leven The most inevitable act of his life), which is expected given the preference for these forms with longer adjectives. Nominalisations of adjectives with on- are typically with the suffix -heid, e.g. onbekendheid un-beknown-AFF obscurity, unfamiliarity, ignorance. Nouns with on- inherit gender (weer weather is neuter so onweer storm is neuter as well) and plural formation (onmensen un-man-en brutes, cf. mensen man-en people). Nouns with on- have, in principle, the same morphogical potential as any other noun: they can be turned into adjectives (onweersachtig un-weather-s-ish thunderstormlike), be part of (synthetic) compounds (onkruidbestrijdingsmiddelen un-weed-be-fight-ing-s-mean-s weed killers), etc.

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  • Bauer, Laurie, Lieber, Rochelle & Plag, Ingo2013The Oxford Reference Guide to English MorphologyOxford University Press
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  • Wouden, Ton van der1997Negative Contexts. Collocation, polarity, and multiple negationRoutledge
  • Wouden, Ton van der1997Negative Contexts. Collocation, polarity, and multiple negationRoutledge