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Morphosemantic structure

The head of a word is that part of the word that determines the overall (1) morphosyntactic; and (2) semantic properties of the word.

  1. Morphosyntactic properties
    • The head determines the part-of-speech category of the word. In a V+N compound like swem+bad [[swem](V)[bad](N)](N) swim+pool swimming pool, the composite structure is a noun, because the right-hand constituent [bad](N) is a noun, and therefore determines the part-of-speech category of the compound. In an affixed word like swemm·er [[swem](V)[er](NMLZ)](N) swim·NMLZ swimmer the suffix -er is the head, since it determines the part-of-speech of the word as a whole.
    • Category-neutral affixes that indicate number (PL) and size (DIM) on nouns; degrees of comparison (CMPR and SUPL), partitive genitive (PTV.GEN) and syntactic position (ATTR) on adjectives; and the past tense (PST) and infinitive (INF) forms of verbs, are usually affixed to the head of a complex word. For instance, the plural of a right-headed compound like luitenant-generaal lieutenant-general is luitenant-generaal·s, while the plural of a left-headed compound like prokureur-generaal attorney-general is prokureur·s-generaal.
  2. Semantic properties
    • In prototypical cases (like subordinative compounds) the head denotes the hypernym, while the composite structure is a hyponym of the head, e.g. a luitenant-generaal is a kind of generaal, while a prokureur-generaal is a kind of prokureur. These semantic relations can be more complex, as will be pointed out when discussing different morphological constructions.
    • Also in prototypical cases (like subordinative compounds) the non-head constituent functions as a semantic modifier of the meaning of the head constituent. For instance, kraan+water tap water is a type of water (the head) that has something to do with kraan tap (the modifier). Here, the specific interpretation of this general semantic relationship is that kraan denotes the source of the water.

[+]Right-hand head rule (RHR)

The so-called right-hand head rule (RHR) predicts that the rightmost component of a morphologically complex word will be the head of the construction, and hence determines the morphosyntactic and semantic (sub)category of the complex word (Williams 1981). The RHR generally applies to compounds and affixed words alike:

  • The compound swem+bad [[swem](V)[bad](N)](N) swimming pool is a noun because the rightmost component bath is a noun.
  • The affixed word swem+bad·agtig [[[swem](V)[bad](N)](N)[agtig](ADJZ)](ADJ) swimming pool-like is an adjective, because the rightmost component -agtig is an adjectiviser.

However, Afrikaans presents some counter-evidence to the RHR:

  • A limited number of compounds are left-headed, like prokureur-generaal attorney-general mentioned above. Some others, such as coordinative compounds, seem to be double-headed in the sense that all constituents contribute equally to the semantics of the whole: a digter-skilder is both a digter poet and a skilder painter at the same time. Similarly, some reduplicative compounds might also be seen as double-headed (like twee-twee two-two in groups of two), while others might be lacking a semantic head (like speel-speel play-play jokingly; easily). Details of these kinds of exceptions are discussed in the respective topics on these types of compounds.
  • The nominalising prefix ge- (as in die ge·lag van die kinders the NMLZ·laugh of the children the children's laughing), and a number of verbalising prefixes (like ver- in ver·geel VBZ·yellow to become yellow) have category changing power. What remains true, however, is that in Afrikaans all suffixes (but not all prefixes) are category-determining or category-neutral.


See Bauer (1990), Fábregas and Scalise (2012), and Scalise and Bisetto (2009) for critical discussions of the notion head in morphology. Related specifically to Dutch (and by implication to Afrikaans), see Booij (1992), Neeleman and Schipper (1993), and Trommelen and Zonneveld (1986).

[+]Endocentric vs. exocentric compounds

Compounds with a head are called endocentric compounds, and those without a head are called exocentric compounds. Afrikaans endocentric compounds are by and large right-headed, as illustrated by minimal pairs like kraan+water tap+water tap waterwater+kraan water+tap water tap. The compound kraan+water denotes a kind of water (mass noun), whereas water+kraan is a type of tap (common noun).

Scalise and Bisetto (2009) claimed that, universally speaking, all four major compound types (i.e. subordinative, attributive, appositive, and coordinative compounds; cf. the overview of compound types) can be both endocentric or exocentric. However, while all compound types (parasynthetic compounds a case apart) in Afrikaans can be endocentric, only the following can be exocentric:

  • Subordinative ground compounds:
    • [[a](V)[b](N)](V), like knip+oog snip+eye to wink
    • [[a](V)[b](N)](N), like suip+lap booze+cloth drunkard
    • [[a](V)[b](N)](ADV), like druip+stert drip+tail embarrassed
    • [[a](V)[b](ADV)](N), like trap+suutjies tread+softly chameleon
    • [[a](N)[b](N)](N), like tronk+voël jail+bird jailbird
    • [[a](N)[b](N)](ADJ), like hoender+kop chicken+head drunk
    • [[a](ADV)[b](V)](N), like mal+trap crazy+step crazy, jolly person
  • Attributive ground compounds:
    • [[a](ADJ)[b](N)](N), like rooi+kop red+head person with red hair
    • [[a](ADJ)[b](N)](ADJ), like kaal+voet bare+foot barefooted
    • [[a](ADJ)[b](N)](ADV), like vroeg+dag early+day early in the morning
    • [[a](NUM)[b](N)](N), like tien+kamp ten+camp decathlon
  • Coordinative ground compounds:
    • [[a](PR)[b](PR)](PR), like Bosnië-Herzegowina Bosnia-Herzegovina
    • [[a](N)[b](N)](N), like ma-kind mother-child
  • Separable complex verbs:
    • [[a](ADV)[b](ADJ)](V), like aan+dik on+thick to exaggerate
    • [[a](ADV)[b](N)](V), like in+perk in+bound to confine; to limit
  • Reduplicative ground compounds:
    • [[a](INTERJ)[b](INTERJ)](N), like hoep-hoep hoop-hoop Upupa africana (name of a common South African garden bird)
    • [[a](INTERJ)[b](INTERJ)](ADV), like doef-doef boom-boom pit-a-pat
    • [[a](INTERJ)[b](INTERJ)](V), like tjirp-tjirp chirp-chirp to chirp iteratively
    • [[a](N)[b](N)](N), like huis-huis house-house playing house
    • [[a](V)[b](V)](ADV), like lag-lag laugh-laugh easily
    • [[a](N)[b](N)](ADV), like plek-plek place-place sporadically

See Van Huyssteen and Verhoeven (2014) for a comparison with categories in Dutch.

Exocentric compounds are compounds where either the morphosyntactic properties, or the semantic category of the whole word do not correlate with one of its constituents. There are two subtypes of semantically exocentric compounds. The compound bleek+gesig pale+face somebody with a pale face (see (1a) below) is an example of a bahuvrihi compound (or possessive compound): it denotes an entity (i.e. a person) that possesses the object (i.e. a pale face) denoted by the compound. In contrast to the compound, the word group bleek gesig pale face is a noun phrase, where gesig is the syntactic and semantic head of the phrase. Unlike the compound that refers to a type of person, the noun phrase refers to a type of face. The same analysis applies to the other examples listed below.

Bahuvrihi compounds
a. bleek+gesig
somebody with a pale face
b. rooi+kop
person with red hair
c. dik+pens
potbelly, fat person; ground cricket
d. blou+tong
blue tongue (disease)

The term bahuvrihi comes from Sanskrit grammar. In Sanskrit, the compound word bahuvrīhi means much rice, but is interpreted as a possessive compound with the meaning  person who has/possesses much rice. These compounds often have a body part as head noun, which are used mainly pejoratively, like rooi+kop person with red hair > ginger, or vet+gat fat+arse person who is fat. It is also quite popular for naming animals, for instance rooi+bors·ie red+breast·DIM robin, or bak+kop hollow+head cobra.

The second type of semantically exocentric compounds are compounds that receive a metaphorical interpretation. For instance, geld+wolf (see (2a) below) denotes a person with a greed for money. A few other prototypical examples are listed below.

Metaphorical compounds
a. geld+wolf
money grubber
b. proef+konyn
experimental subject (a.k.a. guinea pig)
c. hand+skoen
d. padda+stoel
mushroom, toadstool

One should not confuse metaphorical compounds, like those in (2), with other compounds that has a literal meaning, but which could also be used to refer metaphorically to something else. For example, names for body parts, including those of animal bodies, are often used pejoratively to refer to people. Compare for example piel+kop penis+head that has a literal referent ( glans (head) of the penis), but could also be used metaphorically to refer to negative qualities of a person ( stubborn person, dick head).

In other exocentric compounds, the compound not only lacks a semantic head, but also a morphosyntactic head. For instance, verbal compounds like klapper+tand [[klapper](V)[tand](N)](V) chatter+tooth to be so cold that teeth chatter are formally exocentric because there is no verbal head tand from which the verbal category of the compound can be derived. Semantically, one might consider the verbal constituent klapper to chatter as the head, as klapper+tand might be interpreted as a subtype of klapper to chatter. Hence, there is a mismatch between the semantic and morphosyntactic headedness.

  • Bauer, Laurie1990Be-heading the WordJournal of Linguistics261-31
  • Booij, Geert1992Compounding in DutchRivista di Linguistica437-59
  • Neeleman, Ad & Schipper, Joleen1993Verbal prefixation in Dutch: thematic evidence for conversionBooij, Geert & Van Marle, Jaap (eds.)Yearbook of Morphology 1992Kluwer57-92
  • Trommelen, Mieke & Zonneveld, Wim1986Dutch morphology: evidence for the right-hand head ruleLinguistic Inquiry17147-170
  • Williams, Edwin1981On the notions `lexically related' and `head of a word'Linguistic Inquiry12254-274
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