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Nominal compounds

Nominal compounding is the most productive type of compounding in Dutch. These compounds have a noun as the head and are nouns themselves. The non-head position can be taken by nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, adverbs, quantifiers, and phrases:

a. bureaulade
desk drawer
b. grootvader
c. kookpot
cooking pot
d. voorgerecht
starter, first course
e. terugweg
way back
f. driehoek
g. oudemannenhuis
[[oude mannen](NP)[huis](N)](N)
old men's home

The head status of the right-hand constituent of a nominal compound is not only clear from its semantic interpretation (an XN is a kind of N with some relation to X, not vice versa), and the fact that the right-hand constituent determines the syntactic category, but also from its gender, and in some cases the choice of the plural suffix. Since the gender of compounds is that of the right-hand constituent, we find pairs such as the following (Trommelen and Zonneveld 1986):

a. de soep
DEF.SG.C soup.C
the soup
b. het vlees
DEF.SG.N meat.N
the meat
c. de vleessoep
DEF.SG.C meat-soup.C
the meat soup
d. het soepvlees
DEF.SG.N soup-meat.N
the meat for the soup
a. het geld
DEF.SG.N money.N
the money
b. de zak
DEF.SG.C bag.C
the bag/ the pocket
c. het zakgeld
DEF.SG.N pocket-money.N
the pocket money
d. de geldzak
DEF.SG.C money-bag.C
the money bag
a. de bal
DEF.SG.C ball.C
the ball (to play with)
b. het bal
DEF.SG.N ball.N
the ball (dancing)
c. de voetbal
DEF.SG.C foot-ball.C
the football
d. het avondbal
DEF.SG.N evening-ball.N
the night ball

A few compounds (borrowed from French) are left-headed, for instance secretaris-generaal secretary-general, and procureur-generaal attorney general. Their plural form is therefore secretarissen-generaal and procureurs-generaal respectively.

[+]Compound semantics

The basic semantic relationship between the two parts of a nominal compound is that the first part functions as a semantic modifier of the second. The compound construction creates a semantic relationship between the two parts. The precise nature of that relation is a matter of encyclopedic knowledge and convention. For instance, leverworst liver sausage is a kind of sausage that has something to do with liver, it is made from liver.. However, slagersworst butchers sausage is not a kind of sausage made from butchers, but rather made by a butcher.

The first part of a nominal compound may also express intensification, as in bloedvaart blood speed breakneck speed. Such compounds are a subcategory of the elative compounds.


The productivity of nominal compounding, in particular of NN compounds, is enhanced by the fact that both constituents can be compounds themselves, that is, they exhibit recursivity, as illustrated in (5):

a. woonruimteverdelingsadviescommissie
advisory committee on the distribution of housing accommodation
b. milieueffectrapportagebijeenkomst
meeting on the environmental impact assessment

There is no structural constraint on the degree of recursivity allowed, but it is obvious that a compound with too much recursivity will cause processing problems.

[+]Compound constituents

The choice of the plural suffix for a nominal compound is determined by the constituent on the right. Therefore we say that Dutch nominal compounds are right-headed. This is shown nicely by cases of lexically determined choice of the plural suffix, and in cases of stem allomorphy. For instance, there are two words portier, each with their own gender, meaning, and plural suffix; the plural suffix choice is transferred to compounds with these words as right-hand constituents:

a. de portier
DEF.SG.C doorkeeper.C
the doorkeeper
b. de portier-s
DEF.PL doorkeeper(C)-PL
the doorkeepers
c. de nacht-portier
DEF.SG.C night-porter.C
the night porter
d. de nacht-portier-s
DEF.PL night-porter(C)-PL
the night porter
e. het portier
DEF.SG.N car-door.N
the car door
f. de portier-en
DEF.PL car-door(N)-PL
the car doors
g. het autoportier
DEF.SG.C car-door.C
the car door
h. de autoportier-en
DEF.PL car-door(N)-PL
the car doors

One might be inclined to interpret word combinations such as the following (in which a noun is followed by a proper noun) as left-headed compounds:

a. de commissie Staal
DEF.SG.C committee Staal
the Staal committee
b. de regering Kok
DEF.SG.C government Kok
the Kok government
c. de zaak Oltmans
DEF.SG.C case Oltmans
the Oltmans case

However, such word combinations are to be considered syntactic constructs, parallel to station Amsterdam Amsterdam station in which the second noun functions as an apposition to the first noun, which is the head, and may be pluralized, as in de heren Booij the gentlemen Booij.

The left-hand constituent of nominal compounds can also be a phrase, as in blotevrouwenblad nude women magazine, or a sentence, as in God-is-dood-theologie God-is-dead-theology. Hence, these are phrase-based compounds. The most frequent kind of left constituent is the nominal stem. It is important to realize that it is indeed the nominal stem, not the singular noun that occurs in this position because the nominal stem does not necessarily have a singular interpretation. For instance, in the compound boekverkoper bookseller it is clear that this word does not refer to a single book, but to the category book.

A special property of the left-hand constituent is that it may have an extended stem form in -s, -e, -en or -er. These elements are referred to as linking elements.

A category of nominal compounds with a special status are compounds such as

a. minister-president
prime minister
b. prins-gemaal
prince consort
c. stadhouder-koning
d. tuinman-chauffer

Such compounds are called copulative compounds because the two parts of such compounds mention properties of the same person: a tuinman-chauffeur is someone who is both a gardener and a chauffeur. Although semantically both constituents are equal, from a formal point of view the constituent on the right functions as the formal head, since it carries the plural suffix, and determines the choice of the plural suffix (in this example -s, not -en). For instance, the plural form of tuinman-chauffeur is tuinman-chauffeurs.

  • Trommelen, Mieke & Zonneveld, Wim1986Dutch morphology: evidence for the right-hand head ruleLinguistic Inquiry17147-170
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