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As in other Germanic languages, Frisian gradable adjectives have the possibility to express a higher degree (i.e. the comparative) and the highest degree (superlative) by morphological means. The relevant suffixes are -er and -ste, respectively. If we want to express an even higher degree, we could also add the prefix alder- as a reinforcement to the superlative, for example in alderheechste the very highest. In predicative position the superlative requires the element it it, as in dy toer is it heechste that tower is it highest that tower is the highest one. With comparatives, insertion of a /d/ is obligatory after a stem ending in /r/, and optional after /l/ and /n/. Thus we have the forms blierder glad-d-er gladder, mâlder strange-d-er stranger and fynder fine-d-er finer. Some other, sometimes irregular, phonological changes apply as well. A few adjectives display suppletive forms in the comparative and superlative. An example is goed-better-bêst, which closely resembles English good-better-best. Apart from the use of suffixes to express degree, we can also use a periphrastic construction with mear more and meast most, respectively. For some adjectives, this is actually the only possibility, although it must be said that the construction with mear and meast is much less widespread than the use of the comparable forms in English.

It should be noted that the formation of degree forms of adverbs occurs in a similar way.

[+]General pattern

The comparative and the superlative are formed by adding the suffixes -er and -ste to the adjectival stem, respectively. The following table gives a simple overview:

Table 1
basic form comparative superlative
- -er -ste

An example with the three grades is provided in (1).

Example 1

Dizze beam is heech, mar dy is heger, en dy dêre is it heechste
this tree is high, but that is higher, and that there is PTCL highest
This tree is high, but that one is higher, and that one over there is the highest one

Usually, the suffix is placed at the end of the stem. Exceptions may be produced by those complex adjectives that consist of an adjective as the first element and a past participle as the second. An example is heechpleatst [[heech](A)[pleatst](PP)] high-placed high-placed. In the comparative and the superlative, the suffix can be added to the first element, which results in hegerpleatst and heechstpleatst. Compounds that operate in the same vein are for instance drokbeset [[drok](A)[beset](PP)] busy-occupied busy or fynmeald finely ground. However, this is not the case with all formations with this pattern, as it is dependent on the tightness of the relationship (more about this problem here). For instance, the word frijbliuwend [[free](A)[remain](PRESP)] noncommittal only has frijbliuwender as its comparative. And the word wiidfiemjend [[wide](A)[reach](PRESP)] far-reaching has both: wiidfiemjender and wider fiemjend.

The superlative form may be reinforced by adding the prefix alder-. We then get formations like alderheechst the very highest. Such a form may even be further reinforced by the complex prefix alderbalder- (historically developed from alder by alder). In this way, superlatives like bêst best or grutst biggest result in the formations alderbalderbêst and alderbaldergrutst.

Some discussion might arise about the exact form of the superlative. Some grammars mention the form -st, where we select -ste. In predicative position, we can come across both forms:

Example 2

Dy toer is it heechst(e)
that tower is it highest(e)
That tower is the highest one

However, in attributive position the form of the superlative always ends in a schwa, even in those cases in which the adjective should not get an inflectional ending. So we have a contrast in in âld bern an old child versus in âldste bern an old-est child an eldest child. Hence, we may conclude that the basic form of the superlative ends in a schwa, and this is why the form -ste is preferred here. Synchronically speaking, we could assume an optional rule which deletes the final schwa of -ste if the superlative is in predicative position. Historically, the variant without schwa might be a remnant of the predicative form without it (see below).

Adjectives with a degree suffix remain adjectives. This implies that they obey the same rules of inflection as do basic forms. Thus besides de hege beam the high-Infl tree the high tree we have de hegere beam the high-er-Infl tree the higher tree and de heechste beam the high-este-Infl tree the highest tree. However, the latter case is hypothetical, since it was assumed here that the superlative inherently ends in a schwa, and hence addition of an inflectional schwa is not visible as a result of the rule of Prevocalic Schwa Deletion. Adjectives with a comparative suffix may also regularly take the ending of the partitive genitive, as in wat moaiers someting beautiful-er-s something more beautiful.

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A few formations can be found that look like compounds, consisting of an adjective with a comparative ending as first and a noun as second member. The most frequent noun is ein end. Examples are âlderein old-COMP-end (the) elderly versus jongerein young-COMP-end (the) younger generation. Also hegerein high-COMP-end higher class versus legerein low-COMP-end lower class. Another example is the expression oan 'e krapperein at the tight-COMP-end (have/get) barely enough. Furthermore, there is the pair hegerwâl high-COMP-waterside wind-side and legerwâl low-COMP-waterside lee shore. The fact that stress is placed on the second element suggests that these formations are not compounds in the strict sense, but rather univerbations on the basis of a phrase, e.g. (de) âlder-e ein (the) older-Infl end results in (de) âlderein.

In predicative use, the superlative is always connected with the particle it:

Example 3

a. Dy toer is it heechst(e)
that tower is PTCL high-SUPL
That tower is (the) highest
b. *Dy toer is heechst(e)
that tower is high-SUPL

This, however, is the situation in modern Frisian. In the 19th century the construction lacking the particle was still common. Here are a few quotes:

Example 4

a. En hwet moaist is fen him: / Syn fortsjienst jowt hy sîn mem
and what beautiful-SUPL is of him: / His earnings gives hy his mother
And what is his best trait: he gives his earnings to his mother
W. Dykstra, Húsnocht for de bern (1852), p. 10
b. De segen wier for my greatst
the blessing was for my high-SUPL
The highest blessing was for me
W. Dykstra, De wever fan Westerbûrren (1867), p. 123
c. Whet is swierst, in poun lead of in poun fearren?
what is heavy-SUPL, a pound lead or a pound feathers?
What is heaviest, a pound of lead or a pound of feathers?
W. Dykstra & T.G. van der Meulen, In doas fol âlde snypsnaren (1882), p. 95

Nowadays, the construction without the particle still survives in proverbs, as shown in (5):

Example 5

a. Wat swierst is, moat swierst wage
what heavy-SUPL is, should heavy-SUPL weigh
First things first
b. Kreakjende weinen duorje langst
creaking wagons last long-SUPL
A creaking gate hangs long
c. Lege fetten beare meast
empty barrels sound most
Empty barrels make the most noise

Also, the particle it is still optional in the case of the frequent superlative forms earst first, leafst preferably, lêst last and meast mostly:

Example 6

a. Hy sit (it) leafst thús op syn studearkeamer
he sits (PTCL) preferably home at his study
He prefers to be at home in his study
b. Rintsje wie wer (it) earst
Rintsje was again (PTCL) first
Rintsje was first again
c. Jan Brouwer wie altyd (it) lêst
Jan Brouwer was always (PTCL) last
Jan Brouwer was always last
d. Hy hinget (it) meast foar de tillefyzje
he hangs (PTCL) most for the television
He mostly sits sprawled in front of the television

Presumably, these superlatives are lexicalized.

In the superlative construction with the particle it, the final schwa of the superlative form is related to the existence of the particle. That is, if it for some reason is deleted, then the schwa is also impossible. We can observe this effect when the superlative is positioned prenominally:

Example 7

a. Dit bestjoerslid sit it langst(e)
this board-member sits PTCL long-est-(e)
This is the longest-sitting member of the board
b. it langst(e) sittende bestjoerslid
the PTCL long-est-(e) sitting board-member
the longest-sitting board member
b.' it langst sittende bestjoerslid
b.'' *it langste sittende bestjoerslid

In this position the particle it may be deleted, but then also the final schwa of the superlative suffix vanishes. We see the same pattern with those superlatives that act as adverbs. In this case, the particle it is not allowed, nor is the final schwa:

Example 8

a. Dat is heechst tafallich
that is high-est accidental
That is highly coincidental
b. *Dat is heechste tafallich

The particle it is formally identical to the neuter definite article it. Nevertheless, is must be concluded that it is a unit in its own kind. The particle also shows up in connection with common singular nouns and with plurals, hence in those cases where the form of the definite article would be de. However, such Noun Phrases (NPs) require the particle it as well:

Example 9

a. Dat boek is it moaiste
that book.N is PTCL nice-SUPL
That book is the nicest one
b. Dy film is it moaiste
that picture.C is PTCL nice-SUPL
That picture is the nicest one
c. Dy boeken binne it moaiste
those book.PL are PTCL nice-SUPL
Those books are the nicest ones
d. Dy films binne it moaiste
those picture.PL are PTCL nice-SUPL
Those pictures are the nicest ones

Hence, the particle it is a fixed part of the superlative construction, and is not dependent on the gender of the Noun Phrase NP to which it stands in a predicative relation. If we include the adjectival base form and the comparative, we get the following paradigm of its predicative use:

Example 10

a. Dy film is moai
that picture.C is nice
That picture is nice
b. Dy film is moaier
that picture.C is nice-COMP
That picture is nicer
c. Dy film is it moaist(e)
that picture.C is PTCL nice-SUPL
That picture is nicest
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It should be noted that the definite article de may also show up in connection with the superlative. Thus next to dy film is it moaiste we can say dy film is de moaiste. The latter example is an instance of nominal ellipsis; the noun film is elided, cf. dy film is de moaiste [film], and the definite article de is a true article, as is the case with its neuter cognate it in elliptic dat boek is it moaiste [boek]. In this construction, the superlative form moaiste is not predicative, but rather it is an attributive,modifier of the following but elided noun. In contrast to the predicative use of the superlative, the final schwa is not optional here, cf. *dy film is de moaist. With respect to neuter nouns like boek book; the sentence dat boek is it moaiste is ambiguous, while dat boek is it moaist is not.

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The form -ste as the basic suffix for the superlative is argued in Hoekstra (1989). The same author also discusses the particle it in relation to the superlative in Hoekstra (1989) and Hoekstra (1989).

[+]Phonological adjustments

Adding the comparative or superlative suffix may cause changes in the phonological make-up of the complex form. These may consist of insertion (of /d/), deletion, and, sporadically, changes in the vowel of the base.

Insertion of /d/ after the stem is obligatory if the stem ends in /r/.

Example 11

raar strange raarder [not: *rarer]
skier greyish skierder [not: *skierer]
nuver strange nuverder [not: *nuverer]

After this insertion, the stem-final /r/ is deleted before the (dental) /d/ by the regular process of r-deletion. For further phonological details, see r-deletion.

Insertion of /d/ may also be observed after stems ending in /l/ or /n/. In contrast to stems ending in /r/, d-insertion is optional here: comparative forms with and without /d/ may co-exist, as shown in (12) and (13):

Example 12

mâl silly mâlder mâler
pertaal brutal pertaalder pertaler
krigel diligent krigelder krigeler
Example 13

fyn fine fynder finer
gemien nasty gemiender gemiener
rimpen rash rimpender rimpener

In the case of superlatives, we find deletion of a final phonetic [t] of the stem. This a part of a larger phenomenon in which [t] is deleted before the cluster /st/; more details can be found here. If the phoneme /d/ has become voiceless, it is involved in the deletion process as well. The deletion is not manifested in the spelling:

Example 14

grut big [ ɠröt] grutst [ ɠröst]
probaat effective [pro:ba:t] probaatst [pro:ba:st]
hurd hard [höt] hurdst [höst]
read red [rI.ət] readst [rI.əst]

We find degemination if the stem ends in an [s]. The final [s] comes up against [s] of the suffix -st, and then one of the two is skipped. So, if the adjective kreas pretty is suffixed by -st, then we get the superlative form kreast [krI.əst], with only one [s] at the surface.

Even more degemination occurs if the stem of the base forms itself ends in the cluster /st/. We would get a double occurrence of this cluster if the superlative suffix were added. In this case, one of the clusters /st/ is deleted. Examples are the adjectives dryst bold, which has as its superlative form also dryst, from dryst + st, which becomes phonetic [drist]. Another example is fêst tight, which also the form fêst as its superlative.

In a few cases we find vowel change. Modern Frisian Breaking occurs in the comparative and the superlative of the adjectives fier far, swier heavy and moai beautiful ( the latter only dialectically). The adjective djoer expensive has the comparative djurder [djödər] and the superlative djurst [djöst] next to regular forms. A curious lenghtening can be seen in the superlative of let late, i.e. as the form lêst [lɛ:st]. Note that this lenghtening is also reflected in the orthography. Note also the deletion of /t/ before the cluster /st/.

[+]Suppletive forms

In addition to phonological adjustments, there are a few forms in the comparative and superlative of which the stem is different from that of the base. The following degree forms are a case of suppletion:

Example 15

goed good better bêst
graach gladly leaver leafst
ier early earder earst
folle much, many mear meast
[in bytsje] little minder minst

Some additional remarks about this set of five are in order. Categorially, goed and ier are adjectives. Graach is mostly used as an adverb, but its comparative and superlative forms are quite common as adjectives:

Example 16

a. Dy dochter is him leaver
that daughter is him rather
He loves that daughter more
b. syn leafste dochter
his dearest daughter
the daughter that he loves most

If the base word graach is used as an adjective, its comparative and superlative are formed regularly: on the basis of grage keapers eager.INFL buyers eager buyers we get gragere keapers more eager buyers and de graachste keapers the most eager buyers. Folle is a numeral, as is in bytsje, which is not even a single word. Their comparative and superlative forms may be used in adjective position, viz. mear minsken more people; de measte minsken the most people most people. And also minder ûngemakken fewer accidents; de minste ûngemakken the fewest accidents.

It should be noted that the irregular forms are more frequent, but at the same time regular derivations may co-exist. We just saw this in the case of graach. But also goed has its regular forms goeder and goedst. However, these are resticted to the meaning 'good-natured' or 'kind-hearted'. On the other side, the comparative leaver and the superlative leafst are also regular forms of the adjective leaf dear. Significantly, these transparent forms derived from the base leaf do not show Modern Frisian Breaking: their vowel remains [I.ə]. In contrast, the comparative and superlative of graach are broken to [ljɛvər] and [ljɛ(f)st]. Finally, the word ier also has the transparent forms ierder and ierst, without significant semantic difference, as seen in (17):

Example 17

De dûmny wie ier, mar de âlderling wie ierder/earder, en de koster wie it ierst/earst
the minister was early, but the church warden was earlier, and the sexton was PTCL earliest
The minister was early, but the church warden was earlier, and the sexton was the first

On the other hand, the irregular variants are open to semantic deviations, whereby the aspect of comparison may fade away. For instance Loltsje is better usually means: Loltsje has recovered from illness. And the salutation Bêste Oebele does not essentially imply that the person adressed is the best of all existing Oebeles (a man's name). Rather, it means dear Oebele. If one says de ierappels binne bêst fan 't jier the potatoes are best of the year, it does not mean that this year's potatoes are the best ever grown, but rather that they are of good quality. And the popular qualification bêst genôch! best enough simply means fine, okay, without bearing a superlative meaning in mind.

[+]Periphrastic construction as alternative

Besides morphological means of expressing the comparative and superlative, i.e. by addition of the suffixes -er and -ste, we can always take recourse to a periphrastic construction with the comparative and superlative forms of folle much, i.e. mear more and meast most. In the case of the degrees of comparison of waarm warm, next to waarmer and waarmste, also mear waar and meast waarm are possible in principle. It does not mean, however, that this is common practice in everyday linguistic life. In reality, monosyllabic adjectives are almost always suffixed, and in fact the same goes for bisyllabic adjectives. However, for base forms with three or more syllables the picture is different. Basically, mainly adjectives from the non-Germanic stratum are involved here. Examples are plurifoarm pluriform, konstruktyf constructive or paradoksaal paradoxical. A description such as comparative mear plurifoarm or superlative meast plurifoarm is quite common. On the other hand, also morphological plurifoarmer and plurifoarmst remain possible.

There are a few other cases in which the formation of the comparative and superlative with the help of mear and meast is called for:

  1. Adding the superlative -st(e) to adjectives ending in the consonant cluster -sk would yield the cluster [skst], which is quite hard to pronounce. This is the reason why many speakers have recourse to the periphrastic solution. A potential superlative grutskst great-sk-SUP proudest then turns into meast grutsk.
  2. As stated in phonological adjustments above, adjectives ending in -st show a superlative form identical to their base form. For instance, the superlative of dryst bold is also dryst. In order to make it unequivocally clear that a superlative is meant, the language user can take recourse to the periphrastic construction, i.e. to the formulation meast dryst.
  3. In general, adjectively used past participles do not allow a degree suffix. This affects the two classes of weak verbs, i.e. those with infinitives ending in -e and those ending in -je. Thus opset swollen has as its comparative and superlative mear opset more swollen and meast opset most swollen, and not *opsetter and *opsetst. Also, opdroege dried (up) does not show the degree forms opdroeger and *opdroegest. The same pattern applies to adjectives of which the verbal descent is not so clear anymore. Examples are fereale in love' or besibbe related. Putative comparative forms like ??ferealer or ??besibber are highly questionable, and this is even more so with the superlatives *ferealest or *besibbest. The restriction does not hold for a few adjectives for which the relation with a verbal origin is really blurred. Examples are bekend well-known or foldien satisfied. Here, degree forms like bekender-bekendst or foldiener-foldienst may be formed without difficulties. To be complete: the restriction also does not hold for present participles. Thus for instance from meinimmend fascinating the degree forms meinimmender and meinimmendst may be formed easily.
  4. Some adjectives restricted to predicative position only accept periphrastic degree forms. Consider this example:
    Example 18

    a. It Kristlik fakbûn is mear ree om lean yn te leverjen as it FNV
    the Christian union is more ready for wage in to deliver as the FNV
    The Christian union is more ready to reduce wages than the FNV
    b. *It Kristlik fakbûn is reeër om lean yn te leverjen as it FNV
    the Christian union is ready-COMP for wage in to deliver as the FNV
    This also occurs in the case of an adjective with an NP complement:
    Example 19

    a. Dizze ploech wie it paad it meast bjuster
    this group was [the path] the most lost
    This group was the worst for losing its way
    b. *Dizze ploech wie it paad it bjusterst
    this group was [the path] PTCL lost-SUPL

    Presumably, this restriction only holds for adjectives which only occur predicatively. Trou loyal, for example, may have an NP complement, but it may also show up in attributive position:

    Example 20

    Dizze man wie de kening it troust
    this man was the king PTCL loyal-SUPL
    This man was the king's most loyal servant

    With an Adposition Phrase (PP) complement there is mostly no problem: take the combination slij nei fond of

    Example 21

    Ik wie yn myn jonkheit slijer nei snobbersguod as hjoeddedei
    I was in my youth fond-COMP of confectionery than nowadays
    In my youth, I was fonder of confectionery than nowadays
  5. If the uniqueness or heaviness of the superlative has to be stressed, a periphrastic construction may be more appropriate, for example:
    Example 22

    Dy direkteur is ek wol de meast eigenwize man dy't ik ken
    that manager is PTCL PTCL the most arrogant man that I know
    That manager is really the most arrogant man I know

    Pragmatically, this approach is to a large extent equivalent to prefixation with alder-, see suppletive forms.

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The periphrastic description of the superlative by way of mear more should not be confused with the construction exemplified in

Example 23

De kleur fan dy ferve is mear grien as blau
the colour of that paint is more green than blue
The colour of that paint is rather green than blue

Semantically, there is an essential difference: there is no comparison on a single scale, but rather a comparison between two qualifications. Hence, the morphological alternative for the comparative is not available: *de kleur fan dy ferve is griener as blau. In addition, the form mear may be replaced by earder rather, which is not allowed in true comparatives. Furthermore, the construction is not restricted to adjectives or adverbs, for instance in (24):

Example 24

Us buorman is mear in filosoof as in boer
our neighbour is more a philosopher than a farmer
Our neighbour is more of a philosopher than a farmer

In this example too, mear may be replaced by earder.

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The problem of forming morphological superlatives in the case of adjectives ending in -sk and those derived from past participles is discussed in Hoekstra (2002).

  • Hoekstra, Eric2002Meast ferneamd of ferneamdstFriesch Dagblad10-08Taalgenoat en taalgeniet 27
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989Ús nij hûsFriesch Dagblad08-07Taalsnipels 113
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989Om it heechste (I)Friesch Dagblad23-09 Taalsnipels 122
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989Om it heechste (II)Friesch Dagblad07-10Taalsnipels 123