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-er (nominal)

The suffix -er /ər/ is a Germanic, cohering, unstressed, polysemous suffix that creates nouns of common gender denoting names of people and things from verbs, geographical names, abbreviations, cardinal numbers, and occasionally from stems of other categories. The semantics is diverse, with a preference for agentive readings in the case of verbal bases (Moortgat 1981), (Booij 1986). The plural form is usually in -s, the feminine counterpart (when applicable) in -ster (schrijfster female writer).

-er is the most productive suffix to derive nouns of common gender from (native) verbs, either simplex (e.g. werker < werken to work) or complex (e.g. ontdekker discoverer < ont-dekken to discover). The possible readings for deverbal nouns in -er include Agent (worker worker, i.e. someone who works), Instrument (stofzuiger vacuum cleaner, i.e. something one vacuums with) and Patient (e.g. veger broom < vegen to sweep); words like zender sender, transmitter are polysemous (both Agent and Impersonal Agent/Instrument readings are available). On the hand, certain other nominalization readings, such as Result or Event, are extremely rare.

er- also combines with other bases: geographical names (Amsterdammer someone from Amsterdam, Nederlander Dutchman), certain numerals (tiener ten.er teenager, vijftiger fifty.er someone in his fiftiesouder old.er parent), some nouns (rechter right.er judge), various subcategories of nouns such as abbreviations (PTT-er postman) and sportsclub's names (Feyenoorder Feyenoord player, Feyenoord fan), as well as certain phrases (doe-het-zelver do-it-self.er do-it-yourselfer).

The suffix -er is also a very productive source of synthetic compounds, either with a verbal right-hand part (e.g. bevelhebber command.have.er commander), or other (tientonner ten ton truck). In the first case, there is no complex verb *bevelhebben nor an -er derivation of the simplex verb *hebber; in the second case, *tienton nor *tonner is an existing word.

An allomorph -der occurs after verbal stems ending in r, e.g. in huurder tenant < huren to rent and (Belgian) droogzwierder dry-spin-der spin-dryer < droog.zwieren to spin dry. There is a division of labor with the suffix -aar (as in molenaar miller and tovenaar magician.

In many varieties of Dutch, -(d)erd ( /ərt/, as in knoeierd bungler < knoeien to mess) (also spelled -(d)ert as in brommert moped < brommen to hum) is an informal variant of nominal -(d)er.

Finally, note that we also find homophonous suffixes -(d)er that are found in, e.g.,

  • comparative forms, constructed productively from adjectives (groter greater, larger, interessanter more interesting, raarder more strange < raar strange);
  • adjectives derived from geographical names (Haarlemmer from Haarlem, Groninger from Groningen, Alkmaarder from Alkmaar) and from cardinal numerals ending in -tig (de twintiger jaren the twenty.er years the twenties);
  • verbs derived from nouns (klonteren to clump < klont clot) or verbs (redderen to put in order < redden to save).


The suffix -er is the most frequent, the most productive and the most versatile of all Dutch affixes. It is found in nouns on the basis ofverbs, cardinal numbers, abbreviations, nouns, adjectives, and phrases; new derivations can be formed on bases of the first three categories. All -er derivations, irrespective of the category of the base, are nouns of common gender, selecting the singular definite article de, with a plural in -s (with a few exceptions).

When referring to a person - for instance schrijver writer, author or lezer reader - the nouns are often not gender specific (Booij 2002). Still, in many cases where the gender of the referent is relevant, a femine form can be formed, typically by means of the suffix -ster, e.g. schrijfster female writer, authoress (a case of affix substitution), sometimes with other suffixes (e.g -es in lezeres female reader).

[+]Verb as base

The suffix -er is extremely productive when it comes to building nouns out of native verbs. Non-native verbs occur as bases as well (e.g. investeerder investor < investeren to invest), but for this input category, there is competion from non-native suffixes such as -(at)or as in inspirator inspirer < inspireren to inspire. The semantics may differ: we find agentive readings, Patients, Themes and Instruments. All -er nouns are of common gender.

Table 1
Base form Derivation Type of reading
lopen to walk loper walker Agent someone who walks
arbeiden to work arbeider worker Agent someone who works
serveren to serve serveerder waiter Agent someone who serves
bijsluiten to insert bijsluiter information leaflet Patient something that has been inserted
meezingen to sing along meezinger sing-along song Patient something that is sung along
meevallen to exceed one's expectations meevaller piece of good luck Theme something that exceeds one's expectations
uitschieten to shoot out uitschieter high-flyer, outlier Theme someone or somethings that stands out
meten to measure meter measuring instrument Instrument something to measure with (Agent reading is possible as well, e.g. in landmeter land measurer surveyor
gieten to poor gieter watering can Instrument something to poor with
The table shows both simplex verbal bases (lopen, arbeiden, meten, gieten), including an occasional non-native stem (serveren), and complex ones (bijsluiten, meezingen, meevallen, uitschieten).
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The monosyllabic verb zien to see, whose stem is zie see, retains infinitival /n/ in this type of derivations: ziener seer, clairvoyant. The same holds for doener doer < doen /dun/ to do. On the basis of staan /stan/ to stand, however, we find staander style, whereas gaan /gan/ to go yields ganger (only in complex formations, cf. below).

Next to these separable complex verbs, more complex cases occur as well, with, again, various possible interpretations.
Table 2
Parts Derivation Type of reading
noun + verb + -er vioolbouwer violin.build.er violin maker Patient-Agent someone who builds violins
noun + verb + -er bevelhebber command.have.er commander Patient-Agent someone who has the command
noun + verb + -er vrijheidsstrijder freedom.fight.er freedom fighter Goal-Agent someone who fights for freedom
noun + verb + -er landloper land.walk.er tramp Location-Agent someone who walks in the land
adverb + verb + -er buitenstaander outside.stand.er outsider Location-Agent someone who stands outside
adverb + verb + -er alleenheerser alone.rule.er autocrat Manner-Agent someone who rules all by himself
quantifier + verb + -er veelschrijver much.write.er prolific writer Patient-Agent someone who writes much
noun + verb + -er bladblazer leaf.blow.er blower Patient-Instrument something to blow leaves with
noun + verb + -er deeltjesversneller part.DIM.s.accelerate.er particle accelerator Patient-Instrument instrument to accelerate particles with
Some of these formations should be seen as synthetic compounds, e.g. bevelhebber: there is no complex verb *bevelhebben nor an -er derivation of the simplex verb *hebber(Hoeksema 1984).

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Moortgat (1981), Hoeksema (1984) and others have observed that if the left-hand part of such constructions takes an argument, this valency property may be inherited by the complex noun. A case in point is bevelhebber over de strijdkrachten commander of the armed forces, where the complex compound selects the same preposition over as its left part (ze voert het bevel over de strijdkrachten she commands the armed forces). Given that in complex constructions, usually only properties of the head are inherited, these constructions are of considerable theoretical relevance.

There appears to be a certain division of labour between the various nominalizing suffixes. In the agentive reading, -er competes with -aar (after /ər/ (fluisteraar whisperer) and /əl/ (huichelaar hypocrite) (tovenaar sorcerer < toveren is exceptional in various ways)), and the allomorph -der (after /r/ in stressed syllable (huurder tenant)). In more formal varieties of the language, the suffix -end(e) (the nominalizedpresent participle) can be used: inzittende passenger, belangstellende interested person, omwonenden residents, langstlevende surviving partner. For Patient/ Result readings, -sel is the default suffix (e.g. knipsel clipping, zaagsel saw dust, aanhangsel appendix); Patient readings for -er (e.g. bijsluiter information leaflet) are rare. The event reading is extremely rare (or non-existant) with -er: -ing appears to be the default here (verkiezing election).

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Homonymous derivations: given that the -er affix can express a number of meanings, it is not surprising that certain -er formations allow for more than one reading. A case in point is aanhanger that can be interpreted both as the Patient and as the Agent of the action (corresponding with a more literal reading of the verb in the first example, and a more figurative one in the second):

Example 1

a. Ik heb al een aanhanger aan de auto gekoppeld
I have already a trailer on the car connected
I've attached a trailer to the car already
b. Ze is een aanhanger van die nieuwe politieke partij
She is a supporter of that new political party
She is a supporter of that new political party

Likewise, the noun meezinger not only denotes a sing-along song (the Patient reading), but also someone who sings along (the Agent reading). Kijker < kijken to look even has (at least) three readings: spectator (Agent), telescope (Instrument, possible a clipping of verrekijker) and eye (Instrument?).

In a sense, it may look surprising that misunderstanding is relatively rare. Various factors may play a role in avoidig misunderstanding. First, there is almost always context to help in interpretation. E.g., in (this example), the noun phrase de auto the car favours the trailer reading of de aanhanger, whereas partij party in the other example points towards the supporter reading. Next, there is lexicalization: many complex words, including many -er formations, belong to the lexical stock of language users. They are stored as linguistic signs, i.e. as a pairing of a fixed form and a preferred semantics. New -er derivations may be coined, as the suffix is productive, but stored -er derivations may block or impede other readings, and the suffix is only productive in the Agent reading: to coin nominalizations with other types of readings, other affixes are available, that is, there is a division of labour.

New -er formations on the basis of simple nouns are practically impossible (but easy for abbreviations, etc., cf. below): default affixes appear to be -ier (herbergier inn keeper) and -aar (molenaar miller).

[+]Other bases

The suffix -er can also combine with members of word classes other than verbs. For instance with geographical and other names, abbreviations, cardinal numbers, and nouns.

  • The suffix -(d)er can be combined with geographical names to create inhabitant names: Amsterdammer someone from AmsterdamNederlander Dutchman, Zoetermeerder someone from Zoetermeer. If the name ends in -en, stem reduction occurs: Groninger someone from Groningen. Sometimes, the inhabitant noun is homophonous to the adjective (Groninger can also be used as an adjective denoting from or relating to Groningen), sometimes it isn't (Nederlander does not have an adjectival use). There are other suffixes to create inhabitant names as well (e.g. -aar in Hagenaar someone from The Hague and -ees in Hagenees someone from The Hague); the mechanisms underlying the division of labour between the competing suffixes are unclear, most forms are lexicalized, are listed in dictionaries, etc., and are taught in school.

    The feminine counterpart of -er nouns derived from geographical nouns is not by means of -ster (no *Amsterdamster, *Nederlandster next to Amsterdammer, Nederlander), but the nominalized form of the derived adjective: Amsterdamse from Amsterdam (A), woman from Amsterdam (N), Nederlandse Dutch (A), Dutch woman (N).

  • The suffix -er can also be combined with names of sports clubs to create nouns that denote members or fans: (Feyenoorder Feyenoord player/fan, Lagaaier member of (Delft student rowing club) Laga). There are other suffixes to create membership names as well (e.g. -ied in Ajaxied Ajax player/fan and -ees in Tritonees member of (Utrecht student rowing club) Triton); the mechanisms underlying the distribution are unclear, many forms are lexicalized.
  • -er can also combine with abbreviations in which all letters are pronounced (initialisms) (PTT'er /pe.te.'te.(j)ər/ postman, NCRV'er /ɛn.se.ɛr.'ve.(j)ər/ member or employee of the Christian broadcasting union, KRO'er /ka.ɛr.'o.ər/ member or employee of the Catholic broadcasting union), but not with abbreviations that are pronounced as words (acronyms) (*VARA'er /'va.ra.ər/ member or employee of the Socialist broadcasting union, *AVRO'er /'a.vro.ər/ member or employee of the Liberal broadcasting union).
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    The official spelling rules (Woordenlijst) insist that we spell these derivations with an apostrophe, but other spellings (PTT-er, PTTer) can be found as well.

  • Cardinal numerals can be input to -er derivations as well. Most common bases are multiples of 10 (tiener teenager, twintiger, dertiger, negentiger someone in his/her twenties/thirties/nineties), but formations on more complex numerals can be found as well, with a more or less transparent meaning (in context), e.g. zestiener 16.er someone of 16 years old, time in the sixteen seconds/minutes region, negenenveertiger someone born in 1949, (car) built in 1949,vierenzeventiger 74.er car built in 1974, battleship with 74 guns.
  • There are quite some nouns in -er formed on a nominal basis:

    Table 3
    Base form Derivation
    schip ship schipper captain, skipper
    daad deed, act dader perpetrator
    recht justice rechter judge
    New -er derivations on simple nominal bases are unlikely to be coined. In line with the majority of the formations on a verbal base, these derivations more or less carry an idea of agentivity. For example, a rechter judge applies the law to court cases and oversees the legal process in courts.

    Denominal -er formations often occur as the right-hand member of noun-noun compounds (beurtschipper skipper of a trading barge, scheidsrechter referee), but there is usually no reason to analyse these as synthetic compounds. Another class of complex denominal -er formations has a cardinal numeral as left-hand part, e.g. driepitter three cylinder engine, three burner stove, viermaster four-masted ship, twaalftonner twelve ton car/machine/lift. Here, an analysis as synthetic compound is called for, given the exocentric reading and the non-existence of the binary parts *driepit, *viermast, *twaalfton, *pitter, *master, and *tonner.

    In denominal agent noun formation, -er competes with a number of suffixes, e.g. -ier as in winkelier winkel.ier shopkeeper, -aar as in molenaar mill.enaar miller, -ist as in violist viool.ist violinist (especially with musical instruments as bases).

  • There are a few -er derivations with a phrasal basis: doe-het-zelver do.it.self.er do-it-yourselver, vierdeklasser fourth.class.er fourth-grader, ban-de-bommer ban.the.bomb.er disarmament activist.
  • There are a few -er derivations with a adjectival basis: ouder parent (oud old), vrijwilliger volunteer (< vrijwillig voluntary(ly)). New cases are extremely rare, more common ways to derive nouns from adjectives are -erd (viezerd) , -aard (lafaard) , and especially -e (rooie) .
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    An alternative analysis of ouder parent (oud old) and vrijwilliger volunteer (< vrijwillig voluntary(ly)) would be as nominalizations (conversions) of the comparitive form. This might work for the case of ouder, as a parent is by necessity older than someone else (his/her offspring), but a comparative semantics is lacking in the case of vrijwilliger. The same holds for misdadiger, from the derived adjective misdadig criminal.

    Philippa (2003-2009) (Etymologiebank) mentions yet another suffix -er (< pgm -ran-) that is found in a number of names for male animals such as kater tomcat (< kat cat), doffer cock (< duif dove, pigeon) and (obsolete) gander gander, male goose (< gans goose).

    The form rederijker member of chamber of rhetoric, rhetorician has been mentioned () as an another case of an -er derivation on a phrasal basis, but the WNT dictionary (Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie 1995) suggests that it is "a jocular adaption of" rhetorieker rhetorician.

[+]Synthetic compounds

The suffix -er is a prolific source of synthetic compounds. Following Smessaert (2013: 137 ff) we may distinguish a number of subtypes:

  • Num+N+-er, e.g. tientonner ten.ton.er ten ton (truck), driemaster three.mast.er three-master, driewieler three.wheel.er tricycle, viervoeter four.foot.er quadriped, duizendklapper thousand.hit.er firecracker, string of bangers.
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    Formations like driewegstekker three.way.plug three-way plug are either to be analyzed as a very complex synthetic compound [drie](Num) [weg](N) [steek](V) [er](aff) or as a three-part compound [drie](Num) [weg](N) [stekker](N).

  • P+N+-er, e.g. tegenvoeter against.foot.er antipode, onderzeeër under.see.er submarine;
  • A/Adv+V+-er, e.g. veelschrijver much.write.er prolific writer, langslaper long.sleep.er long sleeper, dooddoener dead.do.er clincher;
  • N+V+-er, geldschieter money.shoot.er moneylender, kustvaarder coast.sail.er coaster, sportbeoefenaar sport.practice.er sportsman, woordvoerder word.carry.er spokesman.

[+]Input restrictions

According to De Haas and Trommelen (1993: 42), deverbal -er derivations are rare on the basis of ergative verbs, which explains the (virtual) absence of formations like *valler (< vallen to fall), ?blijver (< blijven to stay) and *sterver (< sterven to die). Note that this restriction is not absolute, witness forms like daler descender (< dalen to descend) and stijger climber (< stijgen to rise) (Booij 1986). Moreover, when certain ergative verbs, such as vallen, have a verbal particle, as in meevallen or afvallen, -er formations can be ok, witness meevaller piece of good luck and afvaller someone not qualifying, loser. Derivations on the basis of modal verbs are rare as well, but complex formations on the basis of light verbs do occur, e.g. alleskunner all.can.er allrounder, nietwiller not.will.er downturner, achterblijvers behind.stay.ers stragglers, dwarsligger cross.ly.er sleeper, obstructionist, crossbar, and tegenstander against.stand.er opponent.

[+]Semantic issues

In agentive readings, -er derivations often get a pregnant (marked) reading: a schrijver writer is not just someone who occasionally writes, but a professional writer; a drinker drinker is not someone who drinks to quench his thirst but an alcoholic; a buitenstaander ouside.stand.er is not someone who happens to stand out, but an t outsider, an eter eater is not just someone who eats but a dinner guest. This effect, incidentally, is not restricted to -er derivation: as everyone drinks everyday, an utterance such as hij drinkt he drinks has no news value. Therefore it can be used as a euphemistic way to express he is an alcoholic.

[+]Phonological properties

-er never carries stress, as its vowel is a schwa. The affix is cohering: syllabification does not align with morphological structure (e.g. werk.er /'wεr-kər/ worker). The stress pattern of -er derivations follows that of the base (ver'rader traitor < ver'raden to betray, 'onderkruiper backstabber < 'onder.kruipen to undercut); in synthetic compounds with -er, main stress is on the leftmost part (be'velhebber command haver commander, 'tientonner ten ton truck), as is common in nominal compounds.

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In informal varieties of Dutch, especially from the Holland area, the allomorph -erd (also spelled -ert) may replace -er, sometimes with a jocular effect: voetballert football player, brommerd moped, vrijheidsstrijdert freedom fighter. Note that the variant sometimes even occurs in simplex words and loans, e.g. gozerd for gozer guy, bloke (< Jiddish chosen bridegroom, son in law) and computerd computer.

With a few verbs, we see stem allomorphy: zanger singer < zingen to sing (but also meezinger sing-along-song, someone who sings along), diender cop < dienen to serve (but also dienaar servant), uitgaanders gadders < uitgaan to go out (but also the synthetic compounds voetganger pedestrian, kerkganger church.go.er worshipper and telganger count.go.er ambler from the same base verb gaan to go), buitenstaander outsider and tegenstander opponent both from the base verb staan to stand

[+]Morphological potential

Nominal -er derivations can be input for new derivations, e.g. the formation of abstract nouns by means of the suffix -schap (leiderschap leadership, ouderschap parenthood < oud.er old.er parent, bevelhebberschap captaincy), or diminutive formation with the suffix -tje (leidertje leader.DIM). Nominal -er derivations can also be part of nominal compounds, both left-hand part (e.g. ouderraad parent council); often, a link phoneme s is inserted (aandeelhoudersvergadering share.holder.s.meeting shareholder's meeting) and right-hand part (e.g. kinderrechter juvenile judge). In certain cases, it may be hard to decide whether the formation should be analysed as a compound or as a synthetic compound, e.g. vrijheidsstrijder freedom fighter.

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In N-N compounds with a deverbal -er derivation as the right-hand part, the left-hand part usually has a preferred interpretation as a (semantic) argument of the base verb (c.f. (Davidson 1967), (Hoeksema 1984)), but which exact argument its is, cannot be predicted, cf. platenspeler disc player, grammophone (Patient), poppenspeler puppet player (Instrument), vleugelspeler wing player (Location). In the appropriate context (music), the left-hand part in the last example can moreover also get a Patient reading (as vleugel can also mean grand piano).

Feminine forms of deverbal -er formations are usually with -ster replacing -er (affix substitution): paardrijdster horse.drive.ster horsewoman, scriptiebegeleidster thesis.be.lead.ster female thesis supervisor, occasionally in -es (e.g. lezeres female reader next to lezer reader). Sometimes there is meaning specialisation (e.g. werkster lit. female worker, cleaning lady). The feminine counterpart of -er nouns derived from geographical nouns, however, is not by means of -ster (no *Amsterdamster, *Nederlandster next to Amsterdammer, Nederlander but the inflected form of the derived adjective: Amsterdamse from Amsterdam (A), woman from Amsterdam (N), Nederlandse Dutch (A), Dutch woman (N).

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Denominal -er derivations usually have no morphologically marked counterpart (De Haas and Trommelen 1993: 177) (no *rechtster next to rechter judge < recht justice, law), and the same holds for denumeral ones (no *dertigster next to dertiger someone in his thirties).

Verbal -er formations can be input to new derivation, e.g. the derived noun gesnotter sobbing (< snotteren to snivel < snot snot) and the derived verb ontredderen to puzzle, to bring in disarray (obsolete, but the past participle ontredderd upset and the derived noun ontreddering upheavel are still in use).

[+]Inflectional properties

Nominal formations in -er have a plural in -s: arbeiders workers, vijftigers people in their fifties, tientonners ten ton trucks, bijsluiters.

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An exceptional plural in -en is found in bestuurderen directors, governors (next to regular bestuurders), parallel to equally obsolete vaderen fathers next to regular vader fathers from simplex vader. Ouderen older people is not a case in point as it is the plural form of a nominalisation of the comparative oudere an older person.

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