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Aarts- is a category-neutral Germanic prefix. It attaches to adjectives producing adjectives like aartslui very lazy and to nouns producing nouns like aartsschurk extreme crook and aartsbisschop archbishop. The general meaning is a high degree of.


Aarts- derives from ancient Greek archi (cf. Etymologiebank) but it is fully integrated into the Dutch language system: in certain uses, it has a preference for Germanic bases.

Two meanings can be distinguished for aarts-: the oldest meaning first in rank is found in nouns like aartsbisschop archbishop, whereas the prefix denotes a high degree in adjectives like aartslui very lazy and nouns like aartsschurk extreme crook. In all cases, the semantics is compositional - the meaning of the whole is a transparent function of the meanings of the parts - and monotonous: derivations with aarts- denote a subset of the reference of the base word.

Prefixes like aarts- are independent phonological words: in nouns with aarts-, the stress is on the prefix, in adjectives stress is not fixed, but the prefix carries at least a secondary accent. Syllabification respects the morphological boundary: aartsoptimist /ˈarts.ɔp.ti.mɪst/ extreme optimist. Plural form and choice of article are inherited from the base.

  1. In the first meaning, the prefix is unproductive. It is almost exclusively found in words referring to church and religion, often calques of Latin or Greek words: aartsbisschop archbishop, aartsengel archangel, aartsbisdom archdiocese.
  2. In the second meaning, the prefix has a negative connotation. Given its meaning, aarts- mostly attaches to nouns and adjectives that are gradable and have a depreciatory sense; ANS(Haeseryn et al. 1997) lists aartsliefhebber regular amateur and aartsverzamelaar avid collector as positive cases.

Morphological potential: adjectives with aarts- have no comparative or superlative forms; nominalisation by means of the suffix -heid is possible ([aarts-dom]heid the property of being extremely stupid). Nouns with with aarts- can have a plural and a diminutive, and can be basis for compounds like aartsengelengeduld the patience one (only) finds in archangels.

Competing prefixes and processes: hyper-, super- and ultra- are other prefixes that denote a high degree in nouns; loco-, opper-, sub-, super- and vice- are other prefixes that denote ranks with nouns that refer to function names. To intensify adjectival meanings, Dutch has a host of means next to aarts-. E.g., there are affixes like hyper-, oer-, super- and ultra-, affixoids such as keistone, as well as more syntactic means (Van der Wouden and Foolen forthcoming).

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De Haas and Trommelen (1993: 45) suggest that strengthening aarts- can only be attached to nouns of Germanic origin; counterexamples are cases such as aartsfascist arch-fascist.

In the Europarl Corpus we found aartsbisdom archdiocese, aartsbisschop archbishop, aartsbisschoppelijk archiepiscopal, aartsconservatief arch-conservative, aartsengel archangel, aartsengelengeduld archangel's patience, aartsfascist arch-fascist, aartshertog archduke, aartsmoeilijk extremely difficult, aartsvader patriarch, aartsvijand archenemy, whereas the spoken Dutch corpus (CGN) has aartsbisdom archdiocese, aartsbisschop archbishop, aartsengel archangel, aartslelijk extremely ugly, aartslui extremely lazy, aartsmoeilijk extremely difficult, aartsrivaal archrival, aartsvader patriarch, aartsvijand archenemy, aartsyup extreme yuppy. It appears that nouns engage with aarts- somewhat more frequently than adjectives. A possible explanation is the fact that Dutch has many ways to intensify adjectival meanings (Van der Wouden and Foolen forthcoming).

  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Wouden, Ton van der & Foolen, AdforthcomingA most serious and extraordinary problem. Intensification of adjectives in Dutch, German, and English
  • Wouden, Ton van der & Foolen, AdforthcomingA most serious and extraordinary problem. Intensification of adjectives in Dutch, German, and English