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-ster /stər/ is an unstressed, stress-neutral, productive, cohering Germanic suffix that creates nouns of common gender denoting female persons. Inputs are either verb stems or deverbal function names derived by means of -aar or -ier.

Schema 1:

female V-er

Schema 2:
[[X-ier]ster](N), [[X-aar]ster](N)

female counterpart X-ier, X-aar

Table 1
-ster formation base
werkster female worker, cleaning lady < werken .V to work
wandelaarster female walker < wandel-aar .N walker
winkelierster female shopkeeper < winkel-ier .N shopkeeper

As -ster derivations are of common gender, they take the definite singular article de. The plural of -ster formations is construed with -s.

[+]Morphosyntactic properties

The suffix -ster /stər/ is a nominalizing Germanic suffix of unclear origin (see Etymologiebank) that can be used productively to create nouns of common gender referring to female persons. It is the counterpart of nominalizations with the suffix -er (which may be seen as an instance of affix substitution) or it uses as its basis nominalizations in -aar and -ier.

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According to Booij (2002:103), -ster is "primarily deverbal": a nonce formation*plogster will be interpreted by native speakers as a derivation from the (non-existing) verb *ploggen. Booij adds, however, that "speakers of Dutch tend to interpret this pattern as the substitution of -er with -ster after a nominal stem", i.e., in the case in hand, from *plogger.

In writing, formations such as operaster opera star may look like -ster derivations, but in fact, these formations are compounds with ster /stεr/ star as right-hand part. Written forms like voetbalster are ambiguous between compound /ˌvut.bɑl.ˈstεr/ football star (pl. voetbalsterren)) and /ˈvut.bɑl.stər/ female football player (pl. voetbalsters).

It has been claimed (Van Marle 1985) that -e is the default feminizing suffix, implying that -ster derivations are exceptional; Booij (2002:103) argues that this claim is too strong.

  • -ster functions as the counterpart of deverbal -er formations, which can be seen as a case of paradigmatic word formation or affix substitution, because (unlike affix sequences such as -ier-ster and -aar-ster, cf. below) the affix sequence -er-ster does not occur. Verbal bases can be both simplex (e.g. kapster female hairdresser corresponding to kapper hairdresser < kappen to cut, to chop) or complex (ontvangster female receiver next to ontvanger receiver, tax-collector < ont-vangen to receive). If for whatever reason an -er derivation is impossible, then so is a derivation with -ster: no *valler or *valster on the basis of ergative vallen to fall, no *schamer or *schaamster from obligatory reflexive zich schamen to be ashamed, no *blijker or *blijkster from subjectless blijken to turn out. If the stem of the formation in -er has a special form, then so has the one in -ster, e.g. reizigster with extra -ig- next to reiziger traveller (< reizen to travel), tegenstandster with stem allomorphy next to tegenstander opponent (< tegenstaan against-stand to oppose).

    -ster formations as counterparts of non-deverbal -er derivations are rare: no *rechtster as female counterpart to rechter judge, no *tienster next to tiener teenager, no *Amsterdamster next to Amsterdammer someone from Amsterdam. De Haas and Trommelen (1993:191) do, however, list examples such as dagloonster female day laborer (cf. dagloner day laborer < dagloon day's pay), wetenschapster female scientist (cf. wetenschapper scientist < wetenschap knowledge-ship science), misdadigster female criminal (cf. misdadiger criminal < misdaad wrong-deed crime), vrijwilligster female volunteer (cf. vrijwilliger volunteer < vrijwillig free-will-SUFF voluntarily) and VVD'ster female member or supporter of the political party VVD (cf. VVD'er member or supporter of the political party VVD), which may all be analyzed as cases of affix substitution.

  • Regular deverbal -aar formations get, in principle, a female counterpart in -ster: wandelaar-ster female walker, verzamelaarster female collector. The same holds for certain other -aar derivations: beoordelaarster female evaluator (< beoordelen to evaluate), leugenaarster female lier (< leugen .N lie). -ster also attaches to person names with suffix -ier, e.g. winkelierster winkel-ier-ster female shop keeper and avonturierster avontuur-ier-ster female adventurer.

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In some cases, we do not find -ster but rather -er + -es, e.g. zieneres prophetess is much more frequent than zienster prophetess. Certain other -er derivations allegedly have no female counterpart at all, De Haas and Trommelen (1993: 155) mention middenstander middle-class-er shopkeeper and opzichter overviewer, superintendent. However, both middenstandster female shopkeeper and opzichtster female superintendent have various hits on the internet.

marketentster sutler has no male counterpart, but according to the WNT it is not a Dutch -ster derivation but rather a loan from German which, via Italian, ultimately goes back to Mediaeval Latin mercatareto trade.

The restriction that there are no ergative verbal inputs is not absolute, especially for prefixed and separable complex verbs: we saw that there is no *valler or *valster on the basis of ergative vallen to fall, but we do find invaller understudy, invader, substitute and invalster on the basis of ergative invallen to replace, to raid.

Some -aar formations also take -es rather than -ster, e.g. lerares female teacher < leraar teacher. In other cases, both affixes are attested, e.g. molenaarster, molenares female miller and martelaarster, martelares female martyr.

In the Netherlands, passagier passenger and scholier student have a female form in -e (passagiere, scholiere); in Belgium one finds regular passagierster and scholierster as well (De Haas and Trommelen 1993:192), albeit rarely.

Inheritance of verbal argument structure is analogous to that of -er formations.

[+]Phonological properties

The suffix -ster does not bear stress and does not change the stress pattern of its base. Due to the phonological make-up of the affix, there will always be a syllable boundary coinciding with the morphological boundary.

[+]Inflectional properties

Plurals of -ster formations are in –s, e.g. werksters cleaning ladies, winkeliersters female shopkeepers, martelaarsters female martyrs.

[+]Input restrictions

Geographical person names in -er or -aar never take -ster, so there is no *Antwerpenaarster next to Antwerpen-aar someone from the city of Antwerp or *Texelaarster next to Texel-aar someone from the isle of Texel, nor *Schiedamster next to Schiedam-er someone from the city of Schiedam or *Vlielandster next to *Vlieland-er someone from the isle of Vlieland. Instead, a derivation in -e from the pertinent adjective is used for the female inhabitant name: Antwerps-e, Texels-e, Schiedams-e, Vlielands-e.

[+]Semantic properties

Formations with the suffix -ster denote female person names: a schrijfster female writer is the feminine counterpart of schrijver writer. Some kind of professionalism or habit is often implied: not every woman who writes is a schrijfster. For deverbal -ster formations, the interpretation as Agent nouns is the default (e.g. schrijfster female writer, someone who writes), but Theme interpretations occur as well (e.g. martelaarster female martyr, woman who is tortured (to death)), completely parallel to the corresponding formations in -er, -aar, etc.

[+]Morphological potential

Regular diminutives are in -tje: werkstertje, winkelierstertje, martelaarstertje. Apart from diminutive formation, -ster formations cannot be input to further derivational processes. In compounds, they can, in principle, function both as left-hand and right-hand part as illustrated by verpleegstersuniform female nurse's uniform and ziekenverzorgster female sick people's attendant, nurse, respectively. If they function as left-hand part, -ster formations are usually followed by a linking phoneme /s/. If a deverbal -ster formation functions as the right-hand part of a N-N compound, the left-hand part is interpreted by default as a (semantic) argument of the verb (see also compounding), e.g. Patient in ganzenhoedster goose girl, woman who herds geese, Location in wereldreizigster world traveler.

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De Haas and Trommelen (1993:191) mention obsolete voedsteren (< voedster foster mother, nurse) as the only verbalization of a -ster formation.

An alternative analysis for cases such as ziekenverzorgster female sick people's attendant, nurse and invalster understudy (< from the separable complex verb (SCV) invallen) would be as synthetic compound.

  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Marle, Jaap van1985On the paradigmatic dimension of morphological creativityDordrechtForis