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Morphological productivity

In morphology, productivity is the phenomenon that a morphological pattern (a systematic form-meaning correspondence) observed a set of complex words can be extended to new cases. This then leads to new complex words, or inflectional forms of words. Examples of productive word formation in Dutch are the formation of new adjectives in –baar from verbs, such as skypebaar can be skyped derived from the verb skypen to skype, and the formation of new NN compounds such as rolkoffertoerisme roller case tourism. In inflection, the formation of past tense forms of verbs by means of suffixation is productive, as in skypte skyped.

On the other hand, there are quite a number of morphological patterns that are unproductive. For instance, Dutch has hundreds of verbs ending in –elen, such as babbelen to chat and wiebelen to wobble, but this class of verbs can hardly be extended. An example of an unproductive pattern in inflection is the set of past tense forms of verbs created by means of vowel change (Ablaut).

Productive patterns differ in their degree of productivity. Some are very productive, such as NN compounding, whereas other patterns are only marginally productive. For instance, the category of denominal female names ending in –in such as leeuwin lioness can hardly be extended. In an experimental situation speakers may come up with nouns like giraffin female giraffe or vrekkin female miser, but such words then have a flavour of affectation or artificiality.


The nature of morphological productivity has been a topic of debate in Dutch morphology circles since Schultink’s famous article on this topic ((Schultink 1961)), and his dissertation(Schultink 1962). Schultink reserved the notion of morphological productivity for cases of unintentionally coined new words, and considered other types of formation of new words a case of creativity. His famous definition, often cited in the international literature on morphology reads as follows: 'Productivity as a morphological phenomenon is the possibility for language users to coin, unintentionally, an in principle uncountable number of new words by means of the morphological process that underlies the form-meaning correspondence in some words they know' ("Onder produktiviteit als morfologisch fenomeen verstaan we dan de voor taalgebruikers bestaande mogelijkheid onopzettelijk door middel van het morfologisch procedé dat aan de vorm-betekenis-correspondentie van sommige hun bekende woorden ten grondslag ligt een in principe niet telbaar aantal nieuwe formaties toe te voegen" (Schultink 1962: 113). This distinction between productivity and creativity is also defended in (Van Marle 1985). However, other linguists have pointed out that it is not easy to make a principled distinction between unintentional and intentional language use (Bauer 2001).

The actual use of in principle productive processes differs enormously. Various factors play a role, such as the semantic usefulness of the morphological category, the number of available base words, style and text type, the competition with existing words that already have that meaning, and the competition of other morphological categories with similar meanings. This may be phrased as follows: not all possible complex words (as defined by the set of morphological schemata) are also probable complex words (Van Santen 1992).

Another complication is that a word formation process may only be productive for certain subcategories. For instance, the formation of denominal nouns in –er such as wetenschapper scientist and Amsterdammer inhabitant of Amsterdam is not productive across the board: it is productive for coining inhabitant names, but a noun like godsdienst-er religion-er religious person is odd.

The way in which the degree of productivity of a morphological pattern can be determined is a matter of debate. It is not sufficient to only count the number of word types of a category, and assume that a high number of word types indicates a high degree of productivity, because unproductive categories may also be instantiated by a high number of word types. Therefore, (Baayen 1989) proposed to measure the productivity of word formation processes by counting the number of hapaxes (word types with frequency 1) in a large corpus. This way of measuring productivity is based on the idea that a productive process will lead to a lot of hapaxes, whereas processes with a low degree of productivity will not result in a lot of such low frequency word types.

[+]Further reading

The issue of productivity, with examples from Dutch, is discussed in detail in (Booij 2017: chapter 6) (cf. also (Barðdal 2008: Ch. 2). Baayen has published a number of studies on measuring productivity of Dutch word formation processes (Baayen 1989), (Baayen 1993), (Baayen 1994). Clear cases of unproductive word formation in Dutch with many types are verbs in –eren and –elen such as bibberen to shiver and babbelen to chatter. They are dealt with in (Booij and Audring 2018) who argue that the morphological schemas that characterize these sets of verbs have the function of motivation: they express that the meaning of such verbs is not completely arbitrary.

  • Baayen, R. Harald1989A corpus-based approach to morphological productivity: statistical analysis and psycholinguistic interpretationVrije Universiteit AmsterdamThesis
  • Baayen, R. Harald1989A corpus-based approach to morphological productivity: statistical analysis and psycholinguistic interpretationVrije Universiteit AmsterdamThesis
  • Baayen, R. Harald1993On frequency, transparency, and productivityBooij, Geert & Jaap van Marle (ed.)Yearbook of Morphology 1992Kluwer181-208
  • Baayen, R. Harald1994Derivational productivity and text typologyJournal of Quantative Linguistics116-34
  • Barðdal, Jóhanna2008Evidence from Case and Argument Structure in IcelandicJohn Benjamins
  • Bauer, Laurie2001Morphological productivityCambridgeCambridge University Press
  • Booij, Geert and Ariane van Santen2017Morfologie. De woordstructuur van het Nederlands.AmsterdamAmsterdam University Press
  • Booij, Geert and Jenny Audring2018Partial motivation, multiple motivation, and the role of output schemasBooij, Geert (ed.)The construction of words. Advances in Construction MorphologyDordrechtSpringer
  • Marle, Jaap van1985On the paradigmatic dimension of morphological creativityDordrechtForis
  • Santen, Ariane van1992Produktiviteit in taal en taalgebruikLeidenUniversity of Leiden
  • Schultink, Henk1961Produktiviteit als morfologisch fenomeenForum der Letteren2100-125
  • Schultink, Henk1962De morfologische valentie van het ongelede adjectief in modern NederlandsDen HaagVan Goor Zonen
  • Schultink, Henk1962De morfologische valentie van het ongelede adjectief in modern NederlandsDen HaagVan Goor Zonen
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