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The prefix witte- or its allomorph withoe- derives adjectives on the basis of adjectives. The derivations intensify the meaning of the base form. Examples are grut large > wittegrut very large and heech high > witteheech very high. The number of derivations with the prefix witte- is limited, due to restrictions that are a remnant of its former origin as a short exclamative sentence wa wit hoe ...!.

[+]General properties

The prefix witte- derives adjectives with an adjective as base. The prefix has an allomorph withoe-. The distribution between these two allomorphs has not been investigated, however. The prefix intensifies the meaning of the base form. Examples of derivations with witte- are given in the table below:

Table 1
Base form Derivation
djip deep wittedjip very deep
fier far wittefier very far
lûd loud wittelûd very loud
djoer expensive wittedjoer very expensive
ryk rich witteryk very rich
let late wittelet very late
ier early witte-ier very early
âld old witte-âld very old
lang long wittelang very long

The prefix can also be added to the adverb faak often > wittefaak very often and to the quantifier folle much > wittefolle very much.

It should be noted that the adjectival bases in the table above are objective adjectives: they can be measured, for instance in metres, hours, etc. Subjective adjectives like moai beautiful or aardich nice are excluded, cf. the ungrammatical derivations *wittemoai and *witte-aardich.

A further restriction is the requirement that all words to which witte- attaches are not only objective adjectives, but they should also represent the positive end of a scale. Hence adjectives like lyts small, koart short or leech low, although inherently objective, cannot be prefixed by witte-: *wittelyts, *wittekoart and *witteleech. These adjectives denote the low value of a scale, and function as an antonym of some of the bases mentioned in the table above. In conclusion, only objective adjectives that denote a high value can be used in prefixation with witte-.

[+]The origin of witte-

The properties of witte- can be explained by its origin, which must be sought in a short exclamative sentence wa wit hoe ...! who knows how [A]. Instances of such sentences can still be found in 19th century Frisian. Apparently, this construction grammaticalized and reduced to the present prefix. Its allomorph withoe- is still a remnant of the larger sentence, in which the last syllable has not been reduced yet. The deletion of the first element wa who may have been enhanced by haplology with the second syllable wit.

The exclamative origin directly explains the intensifying semantics of the prefix, as exclamatives inherently denote a high degree. It is also understandable why the element wit survived, as this carried the main stress in the original exclamative sentence.

The restrictions with respect to the choice of the base can be explained by the properties of the wh-element hoe how. This question word only combines with objective adjectives. One can ask hoe lang is hy? how tall is he?, but not *hoe moai is se? how beautiful is she?. The latter sentence is not ungrammatical in a syntactical sense, but semantically it is a weird question to ask.

In addition, objective adjectives denoting a low value, as lyts small, koart short and leech low, cannot occur in how-questions either. One cannot ask *hoe koart is jo jacht? *how short is your yacht?, in contrast to hoe lang is jo jacht? how long is your yacht?. The latter question also applies to information concerning the length of a small yacht. Again, such sentences are not syntactically ungrammatical, but semantically they are weird.

The influence of the restrictions of hoe how can also be read off from objective antonym pairs like let late and ier early, to both of which witte- can attach: wittelet very late and witte-ier very early. However, it appears that at the same time the two adjectives are allowed in questions with hoe how:

Hoe let komsto nei hûs?
how late come.you to house
When will you come home?
Hoe ier moastesto der ôf?
how early must.you there off
How early did you have to rise?

The adverb faak and the quantifier folle, to which witte- also attaches, may likewise occur in hoe-questions, which makes the case even stronger. Examples are given below:

Hoe faak moat ik dat noch tsjin dy sizze?
how often must i that still against you say
How often must I say that to you?
Hoe folle jild moatst fan my ha?
how many money must.you of me have
How much money do I owe you?

The conclusion may therefore be drawn that the prefix witte- inherited many properties from its former existence as the exclamative sentence wa wit hoe who knows how.

Comparison with Dutch

The prefix witte- does not have a direct Dutch counterpart; Dutch words like *wetevaak or *weteveel do not exist. Instead, a different exclamative construction may be used, as in weet ik hoe vaak know I how often very often or ik weet niet hoe vaak I know not how often very often. Although the function is exclamative, the form of these sentence-fragments is interrogative and declarative, respectively.

[+]Syntactic properties

The form wittefolle very much can be used prenominally, as is shown in the example below:

Hy smookte wittefolle sigaretten
he smoked PREF.many cigarettes
He smoked quite a lot of cigarettes

On the other hand, derivations with witte- from adjectives only occur in predicative position. In the (a)-examples below the predicatively used derivations are grammatical. On the other hand, if used attributively as in the (b)-examples, they are barely acceptable:

a. De keeper skopte de bal wittefier fuort
the keeper kicked the ball PREF-far away
The goalkeeper kicked the ball very far away
b. ?De wittefiere ballen gongen oer it sket hinne
the PREF-far balls went over the fence else
The balls were kicked very far over the fence
a. Dy beam is witteheech
that tree is PREF-high
That is a very high tree
b. ?Dy wittehege beam sil omkapt wurde
that PREF-high tree will cut.down become
That very high tree will be cut down
a. De auto dy't hja kocht hat wie wittedjoer
the car which she bought has was PREF-expensive
The car which she has bought was very expensive
b. ?Hja hat in wittedjoere auto kocht
she has a PREF-expensive car bought
She has bought a very expensive car

Again, this behaviour might be a remnant of its origin as an exclamative sentence, which are hardly acceptable in prenominal position in an NP.

[+]Phonological properties

In derivations with witte-, the stress always is on the first syllable wit, as for instance in witteheech, WITtelang. Besides, schwa deletion does not occur if the prefix stands in front of a vowel, cf. witte-ier [vɪtə.iər] [*vɪt.iər] very early. The pronunciation of the stressed part is as [vɪt] in the north and west, or as [vit] in the east and the south, parallel to what can be observed in the verb witte to know.


This topic is based on Dyk (1988), which is more or less summarized in Hoekstra (1998:74). In Gold (1998) an interesting comparison is made with Yiddish mideye-. More details in Hoekstra (2004) and Klooster (1976).

  • Dyk, Siebren1988Oer it foarheaksel witte- (withoe) en syn syntaktysk komôfDyk, S. & Haan, G.J. de (eds.)Wurdfoarried en wurdgrammatika, LjouwertLjouwertFryske Akademy136-174
  • Gold, David L1998An instance of convergence: Frisian witte and Yiddish mideyeLeuvense Bijdragen87151-153
  • Hoekstra, Eric2004Withoefaak, withoefolleFriesch Dagblad06-11Taalgenoat en taalgeniet 60
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1998Fryske wurdfoarmingLjouwertFryske Akademy
  • Klooster, W.G1976Lijnen van taaltheoretisch onderzoekKoefoed, G & Evers, A. (eds.)Adjectieven, neutraliteit en comparatieven229-259
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