Dutch/Lesson 19

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Les 19 ~ Lesson 19

Onscheidbare werkwoorden~ Inseparable verbs

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There are three basic kinds of verbs in Dutch in terms of separability

  1. Basic verbs (current database at nl.wiktionary)
    Basic verbs form their past participle with ge-
    Either they simply consist of a stem: lopen - gelopen
    Or they may have prefixes that are treated as part of the stem; this is the case for all prefixes of Latin origin: degenereren -gedegenereerd
  2. Separable verbs (current database at nl.wiktionary)
    Separable verbs have a prefix that is separated in some of the tenses, reunited in others
    They form their past participle by inserting -ge- between the prefix and the stem: doorlopen - doorgelopen
  3. Inseparable verbs (current database at nl.wiktionary)
    Inseparable verbs have a prefix before the stem that does not separate
    The prefix suppresses the ge- prefix of the past participle - onthalen - onthaald


There is a difference in stress between the separable and inseparable prefixes:

separable prefixes carry stress
inseparable prefixes never carry stress: the stress is on the stem of the verb

Dual prefixes[edit]


Verbs can have more than one prefix. Usually a separable one precedes an inseparable one: e.g. in afbetalen, where af- is separable and be- is inseparable. In such a case the af- prefix will follow the rules for separation:

afbetalen infinitive united
hij besloot af te betalen the te-form of the infinitive separates
hij betaalde af finite forms in main clauses separates
ik geloof dat hij afbetaalt finite form in subject clauses reunite

But the be- prefix will still suppress the ge- prefix in the past participle:

hij heeft afbetaald (not: *afgebetaald)


The inseparable prefix "her-" is still somewhat productive and can appear before verbs that already have another inseparable prefix like "be-", as in herbeginnen. Such a verb behaves entirely as an inseparable verb


In a few cases with a reverse order of separability a conflict may arise, e.g. if the inseparable "her-" is put before a separable "in-" as in "herinrichten". Such verbs tend to be incomplete: not all forms are used. One may see a form like "heringericht", but speakers may avoid phrases like "ik richt herin".

(current database at nl.wiktionary)

Inseparable prefixes[edit]

The number of truly inseparable prefixes that can only be used as inseparable, is relatively small in Dutch. A few prepositional adverbs like door-, onder- can be used either as separable of as inseparable and were already reviewed in chapter 17.


Much like in English the prefix be- 'pins' the action of a verb 'down onto' an object. If the prefix is added to an intransitive verb it often becomes transitive and thus the verb can be used in the passive voice:

slapen - to sleep
beslapen - to sleep on something
het bed is niet beslapen - the bed has not been slept on
gaan - to go
begaan - to set foot on, to perpetrate
onbegaanbaar - inpassible (impossible to set foot on)


This prefix has been largely supplanted in English by a prefix of Latin origin de-

dooien - to thaw
ontdooien - to defrost

The prefix mostly indicates an irreversible change or movement away from a previous state

slapen - to sleep
ontslapen - to die, to pass away
zien - to see
ontzien - to spare someone, to look the other way

It can have the flavor of an antonym at times

komen - to come
ontkomen - to escape
zich kleden - to get dressed
zich ontkleden - to get undressed


This prefix has been supplanted by the Latin prefix re- in English. It means a renewal or a repeated action:

stellen - to put, to make stand
herstellen - to repair, to heal
denken - to think
herdenken - to commemorate
kiezen - to choose
herkiezen - to reelect


This prefix denotes a variety of meaning, some of which correspond to the English prefixes for- and fore-

In general it denotes a change.

taal - language
vertalen - to translate
kort - short
verkorten - to shorten
verjongen - to rejuvenate

It can have the connotation of "change for the worse":

gaan - to go
vergaan - to perish
worden - to become
verworden - to degenerate, to decay

Some verbs only occur with this prefix:

vergeten - to forget
(krijgen, worden) - to get

There is a second prefix ver- with a different pronunciation: a stress carrying /vɛr/ rather than an unstressed /vər/. It is separable and has the meaning of English "far".

vérspringen - vérgesprongen: to make a long jump
verspríngen - verspróngen: to tick away, to suddenly change position


In Old Dutch this prefix was used as a general intensifier. Only later did it become a marker for the perfect tenses. English has had a similar development but lost the marker in the past participle. There are a few remnants in English like:

to rise - to arise

In Dutch the remnants are a bit more numerous.

denken - to think
gedenken - to ponder, to consider solemnly
bieden - to offer, to bid
gebieden - to command
dragen - to carry, to wear
zich gedragen - to comport onseself, to behave
loven - to praise
geloven - to believe
beloven - to promise

Notice that a word like "geboden" could either be the past participle of bieden or of gebieden. It can also be a noun, meaning commandments.


This prefix can convey the meaning of "again" (re-):

galmen - to sound, to resonate
weergalmen - to reverberate, to echo
spiegelen - to mirror
weerspiegelen - to reflect

However, it can also represent the with- of withstand:

weerstaan - to withstand
weerhouden - to withhold, to thwart