Dutch Language Blog

How Nouns In Dutch Are Falling Apart Posted by on Jul 15, 2019 in Dutch Grammar, Dutch Language, Dutch Vocabulary

Samenstellingen (compounded nouns) are a fun thing in the Dutch language. There are some fun challenges I remember from my childhood where we would make very long samenstellingen that you could basically make endless, even if nonsensical: hottentottententententoonstelling (Hottentot hut exposition) or fietsventieldopjesfabrikantenvereniging (bicycle valve cap factory association). But that is tame in comparison to some made up at this website, such as Arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzekeringsmaatschappij-medewerkersvergaderingsnotulen (disability insurance employee meeting minutes). But this beautiful practice is disappearing. What is going on? And what are the rules for these samenstellingen?

How to make your own samenstelling in 3 steps

Image by PoChun Yang at Unsplash.com

It is very easy to jumble some Dutch vocabulary together to form a samenstelling of your own!

  1. Choose two words, let’s say albino and exodus.
  2. Paste them together: albinoexodus – an exodus of albinos. Of course you could also write de exodus van albino’s, but where is the fun in that?
  3. Check whether saying the samenstelling does not make you wanna jumble the words together. In this example, you might say it wrong. Instead of albinoexodus as two separate words, you might say albinoexodus. This is because of tweeklanken we have in Dutch. And so you have to fix this to avoid that so-called klinkerbotsing (vowel clashing). Here, you can simply put a streepje (dash) in between: albino-exodus. Done! You are always allowed to use streepjes to make samenstellingen easier to read. Fietsventieldopjes-fabrikantenvereniging is easier to read than if it were one long, uncut word.

Some other notes on samenstellingen:

  1. The hoofdklemtoon (main stress) is in the first word: albino-exodus.
  2. The geslacht (gender) of the word, determining the article, is determined by the last word. It’s de exodus, so also de albino-exodus. To compare: het voorstel (the proposal) – het albino-exodusvoorstel (the albino exodus proposal).
  3. The samenstelling has to be made up of “real” words – zelfstandige naamwoorden (nouns). So they have to be able to stand on their own as nouns, too.
  4. There are also samenstellingen of werkwoorden (verbs) and bijvoeglijke naamwoorden (adjectives). But we won’t go into that right now.

Oh, and writing albino exodus as a samenstelling is, well, not a samenstelling. You have to connect the two! Exceptions to this exist too, when a eigennaam (own name) is written apart, like: Tweede Kamerlid (member of the Second Chamber, the Dutch lower house of parliament). Even so, Kamerlid is still a samenstelling of kamer and lid.

But the fun practice of making samenstellingen seems to scare people…


Don’t. Touch. The. Spatiebalk (space bar)! (And yes, that’s NOT spatie balk) (Image by Erik Mclean at Unsplash.com)

Even though the rules above are pretty straightforward and simple and are one of the first thing taught at Dutch scholen (schools), the Dutch quite often seem to be scared to just push words together in a samenstelling. As if putting them together would make things unreadable, or it “just looks weird”.

René Dings, founder of website SOS (Signalering Onjuist Spatiegebruik) (Detection of Incorrect Space Usage) wanted to make the point, and tongue-in-cheek, he invited people to submit onjuist spatiegebruik if they found it. Well, it is not hard to find.

So, for example, instead of Kerst special (Christmas special), as the Dutch TV omroep (channel) Avro wrote, it should be kerstspecial. There are even examples where there is less correct than incorrect spatiegebruik, such as the back of this truck that describes feest decoratie instead of feestdecoratie. This actually shows another fun thing that is often done incorrectly: You can have a sentence with multiple samenstellingen that have the same first or last word. So, for example: ballonnen en feest decoratie (as can be read on the aforementioned truck) now reads “balloons and party decoration” instead of “balloon and party decoration”. To make that work in Dutch, you just use streepjesballonnen- en feestdecoratie. The same works in reverse: mannenvoetbal, -tennis en -hockey reads a lot easier than mannenvoetbal, mannentennis en mannenhockey (male football, tennis and hockey). It is a neat way to show exactly what you mean!

There are so many examples that René Dings even wrote a book about it, called Weg Om Legging. This in itself is a pun. A wegomlegging is an “alternative route” due to road works, for example. However, weg om legging means “gone due to leggings”. Dings joked about this “some weddings have been broken up for less!”

But so why is this happening? There could be several reasons:

  1. Autocorrect in Word or other programs don’t recognise the samenstellingen people make. As we saw above, you can really make any samenstelling, so of course  these programs don’t have all the different combinations registered. Even within this post, feestdecoratie and mannenhockey were underlined with red, and the suggestion was feest decoratie and mannen hockey – both incorrect. We don’t see this in German, even though they are similarly proficient at making extremely long words. Maybe it really comes from software making us feel insecure making long compounded nouns?
  2. English has a much larger influence in Dutch than in German. In English, compounded nouns are almost always written with spaces in between. And so it could seem less wrong to people to write words apart. It can look less cluttered and cleaner.
  3. There may also just be general disinterest of people to get it right. Even though the meaning of a word or sentence can truly be confusing with a mistake in spatiegebruik, context often easily clears up the intended meaning. One example from Weg Om Leggingnaakt model tekenen (naked model drawing). Of course, naaktmodel has to be one word (autocorrect even noticed that here!). But how to add tekenen? Just… naaktmodeltekenenYes, actually. It is much more cluttered, however. So what you would rather do is Tekenen van naaktmodellen (drawing of nude models). In this situation it is the name of a course, however, so naturally you would like it to be one word. And so people opt for the incorrect naakt model tekenen.

I personally think this is an inevitable thing in the Dutch language, and it may even lead to a change of grammar rules. The whole spatiegebruik thing is not a big deal, because using spaces often even helps to clarify meaning. But nevertheless, it is opmerkelijk (striking) how samenstellingen are falling apart in Dutch.

How are compounded nouns handled in your language? Is there any confusion? What do you think of this Dutch phenomenon? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.