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Conflicting Meanings of Prefix “Un”

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  • The roots of this way of using the prefix “un-” seem to go back to Germanic and Latin languages. The Dutch translation of the word “unthaw” is “ontdooien” but the prefix “ont-” has a double meaning in Dutch. It can mean “not”, like the English “un-” as well as “to initiate an action” which is similar to the English prefixes “in-” and “en-” as used in “inflame”, “inquire”, “enlighten” and maybe also the “a” in “awake”, “arise”.

    There are several other Dutch, German and French words in which the prefixes “ont/ent/en” are still used to indicate the initiation of an action:
    – ontbijten (Dutch for to have breakfast): literally “start to bite”
    – ontvlammen (Dutch), entflammen (German), enflammer (French): to inflame
    – ontbranden (Dutch), entbrennen (German): to ignite
    – ontstaan (Dutch), entstehen (German): to arise. Literally “to initiate to stand”
    – ontsteken (Dutch): to enkindle
    – ontwaken (Dutch): to awake

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