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The prosodic structure of compounds

Morphological structure influences the phonetic realization of complex words because it determines the prosodic structure of complex words, and it is to the constituents of prosodic structure that phonological constraints often apply (see also Booij 1985,1995,1999,2002). Therefore, the grammar of Dutch has to specify the mapping between morphological and prosodic structure. The basic hierarchy of prosodic categories is the following:

Example 1

syllable (σ), foot (Ft), prosodic word (ω)

Segments make up syllables, syllables make up feet, and feet make up prosodic words. Each constituent of a Dutch compound corresponds to a prosodic word. Prosodic words form the domain of syllabification, and hence, the boundaries between the constituents of a compound coincide with syllable boundaries, as shown by the following example:

Example 2

landadel [[land](N)[adel](N)](N) [ˈlɑnt.a.dǝl] country-nobility, landed gentry

The morphological constituents of this compound, land and adel, constitute prosodic words of their own. If landadel were treated as one prosodic word, the final /d/ of the constituent land would form a syllable with the next vowel /a/, and pronounced as [d] (the Maximal Onset Constraint). However, since the compound-internal morphological boundary coincides with a prosodic word boundary, we get a syllable pattern in which the first /d/ occurs in coda position, and is therefore devoiced, due to the constraint of Final Devoicing: obstruents in coda position are voiceless in Dutch.

A second role of the prosodic word is that it forms a domain of stress assignment, for both main stress and secondary stress. Even though two adjacent stressed syllables are avoided in Dutch, if possible, the stress pattern of the compound kanaal-zijde [ka.ˈnal.ˌzɛi.də] canal side has two adjacent stressed syllables because its parts each form a prosodic word with their own stress pattern: (kanaal)ω [ka.ˈnal] canal and (zijde)ω [ˈzɛi.də] side.


The prosodic hierarchy in (1) is part of the hierarchy of prosodic constituents proposed in the theory of Prosodic Phonology. An important insight of this theory is that, although morphology co-determines the prosodic structuring of complex words, there is no complete isomorphy between morphological and prosodic domains. Grammatical words may either be smaller or larger than one prosodic word.

Compounds may lose their morphological transparency, and this may affect their prosodic structure. For instance, many speakers of Dutch pronounce the compound word tandarts tooth-doctor, dentist as [tɑn.dɑrts] instead of [tɑnt.ɑrts] which shows that they consider this word no longer a compound with the constituent arts doctor as its head.

For more information on processes involving compounds see also the following topics:

  • Booij, Geert1985Coordination reduction in complex words: a case for prosodic phonologyHulst, Harry van der & Smith, Norval (eds.)Advances in non-linear phonologyDordrechtForis Publications143-160
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Booij, Geert1999The role of the prosodic word in phonotactic generalizationsHall, T. Alan & Kleinhenz, Ursula (eds.)Studies on the phonological wordAmsterdam / PhiladelphiaJohn Benjamins47-72
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press