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The diphthong restriction

Diphthongs are strong stress attractors in Dutch. This is not only the case when they are followed by a coda consonant in word-final syllables (and thus form superheavy syllables, that are generally stress-attracting), but also when they occur in open syllables. Note, however, that the number of relevant monomorphemic words – that is, words with at least one full vowel next to the diphthong – is rather small.


The relevant items from the CELEX database show that diphthongs attract primary stress in word-final open syllables as well as in penultimate open syllables. To illustrate this, let us first compare disyllabic words of the pattern D-A (diphthong - A-class vowel) to words of the pattern A-D (A-class vowel - diphthong): in D-A words, there is a strong tendency towards penultimate stress (138 of 167 monomorphemic items in CELEX). Unfortunately, there are only seven words of the pattern A-D in the corpus. Still, we can observe an opposite tendency: six of seven relevant items have final stress. Consider the following overview:

Example 1

Words of the pattern A-D
a. Final stress
      cacao [ka.'kɑu] cacao
      fauteuil [fo.'tœy] fauteuil
      galei [ɣa.'lɛi] galley
      kopij [ko.'pɛi] copy
      lakei [la.'kɛi] lackey
      plavei [pla.'vɛi] paving stone
b. Penultimate stress
      kenau [ˈke.nɑu] virago

More exceptions to this generalization can be found in toponyms (see also Kager 1989:231). Toponyms, however, regularly violate even the strongest phonological generalizations; their theoretical status seems unclear. Exceptions are for instance place names ening in –au or –ou:

Example 2

Nassau ['nɑ.sɑu] Nassau
Warschau ['ʋɑr.ʃɑu] Warsaw
Moskou ['mɔs.kɑu] Moscow
Krakou [krɑ.kɑu] Krakow / Cracow

Words with the pattern D-A show a strong tendency towards penultimate stress, which we find in seven of the eight items:

Example 3

Words of the pattern D-A
a. Penultimate stress
aula ['ɑu.la] auditorium
aura ['ɑu.ra] aura
auto ['ɑu.to] automobile
fauna ['fɑu.na] fauna
gaucho ['ɡɑu.tʃo] gaucho
geisha ['ɡɛɪ.ʃa] geisha
sauna ['sɑu.na] sauna
b. Final stress
taugé [tɑu.'ɡe] soybean sprouts
  • Kager, René1989A Metrical Theory of Stress and Destressing in English and DutchDordrechtForis