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The phonological representation of superheavy syllables

The notion ‘superheavy’ derives from the observation that superheavy syllables are ‘even heavier’ than heavy syllables: descriptively, this special status can be motivated by the stress attraction of superheavy syllables, which is stronger than that of other syllable types, with the exception of diphthongs. Concerning the phonological representation of superheavy syllables, there have been two general ways to account for the data: one approach could be considered to be the ‘length approach’, the other one as the ‘syllabicity approach’.


Two different accounts have been proposed to account for the phonological representation of superheavy syllables: one approach could be considered to be the ‘length approach’, the other one as the ‘syllabicity approach’.

On the length approach, open syllables with A-class vowels / diphthongs as well as closed syllables with B-class vowels count as heavy, that is, their vowels are treated as long and thus as bipositional; a superheavy syllable, on the other hand, occupies three positions in the rhyme, either with an A-class vowel / diphthong (2 positions) + consonant (1 position), or with a B-class vowel (1 position) + two consonants (2 positions). Gussenhoven (2009) treats them as so-called trimoraic syllables, as opposed to bimoraic heavy syllables.

The syllabicity approach relies on the assumption that superheavy syllables are not ‘one’ syllable but actually constitute sequences of two syllables. Under this view, the last consonant of a basic superheavy syllable is not syllabified in a coda but belongs to the onset of a second syllable, which does not contain a vowel: it has an inaudible nucleus. Therefore, it is usually referred to as ‘empty-headed’ (see Langeweg 1988; Zonneveld 1993; Van Oostendorp 2000, 2012; Botma and van Oostendorp 2012).

  • Botma, Bert & Oostendorp, Marc van2012A propos of the Dutch vowel system 21 years on, 22 years onPhonological Explorations: Empirical, Theoretical and Diachronic IssuesBerlinMouton de Gruyter
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos2009Vowel duration, syllable quantity and stress in DutchThe nature of the word. Essays in honor of Paul KiparskyCambridge, MA.; LondonMIT Press181--198
  • Langeweg, S. J1988The stress system of DutchUniversity of LeidenThesis
  • Oostendorp, Marc van2000Phonological ProjectionNiemeyer
  • Oostendorp, Marc van2012Quantity and the Three-Syllable Window in Dutch word stressLanguage and Linguistics Compass6.6343-358
  • Zonneveld, Wim1993Schwa, Superheavies, Stress and Syllables in DutchThe Linguistic Review1061-110