• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Saterfrisian
  • Afrikaans
Show all
Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables

Dutch has a productive process of vowel reduction in unstressed syllables: full vowels can optionally be realized as a schwa. The process is largely restricted to informal speech and mainly affects A-class vowels in open syllables.


Apart from these basic conditions, the patterns of vowel reduction result from a variety of other factors. Consider the summary of established factors below; while comprehensive phonetic studies are still lacking, overviews and theoretical analyses can be found in e.g. Martin (1968), Booij (1977,1981,1995), Kager (1989), Trommelen and Zonneveld (1989), and Van Oostendorp (1995).

Factors influencing vowel reduction in unstressed syllables:

  1. Speech style

    Speech Style Scale: the likelihood of vowel reduction increases the less formal the speech style becomes.

  2. Vowel quality

    Vowel Quality Scale: high vowels reduce less easily than mid and low vowels; diphthongs never undergo reduction.

  3. Interaction of vowel quality plus speech style

    The vowel quality scale and the speech style have been grouped into a combined scale.

  4. Word / lexical frequency

    Vowels in words of relatively high frequency reduce more easily than vowels in low-frequency words.

  5. Syllable structure

    • Open vs. closed syllables: vowel reduction is more likely to occur in open syllables than in closed ones.
    • Onset vs. no onset: vowel reduction is prohibited in onsetless syllables.
    • Quality of the onset consonant: vowel reduction is prohibited in syllables starting with a glottal stop [ʔ], or [h].
    • Syllable position I - between stresses: vowels in unstressed syllables between two stressed syllables reduce more easily than vowels in other metrical positions.
    • Syllable position II - influence of the preceding syllable: vowels in word-internal syllables reduce more easily when preceded by a stressed syllable than when preceded by an unstressed syllable.
    • Syllable position III - final syllable: vowel reduction is prohibited in word-final syllables (with few exceptions).

  6. Individual factors

    There is a considerable amount of inter-speaker variation.

  • Booij, Geert1977Dutch morphology. A study of word formation in generative grammarLisse / DordrechtThe Peter de Ridder Press / Foris Publications
  • Booij, Geert1981Generatieve fonologie van het NederlandsAula paperbacksUtrecht / AntwerpenHet Spectrum
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Kager, René1989A Metrical Theory of Stress and Destressing in English and DutchDordrechtForis
  • Martin, W1968De verdoffing van gedekte en ongedekte e in niet-hoofdtonige positie bij Romaanse leenwoorden in het NederlandsDe nieuwe taalgids61162-181
  • Oostendorp, Marc van1995Vowel Quality and Phonological ProjectionTilburg UniversityThesis
  • Trommelen, Mieke & Zonneveld, Wim1989Klemtoon en metrische fonologieMuiderbergCoutinho
printreport errorcite