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Complex segments

It has long been noted that consonant sequences consisting of /s/ and a voiceless plosive, in either order, show special phonological behaviour in that they act as a single unit (see Goad (2011)). This section gives an overview of these sequences.


Of the logically possible plosive-fricative and fricative-plosive clusters, only a small subset is actually attested. They are listed in (1):

Example 1

Plosive-fricative and fricative-plosive clusters

These clusters consist of /s/ and a voiceless plosive.

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Obstruents which make up a cluster must have the same voice specification, so both are either voiced or voiceless (see sequences of two obstruents in general). The clusters at hand conform to this demand.

Preferably, obstruents which make up a cluster do not agree in continuancy. This entails that a sequence of two plosives or two fricatives is less likely than a plosive-fricative or fricative-plosive sequence (see sequences of two obstruents in general). The clusters at hand are in conformity with this preference.

The coronal obstruents, /s/ and /t/, play a prominent role here. It is /s/ which shows up in all clusters. Besides, /s/ and /t/ combine with each other, so both /st/ and /ts/ occur. This means that the clusters contain one coronal consonant at least. Initial clusters have a coronal consonant as their left-hand member. This seems to be contradicted by /ps-/ and /ks-/, which begin with a non-coronal.These clusters, however, only occur in loanwords, which is indicative of their exceptionality. The final clusters /-sp/ and /-sk/, on the other hand, also occur in native words. There appears to be a slight asymmetry between initial and final clusters here.

Examples of words with a sequence of /s/ + (voiceless) plosive (in both orders) are provided in the two tables below:

Table 1: In word-initial position
sp- spjocht /spjoxt/ woodpecker, spits /spɪts/ pointed, sharp, spiel(e) /spiəl/ to rinse (out); to wash, to sluice
ps- psalm /psɔlm/ psalm, psyche /psixə/ psyche
st- stien /stiən/ stone, sterk /stɛrk/ strong, stean /stɪən/ to stand
ts- tsien /tsiən/ ten, tsiis /tsi:z/ cheese, tsjerke /tsjɛrkə/ church, tsjil /tsjɪl/ wheel, tsjûg(je) /tsju:ɣ/ to testify (to), tsjêf /tsjɛ:v/ chaff, tsjoar /tsjoər/ tether, tsjin /tsjɪn/ against
sk- skek /skɛk/ gliding stride (skating), skean /skɪən/ slanting, sloping, skow(e) /sko:/ to push; to slide
ks- ksenon /kse:non/ xenon, ksylofoan /ksilo:foən/ xylophone
Table 2: In word-final position
-sp wesp /vɛsp/ wasp, gasp /gɔsp/ buckle, clasp, wisp /vɪsp/ wisp (of straw)
-ps kyps /kips/ type of women's hat, gips /gɪps/ plaster (of Paris), weeps /ve:ps/ wasp, eklips /e:klɪps/ eclipse
-st bast /bɔst/ bark, rind, fêst /fɛ:st/ fixed, firm, tight, least /lɪəst/ last; footmark
-ts lyts /lits/ little, pleats /plɪəts/ farm, smots /smots/ applesauce
-sk bosk /bosk/ bundle, bunch; wood, forest, fisk /fɪsk/ /fish/, esk /ɛsk/ ash (tree)
-ks mjoks /mjoks/ dung, manure, waaks /va:ks/ wax, biks /bɪks/ dried pet food

See the following topics:

  • Goad, Heather2011The Representation of sC ClustersOostendorp, M. van et al. (ed.)The Blackwell Companion to Phonology2: Suprasegmental and prosodic phonologyMaldenWiley-Blackwell898-923