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Nasal vowels and vowel length

Historically speaking, vowel nasalization was accompanied by vowel lengthening, as shown by word pairs like winn(e) /vɪn/ to win ~ winst /ve:n+st/ profit; gain and win(e) /vin/ to wind ~ wynsel /vi:n+səl/ bandage. Though vowel lengthening is no longer a synchronic process, it has left its traces in today's Frisian, in that in simplex words a vowel preceding the sequence /-n{s/z}/ is systematically long. This relation between vowel nasalization and vowel length is the subject of this topic.


Historically speaking, vowel nasalization was accompanied by vowel lengthening. This is shown by pairs of words with on the one hand a bare stem with a short vowel and on the other hand a derived word providing the appropriate context for nasalization with a long vowel. Some examples are given in the table below:

Table 1: Examples of the alternation between a short and a long vowel
Short vowel Long vowel
winn(e) /vɪn/ to win winst /ve:n+st/ [vẽ:st] profit; gain
min /mɪn/ bad minst /me:n+st/ [mẽ:st] worst
fin(e) /fin/ to find fynst /fi:n+st/ [fĩ:st] discovery, finding
win(e) [vin] to wind wynsel /vi:n+səl/ [vĩ:sl̩] bandage
win(e) [vin] to wind wynsk /vi:n+sk/ [vĩ:sk] warped, twisted
hûn [hun] dog, hound hûnsk /hu:n+sk/ [hũ:sk] despicable, shameful
jûn [jun] evening, night jûns /ju:n+s/ [jũ:s] in the evening, at night

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Pairs like winn(e) /vɪn/ ~ winst [vẽ:st] and min /mɪn/ ~ minst [mẽ:st] clearly show that there is an alternation between a short and a long vowel here, for short /ɪ/ has the long counterpart /e:/ (see the relation between short /ɪ/ and long /e:/).

Regular vowel lengthening in derived words only occurred in the context of vowel nasalization. As a rule, the centring diphthongs and long vowels of a stem underwent 'breaking' and shortening in derived forms (see breaking and vowel shortening). Both vowel lengthening, breaking and vowel shortening have become unproductive.

The above alternation crops up if 1) the sequence vowel + /n/ is followed by /s/ and 2) the sequence vowel + /n/ + /s/ is part of one and the same word.

Vowel lengthening is no longer productive, as shown in the following table:

Table 2: Examples of word pairs showing that the alternation between a short and a long vowel is no longer productive
fin(e) /fin/ to find (do) fynst /fin+st/ [fĩst] / [*fĩ:st] (you) find
fyn /fin/ fine (it) fynst /fin+st/ [fĩst] / [*fĩ:st] finest
fyn /fin/ fine (wat) fyns /fin+s/ [fĩs] / [*fĩ:s] (something) fine

It has, however, led to a phonotactic pattern which is captured by the following generalization:

In simplex words, the vowel preceding the sequence /-n{s/z}/ is long
The effects of this generalization are exemplified in (1):

Example 1

Examples of words illustrating the ns-generalization
a. Nouns
glâns /ɡlɔ:nz/ glow; gleam; shine
dûns /du:nz/ down, fuzz
prins /pre:ns/ prince
winsk /ve:nsk/ wish
earnst /jɛ:nst/ seriousness, earnest
hynst /hi:nst/ stallion
kânsel /kɔ:nsəl/ pulpit
finster /fe:nstər/ window(pane)
meunster /mø:nstər/ monster; sample, specimen
b. Proper nouns
Hâns /hɔ:nz/
Rinse /re:nsə/
c. Verbs
drinz((j)e) /dre:nz/ to water
grânz(je) /ɡrɔ:nz/ to growl
klinzg(je) /kle:nzɣ/ to cleanse
wrinzg(je) /vre:nzɣ/ to neigh, to winny
d. loanword ending in <{-âns/-ins/-ânsje/-insje}>
balâns /balɔ:nz/ balance
yntins /inte:ns/ intense
fakânsje /fakɔ:nsjə/ holiday(s)
provinsje /pro:ve:nsjə/ province
yntinsje /inte:nsjə/ intention
stinsel /ste:nsəl/ stencil
pûnskaart /pu:nz#ka:t/ punched card
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Though meeting the conditions on vowel nasalization, some loanwords do not take part in this process (see the examples given in Extra). It is not without significance that the loanwords in question have a short vowel preceding /n{s/z}/. And the only Frisian dialect which does not have vowel nasalization (see Extra) does not have the synchronic generalization either. There is thus a close connection between vowel nasalization and the /ns/-generalization.