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The phonological behaviour of syllabic sonorant consonants

This topic deals with the specific phonological behaviour of syllabic sonorant consonants as opposed to that of their non-syllabic counterparts. Syllabic consonants can show up in final sequences in which their non-syllabic counterparts cannot and they do not undergo certain phonological processes, which their non-syllabic counterparts do. The relevant properties of syllabic consonants will be explained as resulting from the fact that syllabic sonorant consonants, atypically, occupy the syllable nucleus.


In Frisian, syllabic and non-syllabic sonorant consonants have a complementary distribution. There are no pairs of words which are distinguished by the presence of a syllabic vs. a non-syllabic sonorant consonant or, put differently, syllabicity is not a distinctive property of consonants. This means either that syllabic consonants occur in underlying respresentation, from which non-syllabic consonants derive or that, the other way around, non-syllabic consonants are underlying. The former position is defended by Haan (1999), whereas the latter is taken as a point of departure here.

The difference between the underlying and the surface representation of, for instance, keppel group, bunch, crowd; herd; flock is that the former, /kɛpəl/, contains both the full vowel /ɛ/ and schwa, whereas the latter, [kɛpl̩], only contains the full vowel. This would seem to imply that [kɛpl̩] is a monosyllabic form, which is counter to fact, for it is disyllabic: [(kɛp)(pl̩)]. The syllable [(pl̩)] has the consonant /l/ as its head. Normally, a syllable is headed by a vowel, so this is an atypical kind of syllable. This is also clear from the fact that not all consonants qualify as syllabic consonants: the more sonorous a consonant is, the more appropriate it is to head a syllable. In Frisian, it is only sonorant consonants that can become syllabic and, moreover, only so in a specific phonological configuration.

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The liquids then are expected to figure most prominently as syllabic consonants. This, however, is not borne out by the facts. Bell (1978:169) makes clear that in the languages of his sample [s]yllabic nasals are greatly favored over liquids. There are 35 languages in Bell's sample with only syllabic nasals, whereas just one language only has syllabic liquids, an asymmetry for which he has no explanation to offer.

The syllabification of sonorant consonants gives rise to word-final sequences of obstruent + sonorant consonant, as exemplified in (1):

Example 1

Examples of word-final sequences of obstruent + sonorant consonant
lûden /lu:d+ən/ [lu:dn̩] sounds
wetter /vɛtər/ [vɛtr̩] water
bussen /bøs+ən/ [bøsn̩] buses; tins
keppel /kɛpəl/ [kɛpl̩] group, bunch, crowd; herd; flock

The word-final sequences [-dn̩/tr̩/sn̩/pl̩] are not in conformity with the Sonority Sequencing Constraint (see onset: complex onsets), if their members occupy one and the same syllabic constituent, viz. the coda. In fact, however, they constitute a syllable on their own, of which the obstruent is the onset and the sonorant consonant the nucleus: [(lu:)(dn̩)], [(vɛt)(tr̩)], [(bøs)(sn̩)], and [(kɛp)(pl̩)]. This syllabic division renders the sonority profile of these sequences unproblematical.

Syllabification also leads to word-final consonant sequences which are prohibited in native Frisian words, although they do not violate the Sonority Sequencing Constraint. Take, for instance, muorren /muorə+ən/ [mworn̩] walls, where [r] precedes the coronal nasal [n]. Due to a historical deletion process, the coda of simplex native words must not consist of the sequence /r/ + coronal consonant (see /r/-deletion in simplex words). If muorren is syllabified as [(mwor)(rn̩)], with a final syllable of which /r/ is the onset and /n/ the nucleus, there is no problem here.

Syllabic consonants, furthermore, display what may be called 'inalterability effects'. That is to say, certain phonological processes affecting specific sonorant consonants in specific contexts do not apply if these consonants are syllabic. There are five cases, which are listed below:

  1. /r/-deletion
    /r/ is quite regularly deleted when preceding a consonant, especially a coronal one (see /r/-deletion in complex words derived with a consonantal suffix); an example is (hy) spikert /spikər+t/ (< /spikər+ət/) (he) nails, tacks, which can be realized as [spikət] (without /r/), but not as [*spikərt] (with both /r/ and /t/). The pronunciation of spikert can also be [spikr̩t], where /r/, though preceding a (coronal) consonant, is not deleted.
  2. Degemination
    A process of degemination applies as soon as a sequence of two adjacent, identical consonants arises (see Degemination). Syllabification of /n/ and subsequent progressive place assimilation (see progressive place assimilation) result in two adjacent, identical word-final nasal consonants, as in hûnen /hun+ən/ [hunn̩] dogs, beammen /bjɛm+ən/ [bjɛmm̩] trees, and ringen /rɪŋ+ən/ [rɪŋŋ] rings. Such final sequences, however, are not affected by degemination (see Riemersma (1979:27) and Dyk (1987:123:124)).
  3. Regressive place assimilation
    /n/ assimilates in place to a following plosive (see Regressive Place Assimilation), as in huzen besjen /hyzən bəsjɛn/ look at houses, which is realized as [hyzəm bəsjɛn]; the realization [*hyzən bəsjɛn], with unassimilated /n/, is ill-formed. The pronunciation of huzen besjen can also be [hyzn̩ bəsjɛn], with an unassimilated, but syllabic /n/.
  4. Vowel nasalization
    A vowel undergoes nasalization if it precedes the coronal nasal /n/ and a continuant consonant (see Vowel Nasalization), as in huzen sjen /hyzən sjɛn/ [hyzə̃ sjɛn] see houses; the realization [*hyzən sjɛn], with a non-nasalized vowel and [n] is ill-formed. The pronunciation of huzen sjen can also be [hyzn̩ sjɛn], with a non-nasalized vowel, but with a syllabic /n/.
  5. Resyllabification
    A stem-final consonant undergoes resyllabification when the stem is followed by a schwa-initial suffix. Take the comparative hoedener /huədən+ər/ more careful, cautious, which is syllabified as [(huə)(də)(nər)], so with stem-final /n/ occupying the onset of the final (schwa-)syllable. Now, hoedener can also be realized as [(huə)(dn̩)(ər)], where the middle syllable has /n/ as its head. The final syllable has no onset; though this is an unfavourable state of affairs, it cannot be remedied by resyllabification: [*(huə)(dn̩ər)].
Syllabic sonorant consonants thus seem to possess qualities which prevent certain phonological processses from applying to them. The above instances of inalterability are now treated in turn.
  • /r/-deletion

    Since it is the syllable head, [r̩] cannot be deleted. A syllable must have an overt nuclear segment and deletion of this segment entails the collapse of the entire syllable. This instance of inalterability then can be ascribed to a general property of the syllable (nucleus).

  • Degemination

    Words like hûnen /hun+ən/ [hunn̩] dogs, beammen /bjɛm+ən/ [bjɛmm̩] trees, and ringen /rɪŋ+ən/ [rɪŋŋ] rings are syllabified as [(hu)(nn̩)], [(bjɛm)(mm̩)], and [(rɪ)(ŋŋ)], so the two nasal consonants are the onset and the nucleus of the final syllable. This enables one to arrive at an independent explanation for the non-application of degemination here. The nasal occupying the onset cannot be deleted, because a syllable headed by a consonant must have an onset (see the onset condition). But the nasal which constitutes the nucleus cannot be deleted either, because a syllable must have an overt (segmental) head (see /r/-deletion).

  • Regressive place assimilation of /n/

    A syllabic consonant is adjacent to the onset of the syllable which it heads. If /n/ shows up in this specific configuration, it obligatorily undergoes place assimilation to the onset consonant (see progressive place assimilation); examples are given in (2):

    Example 2

    Examples of progressive place assimilation of syllabic /n/
    a. Induced by a labial non-continuant segment
    koppen /kop+ən/ [kopm̩] cups
    lampen /lampə+ən/ [lampm̩] lamps; bulbs
    gaspen /gɔsp+ən/ [ɡɔspm̩] buckles
    wapen /va:pən/ [va:pm̩] weapon
    libben /lɪbən/ [lɪbm̩] life; alive; lively
    lammen /la:m+ən/ [lamm̩] lambs
    immen /ɪmən/ [ɪmm̩] someone, somebody
    b. Induced by a velar non-continuant segment
    sokken /sɔk+ən/ [sɔkŋ] socks
    fisken /fɪsk+ən/ [fɪskŋ] fishes
    lekken /lɛkən/ [lɛkŋ] cloth, sheet
    ringen /rɪŋ+ən/ [rɪŋŋ] rings
    sangen /saŋən/ [saŋŋ] purple
    c. Induced by a coronal non-continuant segment
    tassen /tɔs+ən/ [tɔsn̩] bags
    huzen /hyz+ən/ [hyzn̩] houses
    lieten /liət+ən/ [liətn̩] songs
    lûden /lu:d+ən/ [lu:dn̩] sounds
    hûnen /hun+ən/ [hunn̩] dogs
    linnen /lɪnən/ [lɪnn̩] linen
    derten /dɛtən/ [dɛtn̩] playful, frisky

    In sokken /sɔk+ən/ [(sɔk)(kŋ)] socks and koppen /kop+ən/ [(kop)(pm̩)] cups, for instance, /n/ shares its place of articulation with /k/ and /p/.

    Now, take phrases like the ones in (3), where an assimilated syllabic /n/ is followed by a plosive:

    Example 3

    Examples of phrases where an assimilated syllabic /n/ is followed by a plosive
    sokken passe [sɔkŋ pɔsə] try on socks
    koppen kape [kopm ̩ka:pə] pinch cups

    The intial plosive of passe and kape does not induce regressive place assimilation onto the final /n/ of sokken and koppen (see regressive place assimilation). It might simply be the case that /n/ ( [n̩]), due to the fact that it has already undergone progressive place assimilation, is no longer 'available' for regressive assimilation. Suppose, however, that regressive place assimilation did occur. In sokken [sɔkŋ] and koppen [kopm̩], /n/ shares its place of articulation with /k/ and /p/, respectively. Regressive place assimilation in sokken passe and koppen kape, then, would yield a configuration in which the /p/ of passe and the /k/ of kape, in their turn, share their place of articulation with the place specification shared by /{k/p}/ and /n/. This would ultimately yield the realizations [*sɔpm ̩pɔsə] and [*kokŋ ka:pə], in which the underlying consonant sequences /{k/p} -n- {p/k}/ end up with one and the same (labial/velar) place specification. Ternary structures like these are greatly disfavoured, which is likely to be the reason why such clusters are ill-formed.

    Regressive place assimilation is also impossible in cases like hûnen knippe /hunən knɪpə/ trim dogs and (de nije) lieten beharkje /liətən bəharkjə/ listen to (the new) songs, which cannot be realized as [*huŋŋ knɪpə] and [*liəbm̩ bəharkjə]. Although /n/ seems to be available for assimilation here, the latter does not occur. In order to explain this non-occurrence, all one needs to assume is that in words like those in (2c) /n/ undergoes progressive place assimilation induced by the preceding consonant, though without audible effect or, put differently, vacuously.

  • Vowel nasalization

    One simple reason why a segment cannot be affected by a specific phonological process is that the conditions of the latter are not met. For vowel nasalization to take place, a tautosyllabic sequence of vowel + /n/ must precede a continuant segment (see Vowel Nasalization). It is easily explained why nasalization is impossible when /n/ is syllabic: there is not − or: no longer − a vowel (schwa) to which the nasality of /n/ can be transferred.

  • Resyllabification

    A syllabic consonant occupies the syllable nucleus. If the nucleus of a syllable were resyllabified, the remaining syllable structure would collapse. As with /r/-deletion (see /r/-deletion), this kind of inalterability can be accounted for by appealing to a general property of the syllable, viz. that it needs to have an overt nuclear segment.

  • Bell, Alan1978Syllabic ConsonantsGreenberg, Joseph H. (ed.)Universals of Human Language2: PhonologyStanfordStanford University Press
  • Dyk, Siebren1987Oer syllabisearringCo-Frisica376-92
  • Haan, Germen J. de1999A Lexical Theory of Schwa-deletionUs Wurk4831-49
  • Riemersma, Tr1979Sylabysjerring, nazzeljerring, assymyljerringLjouwertKoperative Utjowerij