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The onset condition

Since a schwa syllable must have an onset, a syllable headed by a consonant must have an onset as well (see the overview of the distributional similarities between a syllabic consonant and schwa). The consequences this has for the contexts in which syllables headed by a consonant can and cannot occur is the subject of this topic.


Riemersma (1979:32) observes that the reduced form of the personal pronoun him /hɪm/ him, the clitic em /əm/, cannot show up as [m̩] if the host word to the left ends in [-m̩], as the examples in (1) show:

Example 1

Examples of the contexts in which the clitic em 'him' shows up
ik naam em [na:mm̩] mei I took him with me
wy namen em [*na:mm̩m̩] [na:mm̩əm] mei we took him with us
ik rôp em [rɔ:pm̩] I called him
wy rôpen em [*rɔ:pm̩m̩] [rɔ:pm̩əm] we called him
ik hold em [ho:tm̩] foar I kept it on
ik hold em em [*ho:tm̩m̩] [ho:tm̩əm] foar I held it out to him

The ill-formedness of the starred forms in (1) cannot be attributed to the fact that they contain a sequence of two adjacent, identical syllabic sonorant consonants, for ill-formedness also obtains with two adjacent, non-identical syllabic sonorant consonants, which is exemplified in (2):

Example 2

Further examples of the contexts in which the clitic em 'him' shows up
a. sa is dy hiele handel em /hɔndəl əm/ [*hɔndl̩m̩] [hɔndl̩əm] foarby gongen this way, the whole business has passed him by
b. wy seagen dat it wetter em /vɛtər əm/ [*vɛtr̩m̩] [vɛtr̩əm] om 'e tosken rûn we saw that it made his mouth water
c. ha dy ringen em /rɪŋ+ən əm/ [*rɪŋŋm̩] [rɪŋŋəm] it lok brocht? did those rings bring him good fortune?
d. komme syn soannen em /swan+ən əm/ [*swann̩m̩] [swann̩əm] al wat yn 'e hân? are his sons already becoming of any help for him?

The same restriction is found when two clitics occur in sequence, as in the examples in (3) (see also example (1c) above):

Example 3

Examples of the context in which a sequence of two clitics occurs
a. wat hat er em /hat ər əm/ [*hatr̩m̩] [hatr̩əm] doe oansteld! what did he make a fool of himself then!
b. dàt hat er ent /hat ər ənt/ [*hatr̩n̩t] [hatr̩ənt] sein that he did not say

In both (2) and (3), two distinct sonorants are involved, but all the same they cannot be syllabic at a time.

A word-internal syllable must have an onset, but the schwa-initial clitics em and ent in the examples in (1)-(3) cannot acquire an onset, since a syllabic consonant cannot be resyllabified (see resyllabification). The ill-formedness of the starred forms, therefore, is readily explained on the basis of independently motivated properties of word-internal syllables and syllabic consonants.

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The admissible realizations in (1)-(3), though, all contain a word-internal onsetless schwa syllable. Now, a vowel-initial word is often pronounced with an initial glottal stop, but this escape hatch cannot be invoked here, because the sequence [ʔə] is ill-formed (see the glottal plosive /ʔ/). The ban on word-internal onsetless syllables therefore is not absolute.

  • Riemersma, Tr1979Sylabysjerring, nazzeljerring, assymyljerringLjouwertKoperative Utjowerij