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The place of a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant within the overall prosodic structure of the word

This topic deals with prosodic configurations which either favour or disfavour the occurrence of syllables headed by a sonorant consonant. These 'superweak' syllables seem to need the support of a 'strong' syllable, viz. one with a full vowel.


Hof (1948:130) observes that a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant is less likely to occur when it is preceded by a schwa syllable. In the normal case therefore the right-most syllable in the inflected verbal forms in (1) is realized as a schwa syllable, as indicated:

Example 1

Examples of inflected verbal forms ending in two adjacent schwa syllables
hammeren /hamər+ən/ [(ha)(mə)(rən)] hammered (all plural persons preterite)
keppelen /kɛpəl+ən/ [(kɛ)(pə)(lən)] coupled (all plural persons preterite)
tekenen /te:kən+ən/ [(te:)(kə)(nən)] drew; signed (all plural persons preterite)

Something along the same lines is observed in Dyk (1987:134).

In language, there is a tendency towards a (regular) alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables. This means that a sequence of two unstressed syllables is less desirable. But such a lapse is just what the forms in (1) display.

Now, a syllabic sonorant consonant in the right-most syllable might make for a rhythmic improvement here, but it does not. A syllable headed by a sonorant consonant cannot bear stress, so it does not create a rhythmic hammock here. It is just the opposite: from a rhythmic point of view, the sequence stressed syllable + schwa syllable + schwa syllable is better than stressed syllable + schwa syllable + syllable headed by a sonorant consonant. A schwa syllable can occur adjacent to another schwa syllable, whereas a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant greatly prefers a syllable with a full vowel to its left.

Syllables can have different kinds of heads, from which the rhythmic strength classification of syllables with respect to their head ensues:

  1. headed by a full vowel: strong
  2. headed by schwa: weak
  3. headed by a sonorant consonant: superweak
A syllable headed by a full vowel is strong (st.), it can bear stress. A syllable headed by schwa is weak (w.), it cannot bear stress. A syllable headed by a sonorant consonant then must be superweak (superw.). A schwa-headed syllable is able to display some degree of prominence, be it only in so-called metalanguage, see (2a), or when a particular word must be highlighted, see (2b) (prominence is indicated with capitals):

Example 2

Examples of schwa syllables with some degree of prominence
it is net DE kin, mar IT kin it is not DE chin, but IT chin
dat is IT middel foar pineholle that is THE headache remedy
is dat no DE Bergsma? is that THE Bergsma?
in oar docht it en MEN krijt de skuld someone else does it and it is ME that they blame for it

A syllable headed by a sonorant consonant is not able to display any degree of prominence nor can it be part of a word which must be highlighted.

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Since a phonological word must be able to bear prominence, it must minimally contain one strong syllable. In the normal case therefore a weak syllable needs the support of a strong one.

Within a word, a strong and a weak syllable can occur in either order: [st.-w.] or [w.-st.] (though the former is more common). This is different for strong and superweak syllables, for which [st.-superw.] is the only pattern possible. This brings to light another asymmetry between schwa syllables and those headed by a sonorant consonant. Word-initially then a syllable of the form consonant + ə + sonorant consonant cannot alternate with a syllable of the form consonant + syllabic sonorant consonant.

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Interjections like ferdomme /fərdomə/ [fr̩domə] (god)damn! and fergeemje /fər-ɡe:mjə/ [fr̩ɡe:mjə] darned! are an exception to this.

Now, it could be that a syllabic sonorant consonant is only better perceived when it follows a strong syllable than when it precedes one. There is, however, phonological evidence that the strong syllable is not preceded by a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant here. First, [n] does not undergo progressive place assimilation (see Progressive Place Assimilation). The words goendei [ɡəndaj] (< /ɡundaj/) good day and kantoar [kəntoər] (< /kantoər/) office, for instance, cannot be realized as [*(ɡŋ)(daj)] and [*(kŋ)(toər)], respectively. This is an indication that schwa stands between [ɡ] and [n]. Second, in a word like mankoar [məŋkoər] (< /maŋkoər/) each other, the /n/ of the part man- assimilates in place to the following /k/. This again points to a non-syllabic /n/ (see Regressive Place Assimilation). Third, there is vowel nasalization in forms like goenjûn [ɡə̃jun] (< /ɡunjun/) good evening; good night and pinsjoen [pə̃sju.ən] (< /pɪnsjuən/) pension, retirement (pay). A nasalized vowel and a syllabic sonorant consonant mutually exclude each other (see vowel nasalization).

A superweak syllable thus cannot be word-initial. Preferably, it occupies the weak (right-hand) position of a trochaic foot, where it gets maximal support from the (left-hand) strong syllable or, put differently, where both stand in a close prosodic relationship with each other. This explains why the occurrence of a syllabic sonorant consonant in the right-most syllable of the forms in (1), though acceptable, is much less common.

From a rhythmic point of view then the pattern [st.-w.-w.] is better than [st.-w.-superw.]. One wonders whether [st.-superw.-superw.] is better than [st.-w.-superw.] as well. The latter, however, is a rather infrequent pattern. As a rule, it is only the final schwa syllable of a long complex word which has both an onset and a coda, so that it can accommodate a syllabic sonorant consonant (see the examples in (1)). Now, between a stem ending in /-{n/l}/ and the suffix -er ( /-ər/) (agent noun and comparative), [d] can be inserted (see /d/-insertion in the sequences /ner/, /lər, and /rər/). For handelder /hɔndel+ər/ trader and hoedender /huəden+ər/ more careful, for instance, this results in the syllabification [(hɔn)(dəl)(dər)] and [(huə)(dən)(dər)]. These forms contain two successive syllables which can accommodate a syllabic sonorant consonant, the more so because the syllable contact is excellent. The possible realizations of handelder trader and hoedender more careful are listed here:

  1. without syllabic consonants: [(hɔn)(dəl)(dər)] and [(huə)(dən)(dər)]
  2. with a syllabic consonant in both schwa syllables: [(hɔn)(dl̩)(dr̩)] and [(huə)(dn̩)(dr̩)]
  3. with a syllabic consonant in the left-most schwa syllable: [(hɔn)(dl̩)(dər)] and [(huə)(dn̩)(dər)]
  4. with a syllabic consonant in the right-most schwa syllable: [(hɔn)(dəl)(dr̩)] and [(huə)(dən)(dr̩)]
The above realizations have the strength patterns:

  1. [st.-w.-w.]
  2. [st.-superw.-superw.]
  3. [st.-superw.-w.]
  4. [st.-w.-superw.]

Patterns 1 and 2 are equal: [st.-(super)w.-(super)w.], whereas 3 and 4 show an alternation between weak and superweak syllables: [st.-superw.-w.] and [st.-w.-superw.], respectively. Pattern 3 is the most common one, whereas 4 is worst by far. The following order thus represents a decreasing acceptability of the strength patterns above:

  1. [st.-superw.-w.]
  2. [st.-(super)w.-(super)w.]
  3. [st.-w.-superw.]

That pattern 3 is bad, can also be inferred from deadjectival nominalizations with the suffix -ens /-əns/, exemplified in the table below:

Table 1: Examples of deadjectival nominali­zations with the suffix -ens /-əns/
With a monosyllabic adjective With a polysyllabic adjective
goedens /ɡuəd+əns/ goodness [ɡuədn̩s] [ɡuədə̃s] dimmenens /dɪmən+əns/ humility; modesty [dɪmənə̃s]
dommens /dom+əns/ stupid-ity [domm̩s] [domə̃s] rimpenens /rɪmpən+əns/ hastiness [rɪmpənə̃s]
nommelens /noməl+əns/ noble-mindedness [nomələ̃s]
dipperens /dɪpər+əns/ diligence [dɪpərə̃s]

In the final schwa syllable of the forms in the first column, both syllabification and vowel nasalization can in principle apply (though syllabification is more common). But when -ens is attached to a bisyllabic adjective with a final schwa syllable, as in the second column, it is only vowel nasalization that applies in the final syllable. This pattern is very common in inflected forms of verbs of the second weak inflectional class (see inflectional classes) with a stem ending in schwa + sonorant consonant, examples of which are given in (3):

Example 3

Examples of inflected forms of verbs of the second weak inflectional class with a stem ending in schwa + sonorant consonant
biddelje /bɪdəljə/ [(bɪd)(dl̩)(jə)] beg (for)
azemje /a:zəmjə/ [(a:)(zm̩)(jə)] breathe (out)
klepperje /klɛpərjə/ [(klɛp)(pr̩)(jə)] clatter, rattle
tekenje /te:kənjə/ [(te:)(kŋ)(jə)] [(te:)(kə̃)(jə)] draw; sign /

The forms inflected with the suffix -je (infinitive, imperative, all plural persons present tense) have an initial syllabification such that schwa and the sonorant consonant are tautosyllabic, which is a prerequisite for syllabification. When the verb stem ends in /-ən/, as in tekenje, the medial syllable is either headed by a sonorant consonant or by a nasalized schwa.

This pattern is also quite frequent in present participles, whether they are idiomatic or not, as in (4):

Example 4

Present participles of the form [st.-superw.-w.]
frettende /frɛt+ə+n+də/ [(frɛt)(tn̩)(də)] biting, corrosive
glûpende /glup+ə+n+də/ [(ɡlu)(pm̩)(də)] mean, vile; awfully, terribly
rinnende /rɪn+ə+n+də/ [(rɪn)(nn̩)(də)] walking, running; current
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Consider the words below:

Example 5

hoedene /huədən+ə/ [(huə)(də)(nə)] [(huə)(dn̩)(ə)] careful (inflected)
stiennene /stjɪn+ən+ə/ [(stjɪn)(nə)(nə)] [(stjɪn)(nn̩)(ə)] stone (inflected)
libbene /lɪbən+ə/ [(lɪb)(bə)(nə)] [(lɪb)(bm̩)(ə)] living; lively (inflected)
stikkene /stɪkən+ə/ [(stɪk)(kə)(nə)] [(stɪk)(kŋ)(ə)] out of order (inflected)

The derivation of the right-most realizations, with both a syllabic (and assimilated) /n/ and an onset-less final schwa syllable, is problematic. It might be assumed that the [n] of the right-most syllable of, for instance, [(huə)(də)(nə)](hoedene) and [(lɪb)(bə)(nə)](libbene) is resyllabified as the coda of the medial syllable: [(huə)(dən)(ə)] and [(lɪb)(bən)(ə)]. The latter syllabification serves as the input for the syllabification procedure. There are two objections to this approach. First, resyllabification proceeds from coda to onset in the normal case. Second, a (word-internal) onsetless schwa syllable is derived, whereas such a syllable must have an onset. The reason for this strange and laborious course of events may be that it results in the strength pattern [st.-superw.-w.], which is preferred to [st.-w.-w.], the pattern attained when there is no syllabification.

  • Dyk, Siebren1987Oer syllabisearringCo-Frisica376-92
  • Hof, Jan Jelles1948Hjoeddeiske lûdforoaringenDe Pompeblêdden: tydskrift foar Fryske stúdzje19127-131