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Schwa deletion as a historical process

The deletion of schwa in specific contexts is a long-standing phenomenon in Frisian, which has left ìts traces in the language. A good deal of historical schwa deletion is confined to loanwords, so that the course of events is easily traced back. It is the subject of this topic.


Vowel reduction avoids the word edges (see vowel reduction in word-final position), so a reduced vowel predominantly occurs in a word-internal position. Since a schwa syllable must have an onset (see schwa) and vowel deletion implies the collapse of the syllable headed by the vowel in question, schwa deletion minimally results in a consonant without syllabic affiliation. This stray consonant must be incorporated into the (existing) prosodic structure of the word it is part of. If the syllable with the reduced vowel is followed by one beginning with a consonant, the stray consonant is likely to be incorporated into the onset of the following syllable. The ideal complex onset consists of a sequence of an obstruent and a liquid; this is expressed by the Complex Onset Sonority Constraint, which reads as follows: the segments of a complex onset may not belong to adjacent sonority classes (see onset: complex onsets). It is therefore to be expected that schwa deletion most frequently occured in case the original onset consonant of the schwa syllable was an obstruent, which, after becoming stray as a result of schwa deletion, could form an onset sequence with a following liquid. This is exemplified in (1).

Example 1

Examples of historical schwa deletion, resulting in an onset of the form obstruent + liquid
a. Of the form plosive + liquid
b [a] 'lâns b [ə] lâns blâns balance
b [a] 'lein b [ə] 'lein blein whalebone
b [o:] 'rat b [ə] 'rat brat borate (a salt of boric acid)
d [i:] 'rekt d [ə] rekt drekt right away
Hurdeg [a] 'ryp Hurdeg [ə] ryp Hurde'(gryp) name of a village
k [ɔ] r'rekt k [ə] rekt krekt correct
k [a] 'raf k [ə] raf kraf carafe
k [o:] 'lonje k [ə] lonje klonje cologne
k [o:] 'lom#kachel k [ə] lom#kachel klom#kachel cannon stove
k [ɔ] r'rupsje k [ə] rupsje krupsje croup (disease)
p [o:] 'lysje p [ə] lysje plysje police officer
pet [ə] r'oalje pe'(troal)je paraffin (oil)
sig [a] 'ret sig [ə] ret si'(gret) cigarette
b. Of the form fricative + liquid
abs [o:] 'lút abs [ə] lút ab'(slút) absolute
f [ər] 'liden (jier) (fli)den (jier) last (year)
f [wa] 'ral f [ə] ral (fral)/frâl) especially
pors [ə] 'lein por'(slein) china(ware)
res [o:] 'lút res [ə] 'lút ri'(slút) resolute
taf [ə] 'riel ta'(friel) tableau, scene
w [a] r'achtich w [ə] rachtich (wrach)tich truly, really

Schwa deletion might also result in a less ideal onset, viz. of the form obstruent + nasal, as in (2):

Example 2

Example of historical schwa deletion, resulting in an onset of the form obstruent + nasal

The result might also be a sequence of consonants which cannot form a regular onset, examples of which are provided in (3):

Example 3

Examples of historical schwa deletion, resulting in a sequence of consonants which cannot form an onset
a. Of the form obstruent + obstruent
ads [i] 'stint ads [ə] tint adstint country constable
ap [o:] 'teek ap [ə] 'teek apteek chemist's (shop)
hyp [o:] 'teek hyp [ə] 'teek hypteek mortgage
kap [i] 'taal kapp [ə] taal kaptaal fortune
kap [i] 'tein kapp [ə] tein kaptein captain
off [i] 'sier off [ə] sier ofsier officer
sekr [e] 'taris sik [kə] taris siktaris secretary
b. Of the form obstruent + nasal
res [o:] 'nabel riss [ə] nabel risnabel righteous
c. Of the form nasal + nasal
'dûm [i] ny dûm [ə] ny mny minister
d. Of the form liquid + obstruent
fel [i] si'tearje fil [ə] se'tearje fylsetearje congratulate

Since they cannot form an onset, the highlighted consonant sequences in (3) end up as heterosyllabic, viz. as the coda of the left-hand and the onset of the right-hand syllable, as in apteek [(ap)(te:k)] chemist's (shop), siktaris [(sɪk)(ta:)(rəs)], and risnabel [(rɪz)(na:)(bl̩)] righteous. In apteek [(ap)(te:k)] and siktaris [(sɪk)(ta:)(rəs)], two plosives ( /pt/ and /kt/) meet at the boundary of the first and second syllable, in risnabel [(rɪz)(na:)(bl̩)] a fricative and a nasal ( /zn/) do so. In both cases, the onset of the right-hand syllable is as sonorous as the coda of the left-hand syllable (apteek, siktaris) or it is more sonorous (risnabel). Though this means that there is a bad, or very bad, syllable contact, this did not prevent schwa deletion from occurring. Schwa deletion thus must have been a strong tendency.