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Schwa insertion in word-initial sequences

Though it is less common than in coda sequences, schwa insertion also occurs in onset sequences. It is the topic of this section.


Schwa epenthesis can affect onset sequences. Sipma (1913:14, §50) makes some general remarks on the realization of the Frisian consonants. He observes that word-initial consonants or the second member of an initial cluster, provided it is a sonorant consonant, can become lengthened through emphasis. Some of Sipma's examples are given in (1):

Example 1

Some of Sipma's examples of a lengthened initial consonant
sa smoarch [sm:warx] as it dêr is! so dirty as it there is!
it is in griis! [ɡr:i:s] it is a downright shame!
men soenen gleon [ɡl:øən] wurde! one would become seething!
net [n:ɛt] wier! 'tisn't!, lit.: not true!

Sipma states in a footnote: In cases like these one also hears such forms as səmǒɑrg̊, ɡəri:z̊, ɡəlö.ən, with insertion of the indistinct vowel ə between two consonants, when the second of them is a liquid.

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Sipma's remark is contradicted by his own example səmǒɑrg̊. The right generalization seems to be that the second consonant must be a sonorant.

We might ask whether we are dealing here with phonetic implementation instead of phonology proper or, put differently, whether schwa insertion is anything more than a side effect of emphasis, with no effects on the phonological structure. The more so since epenthesis takes place in the unmarked complex onset of obstruent plus liquid, which does not seem to be in need of an inserted vowel at all.

It should be taken into account, however, that epenthesis never affects complex segments (of the form /s/ + plosive or plosive + /s/) − which are a linked structure (see complex segments as single units). Words like spul /spøl/ gear, things; quarrel, jar, stil /stɪl/ silent, and skek /skɛk/ (skating) stroke cannot be realized as [*səpøl], [*sətɪl], and [*səkɛk], in whichever style of speech. Phonological structure thus does have a role to play in accounting for schwa insertion in onset sequences.

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The only exception is the word psalm psalm, which can be realized as both [psɔlm] and [pəsɔlm] (Riemersma (1979:22)). The complexity of the cluster /ps-/, which only occurs in loanwords, is also 'resolved' by the deletion of /p/: salm.

Schwa insertion affects onset sequences of the form obstruent plus liquid, see the examples in (2):

Example 2

Examples of schwa insertion in regular onset sequences of obstruent plus liquid
bliid /bli:d/ glad, happy [bli:t] , [bəli:t]
brea /brɪə/ rye bread [brɪə] , [bərɪə]
fleis /flajz/ meat [flajs] , [fəlajs]
kleaster /klɪəstər/ monastery [klɪəstr̩] , [kəlɪəstr̩]
wram(e) /vra:m/ to toil, to labour [vra:mə] , [vəra:mə]

It also affects onset sequences consisting of an extrasyllabic segment and a sonorant consonant, as in the examples in (3):

Example 3

Examples of schwa insertion in onset sequences consisting of an extrasyllabic segment and a sonorant consonant
slim /slɪm/ difficult; dreadful [slɪm] , [səlɪm]
knibbel /knɪbəl/ knee [knɪbl̩] , [kənɪbl̩]
fnask(je) /fnɔsk/ to chew (especially fruit, carrots, turnips) [fnɔskjə] , [fənɔskjə]
gnuv(e) /ɡny:v/ to leer, to spy [ɡny:və] , [ɡəny:və]

Schwa insertion does not affect a complex onset in every position within the word. In prefixed words, like those in (4), insertion yields an ill-formed outcome:

Example 4

Examples of the non-occurrence of schwa insertion in prefixed words
gegniis /ɡə+ɡni:z/ smirking, sneering [ɡəɡni:s] , [*ɡəɡəni:s]
geblaf /ɡə+blaf/ barking [ɡəblaf] , [*ɡəbəlaf]
bekrimp(e) /bə+krɪmp/ to shrink; to cut down on expenses [bəkrɪmpə] , [*bəkərɪmpə]

Schwa insertion would give rise to a lapse here − a disfavoured rhythmic configuration −, which may be reason for its non-occurrence. In a form like ûntbleat(sje) /unt+blɪət/ to bare, to strip; to expose, with the full vowel prefix ûnt- ( /unt-/), the result is acceptable: [undblɪətsjə], [undbəlɪətsjə].

  • Riemersma, Tr1979Sylabysjerring, nazzeljerring, assymyljerringLjouwertKoperative Utjowerij
  • Sipma, Pieter1913Phonology and Grammar of Modern West FrisianLondon, New YorkOxford University Press