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The labial fricatives

Frisian has two labial (labiodental) fricatives, voiced /v/ and voiceless /f/, the difference between which has phonemic value. This section deals with the distribution of these two fricatives. The realization of /v/ in the onset of a word-initial and a stressed word-medial syllable can vary between the voiced labiodental fricative [v] and the approximant [υ]. Besides that, /v/ can also have a plosive-like realization.


Frisian has two labial (labiodental) fricatives, voiced /v/ and voiceless /f/. For the behaviour of /f/ and /v/ in word-initial and word-final clusters, see consonant sequences in general, word-final clusters of a liquid and an obstruent, word-final clusters of two obstruents, and words ending in /-vd/). /v/ is special among the voiced fricatives in that it can occur in the onset of a word-initial and a stressed word-medial syllable, which the other voiced fricatives, coronal /z/ and dorsal /ɣ/, cannot. It contrasts with /f/ in these positions, witness the following minimal pairs:

Table 1
fier /fiər/ far - wier /viər/ true
fiif /fi:v/ five - wiif /vi:v/ wife
fyn /fin/ fine - wyn /vin/ wind; wine
fâd /fɔ:d/ guardian - wâld /vɔ:d/ wood
faai /fa:j/ fateful - waai(e) /va:j/ to blow
fang(e) /faŋ/ to catch - wang /vaŋ/ cheek
fek /fɛk/ compartment - wek /vɛk/ ice-hole
fol /fol/ full - wol /vol/ wool
frak /frak/ rank, over-fertile - wrak /vrak/ wreck; rickety, ramshackle
freed /fre:d/ friday - wreed /vre:d/ cruel
gefaar /ɡəfa:r/ danger - gewaar (wurde) /ɡəva:r/ (to become) aware of
That /f/ and /v/ are each other's counterparts, is also clear from alternations like the following:
Table 2
geef /ge:v/ [ɡe:f] whole, intact – geve [ɡe:və] whole, intact; inflected form
skelf /skɛlv/ [skɛlf] warped, twisted - skelve [skɛlvə] warped, twisted; inflected form
fiif /fi:v/ [fi:f] five - mei ús fiven [fivən] the five of us
ik gnúf /ɡny:v/ [ɡny:f] I peep, peer - wy gnuve [ɡny:və] we peep, pear
gnúfkje /ɡny:v+k+jə/ [ɡnyfkjə] to nose (about) - gnuver [ɡny:vər] prowler, peeper

Though /v/ can occur in the onset of a word-initial and a stressed word-medial syllable, where it is contrastive, its realization in these positions deserves some comment. Sipma (1913:16, §67) makes a distinction between the voiced labiodental fricative [v] on the one hand and the approximant [υ] on the other. According to him, the former occurs intervocalically and when preceded by /r/ and followed by schwa or [j], as in iver [i:vər] diligence, erve [ɛrvə] to inherit (infinitive; imperative; all plural persons present tense), and fervje /fɛrvjə/ to paint (infinitive; imperative; all plural persons present tense). The latter — which Sipma terms a voiced labiodental, slightly fricative — only occurs word-initially, as a single onset or as part of the complex onset /υr-/, as in wyn /vin/ [υin] wind; wine and wrak /vrak/ [υrak] wreck; rickety, ramshackle. Sipma (1913:16, §68) notes that /υ/ is intermediate between /v/ and /w/. It may be characterized as a labiodental continuant, realized with less friction and also with a less raised tongue back than [v].

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Diachronically speaking, word-initial /v/ originates from the bilabial glide [w], of which the realization [υ] might be considered an echo (see Coetsem (1951:86-87), Fokkema (1966), Tiersma (1975), and Tiersma (1985:25). Chada (2007) argues that surface [ʋ] derives from underlying /u/ through a process of strengthening.

The realization of /v/ as [υ] is an instance of consonant weakening (an approximant is less consonant-like than a fricative). On general phonological grounds, however, weakening in the syllable onset is unexpected, for consonants tend to undergo strengthening, i.e. they tend to be realized more consonant-like, in that position. The dislike in Frisian of voiced fricatives in the onset of a word-initial and a stressed word-medial syllable may be at stake here. Language-specific phonological tendencies such as these take precedence over general ones. The realization of /v-/ as [υ-] is in line with the above dislike.

Another way of reconciling initial /v/ with the dislike of voiced fricatives in the onset is through strengthening, which results in a plosive-like realization, plosive being the strongest consonant type. It is noted in Cohen et al. (1959:119) that when /v/ precedes a vowel the upper teeth contact the lower lip, however short it may be, so that one may think of a plosive-like realization; this impression is said to have been confirmed upon closer scrutiny. Boersma and Van der Woude (1972:76) assert that word-initial /v/ is intermediate between a fricative and a plosive. Plosive-like /v/ is indicated as [v'] here. In some dialects, this plosive-like realization of /v/ is not without consequences, as the following examples illustrate:

Table 3
wiet waar /viət va:r/ [v'iəd v'a:r] wet, rainy weather
opwine /opvinə/ [obv'inə] to wind (up); to excite
do koest wol gek wêze /ɡɛk vɛ:zə/ [ɡɛɡ v'ɛ:zə] have you gone out of your mind? (lit. it looks as if you have gone crazy)
The strengthened fricative /v/ ( [v']) enforces the preceding plosive to become voiced. Since it is only voiced stops which have the power to do this, [v'] behaves as a voiced plosive here (see regressive voice assimilation: type 1).

In the same dialects, however, [v'] also triggers vowel nasalization, which occurs when the tautosyllabic sequence vowel + /n/ is followed by a +cont consonant (see vowel nasalization and the consonants conditioning vowel nasalization as continuant segments). See the examples below:

Table 4
min waar /mɪn va:r/ [mɪ̃v'a:r] bad weather
sa'n wiete brot /san viətə/ [sãv'iətə] all these soaked things
syn wûndere ferhalen /sin vundərə/ [sĩv'undərə] his wondrous stories
In syllable-initial position then the phoneme /v/ has two allophones, the approximant [υ] and the strengthened fricative [v']. Some dialects have [υ], which is fricative-like, though with diminished frication. Others have [v'], which induces regressive voicing assimilation of plosives and triggers vowel nasalization, hence behaves both plosive- and fricative-like. This reflects two different strategies to bring syllable-initial /v/ and the dislike of voiced fricatives in the onset in line with each other.

The above dislike also manifests itself in the adaptation of loan words: when [v]-initial, they are invariably realized with [f-]. Native words are subject to phonological pressure to maintain contrasts, even if these involve marked structures. The phonemic status of their segments being unclear, loanwords are exempt from this pressure, to a great extent at least. This paves the way for unmarked structures. As to Frisian, it means that only voiceless fricatives show up in onset position. When Frisians speak Dutch, they mostly realize word-initial [v-] as [f-].

  • Boersma, Johannes. & Woude, Goasse van der1972Spraeklear I. Lesboekje foar de oplieding ta de Fryske AkteLjouwertAfûk
  • Chada, Agnieszka2007The problem of the labio-dental continuant [ʋ] in Frisian: an OT analysisWeseliúski, Andréj & Welma, Jerzy (eds.)Explorations in Literature and LanguageUniversity of Warsaw
  • Coetsem, Frans van1951Over en naar aanleiding van een Nieuwfriese AnlautwijzigingHandelingen der Zuidnederlandse Maatschappij voor Taal- en Letterkunde584-93
  • Cohen, Antonie, Ebeling, C.L., Eringa, P., Fokkema, K. & Holk, A.G.F. van1959Fonologie van het Nederlands en het Fries: Inleiding tot de moderne klankleerMartinus Nijhoff
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  • Sipma, Pieter1913Phonology and Grammar of Modern West FrisianLondon, New YorkOxford University Press
  • Sipma, Pieter1913Phonology and Grammar of Modern West FrisianLondon, New YorkOxford University Press
  • Tiersma, Pieter M1975The nature of f and v in Frisian and MarathiJournal of Phonetics317-23
  • Tiersma, Pieter M1985Frisian reference grammarDordrechtForis Publications