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The liquids

This section deals with the characterization and the behaviour of the liquids /l/ and /r/.


Frisian has an alveolar /l/, which may or may not be realized more uvular-like in post-vocalic position. This is purely a matter of allophony, the difference is not distinctive.

The specification of laterals with respect to the feature continuant − i.e. whether they should be characterized as either +continuant or -continuant − is a long-standing phonological issue (see Mielke (2008:Chapter 4) and Yip (2011) for overviews of the discussion). Sagey (1986:185-186), for example, says that laterals in many languages function as -cont. According to her, For l to act as -cont with respect to some phonological processes is entirely natural, given its articulation in which the center of the front of the tongue touches the roof of the mouth -- i.e. is articulated to the degree -cont. Harris (1994:180) notes that there is hardly a murkier issue in distinctive feature theory than the continuancy specification of /l/. Kenstowicz (1994:36) makes mention of the inconsistent behavior of the lateral, which leaves the ±continuant status of l unresolved. According to Clements (1990:293) /l/ is both a stop and an approximant, and may function as such in one and the same language.

The latter seems to hold for Frisian. On the one hand, there is the impossibility of the initial clusters /tl-/ and /dl-/ (see non-occurring initial obstruent-liquid sequences in Frisian), which points to /l/ being -continuant. On the other hand, there is a fully productive and transparant phonological process of vowel nasalization, affecting the tautosyllabic sequence vowel + /n/ when followed by a member of a set of segments all of which can be characterized as +continuant(see vowel nasalization and the consonants conditioning vowel nasalization as continuant segments). One of these segments is /l/. So, with respect to vowel nasalization /l/ acts as +continuant, but its behavior with respect to word-initial clusters points to it being -continuant.

Frisian has a trilled (rhotic), alveolar /r/, in all positions (word-initially, word-medially, and word-finally). Some Frisians burr their /r/, i.e. they have a uvular realization. They are often ridiculed for this, and they are said not to be able to say the r (hy kin de r net sizze he cannot say the r (i.e. he burrs the r)). From a linguistic point of view, this is utter nonsense, for it is just another type of /r/, a consonant which is known to have a wealth of realizations. It is, however, indicative of the unmarked status of the alveolar /r/ in Frisian.

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Examples of alternation of stem-final /-əl/ and /-ər/

Following schwa, /l/ and /r/ alternate in quite a few words, as exemplified in the table below:

Table 1: Examples of alternation of stem-final /-əl/ and /-ər/
dwinger dwingel (rubbish/refuse) dump
reager reagel heron
knûkel knûker crease
heuker(je) heukel(je) lead a sorry existence
kipel(je) kiper(je) to tumble (off), to topple (off)
sipel(je) siper(je) to seep, to trickle
sjacher(je) sjachel(je) to haggle
stuitel(je) stuiter(je) to stumble
wimel(je) wimer(je) to teem (with); be about
stribbelich stribberich dry, rough (of the skin)
skabberjeus skabbeljeus scabrous
meveuvers meneuvels gestures; grimaces

This points to the unity of the liquids as a class.

  • Clements, George N1990The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabificationPapers in Laboratory Phonology1Cambridge University Press283-333
  • Harris, James W1994The OCP, Prosodic Morphology ans Donoran Spanish diminutives: a reply to CrowhurstPhonology11179-190
  • Kenstowicz, Michael1994Phonology in generative grammarCambridge Mass.Blackwell
  • Mielke, Jeff2008The Emergence of Distinctive FeaturesOxford University Press
  • Sagey, E.C1986The representation of Features and Relations in Non-Linear PhonologyMITThesis
  • Yip, Moira2011Lateral Consonantsvan Oostendorp, Marc and Ewen, Colin J and Hume, Elizabeth and Rice, Keren (ed.)The Blackwell Companion to Phonology1: General issues and segmental phonologyMaldenWiley-Blackwell730-755