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The glottal fricative /h/

This section deals with the features of the glottal fricative /h/, which is a minimally specified consonant. /h/ does not have a voiced counterpart, which sets it apart within the class of obstruents as a whole. Despite this minimal specification, /h/ is a phoneme of Frisian, because it figures in minimal pairs. /h/ shares features with the vowel by which it is followed, as a result of which it is endowed with many vocalic properties.


The voiceless laryngeal fricative /h/ is realized with a spread glottis. A name for the characteristic sound with which it is produced is aspiration. /h/ does not have a voiced counterpart, which sets it apart within the class of obstruents as a whole.

A restriction on the occurrence of /h/ is

  1. that it can only occupy the syllable onset and
  2. that it cannot be part of a consonant cluster.
In other words, /h/ must immediately precede a vowel (the syllable head or the head of a falling or centring diphthong). Since it does not have supralaryngeal features of its own, it is to be seen as essentially the consonantal version of a following vowel.

In earlier stages of the language, /h/ could precede consonants, as appears from Old Frisian written forms such as hlakia to laugh, hlapa to leap, hnekka neck', hropa to call, hwa who, and hwat what (though these also occur without an initial <h>). Sipma (1913:33, §131) notes that his reduced to a slight aspiration or has completely dropped in these words, but that it is only slightly reduced when preceding a rising diphthong. According to him therefore, words like hjir [hjɪr] here, hjit [hjɪt] hot, hoanne [hwanə] cock, rooster, huodsje [hwotsjə] little hat, hjerst [hjɛst] autumn, and hearre [hjɛrə] to hear begin with a perceptible [h]. Sytstra and Hof (1925:57) are of the same opinion, whereas Fokkema (1948:34) makes mention of no more than a slight aspiration. Nowadays, there is no longer any trace of aspiration here, hence these words begin with a glide.

Having no supralaryngeal features, /h/ is the weakest consonant. Cohen et al. (1959:35-38) call it an unarticulated segment, as they do schwa. The latter is a minimally specified, virtually empty vowel. Likewise, /h/ is a minimally specified consonant, i.e. it is only specified for the laryngeal feature +spread glottis. Despite this minimal specification, /h/, just like schwa, is a phoneme of Frisian, witness the fact that it figures in minimal pairs, as shown in the following table:

Table 1
hâld(e) /hɔ:d/ to hold wâld /vɔ:d/ wood
heel /he:l/ whole keel /ke:l/ throat
heal /hɪəl/ half feal /fɪəl/ pale
hiel /hiəl/ whole miel /miəl/ meal
hok /hɔk/ shed sok /sɔk/ sock
hiem /hiəm/ premises liem /liəm/ loam
As a minimally specified consonant, /h/ only has the laryngeal feature +spread glottis. A segment, however, must also be specified for supralaryngeal features, like place of articulation. This also holds for /h/, which shares these features with the vowel by which it is followed. This feature sharing has consequences for the phonological behaviour of /h/. In the first place, it is the reason why /h/ cannot precede schwa and why a full vowel cannot reduce to schwa when following /h/ (see repairing the reduction of a vowel following /h/). Like /h/, schwa has no supralaryngeal features to offer. This means that the sequence [hə] as a whole does not have these, which yields a banned configuration. The ill-formedness of [hə] derives from an inherent property of the two segments, which obviates the need of a separate statement to this effect.

As a result of this feature sharing, /h/, in the second place, is endowed with many vocalic properties. There are two cases of phonological processes with respect to which /h/-initial words behave like vowel-initial words. First, vowel nasalization (see the consonants conditioning vowel nasalization as continuant segments) occurs if the tautosyllabic sequence vowel + /n/ precedes a +cont consonant. Words beginning with /h/ do not trigger the process, as shown by the examples in the table below:

Table 2
myn lân /min lɔ:n/ [mĩlɔ:n] [*minlɔ:n] my land vs. myn hân /min hɔ:n/ [minhɔ:n] [*mĩhɔ:n] my hand
sa'n flage /san fla:γə/ [sãfla:γə] [sanfla:γə] such a flag vs. sa'n hage /san ha:γə/ [sanha:γə] [*sãha:γə] such a hedge

Second, /r/ deletes quite easily when preceding a consonant. In the prefix fer- ( /fər-/), deletion is virtually obligatory (see deletion of prefix-final /r/). There is, however, no deletion when the prefix is attached to a stem with initial /h/, witness the examples below:

Example 1

ferbrekk(e) /fərbrɛk/ [fəbrɛkə] [*fərbrɛkə] to break (up/off)
ferdrag(e) /fərdra:ɣ/ [fədra:ɣə] [*fərdra:ɣə] to bear, to stand
ferfal /fərfɔl/ [fəfɔl] [*fərfɔl] decline, decay
ferhel(je) /fərhɛl/ [fərhɛljə] [*fəhɛljə] to tell; to recover, to recoup
ferheeg(je) /fərhe:ɣ/ [fərhe:ɣjə] [*fəhe:ɣjə] to raise, to heighten
ferhoop /fərho:p/ [fərho:p] [*fəho:p] hope

On the basis of the above phonological behaviour, we may be inclined to consider /h/ as a vowel. But the patterning in the table and in example (1) above is not the whole story. Regressive Voicing Assimilation not only affects plosives, but fricatives as well. Now, the examples below show that /h/ patterns with voiceless consonants in not triggering the process, whereas vowels do trigger it:

Table 3
in krea[z m]antsje a nice and tidy chap vs. in krea[s p]antsje a nice saucer and in krea[s h]antsje a fine handwriting
ik wol tsii[z i]te I want to eat cheese vs. ik wol tsii[s s]lite I want to sell cheese and dat mei gjin tsii[s h]ite is that what you call cheese?
it is no[ɣ i.ə]r it is still early vs. it is no[x f]ier it is still far and hy hat no[x h]ier he still has hair

Regressive voicing assimilation focuses on the laryngeal feature +voice, whereas /h/ is -voice. Voicelessness would render /h/ quite exceptional among the vowels, while the voice distinction is contrastive in obstruents. That is why /h/ is considered to be a consonant. Due to its minimal phonological specification, however, it seems too weak a consonant to trigger phonological processes, viz. to play an active role in them, so that it cannot trigger the nasalization of a vowel and the deletion of /r/, as exemplified above.

Since schwa is a minimally specified vowel, it is prone to insertion and deletion, both constituting minimal steps. The same we expect to hold of /h/. This expectation is borne out, though the insertion /h/ and deletion are predictably more incidental than are schwa's. First, /h/ has a more limited distribution than schwa; second, schwa is inserted to break up heterorganic consonant clusters (see schwa insertion in onset clusters, while complex vocalic sequences within words are broken up by glide insertion, not by inserting /h/ (see the resolution of vocalic hiatus in general).

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When singing music, the singer may be forced to spread a single vowel over several notes. Professional or semi-professional singers are able to realize this vowel as one vowel throughout (legato), which results in a very long vowel. But less trained singers find themselves forced to break the vowel up into smaller portions, thereby realizing every note as a separate syllable. This creates a configuration of vocalic hiatus, which is repaired by the insertion of /h/. A Frisian example is the final line of the chorus of the anthem: dyn âlde eare, o Fryske /frisk+ə/ [fri.hiskə]grûn /grun/ [ɡru.hu.hu.hu.hu.hu.hun] your ancient honour, o Frisian soil. The first stanza of the Dutch national anthem contains the line de koning /konɪŋ/ [ko.ho.ho.ho:nɪŋ]van Hispanje heb ik altijd geëerd the king of Spain have I always honoured. There is no relation between the quality of the vowel and /h/, so the latter is a pure hiatus filler here. The insertion of /h/ is not obligatory. As is to be expected, /h/ always occupies the syllable onset.

In the following pairs of words, either original /h/ is left out, or /h/ is inserted in a vowel-initial word(Visser 1997:44-45). Both give rise to dialectal variation and/or doublets:

Table 4
Deletion Insertion
hawar - awar  well, so, still ala - hala all right (then)
harrejakkes - arrejakkes ugh! alún - halún alum
harre(barre) - arre(barre) ugh! anys - hanys  anise
harreba - arreba  ugh! aksebile - haksebile (broad)axe
haloazje - aloazje watch arkeniel - harkeniel  dormer (window)
hoera - oera hurray, hooray; excited averij - haverij damage, average
hokkerdeis - okkerdeis  the other day aboes - haboes here's to you
hokkerjiers - okkerjiers  some years ago imerke - himerke (house) cricket
ovaalsk - hovaalsk oval, ovate
orkaan - horkaan hurricane
It can hardly be coincidental that /h/ is mainly deleted and inserted before /a/. This open vowel is pronounced with a vocal tract configuration such that the air can freely flow. Realizing word-initial /a/ always goes together with some aspiration. On the one hand, this may lead to the reinterpretation of word-initial /h/ before /a/ as mere aspiration. Since aspiration is never distinctive, this reinterpretation, in its turn, may lead to the removal of /h/ from the underlying representation, although the result is a vowel-initial word. On the other hand, the initial aspiration in /a/-initial words may be interpreted as a weak /h/. This, in its turn, may lead to incorporating /h/ into the underlying representation, the more so since this turns a vowel-initial into a consonant-initial word.

  • 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
  • Fokkema, Klaas1948Beknopte Friese SpraakkunstGroningenJ.B. Wolters
  • Sipma, Pieter1913Phonology and Grammar of Modern West FrisianLondon, New YorkOxford University Press
  • Sytstra, Onno H. & Hof, Jan J1925Nieuwe Friesche SpraakkunstLeeuwardenR. van der Velde
  • Visser, Willem1997The Syllable in FrisianVrije Universiteit AmsterdamThesis