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Complex onset: sequences of more than two consonants

The topic of this section is words with an initial sequence of three consonants, consisting of /s/ + (voiceless) plosive + liquid. The concept of resolvability, viz. the demand that the occurrence of a consonant sequence implies the independent occurrence of its constituting parts, plays an important role in the analysis.


The table below lists examples of words with an initial sequence of three consonants:

Table 1
skr- skreef /skre:v/ crack, chink, skriem(e) /skriəm/ to weep, to cry, skrok /skrɔk/ cold and arid (of the weather)
spr- sprantel /sprɔntəl/ side branch, spried(e) /spriəd/ to spread, spreau /sprjo:/ thrush, aphtha
str- stro /stro:/ pancake, strân /strɔ:n/ beach, stront /stront/ shit, crap
skl- skleroaze /skleroəzə/ sclerosis (loan word; only example)
spl- split(e) /split/ to split, splinter /splɪntər/ splinter, splis (stean) /splɪs/ (to be) just under water (of land)
Consonant sequences must be in conformity with the Resolvability Constraint, according to which the occurrence of a consonant sequence implies the independent occurrence of its constituting parts (cf. Clements (1990:309); see also Greenberg (1978:250)). First, a triconsonantal sequence ABC can be split as AB + BC. Take /str-/, which resolves into /st-/ and /tr-/, both of which are occurring sequences. Second, the fact that a triconsonantal sequence can be split into AB + BC implies that it can also be split into either A + BC or AB + C: /str-/ /s-/ + /tr-/ or /st-/ + /r-/. Third, such a sequence can be split into its simplex parts, i.e. A + B + C: /str-/ /s-/ + /t-/ + /r-/.

The Resolvability Constraint links up with the universal that the existence of complex sequences implies the existence of simplex ones. As such it poses strict constraints on triconsonantal sequences.

The subpart obstruent + liquid must be consistent with the Complex Onset Sonority Constraint (see complex onsets), the subpart /s/ + plosive must fit in with independently motivated constraints on obstruent sequences (see complex segments and onset: sequences of two obstruents), whereas both /s/, the obstruent and the liquid must be able to occur as independent onsets (see onset: single consonants).

The triconsonantal word-initial consonant sequences in Frisian are of the form /s/ + voiceless plosive + liquid. One might also say: of the form /s/ plus an unmarked obstruent-liquid onset sequence (see onset: sequences of obstruents and liquids). Three things should be noted. First, resolvability provides a principled account of why /*stl/ is a non-existing onset sequence. It can be split into A + B + C, and also the subpart /st/ is fine. The subpart /*tl/, however, is out (see onset: sequences of obstruents and liquids), so the sequence as a whole is not resolvable. Second, the sequence /skl/ is fully resolvable ( /sk/ + /kl/; /s/ + /kl/ and /sk/ + /l/; /s/ + /k/ + /l/), though it only shows up in the loan word skleroaze; its non-occurrence in native words therefore is to be considered an accidental gap. Third, the sequences /tsm-/ and /tsl-/ do not occur. Though they are resolvable ( /ts/ + /m/l/; /t/ + /sm/sl/; /t/ + /s/ + /m/l/), they violate the /ts/ Constraint, since /ts/ is not followed by /i/ or /j/.

  • Clements, George N1990The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabificationPapers in Laboratory Phonology1Cambridge University Press283-333
  • Greenberg, Joseph H1978Some Generalizations Concerning Initial and Final Consonant ClustersUniversals of Human Language.Phonology2Stanford University Press243-279