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Complex onset: sequences of obstruents and nasals

Word-initial sequences of an obstruent followed by a nasal yield onsets which are at odds with the Complex Onset Sonority Constraint (see complex onsets), which forces the obstruent to remain extra-syllabic. This is confirmed by how these sequences are syllabified in word-internal position. As to this, obstruent-nasal sequences are contrasted with obstruent-liquid sequences, which show a markedly different behaviour. Most word-initial obstruent-nasal sequences contain the unmarked coronal nasal /n/; some aspects of these sequences are worth noticing.


The table below lists examples of words with an initial obstruent-nasal sequence:

Table 1
sn- snyl /snil/ ligulate leaf (especially of the ree mace), snoad /snoəd/ bright, clever, snaffel /snafəl/ bill, rostrum
sm- smak /smak/ crash, smack, smei(e) /smaj/ to forge, to smith, smjunt /smjønt/ wigeon, skunk, rascal
kn- knars(e) /knas/ to crunch, to grind, kneppel /knɛpəl/ club, cudgel, in knoarre (jild) /knwarə/ a lot (of money)
gn- gnau /ɡnɔw/ bite, chew, gnodze /ɡnodzə/ gnarl, knur(r), gnúsk(je) /gnysk/ to do all kinds of odd jobs, chores
fn- fnask(je) /fnɔsk/ to chew (especially fruit, carrots, turnips), fnasseltsje /fnɔsəl+tsjə/-fni(s)seltsje /fn{ɪ/i}səl+tsjə/-fnitteltsje /fnɪtəl+tsjə/ tiny piece, fniez(e) /fniəz/ to sneeze, fn(j)it (hawwe mei) /fn(j)ɪt/ (to be) pleased (with), fnittel(je) /fnɪtəl/ to trifle, to dwadle (an exhaustive list)
The above sequences yield onsets which are at odds with the Complex Onset Sonority Constraint (see: complex onsets), for obstruents and nasals belong to adjacent sonority classes. Such onsets are universally more marked than those of an obstruent and a liquid. In his 37th (implicational) universal, (Greenberg 1978:264) states: In initial systems the existence of at least one cluster consisting of obstruent + nasal implies the existence of at least one cluster consisting of obstruent + liquid. The Frisian facts are in line with this universal.

The Complex Onset Sonority Constraint forces the obstruent in initial obstruent-nasal sequences to remain extra-syllabic (see extra-syllabic consonants). This is confirmed by how these sequences are syllabified when they are in word-internal position, where they are flanked by a full vowel on either side. They appear not to constitute the onset of a syllable, as shown in the table below:

Table 2
The syllabification of word-internal obstruent-nasal sequences
prisma /prɪsma/ /(prɪs).(ma)./ prism
plasma /plɔsma/ /(plɔs).(ma)./ plasma
Hosni /hɔsni/ /(hɔs).(ni)./ proper noun
Hofni /hɔfni/ /(hɔf).(ni)./ proper noun
aknee /akne:/ /(ak).(ne:)./ acne
hypnoaze /hipnoəzə/ /(hip).(no.ə).(zə)./ hypnosis
In the same word-internal configuration, however, obstruent-liquid sequences do constitute syllable onsets, as exemplified in the table below:
Table 3
The syllabification of word-internal obstruent-liquid sequences
tablet /tablɛt/ /(ta).(blɛt)./ tablet
Hebron /he:bron/ /(he:).(bron)./ place name
sigret /siɡrɛt/ /(si).(ɡrɛt)./ cigarette
patrys /patriz/ /(pa).(tris)./ partridge
sekreet /sɪkre:t/ /(sə).(kre:t)./ bitch, sow
The above sequences of obstruent + liquid are in the onset. This is clearly shown by the word sigret cigarette , which has the velar plosive /ɡ/, the occurrence of which is restricted to the word-initial position and the beginning of a word-medial stressed syllable (see: the obstruents: the plosives). Also, the vowel schwa prefers to occur in an open syllable (see: schwa), which links up with the syllabification /(sə).(kre:t)./ of the word sekreet bitch, sow.

Only a limited number of the logically possible obstruent-nasal sequences is actually attested: /sn-/, /sm-/, /kn-/, /ɡn-/, and /fn-/. With the exception of /sn-/, they are heterorganic. Word-finally, the mirror image sequences of a nasal and an obstruent must be homorganic (see word-final clusters of a nasal and an obstruent). This is an onset-coda asymmetry. It should be noted in this respect that /-k/, in tank /taŋk/ thanks, gratitude, for instance, is an integral part of the syllable (rhyme), but that it is an extra-syllabic consonant in a word like knau /knɔw/ bite, chew; blow.

It is striking that most of these exceptional sequences contain the coronal nasal /n/. Sequences with the velar nasal are excluded, because /ŋ/ is not allowed in word-initial position (see the dorsal nasal /ŋ/). But though the labial nasal /m/ is allowed word-initially, sequences of obstruent plus /m/ do not occur (save /sm-/). In all likelihood, this has to do with the unmarked status of /n/. We are faced with the paradoxical situation that a marked consonant sequence must be made up of unmarked segments.

Several aspects of these marked sequences are worth noticing:

  • Most forms with  /ɡn-/ have a variant with /kn-/,  so there are pairs like gnap ~ knap pretty, good-looking, gnypsk ~ knypsk sneaky, sly, gnúsk(je) ~ knúsk(je) to do all kinds of odd jobs, chores.
  • There are also some marginal cases of word-initial obstruent-nasal sequences. Heterorganic /pn-/ only occurs in loan words, like pneumatysk pneumatical, and Biblical names, like Pniël. The homorganic sequence [pm-] may occur in a shortened form of pûnsmiet /pu:n+s#mjɪt/ [pũ:zmjɪt] name of a certain square measure (3600 square meters), pronounced as [pmjɪt], with a closed transition between [p] and [m]. Otherwise, /pm-/ is not allowed.
  • Just like the initial sequences of an obstruent and a nasal, those of a nasal and a liquid, viz. /nl-/, /nr-/, /ml-/, and /mr-/, belong to adjacent sonority classes. Yet, some of the former occur in word-initial position, whereas none of the latter do. Nasal consonants do not seem to be able to qualify as extra-syllabic (see extra-syllabic consonants).
  • Though the sequences /dn-/ and /tn-/ are not allowed in word-initial position, they do occur in complex words at the beginning of an unstressed word-medial syllable, as in widner /vɪd+nər/ /(vɪ).(dnər)./ widower, moardner /mwad+nər/ /(mwa).(dnər)./ murderer, byltnis /bild+nɪs/ /(bil).(tnɪs)./ portrait, likeness, partner /(pa:).(tnər)./ partner. The syllabification /(vɪd).(nər)./ and /(pa:t).(nər)./ yields a bad syllable contact (see onset: sequences of obstruents and liquids ). The contact in /(vɪ).(dnər)./ and /(pa:).(tnər). / is fine, whereas the initial clusters /dn-/ and /tn-/ are also in line with the Sonority Sequencing Constraint (see complex onsets).