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Onsetless syllables
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Onsets are optional syllableconstituents in Dutch.

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Any syllable in Dutch can be onsetless regardless of the quality of the full vowel in the nucleus position and the syllable's position within a word. Examples of word-initial and word-internal onsetless syllables are given in (1) to (5).

Example 1

Word-initial onsetless syllables
a. A-class vowel
iets /its/ something
uur /yr/ hour
eend /end/ duck
aap /ap/ monkey
oor /or/ ear
oer /ur/ primal, extremely
b. B-class vowel
inkt /ɪŋkt/ ink
urn /ʏrn/ urn
eng /ɛŋ/ grisly, narrow
os /ɔs/ ox
as /ɑs/ ash
c. diphthong
eind /ɛind/ end
uil /œyl/ owl
oud /ɑud/ old

Schwa is the only vowel that is prohibited word-initially, at least in lexical morphemes (2a). Only in function words, can schwa appear in word-initial position (2b):

Example 2

a. enorm [eˈnɔrm] but not [*əˈnɔrm] enormous
b. een [ən] a

As shown in example (1), Dutch words can start with any full vowel or diphthong – yet, as noted in Gussenhoven (1992:45), word-initial vowels are obligatorily preceded by a glottal stop if the initial syllable is stressed, while this glottal stop is optional in words in which the first syllable is unstressed. Some examples are provided in (3):

Example 3

a. Initial A-class vowel, stressed
opera [ˈʔopəra] opera
b. Initial A-class vowel, unstressed
enorm [(ʔ)eˈnɔrm] enormous
c. Initial B-class vowel, stressed
acht [ˈʔɑxt] eight
d. Initial B-class vowel, unstressed
amandel [(ʔ)ɑˈmɑndəl] almond
e. Initial diphthong, stressed
auto [ˈʔɑuto] car
f. Initial diphthong, unstressed
auditie [(ʔ)ɑuˈditsi] audition

Word-medially, vowel-initial syllables are less frequent due to the Maximal Onset constraint (universal *C.VC constraint), which forces consonants before a vowel within the same domain of syllabification to be assigned to the onset of that particular syllable. This process is illustrated by the plural form handenhand-en[ˈhɑndən] (cf. the singular form hand/hɑnd/[hɑnt] in which syllable-final obstruent devoicing applies). In case a word-medial vowel-initial syllable occurs, it will be realized with a glottal stop if the vowel-initial syllable is stressed (4a) and without it if the vowel-initial syllable is unstressed (second syllable in 4b).

Example 4

a. vereisen /vər.ɛi.sə(n)/ [vərˈʔɛisə(n)] require
b. eindexamen /ɛind.ɛk.sa.mə(n)/ [ˈʔɛintɛkˌsamə(n)] final exams

Sequences of two adjacent heterosyllabic vowels such as the ones in (5) are exceptions. These sequences are usually subject to the process of hiatus resolution.

Example 5

Word-medial onsetless syllables leading to hiatus
hiaat [hi.ˈat] hiatus
uien [ˈœy.ən] onions
chaos [ˈxa.ɔs] chaos
aorta [a.ˈɔr.ta] aorta
farao [ˈfa.ra.o] Pharaoh
References:
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos1992DutchJournal of the International Phonetic Association2245-47
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