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The role of syllable division in Vowel Nasalization

Not every sequence of vowel + /n/ + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/ surfaces as nasal vowel + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/. Take the phrases dyn hierkes/din jɪrkəs/your little hairs and dy njirkes/di njɪrkəs/those little vipers, both of which consist of the segment sequence /dinjɪrkəs/. They are realized as [dĩ jɪrkəs] (dyn hierkes) and [di njɪrkəs] (dy njirkes), respectively. The difference between nasalized [ĩ] and oral [i] goes hand in hand with a difference in the affiliation of /n/, viz. whether it belongs to the left-hand word, as is the case with dyn hierkes, or to the right-hand word, as with dy njirkes. This topic investigates syllable division as a conditioning factor in vowel nasalization.


Not every sequence of oral vowel + /n/ + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/ surfaces as nasalized vowel + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/, as the 'minimal pairs' in (1) show.

Example 1

Identical segment sequences with and without vowel nasalization
dyn hierkes [dĩ jɪrkəs] your hair' (lit.: your little hairs)
dy njirkes [di njɪrkəs] those little vipers
dyn jonken [dĩ joŋkŋ] your junks
dy njonken dy [di njoŋkŋ] that one next to you

In the topmost examples, /n/ and the preceding vowel belong to the same word, in the bottommost examples they do not. Nasalized vowels only show up in the former. A condition on vowel nasalization, then, seems to be that /n/ and the vowel preceding it must be part of the same word.

The examples in (2), however, indicate that this is only part of the story:

Example 2

No vowel nasalization within the word
tenearsten [tənjɛstn̩] [*tə̃jɛstn̩] at first
ynearsten [injɛstn̩] [*ĩjɛstn̩] at first

Originally, these words were phrases, see (3):

Example 3

The original phrases underlying these words
te'n earsten at the first (instance)
yn earsten in the first (instance)

In the course of time, these phrases have acquired a special meaning and started functioning as single words. This is also reflected by the fact that the words of which the phrases consist were more and more written together. For the purpose of syllable division then the original word boundaries were no longer taken into account. The syllabification therefore is as in (4):

Example 4

The syllabification of the words in (2)
tenearsten (tə)(njɛs)(tn̩)
ynearsten (i)(njɛs)(tn̩)

The syllabification is such that /n/ and the preceding vowel belong to different syllables. This then must be the reason why vowel nasalization is prevented from applying. For it to occur the sequence vowel + /n/ must be tautosyllabic.

The fact that the syllable plays a crucial role in the nasalization process means that the vowel nasalization scheme is in need of refinement. This is depicted in the table below:

Table 1: Vowel nasalization scheme
First version Second version
vowel + /n/ + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/ vowel + /n/)σ + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/
⇒ nasal vowel + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/ ⇒ nasal vowel)σ + /f,v,s,z,r,l,j,w/

The sequences of /n/ + a nasalization-inducing fricative or liquid, in that order, are those in (5):

Example 5

Sequences of /n/ + a nasalization-inducing fricative or liquid
/nf/ /nv/ /ns/ /nz/ /nr/ /nl/

These sequences, going from left to right, have a falling sonority profile, which is why they are impossible in syllable-initial position. So, if a (complex) word contains an internal sequence of the segments in (5), /n/ and the following consonant end up in different syllables. Such a configuration meets the demands of the nasalization scheme in the table above, so vowel nasalization ought to apply, which it does.

The sequences of /n/ + a (nasalization-inducing) glide, in that order, are those in (6):

Example 6

Sequences of /n/ + a glide
/nj/ /nw/

Since these sequences have a rising sonority profile, they are allowed in syllable-initial position.

It is on the basis of the ambiguous syllabification of these sequences ‒ /n/ can end up in both the coda and the onset ‒ that it becomes clear, that it is crucial for vowel nasalization that the vowel and /n/ should be tautosyllabic (see the examples in (1) above). In this respect, a nasalized vowel acts like a diphthong, the constituent parts of which must also belong to one and the same syllable.

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