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Evidence that syllabic consonants derive from /ə/ + consonant
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There is ample general phonological, distributional and phonotactic evidence that syllabic sonorant consonants derive from the sequence /ə/ + sonorant consonant. Two distributional similarities between a syllabic sonorant consonant and schwa are 1) that schwa cannot be the only vowel of a (content) word, whereas a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant cannot constitute a word and 2) that both a schwa syllable and a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant cannot bear stress. This topic gives an overview of the different kinds of evidence.

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There is ample evidence that syllabic sonorant consonants derive from the sequence /ə/ + sonorant consonant.

First of all, there is general phonological evidence. If there is not a syllabic consonant, the sequence schwa + sonorant consonant shows up. Cohen (1959:119) and Cohen (1961:124) therefore analyze the former as a variant of the latter. The seeds of this analysis can be found in Sipma (1913:35-36,§142-148). It was taken over in subsequent work: Riemersma (1979), Tiersma (1979), Van der Meer and De Graaf (1986), Dyk (1987), Visser (1997:chapter 6).

Another reason to adopt the schwa + consonant analysis is that it ties in with Bell's (1978:167-168) fifth universal: The source of syllabicity in syllabic consonants is always a vowel, either directly, when a vowel changes into a consonant (consonantalization), or else indirectly, when a vowel is lost and its syllabicity is transferred to a consonant (syllabic syncope). A priori, endorsing such a universal in analyzing the Frisian facts is wise.

In addition to this general evidence, there is ample distributional evidence for the schwa + consonant analysis. If a syllabic consonant derives from the sequence schwa + sonorant consonant, its distribution is expected to be directly related to schwa's distribution (see the overview of properties of schwa in schwa). This expectation is borne out, as can be seen in the following overview:

  1. Schwa cannot be the only vowel of a phonological word; a syllable headed by a consonant cannot be the only syllable of a phonological word either.
  2. A phonological word cannot begin with schwa; no syllabic consonants are found in word-initial position either.
  3. A schwa syllable must have an onset; a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant must have an onset as well.
  4. The onset of a schwa syllable cannot be occupied by /h/ or /ʔ/; a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant cannot have these onsets either.
  5. Preferably, a schwa syllable does not have a complex onset; a syllable headed by a consonant cannot have a complex onset at all.
  6. In simplex words, schwa cannot be flanked by identical consonants, with the exception of binnen/bɪnən/inside and linnen/lɪnən/linen; the sequence Ci + syllabic Ci only occcurs in complex words and/or words in which the syllabic coronal nasal has undergone progressive place assimilation (see progressive place assimilation).
  7. A schwa syllable cannot be stressed; a syllable headed by a consonant cannot bear stress either.
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x

Bell (1978:161) observes that [s]yllabic consonants tend to occur in unstressed positions.

There is also phonotactic evidence for the schwa + consonant analysis. A word-final syllabic consonant can be followed by maximally one other segment (see Dyk (1987:129)), whereas a word-final rhyme can occupy maximally three positions (see the word constraint). Some examples are given in (1):

Example 1

Examples of a word-final syllabic consonant followed by a consonant
goedens /ɡuəd+əns/ [ɡu.ədn̩s] goodness
lekkens /lɛkən+s/ [lɛkŋs] sheets
biddelt /bɪdəl+t/ < /bɪdəl+ə+t/ [bɪdl̩t] begs (for)
tekent /te:kən+t/ < /te:kən+ə+t/ [te:kŋt] draws

It is only /-s/, /-t/, or /-st/ that are involved. This might be due to the simple fact that these also constitute (mono)consonantal inflectional suffixes. But it can hardly be coincidental that they are coronal obstruents, which are potential extrasyllabic segments (see extra-syllabic consonants). Taking a look at what kind of consonants can follow the sequence schwa + sonorant consonant in simplex words, it appears that only coronal obstruents, as with the suffix -ens/-əns/ (see -ens), have this potential. Schwa behaves as a long vowel in many respects (see schwa), so the sequence schwa + sonorant consonant makes for a maximal (three-positional) word-final syllable rhyme. These phonotactic facts thus show that a syllabic sonorant consonant derives from the sequence schwa + sonorant consonant.

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x

The suffix -ens, as in goedensgoodness, contains schwa, the phonological behaviour of which is in accordance with the generalization that a vowel preceding the cluster /n{s/z}/ is long (see the /ns/-generalization in nasal vowels and vowel length).

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x

The rhyme of a word-internal syllable can occupy no more than two positions (as expressed by the rhyme constraint). If a syllabic sonorant constituent derives from the sequence schwa + sonorant consonant and if schwa, phonologically speaking, is a long vowel, it is predicted that syllabic sonorant consonants cannot occur word-internally. There are only a handful of cases which do show this configuration:


Table 1: Examples of word-internal syllabic sonorant consonants
hielendal /hiələndɔl/ (< /hiel end(e) al/) [(hiə)(ln̩)(dɔl)] completely
risseltaat /rɪsəlta:t/ (< /re:sølta:t/) [(rɪ)(sl̩)(ta:t)] result
potinsjeel /po:tənsje:l/ (< /po:tɪnsje:l/) [(po:)(tn̩)(sje:l)] potential
potentaat /po:tənta:t/ (</po:tɛnta:t/) [(po:)(tn̩)(ta:t)] potentate
ystermint /istərmɪnt/ (< /instrəmɪnt/ < /instrymɪnt/ [(is)(tr̩)(mɪnt)] instrument

The last four words are loans from French, which is indicative of the uncommonness of a word-internal syllabic sonorant consonant.

References:
  • Bell, Alan1978Syllabic ConsonantsGreenberg, Joseph H. (ed.)Universals of Human Language2: PhonologyStanfordStanford University Press
  • Bell, Alan1978Syllabic ConsonantsGreenberg, Joseph H. (ed.)Universals of Human Language2: PhonologyStanfordStanford University Press
  • Cohen, Antonie1961Fonologie van het Nederlands en het Fries. Inleiding tot de moderne klankleerMartinus Nijhoff
  • 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
  • Dyk, Siebren1987Oer syllabisearringCo-Frisica376-92
  • Dyk, Siebren1987Oer syllabisearringCo-Frisica376-92
  • Meer, Geart van der & Graaf, Tjeerd de1986Sandhi phenomena in FrisianAndersen & Henning (eds.)Sandhi phenomena in the languages of EuropeBerlin/ New York/ AmsterdamMouton de Gruijter301-328
  • Riemersma, Tr1979Sylabysjerring, nazzeljerring, assymyljerringLjouwertKoperative Utjowerij
  • Sipma, Pieter1913Phonology and Grammar of Modern West FrisianLondon, New YorkOxford University Press
  • Tiersma, Pieter M1979Aspects of the phonology of Frisian based on the language of GrouMeidielingen fan de stúdzjerjochting Frysk oan de Frije Universiteit yn Amsterdam4
  • Visser, Willem1997The Syllable in FrisianVrije Universiteit AmsterdamThesis
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