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Schwa deletion as a synchronic process: how to deal with lapses

Derivational and inflectional processes may give rise to sequences of two adjacent schwa syllables. There is a rhythmic tendency in language to alternate stressed and unstressed syllables or, put differently, to avoid stress clashes and lapses. This section deals with how schwa deletion proceeds in dissolving lapses.


Lapses arise in many situations. An important one is with verbs of the second weak class (see paradigm of class II) the stem of which ends in the sequence schwa + (mostly sonorant) consonant; examples are provided in (1):

Example 1

Examples of verbs of the second weak class with a stem ending in schwa + sonorant
hippel(je) /hɪpəl/ to hop, to frolic
sipel(je) /sipəl/ to seep, to trickle
siper(je) /sipər/ to seep, to trickle
offer(je) /ɔfər/ to sacrifice (to)
azem(je) /a:zəm/ to breathe
wazem(je) /va:zəm/ to steam
oefen(je) /ufən/ to train, to practise
ferdigen(je) /fərdi:ɣən/ to defend
huldig(je) /høldəɣ/ to honour, to pay tribute (to)
einig(je) /ajnəɣ/ to finish, to conclude
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The letter <i> of the stems huldig- and einig- represents schwa.

In the second and third person singular of the present tense, the stems of these verbs are inflected with -est and -et, respectively:

Example 2

The full forms of the second and third person singular tense of the verbs in (1)

Inflection results in a lapse. Since such a configuration is not forbidden, both schwas can be realized.

A lapse, however, is a less favoured configuration, so there will be phonological pressure to resolve it. This is accomplished by the deletion of one of the schwas. It is quite common for the suffixal schwa to delete, see the realizations in (3):

Example 3

The forms in (2) with the schwa of the suffix deleted
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According to the conventions of Frisian orthography, <ɡ> does not occur in front of <s> and <t> within one and the same word. In this position the digraph <ch> is used, so einigest and einiget occur next to einichst and einicht.

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Due to the deletion of suffixal schwa consonants become adjacent, which triggers several phonological processes:

The schwa syllable of the reduced form has to accommodate all the consonants of the two schwa syllables of the full form. The resulting coda is far more complex than that of schwa syllables in simplex words, which do not end in the sequence schwa + consonant cluster (see schwa). This is an indication that we are dealing with derived/inflected forms here.

Deletion of the schwa of the verb stem results in the realizations in (4):

Example 4

The forms in (2) with the schwa of the verb stem deleted

These forms occur, be it mainly in poetry, for reasons of metre (the number of syllables of a line). There are some problematic aspects concerning the outcome of deletion here. Firstly, in hip-plest/hip-plet, si-plest/si-plet, si-prest/si-pret and of-frest/of-fret the schwa syllable has a complex onset (pl-, pr-, fr-), which in the unmarked case it has not. Secondly, in aaz-mest/aaz-met, waaz-mest/waaz-met, oef-nest/oef-net and ferdiig-nest/ferdiig-net, there is a bad syllable contact, for the left-hand syllable ends less sonorously (viz. in an obstruent) than the right-hand one begins (viz. with a nasal consonant). The syllable contact in huld-gest/huld-get is also far from ideal, since the left-hand syllable ends as sonorously as the right-hand one begins. Thirdly, in ein-gest/ein-get, the fricative [ɣ] is expected to induce nasalization of the vowel (diphthong) preceding [n] (see the consonants conditioning vowel nasalization as continuant segments), but it doesn't. This may be an indication that the fricative, in syllable-initial position, is realized a little plosive-like, whereas vowel nasalization is conditioned by continuant consonants. It may also indicate that schwa not (fully) deletes here, thereby rendering vowel nasalization impossible, for which [n] and the fricative must be adjacent. In spite of all this, schwa deletion is not forbidden here.

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In Frisian orthography the long vowel /a:/ is represented by either double <aa> or single <a>, depending on the syllable type in which it occurs: by <a> in an open and by <aa> in a closed syllable. That is why <azem(e)st/azem(e)t> and <wazem(e)st/wazem(e)t> in (2) and (3) are spelled with <a> and <aazmest/aazmet> and <waazmest/waazmet> in (4) with <aa>. In much the same vein the long vowel /i:/ is represented by either <ii> (closed syllable) or <i> (open syllable), see <ferdigen(e)st/ferdigen(e)t> in (2) and (3) and <ferdigenen> in (5) vs. <ferdiignest/ferdiignet> in (4) and <ferdiignen> in (6).

In the plural of the past tense, the stems of these verbs are inflected with -en:

Example 5

The full forms of the plural past tense of the verbs in (1)

The above forms may be realized without the schwa of the verb stem, i.e. the left-hand schwa, see (6):

Example 6

The forms in (5) with the schwa of the verb stem deleted

Just like the forms in (4), those in (6) mainly occur in poetry and they meet with the same problems: the schwa syllable has a complex onset (p{l/r}-) in the uppermost four forms, there is a bad syllable contact in the following five forms, whereas the bottommost form is problematic with respect to vowel nasalization.

Let us now turn to the realization without the schwa of the suffix, shown in (7):

Example 7

The forms in (5) with the schwa of the suffix deleted

As a result of schwa deletion, suffix-final /n/ ends up as a stray consonant. Being in word-final position, it must be incorporated into the schwa syllable on its left. This procedure, however, is not without difficulties and problems. Firstly, the seventh and eighth forms, oefenn and ferdigenn, end in two /n/s, a sequence which is subjected to consonant degemination (see degemination). In the resulting forms, oefen and ferdigen, nothing of the suffix -en would be left or, put differently, these inflected forms would have become indistinguishable from the verb stem, which is an unfavourable outcome. Secondly, in the top six forms, /n/ must form a word-final cluster with /{l/r/m}/, which is impossible (see word-final sequences of a liquid and a nasal and word-final sequences of a nasal and a nasal). This might be circumvented by turning /n/ into a syllabic consonant (see syllabic sonorant consonants). In itself, the final clusters [-{l/r}n̩] are all right; this also holds of [-mm̩], which would derive from [-mn̩] (see progressive place assimilation). The occurrence of a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant, however, is most common with an obstruent plosive as an onset (see the nature of the onset consonant). However, no such consonant precedes /n/ in these forms. Moreover, the least favoured position in a three-syllable word for such a syllable (a superweak syllable) is the one following a sequence of a syllable headed by a full vowel (a strong syllable) and a schwa syllable (a weak syllable), i.e. the right-most position of the strength pattern [strong-weak-superweak]. Now, this is exactly the pattern which the forms in (7) would display. Thirdly, in the bottommost two forms, the syllable headed by [n̩] would have the fricative [ɣ] as an onset; as noted above, this is a disfavoured kind of onset for a superweak syllable. Finally, whereas it might be considered the goal of schwa deletion to reduce the number of syllables of the word in order to optimize its rhythmic structure, the result of syllabification is that the number of syllables remains the same and that the rhythmic structure deteriorates. All in all then there seems to be every reason not to delete the schwa of the suffix here.

So far, the forms considered all have final schwa syllables with a coda. There are also inflectional and derivational suffixes which consist of schwa only. A case in point is the first and third person singular suffix of the past tense and that of the past participle of the verbs in (1); see (8):

Example 8

The full forms of the first and third person singular past tense and that of the past participle of the verbs in (1)

Here as well, there will be phonological pressure to resolve the lapse. In this case, however, this is only accomplished by deletion of the schwa of the verb stem, as shown by the forms in (9):

Example 9

The forms in (8) with the schwa of the verb stem deleted

These forms occur, be it mainly in poetry, and show the same problematic aspects as the ones in (4) and (6).

What one does not find, however, is deletion of the final schwa. The removal of the entire suffix would render the first and third person singular of the past tense and the past participle indistinguishable from the verb stem, which is an undesirable state of affairs.

If adjectives ending in /-ə{l/r}/ are inflected with the suffix /-ə/, the lapse may yield to the same pattern of schwa deletion as with the verbs in (9), as exemplified in (10):

Example 10

Examples of the pattern of schwa deletion of inflected adjectives ending in -/ə{l/r}/
wankele /vaŋkəl+ə/ [(vaŋ)(klə)] staggered, reeled
mûtele /mutəl+ə/ [(mut)(tlə)] chubby, plump
simpele /sɪmpəl+ə/ [(sɪm)(plə)] simple
heldere /hɛldər+ə/ [(hɛl)(drə)] clear; bright
dappere /dapər+ə/ [(dap)(prə)] brave

Suffixal schwa does not delete here either.

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The same pattern can be observed with male names ending in -ele (/-ələ/), examples of which are given in (11):

Example 11

Examples of the pattern of schwa deletion in male names in /ələ/
Bartele /batələ/ [(bat)(tlə)]
Jakkele /jakələ/ [(jak)(klə)]
Seakele /sɪəkələ/ [(sɪə)(klə)]
Wiggele /vɪɣələ/ [(vɪɣ)(ɣlə)]

Morphology is a counterforce to phonology here or, put differently, morphology and phonology impose conflicting demands: holding on to the full form because of the unity of the inflectional paradigm versus deletion of one of the schwas in order to arrive at a more preferred rhythmic configuration.

If schwa has a morphological function, this renders its deletion less likely or downright impossible. Take adjectival inflection. An adjective in attributive/prenominal use is inflected with schwa when preceding 1) a singular common noun, 2) a singular neuter noun, provided that it combines with a definite determiner, and 3) a plural noun (see adjectives). If the adjective is in the comparative − formed by adding the suffix -er/-ər/ − inflection results in a lapse, examples of which are given in (12):

Example 11

Examples of inflected adjectives in the comparative in attributive use
de langere /laŋ+ər+ə/ jonge the taller boy
langere /laŋ+ər+ə/ jonges taller boys
it kreazere /krɪəz+ər+ə/ famke the better-looking girl
kreazere /krɪəz+ər+ə/ famkes better-looking girls

With the possible exception of poetry, these forms are realized with two adjacent schwa syllables, so the 'interests' of morphology seems to outweigh those of phonology here.

Material adjectives, like houten/hɔwt+ən/wooden (from houtwood), graniten/ɡranit+ən/granite, made of granite (from granytgranite) and wollen/vol+ən/woollen (from wolwool) can be inflected with -e (see Dyk (1996), Dykstra (1984)). Examples are provided in (13):

Example 12

Examples of inflected material adjectives
de/in houtene stoel the/a wooden chair
de/in granitene toanbank the/a granite counter
de/in wollene tekken the/a woollen blanket

In this case, however, inflectional schwa may be left out (as is the rule in Dutch):

Example 13

The examples of (13) with a non-realized inflectional schwa
de/in houten stoel
de/in graniten toanbank
de/in wollen tekken

Here then morphology and phonology seem to be in balance.

Inflection may lead to configurations of three consecutive schwa syllables; see the examples in (15):

Example 14

Examples of configuration with three consecutive schwa syllables
de ûnbetrouberdere /unbetrɔwbər+d-ər+ə/ direkteur the more unreliable general manager
in foarsichtigere /fwar#sɪxtəɣ+ər+ə/ oanpak a more cautious approach

In this case, a realization without final schwa is preferred:

Example 15

The examples of (15) with a non-realized inflectional schwa
de ûnbetrouberder direkteur
in foarsichtiger oanpak

Here, phonology seems to outweigh morphology.

Matters may be complicated by still other factors. Take it kreaze/krɪəz+ə/famkethe good-looking girl and de griene/ɡriən+ə/doarthe green door, where both adjectives have an inflectional schwa, as required. But whereas it kreas famke sounds pretty acceptable, de grien doarthe green door is out, though both contain an adjective with a non-realized final schwa. As to this, neuter nouns seem to behave differently from common nouns. Note that it is also with neuter singular nouns in combination with an indefinite determiner that a prenominal adjective is not allowed to be inflected with schwa, as in in kreas/*kreaze famkea good-looking girl.

  • Dyk, Siebren1996From inflected material adjectives to the history of Schwa apocope in West Frisian: diverging influences on a sound changePetersen, Adeline & Nielsen, Hans Frede (eds.)A Frisian and Germanic Miscellany. Published in Honour of Nils Århammar on his sixty-fifth birthday, 7 August 1996OdenseOdense University Press, Odense55-67
  • Dykstra, Anne1984'In wollen tekken' en 'de graniten toanbank': Oer de bûging fan stoflike adjektiven op -enArhammer, N.R., Breuker, Ph.H., Dam, F., Dykstra, A & Steenmeijer-Wielenga, T. (eds.)Miscellanea Frisica. In nije bondel Fryske stúdzjesAssenVan Gorcum183-191
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