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Replacement of the glide /w/ of the broken diphthong /w{a/o}/ by /j/ following labial consonants
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In the Wâldfrysk dialect, the sequence labial consonant + /w{a/o}/ has generally turned into labial consonant + /j{a/o}/, which means that the glide /w/ has been replaced by the glide /j/. This pattern is illustrated below:

Table 1
Word Underlying representation Gloss Realization Wâldfrysk realization
foarke /fwarkə/ fork [fwarkə] [fjarkə]
fuort /fwot/ gone [fwot] [fjot]
woarst /vwast/ sausage [vwast] [vjast]
woartel /vwatəl/ root; carrot [vwatl̩] [vjatl̩]
huodden /vwod+ən/ hats [vwodn̩] [vjodn̩]
boarst /bwast/ breast [bwast] [bjast]
boartsje /bwats+jə/ to play [bwatsjə] [bjatsjə]
buorren /bworən/ village centre [bworn̩] [bjorn̩]
poarte /pwatə/ gate [pwatə] [pjatə]
moarns /mwa:ns/ in the morning [mwã:s] [mjã:s]
muorre /mworə/ wall [mworə] [mjorə]
The replacement of [w] by [j] is the subject of this topic.

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In Wâldfrysk, especially in the southern/southeast quarter of this dialect area, words like boarstbreast, buorrenvillage centre, woarstsausage, and muorrewall are pronounced as [bjast], [bjorn̩], [vjast], and [mjorə], as opposed to the common pronunciation, which is [bwast], [bworn̩], [vwast], and [mworə]. This means that /w/ has been, or is being, replaced with [j] here, as noticed by Hof (1933:10), Sipma (1948:60), Hof (1949), Hof (1949), Boelens (1958:153-159), Cohen et al (1959:126), Boersma (1972:84), Tiersma (1985:26) and Tiersma (1999:23), Visser (1997:61-63), Popkema (2006:76). Dyk (2008) and Dyk (2011) offer a full and elaborate treatment of this phenomenon.

Several aspects of this change are to be considered. An obvious question is why the change was from /w/ to /j/ and not the other way around. One reason may be that, from a diachronic perspective, the word-initial bilabial glide /w/ has turned into the labiodental fricative /v/, which has rendered the relationship between /w/ and /j/ asymmetrical. There may thus be a frequency effect here, in that the more frequent glide has ousted the less frequent one.

Purely phonological factors also play a role. In the majority of cases, /w/ is part of a broken diphthong. Replacement of /w/ with /j/ means that the glide remains embedded within the same phonological configuration, which renders the change less drastic.

It is also not without significance that the change only occurred if /w/ was preceded by one of the labial consonants /b,p,m,f,v/. Following a consonant, the bilabial glide /w/ is often realized with a fair amount of frication, to the extent that it becomes virtually indistinguishable from the labiodental fricative /v/. This was already noticed by Siebs (1901:1251, §90) and Eijkman (1907:39). Concerning his own dialect − that of the village of Toppenhuzen − Van der Meer (1970:39) observes that /w/ − whether or not it is part of a broken diphthong − does not often occur following /n/, hardly so following /t,k,d,g,s/, and not at all following /r,l/. Boersma (1972:76) observe that both the bilabial glide and the labio-dental fricative are found in the position following a consonant. Tiersma (1979:155-156) points out that we are dealing with a variable phenomenon here:

  1. the amount of frication with which /w/ is realized seems to differ per region (in the village of Grou there is some frication, in the vicinity of the city of Snits, on the other hand, there is a fair amount of frication);
  2. consonants seem to further frication to differing degrees, which is also different per region (in the village of Grou, a fricative-like realization of /w/ is quite common following /s/, whereas a wider range of consonants is involved in the vicinity of the city of Snits, viz. /s,d,t,k,g/);
  3. older speakers favour the bilabilal realization;
  4. though common, the labio-dental realization is still far from being the only one.
A glide is a vowel-like segment, whereas a fricative is a full-fledged consonant. The latter thus can only be part of the syllable onset or coda, but not of the syllable nucleus. If following certain consonants /w/ is realized as [v], it enters into conditions on consonant sequences. This is what is at stake here. A complex onset occupied by two labial consonants is prohibited in Frisian, as it is in Dutch (see Visser (1997:62) as to Frisian and Booij (1995:37) as to Dutch). When the /w/ of boarst/bwast/breast, for instance, is realized as /v/, this results in the ill-formed onset sequence /bv/. The latter is in need of repair, which is executed by the replacement of /v/ by /j/: /bjast/. The prohibition on onsets occupied by two labial consonants explains why the change from /w/ to /v/ led to the replacement of /v/ by /j/ in case the former followed a labial consonant. It should be noted that /j/ has a high degree of combinability with other consonants and consonant clusters, to the extent that such sequences tend to be considered 'typically Frisian'.

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The replacement of /w/ by /j/ is thus an indirect one, as it is 'mediated' by the fricative /v/, which derives from /w/.

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Boersma and Van der Woude consider the replacement of /w/ by /j/ as an instance of assimilation: the back glide [w] becomes the front glide [j], due to the preceding labial consonant. In this analysis, it remains unclear why a coronal consonant does not induce the same change. Since [w] is a labio-velar glide, we had better consider the change at hand an instance of dissimilation (see also Van Coetsem (1951:92)).

Why did people take all this trouble or, put differently, why didn't they just stick to bilabial /w/? As noted above, /j/ is a more frequent glide than /w/; this implies that [w] is a less familiar sound, which may render sequences with /w/ harder to pronounce than those with /j/. The above holds for Frisian as a whole, so one would expect the replacement of /w/ with /j/ to occur all over the language area. This, however, is not borne out by the facts, for it is confined to Wâldfrysk, and then especially to the southern/southeast quarter of this dialect area. The latter gives us a clue to the origin of the change. It is generally assumed that this particular change in this particular dialect area has to do with a large influx of peat diggers to this area from the neighbouring provinces of Drenthe and Overijssel.

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This view is expressed by the Frisian dialectologist Jan Jelles Hof as early as 1933 (see Hof (1933:10)). It is taken up by Hof (1949), Hof (1949), and Boelens (1958:153-159), to mention the first ones in a row of scholars.

As long as peat digging was economically profitable, the peat diggers remained an isolated group, that did not integrate into Frisian society. This also meant that there were no obstacles to hold on to their own language, a Low Saxon dialect. Towards the end of the 19th and in the first two decades of the 20th centuries, however, peat digging came to an end. The peat diggers could no longer maintain an isolated position and had to become part of Frisian society.

This also implied that they felt the need to learn to speak Frisian, which involved a 'language shift' in the sense of Thomason (1988). It is typical of such a shift that the shifters (quickly) adopt the vocabulary of the language they shift to, but that they stick to important parts of the grammar of their native tongue. In this particular case, this worked out as follows. The former peat diggers also had to cope with the Frisian glides, notably with bilabial /w/. The latter was not part of their native phonological system − let alone as part of onset clusters − and since their native grammar remained their point of departure in adopting Frisian, they did not master /w/. Identifying the Frisian glide /w/ with their native fricative /v/ ( /ʋ/) would have been a likely option, if not for the ban on complex onsets consisting of two labials, which also holds for Dutch and its dialects. The glide /w/ then was replaced by the glide /j/. This may be looked upon as the result of (the perseverance of) imperfect language learning (see also the Extra below). Dyk (2011:135) draws the following conclusion:

All in all, we can conclude that the change of the initial glide from w to j is the result of language contact. It could emerge because of the fact that foreigners relatively massively turned to Frisian, and thereby did not master the new language fully
.

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Hof (1933:10) already hinted at the possibility that imperfect language learning played a role here, which also held for those speakers of Frisian who were exposed to and/or spoke a lot of Dutch. Fokkema (1940:143) noted that Frisian children who did not yet master the sequence /wa/, as in boartsje/bwat+jə/to play (all plural persons present tense; infinitive), replaced /w/ by /j/: [bwatsjə][bjatsjə]. Boelens (1958:154, footnote 2) observed that when Dutch-speaking children had to read Frisian aloud they tended to pronounce boartsje as [bjatsjə] instead of as [bwatsjə].

As noted, the former peat diggers felt the need to learn to speak Frisian. One may wonder why, first, they did not stick to their native tongue and, second, once they felt the need to adopt a new language, they didn't opt for Dutch. Several factors may have played a role here. The peat diggers, being poor labourers, belonged to the lower social classes, whereas most speakers of Dutch in Fryslân belong to the higher classes. In other words, their low social status did not match well with the high prestige of Dutch and its speakers. Moreover, their native tongue was not Dutch, but a Low Saxon dialect. The latter does not have a high standing, in fact is is looked down on by speakers of Frisian (who consider Frisian a language in its own right). This may have implied that adopting Frisian, which does have a certain prestige, was felt to be a good alternative for adopting Dutch, the status and prestige of which may have been perceived as simply too high.

An interesting − probably unexpected − aspect of all this resides with the speakers of Wâldfrysk. They took over the replacement of /w/ by /j/, which has become a feature typical of their dialect. Following labial consonants /w/ is marked, hence it has a weak position in the phonological system. This may be stronger in Wâldfrysk than in Klaaifrysk, which also means that in the former it is more often realized in a fricative-like way. This would mean that the replacement of /w/ by /j/ found fertile soil in Wâldfrysk.

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Following labial consonants /w/ is marked, as noted. This is also reflected by the fact that it has proved to be prone to deletion in this position. Examples are the following (see Visser (2002:242, footnote 87) for more):

Example 1

a. following /b/
      buoi /bwoj/ shower [bwoj] / [boj]
b. following /m/
      moandei [mandi] Monday (< /mwandi/ )
      moanne /mwanə/ moon [mwanə] / [manə]
      moatte [matə] must, have to (< /mwatə/ )
      muotte /mwotə/ must, have to [mwotə] / [motə]
      muoike /mwojkə/ aunt [mwojkə] / [mojkə]
      smoarch /smwarɣ/ dirty; filthy [smwarəx] / [smarəx]
      fermanje [fəmãjə] Mennonite Church (< /fərmwanjə/ )
c. following /f/
      faasje [fa:sjə] speed (< [fwa(:)sjə] < French force )
      foar /fwar/ for; in front of [fwar] / [far]
      fuoi /fwoj/ ugh!; phooey! [fwoj] / [foj]
      fottelje [fotl̩jə] scurry (< fuottelje /fwotəljə/ < foet foot )
d. following /v/
      warch /varɣ/ tired (< /vwarɣ/ )
      woansdei [vã:zdi] Wednesday (< /vwa:nzdi/ )

The verb moatte is realized as [matə] in a large part of the language area, also in Wâldfrysk. The latter is indicative of the fact that the deletion of [w] following labial consonants is of older origin than the replacement of /w/ by /j/, for the realization [*mjatə] is out.

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The proponents of Standard Frisian did violently oppose the replacement of /w/ by /j/, but this appeared to be in vain. The low degree of acceptance on their part is reflected in the fact that the change is not found in Frisian dictionaries and exercise books, or is mentioned just in passing. Popkema (2006:76) explicitly states that pronunciations like [bjatsjə] (boartsjeplay) and [mjorə] (muorrewall) are marked and do not belong to Standard Frisian. For the speakers of Wâldfrysk, however, such forms may be an important feature with which they can distinguish themselves from the speakers of Klaaifrysk or, put differently, it may be a part of their language identity.

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