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Schwa epenthesis and schwa deletion

A common phenomenon in Dutch, especially in less-formal registers, is schwa epenthesis or schwa insertion. The following list of words illustrates the optional application of the process:

Example 1

Schwa epenthesis
a. kalm /kɑlm/ [kɑl(ə)m] quiet
b. arm /ɑrm/ [ɑr(ə)m] arm
c. help /hɛlp/ [hɛl(ə)p] help
d. harp /hɑrp/ [hɑr(ə)p] harp
e. herfst /hɛrfst/ [hɛr(ə)fst] autumn
f. elf /ɛlf/ [ɛl(ə)f] eleven
g. melk /mɛlk/ [mɛl(ə)k] milk
h. werk /wɛrk/ [wɛr(ə)k] work
i. alg /ɑlx/ [ɑl(ə)x] alga
j. erg /ɛrx/ [ɛr(ə)x] very
k. urn /ʏrn/ [ʏr(ə)n] urn
l. hoorn /horn/ [hor(ə)n] horn

We thus see that the mid-central vowel /ə/ is inserted in non-homorganic consonant clusters in a complex coda where the first segment is a sonorant /l/ or /r/ and the following consonant does not share the same place of articulation (see topic about syllable coda in Dutch).

[+] General information

Whereas schwa insertion does get applied in non-homorganic consonant clusters, it is however not found in homorganic consonant clusters, such as in 2g-h. Moreover, schwa epenthesis is also not possible if the second consonant is a coronal obstruent, i.e. either /s/ or /t/ (cf. also Extra below):

Example 2

Impossible schwa epenthesis
a. hart /hɑrt/ [hɑrt]  , [*hɑrət] heart
b. hars /hɑrs/ [hɑrs]  , [*hɑrəs] harsh
c. halt /hɑlt/ [hɑlt]  , [*hɑlət] stop
d. band /bɑnd/ [bɑnt]  , [*bɑnət] tape
e. hals /hɑls/ [hɑls]  , [*hɑləs] neck
f. kans /kɑns/ [kɑns]  , [*kɑnəs] chance
g. damp /dɑmp/ [dɑmp]  , [*dɑməp] damp
h. bank /bɑnk/ [bɑŋk]  , [*bɑŋək] bank

As already mentioned above, schwa epenthesis is one of the processes that is found more often in casual speech, i.e. in less formal registers. Besides, according to Van Oostendorp and Kooij (2003: 145), older speakers of Dutch use it more frequently than younger speakers of Dutch.

By inserting a schwa in the contexts described above, each underlyingly monosyllabic word surfaces as bisyllabic, hence forming a foot with the pattern 'stressed unstressed' or 'strong weak' respectively. Such a pattern, the so-called trochee, is generally preferred in Dutch:

Example 3

werk /wɛrk/ ['wɛ.rək] work
[hide extra information]

According to Booij (1995: 127f.) the coronal obstruents /s/ and /t/ are syllabified as appendices and are thus not affected by the common process of schwa insertion in Dutch. By this, Booij follows the idea of the appendix position, also known as extrasyllabicity or extrametricality which state that extrasyllabic elements do not take part in syllabification or count for syllable weight in stress assignment. (See also Haugen 1956, Halle and Vergnaud 1980: 95Kager and Zonneveld 1986, Van Oostendorp 1995, 2000.)

[+] Schwa deletion and hypercorrection

In the contexts where two consecutive syllables are headed by a schwa, the first schwa may be deleted if the resulting cluster forms an obstruent followed by a liquid /l/ or /r/, such as in the examples 4a, b, c, and d. Like Booij (1995: 128f.) notices, this is universally the most favourite type of onset cluster. Interestingly, schwa deletion here may render complex onsets clusters like /zl/, /dl/ and /tl/ (shown in 4e) which are permitted in Dutch but which do not occur at the lexical level in Dutch, .

Note that often schwa deletion also renders trochees from underlyingly trisyllabic words, such as in soepele/su.pə.le/ > [ˈsu.plə] and the other examples in 4:

Example 4

Optional schwa deletion
a. koperen /ko.pə.rən/ [ˈkop(ə)rən] copper
b. offeren /ɔ.fə.rən/ [ˈɔf(ə)rən] to sacrifice
c. soepele /su.pə.lə/ [ˈsup(ə)lə] smooth
d. gemakkelijk /xə.mɑ.kə.lək/ [xəˈmɑk(ə)lək] easy
e. kietelen /ki.tə.lən/ [ˈkit(ə)lə(n)] to tickle

However, schwa deletion is not possible if the vowel in the next syllable is an A-class vowel as shown in 5a and 5b, or the deletion would render a consonant cluster different from obstruent+liquid as in 5c or 5d:

Example 5

Impossible schwa deletion
a. geraamte /gə.r'am.tə/ [gər'amtə]  , [*gramtə] skeleton
b. beloven /bə.l'o.vən/ [bəl'ovə(n)]  , [*blovə(n)] to promise
c. tekenen /te.kə.nən/ [tekənə(n)]  , [*teknə(n)] to draw
d. redenen /re.də.nən/ [redənən]  , [*red/tnən] reasons
[+] Schwa: the empty segment

In the sections above it has been shown seen that speakers of Dutch break up consonant clusters by inserting a schwa or create consonant clusters by deleting this segment. Why is it exactly this segment that gets inserted and deleted and not any other vowel? The answer can be found by looking at the characteristics of schwa:

In the vowel chart it is shown that it is the most central vowel in the Dutch vowel segmentory. Moreover, schwa is placeless, which means that it is articulatorily targetless, i.e. it does not involve any specific supralaryngeal articulatory organ. What is more, schwa cannot bear stress. Taken together, among all the Dutch vowels, schwa carries the smallest amount of information, making it the optimal vocalic segment to insert. Speakers are torn between phonological well-formedesness, i.e. the use of schwa insertion to break up complex codas, and faithfulness to the underlying representation, i.e. no insertion at all. That means, if, for reasons of well-formedness something has to be epenthesized, this segment is the more optimal the less information it carries.

Figure 1(cf. Gussenhoven 1992: 47) depicts the (Dutch) vowel's position within the vowel chart.

Figure 1

[click image to enlarge]

[+] Interrelation between /ə/ and /r/ and hypercorrection

We have seen that schwa deletions happens if the resulting cluster consists of an obstruent + a liquid. Especially in the clusters of /ə/+/r/+ dental-alveolar consonant, the segment in the middle, i.e. /r/, often gets deleted as illustrated in 6. There is a strong connection between deletions and hypercorrections. Thus, the examples given in 7 are often pronounced with an additional hypercorrect /r/. This has been explained by the fact that /r/-deletion leaves a colouring on the preceding vowel. Van den Heuvel and Cucchiarini (2001) found that it is the stress-bearing property that is crucial and therefore schwa behaves radically different than full vowels.

It is said that speakers seem to be aware of that colouring and emphasise it in all contexts where the segment /r/ is preceded by schwa and followed by another consonant which explains the often occuring hypercorrections in this context. In words like AmsterdamAmsterdam where the rhotic can be deleted or in burgemeester/ˌbyrgə'mestər/mayor in which the orthography has been adapted to the pronunciation and thus no /r/ is present anymore, it becomes clear that stress plays an important role since schwa cannot bear stress.

Example 6

a. Amsterdam /ɑmstər'dɑm/ [ɑmstə(r)'dɑm] Amsterdam
b. verleden /vərl'edən/ [və(r)'ledən] past
c. anders /'ɑndərs/ ['ɑndə(r)s] different, otherwise
Example 7

a. konijn /kɔ'nɛin/ [kɔn'ɛin] [kɔr'nɛin] rabbit
b. Spijkenisse /ˌspɛi.kə'nɪ.sə/ [spɛikə(r)'nɪsə] Spijkenisse
c. sjalot /ʃɑ'lɔt/ [ʃɑ(r)'lɔt] scallion
d. oftewel /ˌɔftə'wɛl/ [ˌɔftə(r)'wɛl] that is

For more information concerning the phonetic and phonological characteristics of the vowel see the topic about the mid-central vowel /ə/ in Dutch.

  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordClarendon Press
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordClarendon Press
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos1992DutchJournal of the International Phonetic Association2245-47
  • Halle, Morris & Vergnaud, Jean-Roger1980Three dimensional phonologyJournal of Linguistic Research183-105
  • Haugen, E1956The syllable in linguistic descriptionHalle, Morris, Lunt, H.G. & McLean, H. (eds.)For Roman JakobsonThe HagueMouton213-221
  • Kager, René & Zonneveld, Wim1986Schwa, Syllables and Extrametricality in DutchThe Linguistic Review5197-221
  • Oostendorp, Marc van1995Vowel Quality and Phonological ProjectionTilburg UniversityThesis
  • Oostendorp, Marc van2000Phonological ProjectionNiemeyer
  • Oostendorp, Marc van & Kooij, Jan2003Fonologie: uitnodiging tot de klankleer van het NederlandsAmsterdamAmsterdam University Press
  • Van den Heuvel, Henk & Cucchiarini, Catia2001/r/-deletion in Dutch: rumours or reality?Van de Velde, Hans & Roeland Van Hout (ed.)’r-atics. Sociolinguistic, phonetic and phonological characteristics of /r/BruxellesEtudes & Travaux185-198
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