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Phonotactics is the branch of phonology dealing with the distribution of segments within phonological and morpho-syntactic domains. It studies the restrictions on combinations of consonants, vowels and consonant-vowel-sequences depending on their phonological positions, both in a particular language and cross-linguistically.

The description of the phonotactics of Dutch will rely heavily on the concept of the syllable (σ). The syllable is assumed to consist of the following hierarchically ordered constituents:

Figure 1
The syllable σ and its constituents
[click image to enlarge]

The occurrence of vowels, consonants and consonant clusters in Dutch is dependent on a variety of factors: many configurations only appear in specific contexts while they are prohibited in others. For example, the consonant cluster /kt/ is allowed in syllable codas, as in the word pakt /pɑkt/ pact but it is prohibited in syllable onsets: accordingly, the hypothetical sequence /*ktɑm/ is not a possible Dutch word. The majority of the relevant generalizations can be expressed by making reference to the syllable and its constituents; there are, however, other factors that influence phonotactics, such as prosodic factors.

Prosodic factors are the position of a syllable in a word (for instance, word-final syllables have longer coda clusters than other syllables), stressed vs. unstressed syllables, ambisyllabicity of consonants, or the relation between a coda and the onset of a following syllable (syllable contact). Furthermore, there may be restrictions on the co-occurrence of segments in syllables that do not belong to the same syllable constituents, such as constraints on the occurrence of the same / similar segments in onsets and codas. The morphological class of a word (lexical morphemes vs. function morphemes) can influence phonotactics as well. Finally, some combinations of segments never occur, as for instance the consonant cluster /pk/ – we will refer to such restrictions as sequential constraints.


Below, we provide an overview of the factors playing a role in phonotactics.

  • Phonotactics at the syllable level: this part focuses on phonotactic restrictions
    • within syllable constituents:
      • Onset. Dutch syllables can start with either a vowel, a consonant, or with consonant clusters of two or three consonants. While schwa is the only vowel that is prohibited syllable-initially (at least in lexical words), the occurrence of consonants in clusters of two or more consonants is more restricted; it interacts with several factors, such as the position of the consonant in a given cluster, which in turn depends on whether the cluster contains two or three consonants.
      • Rhyme. The rhyme is an obligatory syllable constituent in Dutch. It contains the nucleus and an (optional) coda. Restrictions on the co-occurrence of certain vowels and coda consonants apply.
        • Nucleus. The nucleus position of a syllable in Standard Dutch is usually occupied by a vowel. Any Dutch lexical word has to contain minimally one full vowel, i.e. a vowel other than schwa. This can either be an A-class vowel, a B-class vowel, a diphthong or one of the three loan vowels /ɛ:, œ:, ɔ:/. As a result, since schwa cannot carry stress in Dutch, lexical words that only contain schwa do not exist.
        • Coda. Codas are optional syllable constituents in Dutch. There are open syllables, i.e. syllables that end in A-class vowels or diphthongs. In contrast, B-class vowels occur only in closed syllables, which means they have to be followed by a coda consonant. All consonants of Dutch, except for /h/, can occur in coda position. Furthermore, Dutch also allows for coda consonant clusters. Word-medially, codas may contain consonant clusters of two consonants, whereas word-finally up to five consonants are allowed.
    • across syllable constituents:
      • Ambisyllabicity: It has been claimed that Dutch has ambisyllabic consonants, i.e. intervocalic consonants that belong simultaneously to two syllables.
      • Pansyllabic constraints. Pansyllabic constraints refer to phonotactic restrictions of segment co-occurrences or segment sequences whose elements belong to different constituents within a syllable.
  • Phonotactics at the word level: this part focuses on phonotactic restrictions within words consisting of more than one syllable, in which conditions on syllable contact play a role.

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