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Onsetless syllables

Onsets are optional syllableconstituents in Dutch.


Any syllable in Dutch can be onsetless regardless of the quality of the full vowel in the nucleus position and the syllable's position within a word. Examples of word-initial and word-internal onsetless syllables are given in (1) to (5).

Example 1

Word-initial onsetless syllables
a. A-class vowel
iets /its/ something
uur /yr/ hour
eend /end/ duck
aap /ap/ monkey
oor /or/ ear
oer /ur/ primal, extremely
b. B-class vowel
inkt /ɪŋkt/ ink
urn /ʏrn/ urn
eng /ɛŋ/ grisly, narrow
os /ɔs/ ox
as /ɑs/ ash
c. diphthong
eind /ɛind/ end
uil /œyl/ owl
oud /ɑud/ old

Schwa is the only vowel that is prohibited word-initially, at least in lexical morphemes (2a). Only in function words, can schwa appear in word-initial position (2b):

Example 2

a. enorm [eˈnɔrm]   but not [*əˈnɔrm] enormous
b. een [ən] a

As shown in example (1), Dutch words can start with any full vowel or diphthong – yet, as noted in Gussenhoven (1992:45), word-initial vowels are obligatorily preceded by a glottal stop if the initial syllable is stressed, while this glottal stop is optional in words in which the first syllable is unstressed. Some examples are provided in (3):

Example 3

a. Initial A-class vowel, stressed
opera [ˈʔopəra] opera
b. Initial A-class vowel, unstressed
enorm [(ʔ)eˈnɔrm] enormous
c. Initial B-class vowel, stressed
acht [ˈʔɑxt] eight
d. Initial B-class vowel, unstressed
amandel [(ʔ)ɑˈmɑndəl] almond
e. Initial diphthong, stressed
auto [ˈʔɑuto] car
f. Initial diphthong, unstressed
auditie [(ʔ)ɑuˈditsi] audition

Word-medially, vowel-initial syllables are less frequent due to the Maximal Onset constraint (universal *C.VC constraint), which forces consonants before a vowel within the same domain of syllabification to be assigned to the onset of that particular syllable. This process is illustrated by the plural form handen hand-en [ˈhɑndən] (cf. the singular form hand /hɑnd/ [hɑnt] in which syllable-final obstruent devoicing applies). In case a word-medial vowel-initial syllable occurs, it will be realized with a glottal stop if the vowel-initial syllable is stressed (4a) and without it if the vowel-initial syllable is unstressed (second syllable in 4b).

Example 4

a. vereisen /vər.ɛi.sə(n)/ [vərˈʔɛisə(n)] require
b. eindexamen /ɛind.ɛk.sa.mə(n)/ [ˈʔɛintɛkˌsamə(n)] final exams

Sequences of two adjacent heterosyllabic vowels such as the ones in (5) are exceptions. These sequences are usually subject to the process of hiatus resolution.

Example 5

Word-medial onsetless syllables leading to hiatus
hiaat [hi.ˈat] hiatus
uien [ˈœy.ən] onions
chaos [ˈxa.ɔs] chaos
aorta [a.ˈɔr.ta] aorta
farao [ˈfa.ra.o] Pharaoh
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos1992DutchJournal of the International Phonetic Association2245-47