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Onset: sequences of more than two consonants

Dutch syllableonsets consist of maximally three segments. The first segment of such a three-consonant-sequence has to be an /s/.


Dutch allows for complex onsets, which can consist of up to three segments. If there are three segments in the onset, the first segment has to be an /s/. Examples are given in the following table.

Table 1
segment sequence example
/spl-/ spleet /splet/ fissure
/spr-/ spreuk /sprøk/ saying
/str-/ strop /strɔp/ tie
/skl-/ sclerose /skleˈro.zə/ sclerosis (loanword)
/skr-/ screen /skrin/ screen (loanword)
/skʋ-/ squash /skʋɑʃ/ squash (loanword)
/sxr-/ schrik /sxrɪk/ fright

Booij (1995:26) suggests the following representation for complex onsets:

Figure 1
Figure: onset structure representation
[click image to enlarge]

This onset template allows for three optional positions, with the first position being restricted to /s/. This approach seems to capture the data presented above quite well; however, a few controversial issues remain. First, it proposes a ternary branching onset structure, which is unexpected since all other constituents (e.g. rhymes, nuclei, codas, feet) are usually assumed to be binary branching structures maximally. Second, all of the onset sequences in the table above violate the sonority sequencing generalization(cf. Clements 1990), which states that segment sequences in onsets should rise in sonority. All of the examples above contain non-rising sequences such as two obstruents followed by a sonorant. Third, there is no obvious reason why the first position should exclusively be restricted to /s/.

An alternative approach treats the /s/ as an appendix (cf. Trommelen (1984:112) on the extrametricality of s) or extrametrical constituent (Halle 1980), i.e. a position that is not part of the onset but connects directly to either the syllable node or the prosodic word node. This idea, which avoids the violation of the sonority sequencing generalization, is rooted in the observation that Dutch also allows for extra-long consonant sequences at the end of prosodic words ('edge of constituent phenomena', see Moulton (1956), Booij (1983). As illustrated in the words herfst /hɛrf-st/ autumn and promptst /prɔmp-tst/ most prompt, next to the maximally three positions of the rhyme, another three additional appendix positions are allowed, which can only be filled by coronals. Evidence for the relatively 'independent' appendix character of /s/ comes from the fact that all CC sequences in the sCC - clusters presented above constitute proper onset clusters of Dutch. However, if the /s/ was indeed fully independent, one could expect the /s/ to precede all possible Dutch onset clusters, which is not true (cf. e.g. /sfl-/, /sxl-/, /skn-/).


Notice that the example zarzuela /tsar.ˈtsʋe.la/ zarzuela seems to be an exception to the general pattern decribed above. However, next to the non-native initial onset cluster /ts-/, the three-segment-sequence /-tsʋ-/ in the onset of the second syllable clearly indicates the word's status as a loanword.

  • Booij, Geert1983Principles and parameters in prosodic phonologyLinguistics21249-80
  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Clements, George N1990The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabificationPapers in Laboratory Phonology1Cambridge University Press283-333
  • Halle, Morris & Vergnaud, Jean-Roger1980Three dimensional phonologyJournal of Linguistic Research183-105
  • Moulton, William G1956Syllable nuclei and final consonant clusters in GermanFor Roman Jakobson: Essays on the occasion of his sixtieth birthdayMouton
  • Trommelen, Mieke1984The Syllable in DutchDordrechtForis
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