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The diphthong restriction

Diphthongs are strong stress attractors. This is not only the case when they are followed by a coda consonant (and thus form superheavy syllables, which are generally stress-attracting), but also when they occur in open syllables. Note, however, that the number of relevant monomorphemic words – that is, words with at least one full vowel next to the diphthong – is rather small.


Diphthongs attract primary stress in word-final open syllables as well as in penultimate open syllables. To illustrate this, the disyllabic words of the pattern D-A (diphthong - A-class vowel) and those of the pattern A-D (A-class vowel - diphthong) are compared. In A-D words, there is a strong tendency towards final stress, while D-A words have a strong preference for penultimate stress. See the overview in (1):

a. Final stress
      kakao [kak.'kɔw] cacao
      fauteuil [fo:.'tœy] armchair
      fallei [fal.'lɛj] valley
      kopij [ko:.'pɛj] copy, manuscript
      lakei [lak.'kɛj] lackey
b. Penultimate stress
      kenau [ˈke:.nɔw] virago
Words of the pattern D-A
a. Penultimate stress
aula ['ɔw.la] auditorium
aura ['ɔw.ra] aura
auto ['ɔw.to:] automobile
fauna ['fɔw.na] fauna
sauna ['sɔw.na] sauna
b. Final stress
taugee [tɔw.'ɡe:] soybean

Exceptions to this generalization can especially be found in toponyms, examples of which are place names ending in au or ou:

Nassau ['nas.sɔw] Nassau
Warschau ['var.sjɔw] Warsaw
Moskou ['mos.kɔw] Moscow
Krakou [krak.kɔw] Krakow / Cracow

In Dutch, toponyms are often the sole apparent exceptions to otherwise strong restrictions on stress assignment. Köhnlein (2014), however, argues that closer inspection reveals that they display the stress behaviour which is characteristic of morphologically complex words derived via suffixation or compounding, and that similar patterns are found in place names in various other languages.

  • Köhnlein, Björn2014The morphological structure of complex place names: the case of Dutch
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