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The resolution of vocalic hiatus

The juxtaposition of two vowels yields a configuration of vocalic hiatus. Since the latter is forbidden in Frisian, it is in need of repair. For independent reasons, this is not achieved by vowel deletion, but by glide insertion. The resolution of vocalic hiatus is the topic of this section.


In Frisian, a sequence of two adjacent, identical consonants is degeminated (see degemination). A sequence of two non-identical consonants is all right (though more often than not is it subjected to assimilatory processes).

In this respect, there is a marked difference between consonants and vowels. On the one hand, Frisian does not have long consonants, while it does have long vowels. On the other hand, though Frisian allows for sequences of two adjacent, non-identical consonants, sequences of two adjacent vowels − identical or non-identical − are forbidden. This means that such a configuration of vocalic hiatus is in need of repair, which is achieved by glide insertion, not by vowel deletion. The impossibility of the latter is to be ascribed to the property of vowels that they are the head of the syllable they are part of. The deletion of a vowel thus not only implies the loss of a (single) segment, but also the collapse of the (entire) syllable of which it is the head.

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This is not to say that vowel deletion does not occur. It does, but only with one vowel, schwa, and only in specific contexts (see schwa deletion).

Combining a vowel-final stem with a vowel-initial suffix yields a configuration of vocalic hiatus. The latter is repaired by the insertion of the glide [j] or [w], as exemplified in (1):

Example 1

Examples of the insertion of a glide between two adjacent vowels
dyen /di+ən/ [(di.)(jən)] those ones
seeën /se:+ən/ [(se:)(jən)] seas
sneuë /snø:+ə/ [(snø:)(jə)] unfortunate (inflected)
dowen /do:+ən/ [(do:)(wən)] pigeons
stowerij /sto:+ərɛj/ [(sto:)(wə)(rɛj)] drizzle

The notion 'vocalic hiatus' must be qualified. The vocalic inventory of Frisian comprises, among others, falling and centring diphthongs, viz. tautomorphemic combinations of vowels which together end up as the complex nucleus of a syllable (see diphthongs in Frisian). The latter makes for the difference with the inflected or derived forms in (1), which are polysyllabic, hence which have more than one nucleus. Therefore, it is not a sequence of vowels in hiatus which is forbidden, but one of adjacent syllable nuclei. This is expressed by the following constraint:

adjacent nuclei constraint
a configuration of adjacent syllable nuclei is forbidden

This constraint is likely to be motivated by the Syllable Contact Constraint, according to which the contact between two syllables is better to the extent that the first one ends more sonorously and the second one begins less sonorously (see Murray and Vennemann (1983), Clements (1990:319-320)). The contact in the forms in (1) − dyen /di+ən/ [(di)(ən)] those ones and dowen /do:+ən/ [(do:)(ən)] pigeons, for instance − is very bad, since the left-hand syllable ends as sonorously as the right-hand one begins. The insertion of a glide makes for an improvement, since the Adjacent Nuclei Constraint is no longer violated. A concomitant advantage is that the number of syllables remains the same. As to a mere separation of the adjacent syllable nuclei, it is irrelevant whether the glide ends up as the coda of the left-hand or the onset of the right-hand syllable. The latter position, however, is enforced by two constraints, viz. the Syllable Contact Constraint [(di.)(jən)](dyen) and [(do:)(wən)](dowen), for instance, display a much better syllable contact than do [(dij)(ən)] and [(do:w)(ən)] − and by the constraint that a schwa syllable must have an onset (see schwa).

See the following topics for more on the resolution of vocalic hiatus:

  • Clements, George N1990The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabificationPapers in Laboratory Phonology1Cambridge University Press283-333
  • Murray, R.W. & Vennemann, T1983Sound change and syllable structure in Germanic phonologyLanguage59514-528