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Herewith we motivate the rejection of the notions of ambisyllable and ambisyllabicity within the context of Afrikaans phonotactics; they are shown to be unnecessary for a full and adequate description of this language's phonotactics, and also lead to unnecessary complications in domains other than phonotactics, especially the description of the vowel system of Afrikaans and the stress assignment rules. Note that this leads to a significant difference from the Dutch phonology in these respects. Motivation for this decision is provided here.


Kahn (1976) is usually referred to as the main propagandist of the concept ambisyllable and with it, ambisyllabicity. He (Kahn 1976) presented an analysis in which: intervocalic consonants [...] may belong simultaneously to a preceding and a following vowel's syllable.Such a consonant is called ambisyllabic. More specifically, these so-called inter-vocalic consonants prevent short (Dutch) vowels ( /ɪ/, /œ/, /ɛ/, /ɔ/ and /ɑ/) occurring in open syllables. The phenomenon is illustrated by the following figure for the English word hammer [ˈhɑmər].

This ensures that the first syllable is closed while the second one starts with an onset consonant, rendering a syllable pattern CVC.CVC.

Applied to Dutch, Van Oostendorp (2000) formulates the general rule:

  • A lax vowel may not be the final sound in a syllable.

Booij's (1995) Minimal Rhyme Constraint boils down to the same:

  • A syllable cannot end in a short vowel.

In the Dutch word kanarie [ka.'na.ri] canary both a vowels are transcribed as long vowels, and thus accordingly are allowed in open syllables. Should the two syllable's vowels were short /ɑ/, as is the case in Afrikaans kanarie, and should one had to adhere to these two rules and constraints, the use of the notion ambisyllabicity had to be accepted for Afrikaans as well. See The Short Vowels for a motivation of the acceptance of short vowels, like /ɑ/. Therefore we accept a syllable structure of kanarie [kɑ.'nɑ.ri] canary as CV.CV.CV, and not the less elegant, more complicated, and also less general one of CVC.CVC.CV, in case of the adoption of ambisyllabic consonants.

[+]Other critiques of the concept of ambisyllabicity

Haike Jacobs' (2011) conclusion that "Dutch does not have any word-internal ambisyllabic consonants at all, contrary to what has been claimed up until now" is perfectly applicable to Afrikaans phonology. A number of other critiques of the idea of ambisyllabicity have appeared in the literature, mainly on the basis of experimental studies on a variety of languages, including Korean, Swiss-German and Arabic. The article of Jensen "Against ambisyllabicity" (Jensen 2000) counts among the most telling of reported studies on this issue. Gillis (1998), in an investigation of Dutch children’s and adults’ syllabification ability, reports a highly significant tendency to adhere to the Obligatory Onset Principle (with syllable breaks: CV-CVC, thus no ambisyllable consonant in the first syllable) as opposed to the hypothetical language-specific Bipositional Rhyme Constraint, which does result in ambisyllabicity (with syllable breaks: CVC-CVC). According to this study's results five-year old children tend to syllabify the word appel as /ɑ.pəl/, thus leaving the first, short vowel in an open syllable, contrary to expectations by the advocates of ambisyllabicity. Furthermore, in a vast majority of cases both the five-year old and eight-year old groups prefer 'open syllable' segmentations, both in the context of a short and a long vowel. In an intuitive syllabification task, subjects do not typically make ambisyllabic responses to disyllabic Dutch words where a short vowel is followed by a single intervocalic consonant.

  • Booij, Geert1995The phonology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Gillis, S., Sandra, D1998Children’s and adults’ syllabification: The influence of spellingIstanbul: Bogazici University Press
  • Jacobs. Haike2011What phonetics tells phonology: Degemination, ambisyllabicity and the duration of Dutch intervocalic consonants
  • Jensen, J.T2000Against Ambisyllabicity Kahn, D. (1976) 17, 187-235. Phonology17187-235
  • Kahn, Daniel1976Syllable-based generalizations in English phonologyMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyThesis
  • Kahn, Daniel1976Syllable-based generalizations in English phonologyMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyThesis
  • Oostendorp, Marc van2000Phonological ProjectionNiemeyer
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