LINGUIST List 10.930

Wed Jun 16 1999

Review: Waals: Dutch Syllables

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  1. Niels Schiller, review: Waals

Message 1: review: Waals

Date: Tue, 8 Jun 1999 23:55:45 -0400 (EDT)
From: Niels Schiller <>
Subject: review: Waals

Waals, Juliette (1999), "An Experimental View of the Dutch 
Syllable", Holland Academic Graphics, The Hague (UiL OTS/Utrecht 
University Dissertation). [LOT International Series, 18.] Januari 
1999. ISBN 90-5569-063-5. Paperback. xii+158 pp. Price: NLG 48.00 
(excl. P&P, VAT). Discounts are available for individuals ordering 
directly from HAG. <>

Reviewed by Niels Schiller, Harvard University


This thesis is a phonetic investigation of syllable structure in 
Dutch. It provides empirical data about the durational 
characteristics of single consonants as well as consonant clusters 
and vowels. The thesis is divided into three empirical parts, 
dedicated to the word onset (Chapter 2), the word coda (Chapter 3), 
and the intervocalic position (Chapter 4). Chapter 5 provides 
additional data about the role of lexical stress in syllabification. 
The results are summarized in Chapter 6. The thesis comprises a list 
of references, an index, and a Dutch summary.

Critical evaluation

The aim of this thesis is the empirical investigation of the 
relation between segment durations and syllable structure in Dutch. 
It generally well written although the largely descriptive form of 
the dissertation -- including a lot of data -- makes it sometimes a 
bit hard to read. The general method used by the author to obtain 
empirical data was to ask native speakers of Dutch to produce 
specific words and pseudowords including the target segments. The 
production of the material was recorded under laboratory conditions 
and the acoustic durations of the consonants and consonant clusters 
were measured. The motivation of this enterprise resides in the 
question whether it is necessary to refer to syllabic structure when 
interpreting durational data. The central hypothesis put forward in 
this thesis is the Metrical Segment Duration Hypothesis (MSDH) and 
states that "the relative durations of segments are a reflection of 
[phonological] syllable constituency". Analyses of the data support 
this hypothesis and show that syllables and syllable structure have 
to be taken into account to be able to make sense of the segment 
durations in the different syllabic positions.

Chapter 1 is an introduction including a brief description of the 
theoretical background and a short review of the literature about 
the relation of segment length and syllable structure. Although 
articulatory data are also mentioned, the literature review focuses 
on acoustic studies of segment durations with emphasis on what has 
been found in Dutch. Also, the central hypothesis of the thesis is 
introduced and discussed before the background of the relevant 
findings reported in the literature.

Chapter 2 reports empirical data of segmental durations in word-
onset position. A brief description of the Dutch phonology is 
provided including principles of phonotactics and syllabification. 
The materials consist of monosyllabic Dutch words including 
singleton onsets as well as bi- and triconsonantal clusters. One 
native speaker produced the set of 151 words embedded in a carrier 
phrase two times.The results showed that the individual consonants 
differed significantly in length, but there was no effect of 
repetition or (phonological) length of the following vowel (vowel 
length is phonologically distinctive in Dutch). Waals found that 
obstruents were longer than nasals, which in turn were longer than 
liquids. Within the class of obstruents, voiceless members were 
longer than voiced ones, and fricatives were longer than plosives.

	For the clusters, so-called "compression rates" were computed, 
which are nothing else but the duration of a segment in an onset 
cluster relative to its duration as a singleton onset (expressed as 
a proportion). The reader of Waal's thesis will be surprised, 
however, that the "compression rates" reported for biconsonantal 
clusters in the thesis slightly deviate from the values that are 
obtained when the reader makes the same computation based on the 
values provided for the individual consonants. For example, /p/ had 
a duration of 154 ms as a singleton onset and 147 ms in the 
biconsonantal cluster /pl/. The reported compression value for /p/ 
in the cluster (94%) deviates slightly from the correct value 
computed on the basis of the data provided by Waals (9
5%). This is also true for other cases. Although this does probably 
not affect any of the conclusions drawn in this thesis, it is 
nevertheless confusing. Due to the possibility of word-initial /s/ 
being extrasyllabic, biconsonantal clusters were divided into two 
sets, i.e., obstruent+liquid clusters and /s/+consonant clusters. In 
the first type of cluster, the length of the obstruent was virtually 
the same
 as in singleton onsets, but the duration of the liquid was only 
half the duration as in single onset position. In the second type of 
cluster, both consonants were shorter than singleton onsets. The 
observations that were made for biconsonantal clusters were 
generally also true for triconsonantal clusters. The addition of a 
liquid to a biconsonantal /s/+obtruent cluster did not lead to 
additional compression and the duration of the liquid was the same 
in bi- and triconsonantal clusters. Therefore, the duration of 
triconsonantal clusters was completely compositional. The most 
important observation is that the duration of a cluster was not the 
sum of the durations of the individual consonants. The durations of 
individual segments in a cluster were shortened relative to their 
durations as singleton onsets. However, the shortening did not occur 
arbitrarily. The general cluster shortening effect was only 
applicable to immediately neighboring consonants, i.e., the 
shortening effect was local. Locality ensures that a consonant is 
shortened only by its direct neighbor (see triconsonantal clusters). 
Based on the empirical findings, the author constructed a set of 
duration rules. These rules were used to compute duration data. It 
is not clear to me, however, why the "rule data" was compared to the 
"human data" afterwards, when rules were constructed on the basis of 
the data from that same speaker. This seems circular to me (but 
maybe I am missing something here), and therefore it was no surprise 
to me that the "human data" and the "rule data" correlated very well 
(r = .94).

Chapter 3 investigates consonants and consonant clusters in the word 
coda. Dutch phonology requires syllable rhymes to consist of at 
least two positions or slots. This is called the "VX condition" in 
this dissertation, and it states that syllable rhymes either have to 
consist of a long vowel (VV) or of a short vowel and a consonant 
(VC). Furthermore, the rhyme of the final syllable of a word may 
have an extrasyllabic appendix, i.e., additional consonants may be 
added to the final coda of a word.

	In addition to the durational questions addressed in the word 
onset position, relations between the nucleus and the coda were 
investigated. Altogether, 9 singleton codas, 19 biconsonantal 
clusters, and 7 triconsonantal clusters were selected. Three native 
speakers of Dutch produced these coda consonants five times in 1275 
words and 810 nonwords. Again, digital recordings were made and 
acoustic measurements of the vowel and the coda consonant(s) were 
made. However, in the result section only the data for the nonwords 
were reported because Waals argued that the results for the words 
and their nonword counterparts were virtually equivalent but that 
the nonwords were "better balanced", "which should lead to cleaner 
results". While it is not clear to me how the nonwords should lead 
to cleaner results if they were virtually equivalent to the results 
for the words, a huge set of data was discarded without a convincing 
reason. It would have been nice if the author had shown (with some 
examples at least) that the results of the words and nonwords were 
really comparable. My personal opinion is to use words over nonwords 
whenever possible, and since the data for the words were recorded, 
it is a pity that they are not reported.

	The durational analysis of the singleton codas revealed three 
significant main effects: The effect of type of consonant indicates 
that there were differences between the consonant durations. Liquids 
were again shorter than the rest of the consonants, labial 
obstruents had the longest durations. Consonants that follow a short 
vowel were longer than consonants following a long vowel. However, 
as can be seen in a figure plotted by the author (Figure 2 on p. 
48), this was only true for a small subset of the consonants under 
investigation. Unfortunately, Waals did not take the next logical 
step, which would be to state whether the interaction between the 
two factors "type of consonant" and "vowel length" was significant. 
Unfortunately, only the main effects were reported. The third main 
effect was the factor "subject", implying variability between the 
speakers. It is confusing that Waals states in the next sentence 
that "we have found that the factors subject and repetition do not 
have a significant influence on the duration of mono-consonantal 
codas" (p. 50), when the significant effect of the factor "subject" 
was reported before.

	For the duration of biconsonantal clusters in word coda 
position, Waals observed that there was a lower limit: No matter 
whether the coda cluster was preceded by a long or by a short vowel, 
it was never shorter than 115 ms. In general, the first consonant in 
the cluster is shortened relatively more than the second, and this 
effect was especially strong after short vowels. That is, coda 
clusters were the mirror image of onset clusters with respect to 
shortening of individual segments. Furthermore, the relative 
duration of the second consonant depended on the sonority of the 
preceding consonant, e.g., the duration of a second consonant in a 
coda cluster was relatively longer after a liquid than after a 
nasal. Consonants in triconsonantal clusters were not realized any 
shorter than in biconsonantal clusters, i.e., the locality effect 
observed in the onset clusters also applied to codas. Triconsonantal 
clusters were again shown to be compositional with respect to 

	Vowel length differed according to the number of consonants in 
the coda cluster, i.e., vowels were longest when followed by 
singleton codas and shortest when followed by a triconsonantal coda 
cluster. That means, unlike consonants, vowels were sensitive to the 
number of following consonants.

Chapter 4 focused on the temporal properties of intervocalic 
consonants and consonant clusters. Intervocalic consonant clusters 
in Dutch generally consist of maximally three consonants, in some 
cases even four consonants are possible. The materials for this 
study consisted of 122 pseudoword targets. Altogether, 12 singleton 
consonants and 77 bi-, tri-, and quadriconsonantal clusters were 
investigated in intervocalic position. One hundred and twenty-two 
stress-initial pseudowords were created and produced five times 
embedded in a carrier phrase by the same three native speakers who 
had already served as subjects in the word-coda study.
	For the singleton intervocalic consonants, the factor "type of 
consonant" was significant. Fricatives were longer than stops, and 
in general the duration increased as the sonority of a consonant 
increased. Although labials were longer than dentals, differences 
due to the place of articulation were generally very small. 
Furthermore, the factor "vowel length" was found to be significant. 
Consonants were shorter after long vowels than after short ones. For 
some consonants, involving the sonorants and the voiced obstruents 
that were investigated, the differences were virtually non-existing, 
however. But as in the previous chapter, the author did not report 
whether or not the interaction between the factors "type of 
consonant" and "vowel length" was significant.
	For biconsonantal clusters, Waals observed that these clusters 
were shorter after a long vowel than after a short vowel, but again 
there seemed to be a lower limit (101 ms). Generally, differences in 
place of articulation did not lead to major durational differences 
in the individual subcategories of the biconsonantal clusters.
	For triconsonantal clusters, preceding vowel length did not 
have an effect on the duration of the cluster (although no 
statistics were provided except for mean values). With respect to 
the internal characteristics of the clusters, in some triconsonantal 
clusters the individual consonants were shorter than in their 
biconsonantal counterparts, in some they were not (see p. 88).
	The consonants in the quadriconsonantal clusters were not any 
more shortened than in the triconsonantal clusters.
	Vowels were found to be shortest when preceding a plosive, and 
longest when preceding a liquid. Vowels were longer when preceding 
voiced consonants than when preceding voiceless consonants. Also, 
vowels were shorter when they preceded a single consonant as 
compared to a consonant cluster, and their duration depended partly 
on the identity of the first consonant of a cluster.The main result 
of Chapter 4 is that the temporal properties of intervocalic 
clusters are determined by the same principle as the word-onset and 
word-coda clusters, namely: Group consonants observing sonority 
properties, elsewhere follow metrical structure. By metrical 
structure Waals means syllable structure based on phonological 
considerations. The MSDH was shown to predict also the durational 
behavior of triconsonantal intervocalic clusters in that duration in 
these clusters depended on sonority and phonological metrical 
	The MSDH was also reflected in the syllabification of 
intervocalic consonant clusters which follows two principles: (a) 
language-specific requirements (e.g., the VX condition in Dutch) and 
(b) the universal Maximal Onset Principle (MOP). However, in Dutch 
the language-specific principles seemed to be overruled by the 
universal principles.

In Chapter 5 the assumption was investigated that the 
syllabification of consonants in intervocalic clusters is realised 
in the duration data. Single intervocalic consonants are syllabified 
with the following syllable according to the universal MOP. This is 
also implied by psycholinguistic data. However, Waals only cited 
data for English and ignores that similar syllabification 
experiments were carried out for Dutch by Schiller, Meyer, & Levelt 
(1997), which may be more relevant to the issue under investigation 
(i.e., the syllable in Dutch). Therefore, one would expect single 
intervocalic consonants to behave similarly to word-onset consonants 
in terms of duration. But, comparing the durations of intervocalic 
single consonants with word-onset consonants showed that the former 
were much shorter than the latter. However, this may be the result 
of polysyllabic shortening.
	The consonants in biconsonantal clusters were much longer in 
intervocalic position than in word-coda position. This was 
especially true for the second consonant. Compared to word-onsets, 
the first consonant in biconsonantal intervocalic clusters is much 
shorter which was in agreement with polysyllabic shortening. Taken 
together, this confirmed the expectation that clusters in 
intervocalic position were generally slit up but obstruent-sonorant 
clusters function as word-internal onsets. The MOP overrules the 
language-specific VX condition with the effect that any O+S cluster 
is dealt with durationally as an onset.

Chapter 6 summarizes the results that were found earlier. The 
dissertation aimed at an investigation into the relation between 
segment durations and syllable structure. A relationship between 
metrical syllable structure and the duration of consonants can be 

Overall, this thesis constitutes a careful investigation of the 
phonetics and phonology of the syllable in Dutch. It provides a lot 
of empirical data, and some of the results are very interesting. The 
data is accounted for in terms of the Metrical Segment Duration 
Hypothesis, which seems to capture most of the data. However, the 
statistical analyses could be improved (by reporting interactions of 
the main effects and by conducting item-analyses). Except for some 
minor details that were not completely clear to me, the thesis is 
well written and the experimental work was carefully conducted. 
Therefore, this thesis will be of use for everybody interested in 
the phonetics and phonology of the Dutch syllable.


Schiller, N. O., Meyer, A. S., & Levelt, W. J. M. (1997). The 
syllabic structure of spoken words: Evidence from the 
syllabification of intervocalic consonants. Language and Speech, 40, 

Reviewer's biography

>From 1994 to 1998. I worked at the Max Planck Institute for 
Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. In 1997, I received 
his Ph.D. in Psychology from Nijmegen University. In my PhD 
dissertation, I investigated the role of the syllable in lexical 
access during speech production. As of March 1998 I am affiliated 
with the Cognitive Neuropsychology Laboratory of the Psychology 
Department at Harvard University in Cambridge, USA. My research 
interests comprise phonological and morphological encoding in speech 
production, language processing in neurologically impaired patients, 
articulatory-motor processes during speech production, and forensic 
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