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Review of  An Experimental View of the Dutch Syllable

Reviewer: Niels O. Schiller
Book Title: An Experimental View of the Dutch Syllable
Book Author: Juliette Waals
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Issue Number: 10.930

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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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