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Obstruent voicing before sonorants. The case of West-Flemish


This article reports on an acoustic study of voicing in obstruents followed by a sonorant across a word boundary in two dialects of Dutch: East- and West-Flemish. In both varieties only gradient phonetic voicing was typically found in word-final stops when a sonorant followed in the next word. In addition, West-Flemish showed optional categorical voicing in word-final pre-sonorant fricatives. The voicing of fricatives is argued to be phonological, as it extends beyond the scope of automated coarticulation, and as the data pattern to form a distinct phonetic voicing target. However, the phonetic results do not support the hypothesis that West-Flemish sonorants are laryngeally specified and thus able to spread voicing to neighbouring fricatives. Instead, fricative voicing is proposed to be an optional positional realisation in West-Flemish. Although the process cannot be directly motivated by reference to the phonological specifications of the segments surrounding its target, it makes sense in terms of perceptual factors leading to diachronic reanalysis. The West-Flemish positional variation may arise when partially voiced fricatives are perceived and subsequently reanalysed as categorically voiced by listeners, as proposed by Jansen (2004). It is further argued that fricatives are more likely than stops to be reinterpreted as voiced, as additional acoustic cues prevent voiced percepts in passively voiced stops.

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  1. 1.

    Bradley and Delforge (2006), citing Torreblanca (1978, 1986a, 1986b), give the Spanish dialects spoken around Toledo, Ávila, and Cáceres as a counterexample since, according to Torreblanca, voicing applies in those dialects to prevocalic sibilants across the board.

  2. 2.

    Jansen (2004:36) provides the following definition of spontaneous (passive) voicing: “Sounds or parts of sounds are said to be passively voiced if a closed equilibrium position of the vocal folds and normal subglottal pressure (according to Stevens (1998), 8000 dyne/cm2 / 800 Pa is typical) are sufficient to initiate or maintain the physical conditions for vocal fold vibration. Sonorants are typical examples of passively voiced sounds: because their supralaryngeal articulations allow air to escape freely from the supraglottal vocal tract (either through the oral or nasal tract or both) the supraglottal pressure during these sounds remains approximately equal to atmospheric pressure.”

  3. 3.

    There are, however, reports of stop voicing word-finally before a vowel, e.g. in some Limburg dialects and in the northwest of East Flanders (De Schutter and Taeldeman 1986).

  4. 4.

    Jiménez and Lloret (2008) report a dialect continuum in Catalan, where all dialects except Central Valencian have sibilant voicing before vowels. In addition to sibilant voicing, Central Catalan has (variable) /f/ voicing, while Alicantino is reported to voice all obstruents.

  5. 5.

    Fur further discussion on the role of naturalness in stop vs. fricative voicing see Silverman (2006:164–165) and Sect. 4 of this paper.

  6. 6.

    While the vowel in the adjective of the target items was thus held constant before voiced and voiceless fricatives (), and before voiced and voiceless stops (), no four adjectives could be found with the same vowel before underlying voiced and voiceless fricative and stops.

  7. 7.

    The first peak in the distribution is associated with somewhat shorter voicing in fricatives followed by voiceless stops than in fricatives followed by sonorants. A possible explanation lies in coarticulation which might be present when a voiceless stop follows, but is absent in the presence of a following sonorant.

  8. 8.

    Figure 7 shows a dip in the distribution of voicing duration in voiceless obstruents produced by East-Flemish speakers. Interesting though it is, we do not attempt to provide a full account for this bimodality, and we refrain from discussing whether it should in any way be reflected in the feature inventory of East Flemish. For our purposes it is only crucial to observe that East-Flemish speakers did not typically produce categorical voicing before a sonorant.

  9. 9.

    For our purposes it is irrelevant whether the feature is generic [(+)voice], or a more sonorant-specific feature, e.g. [Sonorant Voice] (cf. Rice 1993). We also leave aside the issue of whether the feature in question is privative, binary, or ternary at the phonological level.

  10. 10.

    In the absence of phonological voice assimilation, English provides a good test case of for the effect of voicing targets on phonetic voice coarticulation.

  11. 11.

    In comparison, stops followed by a voiced stop typically had continuous voicing extending throughout the entire cluster.

  12. 12.

    The prediction that word-final obstruents in final-devoicing languages do not have their own voicing targets is confirmed by the current data, as we found no significant effect of the underlying voicing on the phonetic realisation of voicing in word-final stops or fricatives (see Sect. 3.1).

  13. 13.

    The participants in our experiment neutralised the underlying voicing contrast in the word-final position. Consequently, word-final stops studied in the current experiment do not provide information on how the voicing is cued.

  14. 14.

    We wish to thank Mirjam Ernestus for granting us permission to reproduce the left panel of Fig. 9.

  15. 15.

    Some observations are missing as the scale has been adjusted to correspond to Ernestus (2000). Also the durations are noticeably longer in the current data, which might be an effect of the reading task.

  16. 16.

    Jansen (2004) notes that friction noise is mechanically linked to voicing, and so it might shorten as an effect of passive voicing.

  17. 17.

    A reviewer asks why we measured maximum intensity for high frequencies and minimum intensity for low frequencies, rather than use the same intensity measure. Our rationale was to use the most conservative approach available, and since we find that the low intensity minimum is, on average, higher than the high frequency maximum, the effect can only increase if any other intensity measures (e.g. means) are considered.

  18. 18.

    Westbury and Keating (1986) focus on the intervocalic position in their discussion, but their conclusions seem readily extendable to the broader intersonorant context, since the aerodynamics of voicing is similar in sonorant consonants and in vowels.

  19. 19.

    “If the problem with stops and voicing is that the accumulation of air in the oral cavity eventually quenches voicing, then this constraint should be less evident with fricatives since they have continuous venting of oral air pressure. So much for a priori prediction, since this turns out not to be true” (Ohala 1983:201).


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We would like to thank the speakers for their participation in the study, Peter Jurgec for help with the Praat scripts, and Jingsong Yuan for advice on the Linear Discriminant Analysis. The paper has benefitted from comments and suggestions by Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero, Yuni Kim, Petya Rácz, Koen Sebregts, Dan Silverman, as well as the editor, Michael Kenstowicz, and three anonymous reviewers. The research reported on in this article has been made possible thanks to a doctoral grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC, to the first author, and a postdoctoral research grant from the Fund for Scientific Research Flanders (F.W.O.) to the second author.

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Correspondence to Patrycja Strycharczuk.

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Strycharczuk, P., Simon, E. Obstruent voicing before sonorants. The case of West-Flemish. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 31, 563–588 (2013).

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  • Voicing
  • Sonorant voicing
  • Redundant specification
  • Assimilation
  • Reinterpretation
  • Dutch