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A syllable (Ancient Greek: συλλαβή) is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. It is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically, consonants).
A word that consists of a single syllable (like English cat) is called a monosyllable (such a word is monosyllabic), while a word consisting of two syllables (like monkey) is called a disyllable (such a word is disyllabic).
The general structure of a syllable consists of the following segments:
- Onset (obligatory in some languages, optional in others)
- Nucleus (obligatory in all languages)
- Coda (optional in some languages, highly restricted or prohibited in others)
In some theories of phonology, these syllable structures are displayed as tree diagrams (similar to the trees found in some types of syntax).
The syllable nucleus is typically a sonorant, usually a vowel sound, in the form of a monophthong, diphthong, or triphthong, but sometimes sonorant consonants like [l] or [r]. The syllable onset is the sound or sounds occurring before the nucleus, and the syllable coda (literally 'tail') is the sound or sounds that follow the nucleus. The term rime covers the nucleus plus coda. In the one-syllable English word cat, the nucleus is a, the onset c, the coda t, and the rime at. This syllable can be abstracted as a consonant-vowel-consonant syllable, abbreviated CVC.
Generally, every syllable requires a nucleus. Onsets extremely common, and some languages require all syllables to have an onset. (That is, a CVC syllable like cat is possible, but a VC syllable such as at is not.) A coda-less syllable of the form V, CV, CCV, etc. is called an open syllable, while a syllable that has a coda (VC, CVC, CVCC, etc.) is called a closed syllable (or checked syllable). All languages allow open syllables, but some such as Hawaiian do not have closed syllables.
A heavy syllable is one with a branching rime or a branching nucleus — this is a metaphor, based on the nucleus or coda having lines that branch in a tree diagram. In some languages, heavy syllables include both CVV (branching nucleus) and CVC (branching rime) syllables, contrasted with CV, which is a light syllable. In other languages, only CVV syllables (ones with a long vowel or diphthong) are heavy, while both CVC and CV syllables are light. The difference between heavy and light frequently determines which syllables receive stress—this is the case in Latin and Arabic, for example. In moraic theory, heavy syllables are said to have two moras, while light syllables are said to have one. Japanese is generally described this way.
In other languages, including English, a consonant may be analyzed as acting simultaneously as the coda of one syllable and the onset of the following syllable, a phenomenon known as ambisyllabicity.
Syllables and suprasegmentals
The domain of suprasegmental features is the syllable and not a specific sound, that is to say, they affect all the segments of a syllable:
Sometimes syllable length is also counted as a suprasegmental feature; for example, in most Germanic languages, long vowels may only exist with short consonants and vice versa. However, syllables can be analyzed as compositions of long and short phonemes, as in Finnish and Japanese, where consonant gemination and vowel length are independent.
Syllables and phonotactic constraints
Phonotactic rules determine which sounds are allowed or disallowed in each part of the syllable. English allows very complicated syllables; syllables may begin with up to three consonants (as in string or splash), and occasionally end with as many as four (as in prompts or sixths). Many other languages are much more restricted; Japanese, for example, only allows /n/ and a chroneme in a coda, and has no consonant clusters at all, as the onset is composed of at most one consonant.
There are languages that forbid empty onsets, Hebrew, Arabic, and many varieties of German (the names transliterated as "Israel", "Abraham", "Omar", "Ali" and "Abdullah", among many others, actually begin with semiconsonantic glides or with glottal or pharyngeal consonants).
Syllables and stress
Syllable structure often interacts with stress. In Latin, for example, stress is regularly determined by syllable weight, a syllable counting as heavy if has at least one of the following:
- a long vowel in its nucleus
- a diphthong in its nucleus
- one or more coda(e)
In each case the syllable is considered to have two moras.
Syllables and vowel tenseness
In most Germanic languages, lax vowels can only occur in closed syllables. Therefore, these vowels are also called checked vowels, as opposed to the tense vowels that are called free vowels because they can occur in open syllables.
The notion of syllable is challenged by languages that allow long strings of consonants without any intervening vowel or sonorant. Languages of the Northwest coast of North America, including Salishan and Wakashan languages, are famous for this. For instance, these Nuxálk (Bella Coola) words contain only obstruents:
- [ɬχʷtɬʦxʷ] 'you spat on me'
- [ʦ’ktskʷʦ’] 'he arrived'
- [xɬp’χʷɬtɬpɬɬs] 'he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant' (Bagemihl 1991:589, 593, 627)
- [sxs] 'seal blubber'
In Bagemihl's survey of previous analyses, he finds that the word [ʦ’ktskʷʦ’] would have been parsed into 0, 2, 3, 5, or 6 syllables depending which analysis is used. One analysis would consider all vowel and consonants segments as syllable nuclei, another would consider only a small subset as nuclei candidates, and another would simply deny the existence of syllables completely.
This type of phenomenon has also been reported in Berber languages (such as Imdlawn Tashlhiyt Berber) and Mon-Khmer languages (such as Semai, Temiar, Kammu).
Imdlawn Tashlhiyt Berber:
- [tftktst tfktstt] 'you sprained it and then gave it'
- [rkkm] 'rot' (imperf.) (Dell & Elmedlaoui 1985, 1988)
- [kckmrʔɛːc] 'short, fat arms' (Sloan 1988)
- Lexical stress
- Mora (linguistics)
- Pitch accent
- Segment (linguistics)
- syllabary (writing system)
- Timing (linguistics)
- What is a syllable? (SIL)
- What is a syllabic consonant? (SIL)
- What is an onset? (SIL)
- What is a rime? (SIL)
- Syllable (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Onset (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Rime (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Nucleus (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Coda (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- What is metrical phonology? (SIL)
- Syllable Weight (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Mora (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Foot (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Quantity-(in)sensitivity (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Extrametrical (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- Maximal Onset Principle (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- What is syllabification? (SIL)
- Syllabification (Lexicon of Linguistics)
- What is a nuclear syllable? (SIL)
- Syllables Quiz
References and recommended reading
- Bagemihl, Bruce (1991). Syllable structure in Bella Coola. Linguistic Inquiry 22: 589–646.
- Dell, F.; Elmedlaoui, M. (1985). Syllabic consonants and syllabification in Imdlawn Tashlhiyt Berber. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 7: 105-130. (Cited in Bagemihl 1991).
- Dell, F.; Elmedlaoui, M. (1988). Syllabic consonants in Berber: Some new evidence. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 10: 1-17. (Cited in Bagemihl 1991).
- Ladefoged, Peter (2001). A course in phonetics, 4th edition, Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers. ISBN 0-15-507319-2.
- Sloan, K. (1988). Bare-consonant reduplication: Implications for a prosodic theory of reduplication. In H. Borer (Ed.), Proceedings of the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics 7. Stanford, CA: Stanford Linguistics Association. (Cited in Bagemihl 1991).
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