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Chapter
7:
 
 Beyond the segment: Syllable structure in English
7.4. Constraints on onsets
 
One-consonant onsets
. If we examine the constraints imposed on English one-consonant onsets we shall notice that only two English sounds cannot be distributed insyllable-initial position:
õ
and
¥
. As far as the first one is concerned, the constraint isnatural since the sound only occurs in English when followed by a velar stop,
or 
g
(inthe latter case,
g
is no longer pronounced and survived only in spelling). As far as
¥
isconcerned, it is a rare sound in English anyway and is only distributed in words of foreign origin – usually French; e.g.
 gendarme
. Notice, however, that the constraint refersrather to word-initial position since the very word
usual 
, used above, proves that in polysyllabic words the sound can occur at the beginning of a syllable as is the case of thesecond syllable of the word -
sual
[
¥
u
c
l
] or the second one of 
measure
 
 pleasure,
etc:
sure
 [
¥c
]. According to Spencer (1997
:
83), the dental voiced fricative [
ƒ
] is in a special position since it only appears at the beginning of the word in “grammatical” words likethe definite article
the
, the demonstratives
this
,
that, these, those, there
, etc. However, if we consider syllable-initial position in general, it can be the onset of syllables formed bythe adding of the suffix -
ing
to verbs ending in [
ƒ
] like
breathe
or 
bathe
, or it can be theonset of syllables having a nasal as nucleus as is the case of the last one of 
rhythm
[
ri-
ƒ
m
]
heathen
[
hi:-
ƒ
n
] etc.
Clusters of two consonants
. If we have a succession of two consonants or a two-consonant cluster, the picture is a little more complex. While sequences like
pl
or 
fr
will be accepted, as proved by words like
 plot 
or 
 frame
,
rn
or dl or 
vr
will be ruled out. We’llneed to have a closer look at these cases and understand what rules operate in variouscases. A useful first step will be to refer to the scale of sonority presented above. We willremember that the (vocalic) nucleus is the peak of sonority within the syllable and that,consequently, the consonants in the onset will have to represent an ascending scale of sonority before the vowel and once the peak is reached we’ll have a descendant scalefrom the peak downwards within the onset. This seems to be the explanation for the factthat the sequence
rn
is ruled out, since we would have a decrease in the degree of 
 
sonority from the liquid
r
(4) to the nasal
n
(3). This appears to be a rule that transcendsthe boundaries of a single language, since neither Romanian nor any other Europeanlanguage at least will accept such a sequence, and we can safely predict that this is alinguistic universal. It has actually been proved to be so and E. Selkirk called it the
Sonority Sequencing Generalization
.An overview of the possible combinations in two-consonant vowel clusters inEnglish will rapidly lead us to the conclusion that the only two-obstruent sequencesallowed by English are those that have
 s
as a first member. We will see, however, that notall
S+Obstruent 
combinations are allowed. If the first consonant is an obstruent other than
 s
, then the only combinations allowed are those in which the second consonant iseither a
liquid 
(
 
or 
 
) or a
 glide
(
 j
or 
w
). We will see that even this picture presentsseveral gaps. Leaving the combinations including
 s
for later, we can summarize what wehave said by representing the possible
obstruent+liquid 
combinations as follows. Thecombinations that are not italicized are ruled out:
 pl 
 
 pr 
tl
tr 
 
kl 
 
kr 
 
 fl 
 
 fr 
 
θ
l
θ 
 
 sl 
 
sr 
 • 
l
 •  
 
hl hr 
bl 
 
br 
 
dl
dr 
 
 gl 
 
 gr 
vl vr 
ƒ
l
ƒ
r zl zr 
¥
l
¥
Thus, words like
 please, blot, prime, brim, train, drink, climb, glue, crew, grace, fly, freak, throw, slot, shrink 
are perfectly well-formed, while
tl 
,
dl 
,
vl 
,
vr 
,
θ 
 ,
 
ƒ 
,
ƒ 
,
 •  
 
,
¥ 
l,
 
¥ 
are impossible in English. Romanian allows all well-formed English onsets:
 plici, prost, bleg, brici, tren, drag, clasic, glas, crac, gros, fleac, fresce, slobod,
with theexception of 
θ 
 
and
 
 •  
 
(the interdental fricative does not exist in Romanian, while thesecond sequence occurs only in loan words, especially German:
 ş
rapnel 
). Additionally,
vl 
 and
vr 
are licensed: see words like:
vlag 
ă 
 , vreasc
, though such combinations tend to berare and are restricted (especially the former) to a couple of Slavonic words and Slav proper names. The situation of 
 zl 
,
hl 
,
hr 
is similar:
 zloat 
ă 
 , zlot, hlamid 
ă 
 , hrean.
If we continue our analysis by examining the possible
obstruent+glide
 combinations, we will get the following picture:
 pj
 pw
tj tw kj kw
 
 fj
fw
θ 
 j
θ 
w
 
 sj
 
 sw
 
 • 
 j
 • 
w
hj
hw
bj
 bw
dj dw
 
 gj
 
 gw
 
vj
 
vw
ƒ
 j
ƒ
w zj zw
¥
 j
¥
wThus, words like,
 pure, tune, twist, cure, queen, future, Thew, thwart, suitable, sweet, hue, beauty
,
duty, dwell, argue, Gwen, review
are good examples of the licensingof the respective sequences.
vj
is a special case, since its occurrence is limited to a coupleof words of French origin like
view, revue
. The best proof that this sequence is notconsidered a natural one in English is that the French phrase
déjà vu
is read [
de
¥
a
:vu:
].
¥ 
w
 
is in a quite similar situation, its distribution being in fact limited in English to theFrench loan
bourgeois
/’b
υ
w
Y
:/ and its derivatives.
¥
w is here distributed in syllable-initial, but not in word-initial position.
 
If the first position is occupied by a nasal (other than
 õ 
which, as we saw, isactually the only English consonant that cannot appear in onsets) we can have thefollowing combinations, of which only
mj
(
mute
) and
nj
(
nuclear 
) are licensed:ml mr 
mj
mw nl nr 
nj
nwIn Romanian, the above mentioned onsets are not licensed, while words beginningwith
mr 
and
mr 
like
mreaj
ă 
or 
mla
 ş
tin
ă 
are very rare.The fact that only liquids or glides are allowed after obsrtruents and that a nasalcan only be followed by a glide leads us to another phonotactic rule operating on Englishonsets, namely that the distance in sonority between the first and second element in theonset must be of at least two degrees. Thus, plosives only have 1 on our scale of sonorityand fricatives 2, while liquids (4) and glides (5) are situated two to four degrees higher and consequently the sequences
 plosive/fricative
+
liquid/glide
are allowed. Sequences of 
nasals
and
liquids
like
mr 
and
nl 
 
(3; 4) or of 
 fricatives
 
and
nasals
like
vn
and
 fm
(2;3)obviously violate this rule and are consequently ruled out. We will call this rule the
 
minimal sonority distance.
We are left with the
two-obstruent clusters
, the first consonant of which can only be
 s
. It is clear that sequences like
 sf 
or 
 st 
which are perfectly acceptable in English raiseserious problems as to the applicability of the rules that we enounced before. The former violates the minimal sonority distance principle, since
 s
and
 f 
are both fricatives and areconsequently on a par as far as sonority is concerned. Moreover,
 s+plosive
sequences as
 st 
mentioned above actually contravene the fundamental Sonority SequencingGeneralization, which we assumed to be a rule of Universal Grammar, because we have adownfall in sonority from 2 to 1. Since the framework of the present discussion does notallow us to go into a detailed explanation, we will say that
 s
represents a particular case.It should be noticed that
 s
can only be followed by a voiceless plosive or the voicelessfricative
 f 
:
 sp
;
 st 
;
 sk 
,
 sf 
:
 spot 
,
 stick, sky,
 
 sphinx
. There should be, therefore, an agreementin the feature
voice
between the first and second obstruent.
s
can also be followed by a
nasal 
:
 sn
or 
 sm
in words like
 snake
or 
 smear 
. This time the minimal sonority distance isobserved. The cases where
s
is followed by a
liquid 
or 
 semivowel 
have been presentedabove.
Three-consonant onsets
.
Such sequences will be restricted to licensed two-consonant onsets preceded by the voiceless fricative
 s
. The latter will, however, imposesome additional restrictions, as we will remember that
 s
can only be followed by avoiceless sound in two-consonant onsets. In other words not only the sequence of consonant 2 and consonant 3 should be a valid one, but also s + consonant 2. Therefore,only
 spl 
,
 spr 
,
 str 
,
 skr 
will be allowed, as words like
 splinter, spray, strong, screw
prove,while
 sbl 
,
 
 sbr 
,
 
 sdr 
,
 
 sgr 
,
 
 s
θ 
will be ruled out. Though
kl 
,
 
 fl 
and
 fr 
are accepted and so are
 sk 
 
and
 
 sf 
, the sequences
 skl 
,
 sfl 
and
 sfr 
are not. Romanian accepts all well-formed Englishonsets:
 splin
ă 
 , spre
,
 strident, scroaf 
ă 
and, additionally,
 skl 
:
 sclav
 
and
 
 sfr 
:
 sfruntat.
In thesequence
 sdr 
 
the initial sound is voiced:
 zdreli, zdrav
ă 
n
. If the third position is occupied

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