Chapter 7: Beyond the segment: Syllable structure in English 7.1. The Syllable: a fundamental phonological unit in any language.

A tentative definition 7.2. The structure of the syllable. Phonotactic constraints 7.3 The importance of segmental sonority for the syllable structure 7.4. Constraints on onsets 7.5. Constraints on codas 7.6. Syllabic consonants. Non-vocalic nuclei 7.7. Syllabification in English

CHAPTER

7

BEYOND THE SEGMENT: SYLLABLE STRUCTURE IN ENGLISH 7.1. The Syllable: a fundamental phonological unit in any language. A tentative definition
Syllables are something we are made aware of from the very first days we go to school. The first verse we learn by heart, the first words we learn to spell are inextricably linked to syllables and syllabification. If somebody asks us about the structure of a foreign word, or of a word we might not have acquired too well we may be uncertain about the sounds that make it up, but we’ll definitely be on a safer ground and feel more at ease if asked how many syllables that word has. Scholars have proved that even a child’s initial efforts to articulate and memorize the phonetic structures of the words of its mother tongue are closely linked to the syllabic configurations of those words. Historically speaking, the first attempts human beings made to give their thoughts a graphic form – see the first chapter of this course where different types of writing were briefly described - were fundamentally associated with syllables since it was the syllables of words rather than their component sounds/phonemes that the earliest forms of writing tried to render. Why is the syllabic rather than the phonological structure of the words more obvious for us? What makes then syllables so important in any human language, what is their magic role that seems to transcend that of the mere sounds which – as we know from de Saussure – are intimately linked to the concepts the words/linguistic signs stand for? These are some of the questions we are going to try to answer. In spite of what has just been mentioned, paradoxically enough, if we are asked to give a definition of the syllable we might encounter serious difficulties. And this goes not

only for laymen in the field, but for phoneticians or specialists as well. Or particularly for them, since common people cannot be reasonably expected to have more than an intuitive perception of the syllabic structure of words, while scholars, who are supposed to be able to provide a learned explanation for everything they study, have failed to reach a minimal consensus on the basis of which a scientifically valid and acceptable definition of the syllable can be given. Criteria that can be used to define syllables are of several kinds. What we are actually aware of when we talk about our consciousness of the syllabic structure of words is the fact that the flow of human voice is not a monotonous and constant one, but there are important variations in the intensity, loudness, resonance, quantity (duration, length) of he sounds that make up the sonorous stream that helps us communicate verbally. Acoustically speaking, and then auditorily, since we talk of our perception of the respective feature, we make a distinction between sounds that are more sonorous than others or, in other words, sounds that resonate differently in either the oral or nasal cavity when we utter them. In previous chapters, mention has been made of resonance and the correlative feature of sonority in various sounds and we have established that these parametres are essential when we try to understand the difference between vowels and consonants, for instance, or between several subclasses of consonants, such as the obstruents and the sonorants. A comparison was made earlier between the way in which we articulate sounds and these sounds are propagated in the air on the one hand and the way in which musical sounds are produced and transmitted in the environment on the other hand. If we think of a string instrument, the violin for instance, we may say that the vocal cords and the other articulators can be compared to the strings that also have an essential role in the production of the respective sounds, while the mouth and the nasal cavity play a role similar to that of the wooden resonance box of the instrument. Of all the sounds that human beings produce when they communicate, vowels are the closest to musical sounds. There are several features that vowels have on the basis of which this similarity can be established. Probably the most important one is the one that is relevant for our present discussion, namely the high degree of sonority or sonorousness these sounds have, as well as their continuous and constant nature and the absence of any secondary, parasite acoustic effect – this is due to the fact that there is no constriction along the speech tract when these sounds are articulated. Vowels can then be said to be the “purest” sounds human beings produce when they talk. By contrast, most consonants (and particularly obstruents) will sound rather like noises since the obstruction along the vocal tract has various “impure” auditory effects – the articulation can be accompanied by friction, by an implosion etc. Once we have established the grounds for the preeminence of vowels over the other speech sounds, it will be easier for us to understand their particular importance in the make-up of syllables. The flow or stream of sounds that we produce when we speak and which is propagated through the air to reach the auditory system of our conversational partners can then be analyzed as a succession of various vocalic and consonantal sounds that follow after one another almost uninterruptedly. However, we have just mentioned the fact that this flow is not a constant, invariable one and we all

know that when we speak or we listen to someone speaking what we call the modulations of the human voice follow certain rules of the language of which we are normally intuitively aware. One fundamental division would be the Saussurian one, the one that is semantically based and establishes certain boundaries - often almost imperceptible phonetically - where each and every word (linguistic sign) begins or ends. Similar segmentations can be operated at higher or lower levels. At a superordinate level we can talk about rhythmic groups, stress patterns, and intonation within the more inclusive syntactic sequences of a phrase or even an utterance (sentence). The phenomenon playing an essential role will be stress as we are going to see in a subsequent chapter about prosody. And just as in the case of syllable structure, everything will fundamentally be a question of prominence. On a subordinate level, we can identify the syllables that make up the word and if we continue our analysis, the component phonemes. Syllable division or syllabification and syllable structure in English will be the main concern of the following pages. We have so far pointed out the remarkable similarity existing among all the languages spoken in the world, emphasizing the fact that no matter how unfamiliar a certain language is or sounds to us we will still be able on an intuitive basis to identify the number of syllables in a given enunciation if not their exact structure. (The distinction is important and relevant for our discussion, since it is not the exact composition of the respective sequences that we perceive, but the number of prominent units). Having in mind everything we have said so far, we can safely say that we have identified one of the language universals, so much cherished by grammarians, namely the syllabic structure of our utterances. Our joy of discovering something that represents a common denominator of all human idioms will be, however, very soon tempered by the realization that the syllable is at the very core of the peculiar and idiosyncratic nature of each and every language. It is, to a large extent, the unit carrying the very blueprint of each particular language. Just as the DNA structures in our cells carry the genetic information that makes us unique, unmistakable individuals, the structure of the syllables of a given language will fundamentally contribute to the phonological identity of the respective language. The rules underlying the syllable configuration in each particular language are generally referred to as the constraints or phonotactic constraints governing the syllable structure of the respective languages (the term comes from the Greek words phonê, meaning voice, sound, and taktikê, meaning art of placing, particularly troops). They will be examined in detail further on as far as the structure of English syllables is concerned.

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