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

7.4. Constraints on onsets
One-consonant onsets. If we examine the constraints imposed on English oneconsonant onsets we shall notice that only two English sounds cannot be distributed in syllable-initial position: õ and ¥. As far as the first one is concerned, the constraint is natural since the sound only occurs in English when followed by a velar stop, k or g (in the latter case, g is no longer pronounced and survived only in spelling). As far as ¥ is concerned, 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 refers rather 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 the second syllable of the word -sual [¥ucl] 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 like the 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 by the adding of the suffix -ing to verbs ending in [ƒ] like breathe or bathe, or it can be the onset of syllables having a nasal as nucleus as is the case of the last one of rhythm [riƒm] heathen [hi:-ƒn] etc. Clusters of two consonants. If we have a succession of two consonants or a twoconsonant 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’ll need to have a closer look at these cases and understand what rules operate in various cases. A useful first step will be to refer to the scale of sonority presented above. We will remember 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 scale from the peak downwards within the onset. This seems to be the explanation for the fact that 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 transcends the boundaries of a single language, since neither Romanian nor any other European language at least will accept such a sequence, and we can safely predict that this is a linguistic 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 in English will rapidly lead us to the conclusion that the only two-obstruent sequences allowed by English are those that have s as a first member. We will see, however, that not all 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 is either a liquid (l or r) or a glide (j or w). We will see that even this picture presents several gaps. Leaving the combinations including s for later, we can summarize what we have said by representing the possible obstruent+liquid combinations as follows. The combinations that are not italicized are ruled out: pl pr tl tr kl kr fl fr θl θr sl sr •l •r hl hr bl br dl dr gl gr vl vr ƒl ƒr zl zr ¥l ¥r 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 l, ƒl, ƒr, • l, ¥l, ¥r 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 the exception of θr and •r (the interdental fricative does not exist in Romanian, while the second sequence occurs only in loan words, especially German: şrapnel). Additionally, vl and vr are licensed: see words like: vlagă, vreasc, though such combinations tend to be rare and are restricted (especially the former) to a couple of Slavonic words and Slav proper names. The situation of zl, hl, hr is similar: zloată, zlot, hlamidă, hrean. If we continue our analysis by examining the possible obstruent+glide combinations, we will get the following picture: pj bj pw tj tw kj kw fj fw θj θw sj bw dj dw gj gw vj vw ƒj ƒw zj sw •j •w hj hw zw ¥j ¥w

Thus, words like, pure, tune, twist, cure, queen, future, Thew, thwart, suitable, sweet, hue, beauty, duty, dwell, argue, Gwen, review are good examples of the licensing of the respective sequences. vj is a special case, since its occurrence is limited to a couple of words of French origin like view, revue. The best proof that this sequence is not considered 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 the French loan bourgeois /’bυb¥wY:/ and its derivatives. ¥w is here distributed in syllableinitial, but not in word-initial position.

If the first position is occupied by a nasal (other than õ which, as we saw, is actually the only English consonant that cannot appear in onsets) we can have the following combinations, of which only mj (mute) and nj (nuclear) are licensed: ml mr mj mw nl nr nj nw In Romanian, the above mentioned onsets are not licensed, while words beginning with mr and mr like mreajă or mlaştină are very rare. The fact that only liquids or glides are allowed after obsrtruents and that a nasal can only be followed by a glide leads us to another phonotactic rule operating on English onsets, namely that the distance in sonority between the first and second element in the onset must be of at least two degrees. Thus, plosives only have 1 on our scale of sonority and 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 raise serious 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 are consequently on a par as far as sonority is concerned. Moreover, s+plosive sequences as st mentioned above actually contravene the fundamental Sonority Sequencing Generalization, which we assumed to be a rule of Universal Grammar, because we have a downfall in sonority from 2 to 1. Since the framework of the present discussion does not allow 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 voiceless fricative f: sp; st; sk, sf: spot, stick, sky, sphinx. There should be, therefore, an agreement in 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 is observed. The cases where s is followed by a liquid or semivowel have been presented above. Three-consonant onsets. Such sequences will be restricted to licensed twoconsonant onsets preceded by the voiceless fricative s. The latter will, however, impose some additional restrictions, as we will remember that s can only be followed by a voiceless 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, sθr 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 English onsets: splină, spre, strident, scroafă and, additionally, skl: sclav and sfr: sfruntat. In the sequence sdr the initial sound is voiced: zdreli, zdravăn. If the third position is occupied

by a glide we get the following accepted combinations in English: spj, stj, skj, skw: spurious, student, skewer, squash. Notice that stw which is in principle acceptable (as both st at tw are licensed) does never occur. Summarizing, we can present the possible combinations in the following table:
pl s spleen pr spray pj tr tj tw * kl * kr screw kj skew kw squirt

spume straw stew

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