Pulses in speech
If the syllable is an element of timing and scaling, there is something like it in every spoken language, an entity never smaller than the phoneme or larger than the word. Some languages don’t allow any syllables more complex than a single consonant and a single vowel, known as a CV syllable.
In languages like English, syllables articulate with one another in the formation of ‘feet‘, as in hippopotamus, rhinoceros diplodocus, with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. But what is the syllable exactly? Nunes (2002) lists seven approaches to a definition. These approaches vary in how far they allow linguistic factors as primitives in the definition. I personally think that there can’t be any variation in the terms of the definition. Or the syllable could not have evolved and speech would not be finitely learnable. The syllable must have been primordial. As by Nunes (2002), I assume here that syllables represent the smallest pulses in the sound structure of speech. Typically, the syllable has a vowel or nucleus, representing its acoustic peak, dying away rapidly. The nucleus is typically preceded by a less sonorous consonant, known as the ‘onset’.
By an even stronger version of this acoustic approach, there is no such thing as the syllable as such, just a unit of timing, known as the ‘mora’ from Japanese. But this, in my view, makes it difficult to describe the extreme of complexity allowed by English in the internal structure of the syllable, by what is known as the ‘phonotactics‘. In a way that is quite uncommon across languages, English is phonotactically very permissive, allowing an onset consisting of one, two, or three consonants in straw, square, spread, and up to three more after the vowel, in what is known as the ‘coda’, as in glimpse.
The structure after the onset is known as the ‘rime’, spelt that way to differentiate it from the rhyme (a stresssed vowel and sometimes one or two unstressed syllables after it, as in elephant, cardigan, kedgeree, Melanie). The English rime typically contains a vowel as its ‘nucleus’.
By a consensus among linguists over the past 100 yeears, there is an asymmetry wihin the syllable with the nucleus and the coda (if any) as one constitituent, and the onset as another. So there is aliteration between onsets in “Round the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran” and rhymes between the rimes of two stressed syllables and any following syllables as beween Melanie and felony.
There is evidence for this asymmetry in the fact that failure to pronounce codas is much commoner in child speech than failure to pronounce onsets.
The following restrictions are common across languages:
- All syllables begin with an onset, and so words like arm are disallowed (and thus unpronounceable) because of not having an onset;
- No coda consonants are allowed, so words like arm are similarly disallowed because of the final M, or only one sort of consonant is allowed, like the M in arm, but not the K in ark.
- Both of these restrictions apply, with the effect that all syllables consist of just one consonant followed by one vowel, as in toe, saw, cow.
It seems that all languages allow CV syllables. On a scale of markedness, CV syllables are the least marked. CV represents the simplest and most acoustically salient sort of syllabic pulsing.
Languages tend to relax the restrictions one step at a time.
These restrictions are reflected in the normal process of speech acquisition, with children initially reducing all syllables to a simple CV structure, and only gradually expanding their repertoire to the full range allowed by English.
Unusually, English allows L, N and M as the nuclei of unstressed syllables, in little, middle, wiggle, bottle, button, and prism. Such syllables without a ‘built-in’ vowel are quite unusual across the world’s languages. In most languages, all syllables have a built-in vowel. The fact that this is not so for English, that there are what is known as ‘syllabic consonants’, is plainly something which children learning English have to learn. And for most children learning English, this point seems to be quite hard to learn. The L as a syllabic nucleus, is pronounced as something like OO. Children tend to say little as LICKOO and middle as MIGGOO. And this often continues for two years or more. Somehow the L sound at the end disrupts a preceding T or D. Various analyses have been proposed, most famously by Neil Smith (1972). Revealingly, children do not pronounce tickle as TITTOO or toggle as TODDOO, with the opposite relations between T and K and between D and G. The presence of the L forces an increase in the contrast between it and the preceding T or D,
Allowing up to three consonants before the vowel, in the onset, in spray, straw and screw, three in the coda in length and strength, (counting the N, the G pronounced as a K, and the TH), and syllabic sonorants, English is uncommonly permissive and thus a challenge for learners. It is highly problematic for some children in ways that affect both their speech and their reading and writing.
English also has a large inventory of vowels, varying in length, with the long vowels varying in how far the quality of the phoneme is preserved across its length. The long vowels are characteristically articulated with the tongue closer to the edges of the ‘vowel space’ – forwards, downwards or backwards. Such vowels are often characterised as ‘tense’.
Allowing both codas and empty onsets, with up to three consonants in each, and a large inventory of vowels. English allows over 5,000 possible syllables.
The special case of spaghetti
Many children pronounce spaghetti as BASKETI with the S seemingly migrating into the onset of the stressed syllable. But a few children go one step further and lose the vowel in the first syllable, saying this as PSKETI. The onset PSK is not in any way natural. But on one possible analysis, the P is syllabified on the left edge as a nucleus. This would then be a case of learners exploiting an option, not available in English, but available from the stock of options evidenced by language generally, allowing phonemes like P to constitute the nuclei of syllables. English allows L as a syllabic nucleus in a way that many languages don’t. PSKETI speakers go a step further,