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Syllables

English allows perhaps five thousand possible syllables – with up to three phonemes before the vowel as in spray, straw and screw and three after it as in length and strength, (counting the N, the G pronounced as a K, and the TH) or strange, ending with an N and what is known as an ‘affricate’ – two sounds collapsed into one – and most of the combinations of these and other consonants and vowels, as English phonotactics permits.  Most languages are more restrictive, some much more so. English freedom on this point is something which learners of English have to learn. It is highly problematic for some children in ways that affect both their speech and their reading and writing.

It seems that all languages allow syllables with one consonant and one vowel – often known as CV syllables. Some languages don’t allow anything else. Many languages don’t allow syllables to begin with vowels, or to have any consonants after the vowel in what is known as the ‘rime’ (to emphasise that this is not the same thing as a rhyme, consisting of the stressed vowel and the rest of the word. The following restrictions are common across languages:

  • All syllables begin with a consonant, known as the ‘onset’, and so words like arm are disallowed because of not having an onset;
  • No consonants are allowed after the vowel in what is known as the ‘coda’, so words like arm are 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, or only in one part of speech, as in Italian con, losing the N in col l’arco;
  • Or both of these restrictions, with the effect that all syllables consist of just one consonant followed by one vowel, as in tea, toe, saw, muddy, canopy.

Treating the vowel as the essential ‘nucleus’, languages relax these restrictions one step at a time, allowing consonants to stack up before or after the nucleus, with consonants like L, R closer to the nucleus than consonants like T, P, and K.

In English, S is allowed in the onset before, TR, PR, PL, and KR in stray, spray, splay, and screw., and between K and T in the coda in text and next. Here there is a restriction with respect to the articulator involved; like T, L and R,, S is articulated with the tongue tip. In other words, the lack of restriction is itself restricted.

Two consonants in English involve a change in the closeness of the airstream closure as they are articulated, in the onset of chew and jew, initially tightly closed, and then slightly open. These affricates, as they are called, do not cluster in the onset. And in the code they only cluster with N and L in binge and squelch. All of these segments are articulated with the tongue tip. The outermost edges of the syllable can only be filled by tongue tip articulations.

Syllables do not invariably have a vowel as their nucleus. In principle, looking at the case of language in general, any consonant can be a syllabic nucleus. In little, middle, wiggle, bottle and button, English allows L or N, as the nuclei of unstressed syllables. Other languages allow more sorts of consonants as syllabic nuclei, in more positions.

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.

There is a problem for many, perhaps most, children learning English words like little and middle, with the L as a syllabic nucleus pronounced as something like OO, and the T of little as K and the D of middle as G. So many, perhaps most, children learning English go through a stage, often for two years or more, of saying little as LICKOO, middle as MIGGOO, and so on Somehow the L sound at the end disrupts the previous sound, no matter whether it is T or D. Various analyses have been proposed, most famously by Neil Smith (1972).

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.

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. This is an example of asymmetry in children’s errors.

Many children pronounced spaghetti as BASKETI with the S migrating into the onset of the stressed syllable. But a few children go one step further and lose the vowel in the first syllable, sajying 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 licit in English, but available from the stock of options evidenced by language generally.