English Phonology - Phonotactics - Syllable Structure

Syllable Structure

The syllable structure in English is (C)3V(C)5, with a near maximal example being strengths (/ˈstrɛŋkθs/, although it can be pronounced /ˈstrɛŋθs/). From the phonetic point of view, the analysis of syllable structures is a complex task: because of widespread occurrences of articulatory overlap, English speakers rarely produce an audible release of individual consonants in consonant clusters. This coarticulation can lead to articulatory gestures that seem very much like deletions or complete assimilations. For example, hundred pounds may sound like and 'jumped back' (in slow speech, ) may sound like, but X-ray and electropalatographic studies demonstrate that inaudible and possibly weakened contacts or lingual gestures may still be made. Thus the second /d/ in hundred pounds does not entirely assimilate to a labial place of articulation, rather the labial gesture co-occurs with the alveolar one; the "missing" in 'jumped back' may still be articulated, though not heard.

Division into syllables is a difficult area, and different theories have been proposed. A widely accepted approach is the maximal onsets principle: this states that, subject to certain constraints, any consonants in between vowels should be assigned to the following syllable. Thus the word 'leaving' should be divided /ˈliː.vɪŋ/ rather than */ˈliːv.ɪŋ/, and 'hasty' is /ˈheɪ.sti/ rather than */ˈheɪs.ti/ or */ˈheɪst.i/. However, when such a division results in an onset cluster which is not allowed in English, the division must respect this. Thus if the word 'extra' were divided */ˈɛ.kstrə/ the resulting onset of the second syllable would be /kstr/, a cluster which does not occur in English. The division /ˈɛk.strə/ is therefore preferred. If assigning a consonant or consonants to the following syllable would result in the preceding syllable ending in an unreduced short vowel, this is avoided. Thus the word 'comma' should be divided /ˈkɒm.ə/ and not */ˈkɒ.mə/, even though the latter division gives the maximal onset to the following syllable, because English syllables do not end in /ɒ/.

In some cases, no solution is completely satisfactory: for example, in British English (RP) the word 'hurry' could be divided /ˈhʌ.ri/ or /ˈhʌr.i/, but the former would result in an analysis with a syllable-final /ʌ/ (which is held to be non-occurring) while the latter would result in a syllable final /r/ (which is said not to occur in this accent). Some phonologists have suggested a compromise analysis where the consonant in the middle belongs to both syllables, resulting in an analysis of 'hurry' which comprises the syllables /hʌr/ and /ri/, and the medial /r/ is described as ambisyllabic.

Where the division coincides with a word boundary, or the boundary between elements of a compound word, it is not usual to insist on the maximal onsets principle in a way that divides words in a counter-intuitive way; thus the word 'hardware' would be divided /ˈhɑː.dweə/ by the M.O.P., but dictionaries prefer the division /ˈhɑːd.weə/. For discussion of this topic, see Gimson, Giegerich or Kreidler

In the approach used by the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, Wells claims that consonants syllabify with the preceding rather than following vowel when the preceding vowel is the nucleus of a more salient syllable, with stressed syllables being the most salient, reduced syllables the least, and full unstressed vowels ("secondary stress") intermediate. But there are lexical differences as well, frequently but not exclusively with compound words. For example, in dolphin and selfish, Wells argues that the stressed syllable ends in /lf/, but in shellfish, the /f/ belongs with the following syllable: /ˈdɒlf.ɪn/, /ˈsɛlf.ɪʃ/ →, but /ˈʃɛl.fɪʃ/ →, where the /l/ is a little longer and the /ɪ/ is not reduced. Similarly, in toe-strap Wells argues that the second /t/ is a full plosive, as usual in syllable onset, whereas in toast-rack the second /t/ is in many dialects reduced to the unreleased allophone it takes in syllable codas, or even elided: /ˈtoʊ.stræp/, /ˈtoʊst.ræk/ →, ; likewise nitrate /ˈnaɪ.treɪt/ → with a voiceless /r/ (and for some people an affricated tr as in tree), vs night-rate /ˈnaɪt.reɪt/ → with a voiced /r/. Cues of syllable boundaries include aspiration of syllable onsets and (in the US) flapping of coda /t, d/ (a tease /ə.ˈtiːz/ → vs. at ease /æt.ˈiːz/ → ), epenthetic stops like in syllable codas (fence /ˈfɛns/ → but inside /ɪn.ˈsaɪd/ → ), and r-colored vowels when the /r/ is in the coda vs. labialization when it is in the onset (key-ring /ˈkiː.rɪŋ/ → but fearing /ˈfiːr.ɪŋ/ → ).

Read more about this topic:  English Phonology, Phonotactics

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