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Department of Linguistics


The Syllable: Introduction

Felicity Cox, Jonathan Harrington and Robert Mannell

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Aspects of phonology above the segmental level comprise units of greater length than the segment. These are referred to as suprasegmental features. Suprasegmental aspects of language encode rhythm and melody and thereby contribute to meaning and give a language its characteristic cadence. Suprasegmental constituent structure is considered hierarchical with the phonological phrase () dominating the phonological word () which in turn dominates the foot (F), the superior constituent to the syllable ().

The syllable is the most basic element in this constituent structure. It has psychological reality as a unit that speakers of a language can identify. Speakers are able to count the number of syllables in a word and can often tell where one syllable ends and the next begins.

Phonetically, it is claimed that when identifying syllables, listeners are responding to sonority. Sonority is the relative loudness of a segments compared with others. Each syllable has a single sonority peak.

What is a syllable? There is no definition of the syllable that phoneticians or phonologists currently agree upon yet the notion of a unit at a higher level than that of the phoneme has existed since ancient times.

The various definitions have a number of commonalities that relate to properties of sound and properties of speakers.

  • Sonority or prominence: this is where some sounds are said to have greater prominence than others and these form the basis of syllables. Syllable boundaries fall at points of weak prominence.
  • Speaker awareness: this relies on the intuition of the speaker to define syllables. People without any linguistic knowledge are capable of dividing words into syllables. Children can clap syllables before they can read. People who have not been exposed to alphabetic writing systems have greater difficulty segmenting utterances into phonemic units than identifying syllables. Many writing systems are syllabic where each symbol represents a syllable. Japanese is an example

The CV (consonant followed by vowel) structure has been suggested as a basic phonological unit.

What’s the evidence that a CV sequence is a phonological unit?

  • Almost all languages have CVCV or CV words.
  • If a language has CCV words, it also has CV words.
  • Hardly any language has V or VC words without CV ones. One of the rare exception to this is the Arrandic group of Aboriginal languages
  • The first systematic utterances of children are usually of this form regardless of language type.

The syllable is seen as a unit of neural programming rather than primarily muscular or acoustic events. If an error is made in the duration of a phoneme, the error is compensated for within the syllabic unit suggesting that articulatory events are programmed in terms of higher-level articulatory units rather than single phonemes.

Other evidence for neural programming comes from speech errors such as slips of the tongue. When spoonerisms occur, for instance, and one consonant is substituted for another, this only occurs in same syllable position. eg initial consonants are swapped for initial consonants and final consonants for final consonants. eg beas and peans, or else whole syllables are switched "drugtator dic Baron". Errors do not involve random switching between segments.

The syllable is a structural unit and within that structure we can identify a sequence of consonants (C) and vowels (V). Just as in grammar we can parse a grammatical structure, in phonology we can parse syllabic structure.

Grammatical category is signaled not just by paradigmatically different classes but also by their sequential arrangement from which we parse a superordinate NP structure (in this example).   So too in phonology: we parse a hierarchical syllable structure from a sequential arrangement of C's and V's
[biɡ]A means: 'big' belongs to the grammatical category Adjective   [p]C means: /p/ belongs to the phonological category Consonant.


i. Most syllables have a single vowel plus zero or more consonants (occasional syllables have a syllabic consonant rather than a vowel).

ii. No syllable has more than one vowel. Vowel-like sequences in a single syllable are interpreted as diphthongs or semi-vowel plus vowel sequences.

iii. Depending upon language-specific rules, syllables have certain numbers of consonants before and after the vowel.

Open and Closed Syllables

Closed syllables are syllables that have at least one consonant following the vowel. The most common closed syllable is the CVC syllable.

Open syllables are syllables that end in a vowel. The most common open syllable is the CV syllable.

English Monosyllabic Words

English has a large number of monosyllabic words. All monosyllabic words in English have a single vowel. By examining the legal consonant+vowel sequences in English monosyllabic words we can get a good idea of what types of syllable structure are legal in English.

a) Open syllables

V "I" /ɑe/
CV "me" /miː/
CCV "spy" /spɑe/
CCCV "spray" /spræe/

b) Closed syllables

VC "am" /æm/
VCC "ant" /ænt/
VCCC "ants" /ænts/
CVC "man" /mæn/
CVCC "bond" /bɔnd/
CVCCC "bands" /bændz/
CVCCCC "sixths" /sɪksθs/
CCVC "brag" /bræɡ/
CCVCC "brags" /bræɡz/
CCVCCC "plants" /plænts/
CCCVC "spring" /sprɪŋ/
CCCVCC "springs" /sprɪŋz/
CCCVCCC "splints" /splɪnts/

It is clear from this list that English has a very flexible syllable structure. There are languages at the opposite extreme that have only CV syllables.

It should be noted, however, that there are nevertheless considerable constraints on which phoneme sequences are permissible in English syllables. Such constraints are called phonotactic constraints and these constraints are very language-specific. Nevertheless, there is a universal tendency for phonotactic constraints to conform mostly to sonority profile constraints. Phonotactic constraints and sonority are dealt with in another section.