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Department of Linguistics


Syllable Structure

Jonathan Harrington and Robert Mannell

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The syllable can be structured hierarchically into the following components:-

In this example, the English word "plant" consists of a single CCVCC syllable. This syllable has been broken up into its onset (any consonants preceding the vowel) and its rhyme (all phonemes from the vowel to the end of the syllable).

The rhyme has been further divided into the nucleus, which in the vast majority of syllables is a vowel (the exceptions are syllabic consonants) and the coda, which are any consonants following the nucleus.

Some other examples:

flounce: onset = /fl/
rhyme = /aʊns/
nucleus = /aʊ/
coda = /ns/
free: onset /fr/
rhyme = /iː/
nucleus = /iː/
coda zero
each: onset zero
rhyme = /iːt͡ʃ/
nucleus = /iː/
coda = /t͡ʃ/

The Rhyme

The rhyme is the vowel plus any following consonants.

'plant'. Syllable is composed of an Onset = /pl/ and a Rhyme = /ænt/
(the rhyme is obligatory = the head of the syllable)

There is phonological evidence of at least two kinds to suggest that the vowel forms a unit (the rhyme) with the following consonants

  •    restrictions on phoneme combinations
  •    sound change

Evidence for the rhyme: phoneme combinations

There are often restrictions within syllable units (within the Onset; within the Rhyme); but not many restrictions on phoneme combinations between syllable units (between the onset and the rhyme)

For example:

there are few restrictions on what vowel can follow /fl/ (column 1) but many restrictions on the type of vowel that can precede /lf/ (column 2)

  /fl/+ vowel/ /vowel + /lf/
fleece *
ɪ flip sylph
ʉ flew *
e fled self
flake *
əʉ flown *
ɔ flop golf
ɐ flood gulf
floor *
æ flack Ralph
æɔ flounce *
ɑe fly *

* means -- no word with this combination

Evidence for the rhyme: sound change

A vowel and consonant in the rhyme are often merged historically resulting in a long vowel (known as compensatory lengthening).

This kind of merger hardly ever happens in a CV onset-rhyme.