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Department of Linguistics


The Syllable and the Foot : Summary

Felicity Cox

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Sequences of segments in language are organised into syllables based on the sonority principle. Syllables may be either weak or strong depending on their prominence relative to other syllables in an utterance. Prominence is a product of duration, loudness, vowel quality and pitch change. A syllable contains an onset and a rhyme made up of a peak and coda. The peak is the most sonorous sound in the string and is usually a vowel. Syllables are organised according to the sonority principle with most sonorous components at the centre and least sonorous components at the syllable margins. Syllables join together sequentially to form feet. A foot is a rhythmical unit usually containing two syllables, one weak and one strong (the head). English is a left-dominant language where the left-most syllable of a foot is usually strong and the following syllable(s) are weak. Feet can be monosyllabic eg "dog" (s), disyllabic (sw) eg  "city" or ternary (sww) eg "oxygen". Longer words are constructed from combinations of these three foot types.

Words are made up of feet. A word can have one or more feet. If a word has a single foot its strong will have primary word stress in citation form. If a word has more than one foot, the strong syllable of one of the feet will have primary stress and the strong syllable of the other feet will have secondary stress. The choice of syllable for stress attachment will depend on the individual rules of the language but some languages such as English are quantity sensitive in that the number of elements in the rhyme help to determine which syllable will be stressed.  If a rhyme has a short vowel + consonant or a long vowel the rhyme is said to be heavy. If the rhyme has just a short vowel, the rhyme is said to be light. In English non-final syllables with heavy rhymes prefer to be strong. However, the origin of a word and also its morphology are important factors in determining stress placement in English.