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Li6 Phonology and Morphology. Syllables and syllabification. Today’s topics. Evidence for the syllable and its components How syllable structure is assigned to phonological representations. Syllable structure. σ Rhyme Onset Nucleus Coda.

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Li6 phonology and morphology

Li6 Phonology and Morphology

Syllables and syllabification

Today s topics
Today’s topics

  • Evidence for the syllable and its components

  • How syllable structure is assigned to phonological representations

Syllable structure
Syllable structure



Onset Nucleus Coda

  • Maybe also Appendix (though this probably attaches to the Prosodic Word)


  • Most people have clear intuitions about syllable counts and divisions.

    • : see.ker

    • at.lan.tic : a.tro.cious

  • Are they simply counting vowels? No:

    • button

    • Abkhaz mts’k’ ‘type of fly’ (Vaux 1997)

    • Syllable divisions cannot refer simply to vowels

      • pa.per vs, distend vs distaste

      • Vulg. Lat. /  ‘arrive’ vs. ca.the.dra ‘chair’ (Steriade 1988)

Evidence for syllables as phonological units
Evidence for syllables as phonological units

  • Morphological rules

  • Language games

  • Psycholinguistic phenomena

  • Restrictions on coarticulation

  • Phonological rules

  • Poetics

  • Writing systems

Morphological rules
Morphological rules

  • Armenian plural selection (Vaux 2003)

    • šun-er ‘dogs’ : katu-ner ‘cats’

Language games
Language games

  • French ‘Verlan’

    • l’envers

    • véritétérivé, etc. (cf. Plénat 1995)

  • Fula

    • deftereteredef, etc. (Bagemihl 1989)

  • Korean

    • original

      • san†ok’i †ok’iya ³til¥l kan¥nya?

      • k’a²…o² k’a²…o² t’wimy³ns³ ³til¥l kan¥nya?

      • wild rabbit, wild rabbit, where are you going?

      • running hoppity-hop, where are you going?

    • type 1

      • k’i†osan yak’i†o l¥lti³ nyan¥ka?

      • …o²k’a² …o²k’a² s³my³nt’wi l¥lti³ nyan¥ka?

    • type 2

      • sapa†opok’ipi †opok’ipiyapa ³p³tipil¥p¥ kapan¥p¥nyapa?

      • k’apa…opo k’apa…opo t’wipimy³p³s³p³ ³p³tipil¥p¥ kapan¥p¥nyapa?

Psycholinguistic phenomena
Psycholinguistic phenomena

  • Response times

    • Mehler, Dommergues, Frauenfelder & Segui 1981

      • “press the button once you hear [pa]”

      • subjects detected [pa] faster in pa.lace

      • subjects detected [pal] faster in pal.mier.

  • Tip of the tongue phenomena

    • Brown and McNeill 1966

  • Speech errors

    • Fromkin 1971

      • Onset metathesis

        • dreater swying

      • Rhyme metathesis

        • A hunk of jeep

    • Stemberger: more than 90% of ordering speech errors invert O-O, C-C

    • omission of entire syllable

      • unanímity  unámity, treméndously  trémenly, specifícity  specífity

Restrictions on coarticulation
Restrictions on coarticulation

  • Phonetic coarticulation effects generally restricted to tautosyllabic contexts

    • e.g. In French, onset but not coda consonants coarticulate with a tautosyllabic vowel, whether or not other consonants intervene

      • e.g. in oucri [u.ki], k shows significant effects from the i, despite the intervening liquid (Rialland 1994:144).

  • English r-coloring

Phonological rules
Phonological rules

  • English aspiration

    • [ph]it : s[p]it

    • dis[t]end : dis[th]aste

  • Nickname formation

    • Andy, *Andry (Kenstowicz 1994)


  • Many languages employ syllable-counting meters, e.g. Sanskrit anuʂʈubh (4 x 8 σ)

    • Rigveda 10.90.12 (Sacrifice of the primeval giant Purusha)

      • brāhmaņo [a]sya mukham āsīd,

        • His mouth was the priest,

      • bāhū rāĵaniah krtah

        • His two arms were made the warrior,

      • ūrū tad asya yad vayšyah

        • His two thighs were the farmer,

      • padbhyām šūdro aĵāyata.

        • From his two feet the dog-eater was born.

Writing systems
Writing systems

  • Some Linear B renditions of Mycenean Greek:

    • U qe [kwe] ‘and’

    • YcMt qa-si-re-u [gwasileus] ‘king’

    • yZn ~ yZ wa-na(-ka) [wanaks] ‘king’

    • q.> a-ko-ro [agros] ‘field’ vs q/> a-ku-ro [arguros] ‘silver’

Evidence for syllabic constituents
Evidence for syllabic constituents

  • Onset vs Rhyme

    • English L-allomorphy

    • Blends (see next slides)

  • Rhyme

    • common domain of poetic rhyme

    • Syllable weight

  • Onset

    • Buenos Aires Spanish y ž: ley ‘law’ vs. ležes ‘laws’

    • Pig Latin?

  • Nucleus

    • Japanese -rV- language game?

  • Coda

    • English glottalization/unrelease (e.g. hat, Atlantic vs. atrocious)

    • German devoicing (Freun[t] ‘friend (m)’ vs. Freun[d]in ‘friend (f)’, glau[p]lich)

    • assuming that disjoint environments aren’t allowed, we need the Coda





k r i n t g l u p th


  • Experiment 1

    • Question

      • Do Onsets and Rimes exist (as suggested by e.g. brunch vs. *blunch)?

    • Method

      • Train subjects to combine pairs of well-formed English nonce monosyllables (such as krint and glupth) into a new monosyllable that contains parts of both.

    • Results

      • responses like krupth (Onset kr- of the first syllable and Rime -upth of the second) were produced far more often than any other possible combination.

    • Conclusion

      • The natural break within English syllables is immediately before the vowel (i.e. Onset vs. Rime).

Experiments from Treiman 1983


  • Experiment 2

    • Hypothesis

      • If a syllable is composed of Onset + Rime, then artificial games that keep these units intact should be easier to learn than games that break up the syllables in a different way.

    • Method

      • Subjects taught 2 types of word games:

        • Blend the Onset of a nonce CCVCC syllable with the Rime of another

          • e.g. fl-irz + gr-uns fl-uns

        • Combine non-constituents (f-runs, flins, flir-s).

    • Results

      • Game 1 was learned with fewer errors than was Games 2.

    • Conclusion

      • Speakers have access to the constituents O and R.

Experiments from Treiman 1983


  • Q: Are syllables part of the lexical entries of words?

  • A: Since syllable structure appears to be predictable, we want to say that it is assigned by rule.

  • Q: What rules do we need to assign syllabic structures?

    • Kahn 1976 et seq.:

      • attach nuclei

      • attach onsets

      • attach codas

      • cope with whatever’s left over

    • ordering onset attachment before coda attachment derives onset maximisation

Harari k and k 1977

UR SR gloss

t-sʌbr tisʌbri ‘break’, 2masc imf.

t-sʌbr-i tisʌbri 2f

y-sʌbr yisʌbri 3m

t-sʌbr tisʌbri 3f

n-sʌbr nisʌbri 1pl

t-sʌbr-u tisʌbru 2pl

y-sʌbr-u yisʌbru 3pl

zʌ-t-sbʌr zʌtsibʌr 2m neg imf

zʌ-t-sbʌr-i zʌtsibʌri 2f neg imf

zʌ-y-sbʌr zʌysibʌr 3m neg imf

zʌ-t-sbʌr zʌtsibʌr 3f neg imf

zʌ-n-sbʌr zʌnsibʌr 1pl neg imf

zʌ-t-sbʌr-u zʌtsibʌru 2pl neg imf

zʌ-y-sbʌr-u zʌysibʌru 3pl neg imf

Harari (K and K 1977)

<härär bira>

Vowel hiatus
Vowel hiatus

  • Generally interpreted as subcase of requirement that all syllables must have an onset

    • Glottal stop insertion: [/A/t] ‘art’, etc.

  • Article allomorphy

  • Glide insertion and r-insertion?


  • There is extensive evidence for the abstract prosodic elements σ, O, N, C, R.

  • Syllable structure is normally predictable, and can be derived by a relatively simple set of rules.

    • The ordering of these rules can generate effects such as Onset Maximisation and location of epenthetic vowels.


Bagemihl, Bruce. 1989. The crossing constraint and ‘backwards languages’. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 7.4:481-549.

Brown, Roger & David McNeill. 1966. The “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 5:325-337.

Fromkin, Victoria. 1971. The non-anomalous nature of anomalous utterances. Language 47:27-52.

Kahn, Daniel. 1976. Syllable-based generalizations in English phonology. Doctoral dissertation, MIT. [Published 1980 New York: Garland Press.]

Kenstowicz, Michael and Charles Kisseberth. 1977. Generative phonology. New York: Academic Press.

Mehler, J., J. Dommergues, Uli Frauenfelder, and J. Segui. 1981. The syllable’s role in speech segmentation. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 20:298-305.

Plénat, Marc. 1995. Une approche prosodique de la morphologie du verlan. Lingua 95:97-129.

Rialland, Annie. 1994. The phonology and phonetics of extrasyllabicity in French. In Patricia A. Keating, ed., Phonological Structure and Phonetic Form. Papers in Laboratory Phonology 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 136-159.

Stemberger, Joseph. 1983. Speech errors and theoretical phonology: a review. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Steriade, Donca 1988. Gemination and the Proto-Romance Syllable Schift. Advances in Romance Linguistics, edited by David Birdsong & Jean-Pierre Montreuil, 371-409. Dordrecht: Foris.

Treiman, Rebecca. 1983. The structure of spoken syllables: Evidence from novel word games. Cognition 15:49-74.

Vaux, Bert. 1997. The Cwyzhy Dialect of Abkhaz. Harvard Working Papers in Linguistics 6, Susumu Kuno, Bert Vaux, and Steve Peter, eds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.

Vaux, Bert. 2003. Syllabification in Armenian, Universal Grammar, and the lexicon. Linguistic Inquiry 34.1:91-125.

Intervocalic c sequences
Intervocalic C sequences

  • A priori, it’s not obvious how to syllabify intervocalic Cs

    • Oft-invoked principle: Onset Maximisation

    • Problems:

      • stress

      • vowel quality

      • morpheme boundaries

      • phonotactics

      • ambisyllabicity

        • merry, happy…