- This article discusses the unit of speech. For the computer operating system, see Syllable (operating system).
A syllable (ancient Greek: συλλαβή) is a unit of speech that is made up of nucleus (most often a vowel) with one or more optional phones (single sounds or "phonetic segments"). Syllables are often considered the phonological "building blocks" of words. They can influence the rhythm of a language, its prosody, its poetic meter, its stress patterns, etc.
The general structure of a syllable consists of the following segments:
Onset (obligatory in some languages, optional in others)
Nucleus (obligatory in all languages)
Coda (optional in some languages, highly restricted or prohibited in others)
In some theories of phonology, these syllable structures are displayed as tree diagrams (similar to the trees found in some types of syntax).
The syllable nucleus is typically a sonorant, usually a vowel sound, in the form of a monophthong, diphthong, or triphthong, but sometimes including consonants like and [r]. The syllable onset is the sound(s) occurring before the nucleus, and the syllable coda is the sound(s) occurring after the nucleus. A rime consists of a nucleus and a coda.
Generally, every syllable requires a nucleus. A coda-less syllable of the form V, CV, CCV, etc. (i.e. a sequence of any number of consonants + a vowel) is called an open syllable, while a syllable that has a coda (VC, CVC, CVCC, etc.) is called a closed (or checked) syllable. Almost all languages allow syllables with empty codas (open syllables).
In some languages, including English, a consonant may be analyzed as acting simultaneously as the coda of one syllable and the onset of the next, a phenomenon known as ambisyllabicity .
Syllables and suprasegmentals
The domain of suprasegmental features is the syllable and not a specific sound, that is to say, they affect all the segments of a syllable:
In the analysis of certain languages, the length is considered not a suprasegmental feature of the syllable, but a feature of specific vowels or consonants.
Syllables and phonotactic constraints
Phonotactic rules determine which sounds are allowed or disallowed in each part of the syllable. English allows very complicated syllables; syllables may begin with up to three consonants (as in string or splash), and occasionally end with as many as four (as in prompts or sixths). Many other languages are much more restricted; Japanese, for example, only allows /n/ and a generic "lengthening segment" in a coda, and has no consonant clusters at all (the onset is composed of at most one consonant).
There are languages that forbid empty onsets, Hebrew, Arabic, and many varieties of German (the names transliterated as "Israel", "Abraham", "Omar", "Ali" and "Abdullah", among many others, actually begin with semiconsonantic glides or with glottal or pharyngeal consonants).
Syllables and stress
Syllable structure often interacts with stress. In Latin, for example, stress is regularly determined by the presence or absence of a coda in the syllable before the last.
Syllables and vowel tenseness
In most Germanic languages, lax vowels can only occur in closed syllables. Therefore, these vowels are also called checked vowels, as opposed to the tense vowels that are called free vowels because they can occur in open syllables.
The notion of syllable is challenged by languages that allow long strings of consonants without any intervening vowel or sonorant. Salishan languages are famous for this. For instance, this Nuxálk (Bella Coola) word contains only obstruents:
- xłp̓x̣ʷłtłpłłskʷc̓ [xɬp’χʷɬtɬpɬːskʷʦ’] 'he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant.' (Bagemihl 1991:16)
Thus, it is not clear that the syllable need be a linguistic universal.
References and recommended reading
- Bagemihl, Bruce. (1991). Syllable structure in Bella Coola. Proceedings of the New England Linguistics Society, 21, 16-30.
- Ladefoged, Peter. (2001). A course in phonetics (4th ed.). Heile & Heinle, Thompson Learning.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04