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Universidad de Los Andes Facultad de Humanidades y Educación Escuela de Idiomas Modernos

Prof. Argenis A. Zapata Idioma A: Fonética y Fonología Inglesa I Semestre B-2005

THE ENGLISH AND SPANISH SYLLABLES

A syllable can be roughly defined as a group of sounds that can make up a word or part of

a word in a given language (cf. Sloat et al., 1978). Each syllable centers on one prominent sound segment, typically a vowel (whether a pure vowel or a diphthong), which may be preceded and/or

followed by other less prominent segments (i.e., consonants and semivowels).

A syllable may consist of three parts:

a. The beginning, called the onset, which may be composed of one or more consonants.

b. The central part, called the nucleus or peak, which must be a vowel or a diphthong. In

English, the nucleus can also consist of a syllabic consonant (usually a lateral, a nasal and sometimes a frictionless continuant).

c. The end, called the coda, which may be composed of one or more consonants. 1

A possible graphic representation of a syllable could be as follows:

Onset

Nucleus or Peak

of a syllable could be as follows: Onset Nucleus or Peak C V C Coda For

C

V

C

a syllable could be as follows: Onset Nucleus or Peak C V C Coda For example,

Coda

For example, in the English word bed /bed/, /b/ would be the onset, /e/ the nucleus and /d/ the coda. It must be pointed out that the orthographic representation of a syllable does not always correspond to its phonological representation as in the word bed. For instance, orthographically speaking, the word button consists of the syllables but- and –ton. The second syllable –ton seems to have an onset, a nucleus and a coda. But phonologically speaking, it is realized as a syllabic consonant, in this case syllabic ‘n’. That is to say, from a phonological point of view, the second syllable of the word button has neither onset nor coda, but only nucleus, which is represented by

1 The whole formed by the nucleus and the coda of a syllable are usually referred to as the rhyme (cf. Carr, 1999).

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the syllabic consonant. Similarly, we must not be misled by the spelling of words. For example, the words caught and spelled have two vowel letters in their spellings, but each of them consists of a single syllable each, namely, /kÅt/ and /speld/. Likewise, sometimes, two or more letters represent only one sound; e.g., th /T,D/; sh /S/; ch, tch /tS/; -ge, -dge /dZ/. Other times, one letter represents more than one sound; e.g., x /ks, gz/, u /ju…/. Also, some letters are written but they represent no sound whatsoever; e.g., ‘p’ in cup- in the word cupboard /"køb´rd/, ‘p’ in -ceipt in the word receipt /rI"si…t/, post-vocalic ‘r’ in British English, as in are /A…/, four /fO…/, worker /"w‰…k´/.

Constituents of a Syllable

It is important to point out that a syllable does not always have an onset and a coda. A syllable may consist of:

a) A vowel sound (V) only, as in the words a, I, (i.e., with neither an onset nor a coda). A

vowel (or a syllabic consonant, in English) is an indispensable element of a syllable: if there is no

vowel, there is no syllable. Therefore, the number of syllables of a word will often be the same as the number of vowel sounds (or vowel-like segments such as syllabic consonants) it has.

b) An onset plus a peak (CV), as in day, he.

c) A nucleus and a coda (VC), as in at, it.

d) An onset, a peak and a coda (CVC), as in cat, men.

The onset and the coda may consist of one or more consonants. A group of two or more consonants that may make up the onset or the coda of a single syllable is known as a consonant cluster. NOTE: The sounds of a cluster cannot be part of any other syllable at the same time.

Types of Syllables

According to whether syllables have a coda or not, they are usually classified into two main types:

a. Open (or unchecked) syllables (V, CV), if they end in a vowel (i.e., they have no codas); e.g. I, a, lay, see. Notice that the nucleus of an open syllable can be a stressed long vowel or a diphthong, schwa /´/ and unstressed /I/ or /U/; e.g., Pe-ter /"pi…-t´r/, pa-per /"peI-p´r/, sofa /"s´U-f´/, happy /"hœp-I/, issue /"IS-U/. A stressed short vowel can never be the nucleus of a stressed open syllable.

b. Closed (or checked) syllables (VC, CVC), if they end in a consonant (i.e., they have a coda); e.g. eight, pen, lack. Notice that if the coda is a voiceless consonant and the nucleus is a

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long vowel, the vowel sound becomes shortened; e.g., suit [suÚt]. If the coda is a voiced consonant and the nucleus is a short vowel, the vowel sound becomes lengthened; e.g., live [lIÚv9]. However, long vowels remain long before voiced consonants, and short vowels remain short before voiceless consonants; e.g., food [fu…d9], cook [kÓUk].

Phonotactics or Syllable Structure

The possible arrangements of distinctive sound units (or phonemes) that can form syllables in a language are known as phonotactics (or syllable structure). English and Spanish have different ways of combining their sound segments to form syllables.

For example, in English, the onset may consist of zero to three consonants, as in the following syllables:

V, VC: at- of attention, ap- of apple (no consonant)

CV, CVC: -ten- of attention, can, met, wait (one consonant)

CCV, CCVC: speak, play, cry, twin, /pj/ in pure (two consonants)

CCCV, CCCVC: spray, splash, /spj-/ in spurious (three consonants)

When the onset consists of two consonants, the only permitted consonant combinations in English are the following:

a) A voiceless fricative consonant (among them /f,T,s,S/) followed by a liquid (i.e., a

lateral or a frictionless continuant consonant); namely, /fl-, fr-, Tr-, sl-, Sr-/. E.g., flee, free, three, slave, shrink.

b) A voiceless fricative consonant followed by a semivowel (/j/ or /w/), such as /fj-, Tw-,

sj-, sw-/. E.g., few, thwart, suit, sweater.

c) /s/ followed by voiceless plosive consonants (/p,t,k/), the

voiceless labiodental (/f/), a

sm-, sn-, sj-,

lateral, a nasal (among them /m,n/), or a semivowel; namely, /sp-, st-, sk-, sf-, sl-,

sw-/. E.g., speak, steak, skate, sphere, slave, small, snake, suit, swim.

d) A plosive consonant followed by a liquid or a semivowel; namely, /pl-, pr-, pj-, tr-, tj-,

tw-, kl-, kr-, kj-, kw-, bl-, br-, bj-, dr-, dj-, dw-, gl-, gr-, gw-/. E.g, play, pray, pure, tube, twin,

clean, cry, cure, quick, blame, brand, beauty, dwell, glass, grow, language.

When the onset consists of three consonants, the only permitted combinations are those

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which begin with an /s/ followed by a voiceless plosive followed by a liquid or a semivowel; namely, /spl-, spr-, spj-, str-, stj-, skl-, skr-, skw-/. E.g., splash, spray, spurious, strike, student, scream, squeeze.

In short, the possible number of consonants that can occur before a vowel in an English syllable may be graphically represented as follows:

C 3 0 V

The onset of the Spanish syllable may have from zero to three consonants before the nucleus, as in the following syllables:

V, VC: a, e, o, y, ár- in árbol, has- in hasta (no consonant) CV, CVC: to- in toma, len- in lente, su (one consonant) CCV, CCVC: trai- in traidor, -dre in madre, plan: two consonants. CCCV- : frie- in friega, grue- in grueso, plie- in pliego, prue- in prueba

Notice that when the Spanish onset has two consonants, the first consonant can be:

a) A plosive (/p,b,t,d,k,g/) or the voiceless labiodental (/f/) followed by a liquid (the

multiple vibrant /r-/ or the alveolar lateral /l/); namely, /pl-, pr-, bl-, br-, tl-, kl-, kr-, gl-, gr-, fl-,

fr-/. Examples: placer, prestar, blonda, brazo, Atlántico, clase, cruzar, glosa, gris, flaco, frasco.

b) Almost any consonant followed by a semivowel (/j/ or /w/), such as /pj-, pw-, bj-,

bw-, tj-, tw-, dj-, dw-, kj-, kw-, gj-, gw-, fj-, fw-, sj-, sw-, hj-, hw-, lj-, lw-, mj-, mw-, nj-, nw-, rj-,

rw-/. Examples: piojo, puede, avión, bueno, tierra, tuétano, Dios, duelo, quiero, guión, lengua, fiera, fuego, Asia, suegro, adagio, jueves, lienzo, luego, miedo, muela, nieto, nuevo, rienda, rueda.

In short, the possible number of consonants that may occur before the nucleus in a Spanish syllable can be graphically represented as follows:

C 3 0 V

As to the number of consonants that can occur after the vowel in a syllable (i.e., as coda) in English, there can occur from zero to four consonants, as in the following examples:

V, CV: a, I, day, pray , na- in nation, la- in labor (no consonant) VC, CVC: at, on, that, block, sting, at- in attention (one consonant) VCC, CVCC: act, part, fix, past, fits, pump, spelled (two consonants) CVCCC: text, fixed, jumps, fists, milks (three consonants)

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CVCCCC: texts, strengths (four consonants) Notice that, when the English coda consists of four consonants, the last one is usually /s/. In short, the number of consonants that may occur after the vowel in an English syllable (as coda) can be graphically represented as follows:

V C 4

0

For its part, the coda of the Spanish syllable may consist of clusters ranging from zero to two consonants, as in the following syllables:

V, CV: a, o, to- in toma, da- in dame, nue- in nuevo (no consonant) VC, CVC: un, el, -món in Ramón, del, paz, dar (one consonant) VCC, CVCC: cons- in conspirar, ex- /eks-/ in explicar (two consonants)

Notice that only [n, N, s, h, l, r] can function as a coda in Spanish. When the coda has two consonants, the first one is usually /k/ or /n/, and the second one /s/. In short, the number of sounds that the Spanish coda can have can be graphically represented as follows:

V

C

2

0

Exercises

Exercise 1: Using C for consonant and V for vowel, represent the syllable structure of each of the words below.

debt

month

skewer

exempts

fifths

choir

glimpsed

thinks

squares

springs

splashed

owe

ewes

hour

ought

Exercise 2: In each case, give examples of English words that contain at least one syllable with the following syllable structures.

a. C 1 C 2 C 3 VC 4 C 5 (C 3 = lateral, C 4 = fricative):

b. C 1 C 2 VC 3 (C 2 = velar):

c. C 1 C 2 C 3 VC 4 (C 3 = semivowel):

d. C 1 VC 2 C 3 (C 2 = liquid, C 3 = affricate):

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Exercise 3 : Divide the following words into syllables.

1. pronunciation

2. happening

3. syllables

4. environment

5. diagnostic

References

6. accompaniment 7. additionally 8. nevertheless 9. geographical 10. ceremony

Carr, P. (1999). English phonetics and phonology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sloat, C., Taylor, S. H., & Hoard, J. E. (1978). Introduction to phonology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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