Syllable. The Theories of Syllable.

1. Syllable. The theories of syllable.

2. Syllabic structure of English words.

3. Functions of syllable.


1. Syllable. The theories of syllable. Speech is a continuum. However, it can be broken into minimal pronounceable units into which sounds show a tendency to cluster or group themselves. These smallest phonetic groups are generally given the name of syllables.

The syllable is one or more speech sounds forming a single uninterrupted unit of utterance which may be a commonly recognized subdivision of a word or the whole of a word. Being the smallest pronounceable units, the syllables form language units of greater magnitude, that is morphemes, words and phrases. Each of these units is characterized by a certain syllabic structure.

The syllable is a fairly complicated phenomenon and like the phoneme it can be studied on four levels: acoustic, articulatory, auditory and functional, which means that the syllable can be approached from different points of view.

(1) Talking about the analysis of articulatory aspect of the syllable we could start with the so-called expiratory,or chest pulse or pressure theory ( ) which was experimentally based by R.H. Stetson. This theory is based on the assumption that expiration in speech is a pulsating process and each syllable should correspond to a single expiration so that the number of the syllables in an utterance is determined by the number of expirations made in the production of the utterance. This theory was strongly criticized by linguists. G.P. Torsuev, for example, writes that in a phrase a number of words and consequently syllables can be pronounced with a single expiration. This fact makes the validity of the pulse theory doubtful.

(2) Another theory most often referred to is the theory of syllable put forward by O. Jespersen. It is generally called the sonority theory / the prominence theory ( ) and is based on the concept of sonority. The creator of this theory, the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, has proved that the least sonorous sounds which have the least carrying power, are those for which the mouth is closed (voiceless oral stops), while the most sonorous sounds are those for which the mouth is wide open (low vowels). All other sounds are ranked in between these two extreme points of the sonority scale: (from the highest degree to the lowest): 1. Low vowels (a:, ɔ:); 2. High vowels (i:, i); 3. Semivowels (j, w); 4. Liquids (1, r); 5. Nasals (m, n, ŋ); 6. Fricatives (voiced) (v, z, ð); 7. Fricatives (voiceless) (f, θ, s); 8. Oral stops (voiced) (b, d, g); 9. Oral stops (voiceless) (p, t, k).

By this theory the syllable is treated as the combination of a more sonorous sound with a less sonorous one. All the sounds with the greatest degree of sonority (vowels and sonorants) are at the peak of the syllable, by which the syllable may be marked as a unit, because the rest of the sounds surrounding the peak cling to it.

According to V.A. Vassilyev, the most serious drawback of this theory is that it fails to explain the actual mechanism of syllable formation and syllable division. Besides, the concept of sonority with which the theory operates is not very clearly defined, which makes it still less consistent.

Further experimental work aimed at the description of the syllable as a phonetic phenomenon resulted in a lot of other theories, such as F. de Saussure's theory, the theory of the Rumanian linguist A. Rosetti, and the theory of the Czech linguist B. Hala. The existence of such a variety of approaches to the problem of the syllable means that it is not an easy matter to describe it ‒ the theories referred to above are unable to explain more than a restricted aspect of the phenomenon.

(3) Academician L.V. Shcherba put forward the theory of muscular tension. It was put forward by the French linguist MichaelleGrammont and supported and further developed by the Russian linguist Lev V. Scherba. Academician Lev Volodymyrovych Scherba explained syllable formation by musculartension impulses and three types of consonants. In speaking, muscular tensionimpulses follow one another. Each impulse has its strongest point the peak of prominence and its weakest prominence the valley of prominence. Valleys of prominencecorrespond to points of syllabic division. The end of one syllable and the beginning ofthe next one can be ascertained by determining the type of consonants which take partin forming the syllables. Consonants may be pronounced:

1. initially strong the beginning of a consonant may be more energetic, while the end may be weaker;

2. finally strong the beginning of the consonant may be weak, and its end more energetic;

3. and geminate or double both the beginning and the end are energetic with a weakening of muscular tension in the middle, acoustically, they give the impression of two consonants.

The more energetic part of a consonant is attached to a vowel, so that initially strong C occurs at the end of a closed syllable, while finally strong C occurs at the beginning of a syllable, his theory again does not give a complete explanation of the syllable division mechanism.

(4) It is worth noticing that the theory has been modified by V.A. Vassilyev. The point is that the syllable like any other pronounceable unit can be characterized by three physical parameters: pitch, intensity and length. Within the range of the syllable these parameters vary from minimum on the prevocalic (, ) consonants to maximum on the centre of the syllable, then there is another decrease within the postvocalic (, ) consonants. So the conclusion follows: if we take into consideration the tension of articulation and the abovementioned acoustic data on the speech production level the syllable can be treated as an arc of articulatory effort, for example:

(5) Up till now we have spoken about theories which try to define the syllable on either of the two levels of production or perception. The linguist and psychologist N.I. Zhinkin has suggested the so-called loudnesstheory which seems to combine both levels. The experiments carried out by N.I. Zhinkin showed that the arc of loudness on perception level is formed due to variations of the volume of pharyngeal passage which is modified by contraction of its walls. The narrowing of the passage and the increase in muscular tension which results from it reinforce the actual loudness of a vowel thus forming the peak of the syllable.

So according to this theory the syllable could be thought of as the arc of loudness which correlates with the arc of articulatory effort on the speech production level since variations in loudness are due to the work of all the speech mechanisms.

There exist two points of view on the syllable:

1. Some linguists consider the syllable to be a purely articulatory unit which lacks any functional value. This point of view is defended on the grounds that the boundaries of the syllable do not always coincide with those of the morphemes.

2. However the majority of linguists treat the syllable as the smallest pronounceable unit which can reveal some linguistic function.

The definition of the syllable from the functional point of view existing in modern linguistics tends to single out the following features of the syllable:

a) a syllable is a chain of phonemes of varying length;

b) a syllable is constructed on the basis of contrast of its constituents (which is usually of vowel-consonant type);

c) the nucleus of a syllable is a vowel, the presence of consonants is optional; there are no languages in which vowels are not used as syllable nuclei, however, there are languages in which this function is performed by consonants;

d) the distribution of phonemes in the syllabic structure follows the rules which are specific enough for a particular language.

Articulatorily, the syllable is the minimal articulatory unit of the utterance. Auditorily, the syllable is the smallest unit of perception: the listener identifies the whole of the syllable and after that the sounds which it contains. Phonologically it is a structural unit which consists of a sequence of one or some phonemes of a language in numbers and arrangements permitted by the given language.

2. Syllabic Structure of English Words. Consequently we might say that syllable as a meaningful language unit has two aspects: syllable formation and syllable division which form a dialectical unity.

Syllable formationin English is based on the phonological opposition vowel-consonant. In English the syllable is formed:

1. by any vowel alone or in combination with one or more consonants not more than three preceding and not more than four following it, e.g. are [a:], we [wi:], it [it], sixths [siksθs].

2. by a word final sonorants [n], [1], [m] immediately preceded by a consonant: e.g. rhythm ['rIðm], garden ['ga:dn].

The English sonorants [w], [j] are never syllabic as they are always syllable-initial. Thus vowels and sonorants are syllable-forming elements and every word, phrase or sentence has as many syllables as it has syllabic elements.

Every English syllable has a center or peaka vowel or a sonorant. The peak may be preceded by one or more non-syllabic elements which constitute the onsetof the syllable, and it may be followed by one or more non-syllabic elements which constitute the coda, e.g. cat [kæt], tree [tri:], ice [ais].

Every language has its own common patterns in which the phonemes are arranged to form syllables. According to the placement of vowels and consonants the following types of syllables are distinguished:

Placement of VOWELS Placement of CONSONANTS
open:the V is at the end, such a S is articulated with the opening of the mouth by the end: e.g. they, wri-ter covered at the beginning:the C is at the beginning of the syllable: e.g. tie
closed:which end in C, at the end of such a S the mouth is closed: e.g. hun-dred, hat covered at the end:the C is at the end of a S: e.g. on

The presentation of a syllable structure in terms of consonants and vowels gives rather numerous combinations which can be grouped into four structural types of syllables:

1. Fully open V ore, or
2. Fully closed(V between C) CVC fat CCVC place CVCC fact CCCVCC street CVCCC facts CVCCCC sixths [siksθs]
3. Covered at the beginning(one C or a sequence of C precede a vowel) CV too CCV spy  
4. Covered at the end (one C or more complete the syllable) VC on VCC act VCCC cts  

Structurally, the commonest types of the syllable in English are VC; CVC. CV is considered to be the universal structure. CV syllabic types constitute more than half of all structural types in Russian and Ukrainian.

The characteristic feature of English is monosyllabism: it contains between four and five thousand monosyllabic words. Most of the words of old English origin is of one syllable, the limit for the number of syllables in a word in English is 8, e.g. incomprehensibility.

Syllables can be also designated:

1. by the position in the word: from the beginning INITIAL (), MEDIAL (), FINAL /) or from the end ULTIMATE (), PENULTIMATE (/ ), ANTEPENULTIMATE ( );

2. by the position in relation to stress:PRETONIC (), TONIC (), POSTTONIC ) (Any syllable which is not tonic is ATONIC/), e.g.:

tre- men- dous

initial medial final

antepenultimate penultimate ultimate

pretonic tonic posttonic

The linguistic importance of syllable division in different languages is in finding typology of syllables and syllabic structure of meaningful units of a language, that is morphemes and words. It is the syllable division that determines the syllabic structure of the language, its syllabic typology.

Syllabic structure of a language like its phonemic structure is patterned, which means that the sounds of language can be grouped into syllables according to certain rules. The part of phonetics that deals with this aspect of a language is called phonotactics. Phonotactic possibilities of a language determine the rules of syllable division.

Each syllable contains exactly one vowel. This vowel may be preceded or followed b one or more consonants. The vowel itself may be a short vowel, a long vowel or a diphthong; or if it is the weak vowel [ə], it may be combined with a nasal [n], [m]or a liquid [l] to give a syllabic consonant.

The division of a word into syllables is called syllabification. The question of syllabification in English is controversial: different phoneticians hold different views about it. It is generally agreed that phonetic syllable divisions must be such as to avoid (as far as possible) creating consonant clusters which are not found in words in isolation. Thus it may be argued that candy should be ['kæn. dI] or ['kaend. I] but not ['kæ. ndI] since [nd] is not a possible initial consonant cluster in English. This principle is called the phonotactic constraint( ) on syllabification.

Syllable divisions in Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (LPD) by J. C. Wells 2000 are shown by spacing, e.g.playtime /'plei taim/. In English Pronouncing Dictionary (EPD) by Daniel Jones-Alfred Ch. Gimson-Peter Roach (15th edition 1997), syllable division is marked with a dot [.] as recommended b the International Phonetic Association (the IPA), e.g. admirable ['æd.mər. ə.bl].

The following rules of phonetic (spoken) syllable division are adopted in LPD-2000:

1. A syllable boundaryis found wherever there is a word boundary,and also coincides with the morphological boundary between elements in a compound:

displace [,dis 'pleis] become [bi '٨m] countless ['kaunt ləs] hardware ['ha:d weə]


2. Consonantsare syllabified with whichever of the two adjacent vowels is more strongly stressed, e.g. farmer ['fa:m ə], agenda [ə 'ʤəndə].

If they are both unstressed, it goes with the leftwardone: e.g. cinema ['sin əmə], delicious [di 'lisəs], deliberate [di'lib ər ət].

3. The English diphthongsare unisyllabic, they make one vowel phoneme, while the so-called triphthongs are disyllabic, because they consist of a diphthong + the neutral vowel/schwa:

table science flower


4. The English affricates [ʧ], [ʤ] cannot be split: catching ['kæʧiŋ] Sometimes a syllable consists phonetically only of a consonant or consonants. If so, a consonant (or one of them) is nasal(usually [n]) or a liquid(usually [1] or [r] in AmE), for instance, in the usual pronunciation of suddenly ['s٨d n li]. Such a consonant is a syllabic consonant. The IPA provides a special diacritic[.] to show syllabicity, thus syllabic consonants may be shown [ṇ] [ḷ].

Phonetic (spoken) syllables must not be confused with orthographic (written) syllables. An orthographic syllable is a group of letters in spelling. Syllablesin writing are also called syllabographs.

When a word is split across two lines of writing, it should be broken at an orthographic syllable boundary. Parts of phonetic and orthographic syllables do not always coincide: worker ['w:k.ə] CVC-V = two phonetic syllables and one syllabograph.

A most GENERAL RULEclaims that division of words into syllables in writing is passed on the morphological principlewhich demands that the part of a word which is separated should be either a prefix, or a suffix or a root (morphograph), e.g. pic- ture ['pik ʧə].

Compound wordscan be divided according to their meaning: hot-dog; spot-light It is not possible to divide a word within a phonetic syllable:

A suffix of TWO syllables such as -ABLE, -ABLY, -FULLY cannot be divided in writing, e.g. reli-able, lov-ably, beauti-fully. If there are two or three consonants before -NG, these consonants may be separated in writing: gras-ping, puz-zling.

With the exception of -LY, a word cannot be divided so that an ending of two letters such > -ED, -ER, -1 begins the next line, e.g. worked, teacher, hectic, BUT: cold-ly, bold-ly.

A word of ONE phonetic syllable, a word of less than FIVE letters cannot be divided into syllabographgs, e.g. piece [pi:s], time [taim].


3. Functions of syllable. Now we shall consider three very important functions of the syllable.

The first function is known to be the constitutivefunction () of the syllable. It lies in its ability to be a part of a word or a word itself. Thesyllable forms language units of greater magnitude, that is words, morphemes and utterances.

The other function of the syllable is its distinctivefunction ( / ). In this respect the syllable is characterized by its ability to differentiate words and word-forms. To illustrate this a set of minimal pairs should be found so that qualitative and/or quantitative peculiarities of certain allophones should indicate the beginning or the end of the syllable: ['nai-treit] nitrate ['nait-reit] night-rate.

The distinction here lies in:

1. the degree of aspiration of [t] sounds which is greater in the first member of the opposition than in the second;

2. allophonic difference of [r]: in the first member of the opposition it is slightly devoiced under the influence of the initial [t];

3. the length of the diphthong [ai]: in the second member of the opposition it is shorter because the syllable is closed by a voiceless plosive [t].

The third function of the syllable is the identificatory function ( ): the listener can understand the exact meaning of the utterance only when the correct syllabic boundary is perceived: an aim − a name; mice kill − my skill; an ice house − a nice house. Sometimes the difference in syllabic division might be the basic ground for differentiation sentences in such minimal pairs as: I saw her eyes. − I saw her rise. I saw the meat. − I saw them eat.


Answer the questions:

1. What is a syllable?

3. What is the syllable articulatorily? auditorily? phonologically?

4. How many functions does the syllable perform phonologically?

5. What does

the constitutive function

the distinctive function

the identificatory function mean?

6. How is the syllable formed in English?

7. Which English sonorants arenever syllabic? Why?

8. Name structural types of syllables in terms of C and V.

9. What are the commonest types of the syllable in English structurally?

10. What type of syllable is considered to be the universal structure?

11. What is the characteristic feature of English according to the number of syllables in words?

12. What is the limit for the number of syllables in a word in English?

13. How can syllables be designated:

a) by the position in a word?

b) by the position in relation to stress?

14. What is the relative sonority theory/ the prominence theorybased upon?

15. What is the sonority of a sound?

16. Who is the creator of the relative sonority theory?What has he proved?

17. How is the syllable treated the by the relative sonoritytheory?

18. What does the sonority theory help establish and what is its drawback?

19. Who put forward the muscular tension theory?

20. How does muscular tension impulses occur in speaking ? What corresponds to points of syllabic division?

21. How can the end of one syllable and the beginning of the next one be ascertained?

22. How can consonants be pronounced?

23. Where do initially strong C and finally strong C occur?

24. What is the drawback of this theory?

25. What is the division of a word into syllables called?

26. What can be said about the question of syllabification in English?

27. How is syllable divisions shown in Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (LPD) and in English Pronouncing Dictionary (EPD)?

28. What are basic rules of phonetic (spoken) syllable division:

is there any coincidence between a syllabic and a morphological boundary?

how are consonants syllabified?

how are diphthongs syllabified?

are affricates unisyllabic?

what are the guidelines for syllabification of syllabic consonants?

29. What is an orthographic syllable?

30. Do parts of phonetic and orthographic syllables always coincide?

31. What is a most general principle the division of words into syllables in writing based on?

32. How can compound words be divided, e.g.: hotdog; spotlight?

33. Is it possible to divide a word within a phonetic syllable?

34. Is it possible to divide a word of ONE phonetic syllable?

a word of less than FIVE letters?

˳: [2, . 133-137; 4, c. 63-67].




  3. LECTURE 1. Contrastive Stylistic as a Linguistic Discipline
  4. Lecture 12. Evolution of the ME Lexical System.
  5. LECTURE 13
  6. Lecture 14. Evolution of the ME Nominal Morphology.
  7. Lecture 16
  8. Lecture 16
  9. Lecture 4

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