20. Phonotactics II: Syllable structure

     We have just had some fun identifying languages, or having computers help us do so, mainly by examining the way in which letters, and indirectly, phonemes, combine with each other. English of course also has its own rules regarding which sequences of phonemes are permissible in a syllable. Observing how phonemes can and cannot combine will help us to better understand the phonological structure of English, though it also has more practical applications, such as in poetry and song writing.

      You will have noticed when doing the exercises for chapter 4 of the Ladefoged text that some vowel phonemes are more restricted than others as regards which consonant sounds may follow them in the same syllable. There are many reasons for this; to uncover some of these reasons you would have to look back into the history of the development of the English language, something that is beyond the scope of our investigations for the time being (but if you have the time and interest, here is one place to start). For now we will just attempt to understand the current situation as it is, without trying to offer any explanations for it. The first step toward such an understanding is acquiring a clear notion of the structure of a syllable.

     A syllable can be divided into two parts: onset (in Chinese: 節首輔音 jiéshŏu fŭyīn, or in traditional terms 聲母 shēng mŭ) and rhyme (韻 yùn or 韻母 yùnmŭ). A rhyme may be further divided into a nucleus (核心 héxīn) and a coda (音結尾 yīnjiéwĕi). In Chinese phonology, the term 介音 jièyīn is also used, to refer to an [i] or [y] glide before a main vowel, as in the [i] in 天 tian1; compare to 攤 tan1, which has only a main vowel and no 介音 rising glide.

     Follow this link for a more detailed explanation of English syllable structure:


     Click on the following link for a brief explanation of sonority and the sonority scale, referred to in the above Web page. You can find more detailed information on sonority on p. 245-247 of the Ladefoged/Johnson text.

     Here's a useful 22-slide slideshow on syllable structure, phonotactics and coarticulation by Eka Andriyani, Lecturer at Sekolah Tinggi Bahasa Asing (STBA) LIA, Jakarta:


     Some phonemes are much more common in certain positions in a syllable than in others. Here is a very interesting and informative presentation entitled "Graphing the distribution of English letters towards the beginning, middle or end of words":


It is based on spelling, i.e. letters, rather than phonemes, but is nevertheless a very useful reference.

     Here is a whole page full of all kinds of fascinating things about English words and spelling, like word and letter frequency counts, bi-grams and N-grams:


     Please read through the material at the above sites until you fully understand it and feel comfortable with it. The issue of syllable structure is mainly a phonological rather than phonetic one, but it is one phoneticians need a good understanding of as well. This understanding will be helpful to us in the next pages, not to mention in the second semester of this course!

Next: Phonotactics III (with rhyming dictionary)

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