Though the basic phonological elements are phonemes, human
intercommunication is actualized in syllables.
The syllable as a unit may be difficult to define, though native speakers of a
language are usually able to state how many syllables there are in a particular
According to J. Kenyon the syllable is one or more speech sounds, forming a
single uninterrupted unit of utterance, which may be a word, or a commonly
recognized subdivision of a word.
The syllable can be a single word: gap [gæp], a part of a word: English [´ıŋ-glı∫],
a part of the grammatical form of a word: later [´leı-tә].
The syllable can be analyzed from the acoustic and auditory, articulatory and
functional points of view. The syllable can be viewed in connection with its
graphic representation.
Acoustically and auditorily the syllable is characterized by the force of utterance,
or accent, pitch of the voice, sonority and length that is by prosodic features.
Acoustic properties of syllables are studied with the help of intonograph and
spectrograph. Electroacoustic analysis made it possible to formulate some rules of
syllable division.
Auditorily the syllable is the smallest unit of perception: the listener identifies the
whole of the syllable and only after that the sounds contained.
The articulatory energy which constitutes the syllable results from the combined
action of the power, vibrator, resonator and obstructor mechanisms.
Phonologically the syllable is regarded and defined in terms of its structural and
functional properties.
Syllables in writing are called syllabographgs and are closely connected with the
morphemic structure of words.
A syllable can be formed by a vowel: (V); by a vowel and a consonant (VC); by
a consonant and a sonorant (CS).
V – type of syllable uncovered open,
VC – type of syllable uncovered closed,
CVC - type of syllable covered closed,
CV - type of syllable covered open
English Syllables (examples)
V – or [o:]
CVCCCC – texts [teksts]
CVC – pit [pıt]
CV – dew [dju:]
CVCC – fact [fækt]
CCV – spy [spaı]
CVCCC – lapsed [læpst]
CCCV - straw [stro:]
CCVC – plan [plæn]
VC – eat [ı:t]
CCCVC – splash [splæ∫]
VCC – act [ækt]
CCVCC – twist [twıst]
VCCC – asks [asks]
CCVCCC – stamps [stæmps]
CCCVCC – spleens [splı:nz]
The structure of the English syllable reveals variations in the number of prevocalic consonants from 1 to 3, post-vocalic consonants from 1 to 4.
The peak or the crest of the syllable is formed by a vowel or a sonorant. The
consonants which precede the peak and follow it are called slopes.
Vowels [æ, e, ʌ, o, a:, o:, eı, aı, au, εә, oı] constitute almost always the peaks of
prominence. [ә, ı, u, әu] occur, as a rule, in unaccented syllables.
The consonant [ŋ] never begins, [w] never terminates the syllable.
The sonorants [w, r, j] function as consonants, because they occur only before
vowels: SVC structural type, e. g. [wıð, raıt, jes].
The sonorants [l, m , n] can form syllables in terminal position, when preceded
by a consonant, e. g. [pı:pl, ga:dn, ofn, neı∫n, rıðm].
(…The structural patterns of syllables formed by sonorants with a preceding
consonant in English are similar to V + C patterns: CS written [rıtn].
According to G. P. Torsuyev’s data the syllabic structure in the English language
of the combination consonant (or consonants) + a sonorant is characterized by the
following data:CS type – 40 combinations, CSC type – 90 combinations, CSCC
type – 15 combinations, CCSCC type – 1 combination.)
Theory of Syllable Format
There are different points of view on syllable formation which are briefly the
1. The most ancient theory states that there are as many syllables in a word as
there are vowels. This theory is primitive and insufficient since it does not
take into consideration consonants which also can form syllables.
2. The expiratory theory states that there are as many syllables in a word as
there are expiration pulses. The borderline between the syllables is,
according to this theory, the moment of the weakest expiration. This theory
is inconsistent because it is quite possible to pronounce several syllables in
one articulatory effort or expiration, e. g. seeing [sı:ıŋ].
3. The sonority theory states that there are as many syllables in a word as there
are peaks of prominence or sonority.
Speech sounds pronounced with uniform force, length and pitch differ in
inherent prominence or sonority.
O. Jespersen established the scale of sonority of sounds, that is, the scale of
their inherent prominence. According to this scale the most sonorous are
back vowels (low, mid, high), then go semi-vowels [w, j] and sonorants,
then voiced and voiceless consonants.
Scale of Sonority
1. low vowels [a:, o:, o, æ]
2. mid vowels [e, ә:, ә, ʌ]
3. wlewov hgih [i:, ı, u:, u]
4. semi-vowels [w, j]
5. sonorants [l, r, m, n, ŋ]
6. voiced constrictive consonants [v, z, ʒ , ð]
7. voiced plosive consonants [b, d, g]
8. voiceless constrictive consonants and affricates [ʃ, ʧ, ʤ, f, s, h, θ]
9. voiceless plosive consonants [p, t, k]
Sounds are grouped around the most sonorous ones, which form the peaks of
sonority in a syllable. Two points of lower sonority constitute the beginning and
the end of the syllable.
Compare melt and metal: in the first word [e] is the most sonorous sound, the
only peak of sonority; it is a one-syllable word. In the word metal there are two
peaks of sonority [e] and [l], it is a two-syllable word.
The sonority theory helps to establish the number of syllables in a word, but fails
to explain the mechanism of syllable division because it does not state to which
syllable the weak sound at the boundary of two syllables belongs.
Functional characteristics of the syllable
The syllable as a phonological unit performs three functions: constitutive,
distinctive, identificatory. They are closely connected.
1. Constitutive Function
Syllables constitute words, phrases and sentences through the combination of
their prosodic features: loudness – stress, pitch – tone, duration – length and
tempo. Syllables may be stressed, unstressed, high, mid, low, rising, falling, long,
short. All these prosodic features constitute the stress pattern of words, tonal and
rhythmic structure of an utterance, help to perform distinctive variations on the
syllabic level.
2. Distinctive and Differentiatory Function.
If we compare the words: lightening and lightning, we may observe that their
syllabicity is the only minimal, distinctive feature: [´laıt nıŋ vs. ´laıtnıŋ].
It is an example of the word-distinctive function of the syllabicity of [n].
There are rather many combinations in English distinguished from each other by
means of the difference in the place of syllabic boundary: a name – an aim, ice
cream – I scream.
The distinctive, diffirentiatory function of the syllabic boundary makes it
possible to introduce the term “juncture”. Close juncture, or conjuncture occurs
between sounds within one syllable, e.g. a name, I scream: in the first example the
close juncture is between [n] and [ei], in the second – between [s] and [k]. Open
juncture, disjuncture occurs between two syllables. If we mark open juncture with
[+] then in our examples it will occur between a + name, I + scream. American
scientists H. A. Gleason, L. S. Harris and Pike consider the open juncture a
separate segmental phoneme. They include [+] into the inventory of phonemes as a
separate differentiatory unit.
3. Identificatory Function.
This function is conditioned by the pronunciation of the speaker. The listener can
understand the exact meaning of the utterance only if he perceives the correct
syllabic boundary – “syllabodisjuncture”, e. g. pea stalks стебли гороха – peace
talks мирные переговоры, my train мой поезд – might rain возможен дождь.
I. A syllable can be formed by a vowel: (V); by a vowel and a consonant (VC); by
a consonant and a sonorant (CS).
V – type of syllable uncovered open, e.g. or [ɔ:]
VC – type of syllable uncovered closed, e.g. at [æt]
CVC - type of syllable covered closed, e.g. map [mæp]
CV - type of syllable covered open e.g. car [ka:]
II. English Syllables (examples)
V – or [o:]
CVC – pit [pıt]
CVCC – fact [fækt]
CVCCC – lapsed [læpst]
CCVC – plan [plæn]
CCCVC – splash [splæ∫]
CCVCC – twist [twıst]
CCVCCC – stamps [stæmps]
CCCVCC – spleens [splı:nz]
CVCCCC – texts [teksts]
CV – dew [dju:]
CCV – spy [spaı]
CCCV - straw [strɔ:]
VC – eat [ı:t]
VCC – act [ækt]
VCCC – asks [asks]
III. Scale of Sonority
low vowels [a:, o:, o, æ]
mid vowels [e, ә:, ә, ʌ]
wlewov hgih [i:, ı, u:, u]
semi-vowels [w, j]
sonorants [l, r, m, n, ŋ]
voiced constrictive consonants [v, z, ʒ, ð]
voiced plosive consonants [b, d, g]
voiceless constrictive consonants and affricates [ʃ, ʧ, ʤ, f, s, h, θ]
voiceless plosive consonants [p, t, k]
IV. Juncture.
Close juncture/ open juncture (+)
A name/ a + name
I scream/ I + scream