Chapter 7: Beyond the segment: Syllable structure in English 7.1. The Syllable: a fundamental phonological unit in any language. A tentative definition 7.2. The structure of the syllable. Phonotactic constraints 7.3 The importance of segmental sonority for the syllable structure 7.4. Constraints on onsets 7.5. Constraints on codas 7.6. Syllabic consonants. Non-vocalic nuclei 7.7. Syllabification in English
7.2. The structure of the syllable. Phonotactic constraints Before we proceed, however, to a more detailed examination of the syllables of
English we should first say a few more things about the structure of syllables in general. As I have already pointed out, there is no generally accepted definition of a syllable since the criteria we can use can be so different. Something that everybody will accept will be, however, that prominence plays an important part in identifying the number of syllables in an utterance. As we have seen, vowels are the most sonorous sounds human beings produce and when we are asked to count the syllables in a given word, phrase or sentence what we are actually counting is roughly the number of vocalic segments - simple or complex - that occur in that sequence of sounds. The presence of a vowel or of a sound having a high degree of sonority will then be an obligatory element in the configuration of what we call a syllable. I have mentioned other sonorous sounds beside the vowel because, as we are going to see, English syllables can arguably contain, as their most sonorous element, other sounds that vowels.
Since the vowel - or another highly sonorous sound - is at the core of the syllable, it is called the nucleus of that syllable. The sounds either preceding the vowel or coming after it are necessarily less sonorous than the vowels and unlike the nucleus they are optional elements in the make-up of the syllable. The basic configuration or template of an English syllable will be therefore (C)V(C) - the parentheses marking the optional character of the presence of the consonants in the respective positions. The part of the syllable preceding the nucleus is called the onset of the syllable. The non -vocalic elements coming after the nucleus are called the coda of the syllable. The nucleus and the coda together are often referred to as the rhyme of the syllable by analogy with the last part of a word that rhymes with the end of the word in the next line in a piece of poetry. It is, however, the nucleus, that is the essential part of the rhyme and of the whole syllable, as I have already pointed out. The preeminence of the nucleus over the other elements in the syllable has been likened to that of heads over the other elements in a syntactic structure. In a conventional tree-like representation of the structure of a syllable we will then have to show that the position of the nucleus is hierarchically more important than that of either the onset or the coda. Thus, the rhyme will be the first projection of the