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ESL Saigon

The syllable in English language

The syllable - Generalities

Although not many people can define the syllable, most of them believe that the syllable is a very important unit. Most of the people are able to count how many syllables there are in a given sentence and they tap their fingers when they do that. This fact shows the importance of the syllable in the rhythm of speech.

The syllable - classification

The syllable, according to the way we produce them and the way they sound, may be defined both phonetically and phonologically. Phonetically, syllables are divided into two categories: consisting of a center, and before/after this center.

Consisting of a center syllable has little or no obstruction to the airflow and usually sounds loud while before and after this center, which means at the beginning and end of the syllable, has greater obstruction of airflow and less sound loud.

The syllable - Examples

Minimum syllables – A minimum syllable is described as a single sound in isolation. The best examples are the sound m which we produce to indicate agreement or the sound ʃ to ask for silence.

Onset syllables – These syllables have more than just silence preceding the center of the syllable. A good example is the word “key” /ki:/.

Coda syllables – Coda syllables are those that do not have an onset but have a code. One good example is the word “run” /rʌn/.

This phonetic classification of the syllable does not give us any solution to the problem regarding to the division between syllables. One good example of this difficulty is the word “extra” /ˈɛkstrə/. The s in between k and t, by some definitions, should be counted as a syllable. That means the word “extra” will have three syllables. Of course, most people reject this theory. The vast majority agrees that this word has two syllables but where the two syllables are to be divided is the problem that raises controversies.

e+kstrə | ek+strə | eks+trə | ekst+rə | ekstr+ə

Usually the second or the third possibility is chosen but honestly it is not possible to say which one is the correct one.

Looking at the syllable from the phonetic point of view does not seem to help much. Looking at the syllable from the phonological point of view might be better since this approach means taking a close look at the possible combinations of the English phonemes.

Looking at what can occur at the beginning of the first word when we begin to speak after a pause, we find that a word can begin with a vowel or with one, two, or three consonants. In the same way we can look at how a word ends when it is the last word spoken before a pause. It can end with a vowel or with one, two, or three consonants. In very few cases it can end with four consonants.

The syllable’s structure

What does the term “syllable onset” refers to?
A syllable has a zero onset if it is the first syllable of the word and it begins with a vowel. If the syllable begins with a consonant that consonant can be any consonant except /ŋ/.

Note: The sound /ʊ/ or /ʒ/ at the beginning of the first syllable of a word is rare.

What is a consonant cluster?
Consonant cluster is when we have two or more consonants that begin a syllable.

There are two types of two consonant clusters in English language.

The first one is formed by /s/ followed by one of the following consonants: p, t, k, f, m, or n.

Note: There are also few exceptions such as /s/ followed by l, w, or j.

s+p speed /spid/
s+t stone /stoʊn/
s+k score /skɔr/
s+f sphere /sfɪər/
s+m smart /smɑrt/
s+n snap /snæp/
s+l sleep /slip//br> s+w swim /swɪm/

The /s/ in these clusters is called "the pre-initial consonant" and the consonants that follow /s/ are called "initial consonants".

The second type of two consonant cluster begins with one of a set of about 13 consonants followed by one l, r, w, or j. The first consonant of these clusters is called "the initial consonant" the second is called "the post-initial consonant".

p+l play /pleɪ/
t+r try /traɪ/

"The three consonant clusters" can occur at the beginning and at the end of a word. The number of three consonant clusters in initial position is quite small. Such three consonant clusters are formed in the following way: s + p, t, or k + l, r, w, j. This is represented best in the table below.

s (pre-initial) p, t, or k (initial) l, r, w, or j (post-initial)
l r w j
p splash sprint - spew
t - straight - stew
k sclerosis scream square skewer

In final position we can have up to four consonants. If there is no consonant at the end of a word we call it "zero coda". If there is only one consonant then it is called the "final consonant".

There are two types of two consonants final cluster. One is formed by a final consonant preceded by a pre-final consonant. The other is formed by a final consonant followed by a post-final consonant. The pre-final consonants can be: m, n, ŋ, l, and s (examples: belt, colt, fist etc). The post-final consonants can be: s, z, t, d, and θ (examples: pets, backed etc).

As the two consonants final cluster, the three consonants final cluster is divided into two types. The first type is made of pre-final consonant plus final consonant plus post-final consonant.

Helped /hɛlpt/ l+p+t
Banks /bæŋks/ ŋ+k+s

The second type of three consonants final cluster is made of final consonant plus two post-final consonant (post-final 1 and post-final 2). Post-final 2 consonant can be: s, z, t, d, and θ.

Next /nɛkst/ k+s+t
Fifths /fɪfθs/ f+θ+s

Four consonants clusters are formed of pre-final consonant plus final consonant plus post-final 1 consonant plus post-final 2 consonant.

Twelfths /twɛlfθs/ l+f+θ+s
Prompts /prɒmpts/ m+p+t+s

Note: There is a small number of cases when the four consonants cluster is formed by the final consonant plus three post-final consonants (example: texts /tɛksts/ k+s+t+s).

As a conclusion, the English syllable can have the following maximum structure: pre-initial plus initial plus post-initial plus vowel plus pre-final plus final plus post-final 1 plus post-final 2 plus post-final 3.

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