Sounds (phonemes) are the smallest segments into which the speech continuum is generally divided for purposes of analysis, because these units serve to differentiate words. But in connected speech sounds are not pronounced separately, by "themselves". It is practically impossible to draw articulatory boundaries between them. If we slow down the tempo of utterance and articulate the sounds distinctly we shall see that the smallest units, into which the speech continuum is divided, are syllable.
When we pronounce a syllable, the speech organs, while producing a consonant, take all the positions necessary for the following vowel, for example note the movements of the tongue and the lips in /su:n/ "soon", /lu:z/ "lose". That is why the boundaries between the consonant and the vowel are not clearly marked. On the contrary, boundaries between syllables are marked by the alternation of openings and closings in sound production and, as a result, by the alternation of increases and decreases in articulatory tension. So the smallest pronunciation (articulatory) unit is the syllable.
It has been proved experimentally that the syllable is also the smallest perceptible unit. A number of experiments, carried out by Soviet linguists L. Chistovitch, V. Kozhevnikov, Z. Dzhaparidze, show that the listener can recognize the preceding sound only after he has analysed the whole syllable. And it takes less time to identify a syllable than the isolated sounds contained in it.
The syllable can be considered as both a phonetic and a phonological unit. As a phonetic unit the syllable is defined in articulatory, auditory (perceptual) and acoustic terms with universal application for all languages .
As a phonological unit the syllable can be defined and described only with reference to the structure of one particular language. The very term "syllable" denotes particular ways in which phonemes are combined in a language. (Cf. the Greek syllabi", "something taken together", from syn, "together", and labein, "take").
Each language has its own rules of combining its phonemes into syllables. Some combinations are permissible in a language, others are not. Therefore, without any reference to morphology (to the meaning), it is possible to say that such nonsense words as "bulling", "mimsy", "slithy", "wabe", "toves" etc. from Lewis Carol's "Alice in Wonderland", are English and "kpo", "fsple"' cannot be English as far as the combinations of phonemes are concerned. And because of the specific grouping and distribution of phonemes in different languages one and the same word may, with certainty, be interpreted as bisyllabic by a speaker of one language, and as trisyllabic by a speaker of another language. For example, a German pronounces the word "Knabe" as bisyllabic, whereas an Englishman would make it trisyllabic, because the English language does not permit /kn/ as an initial sound combination.
The ancient Greak scholars noticed that the two main phonological types of sounds — vowels and consonants fulfill different functions in speech. The function of a vowel is to occupy the central position in certain combinations of sounds, whereas consonants serve as the margins of the sound combinations* (Hence the term "consonant", which means "sounding with something" — con+sonant.) In other words, vowels are always syllabic and consonants are incapable of forming syllables without vowels.
But in a number of languages some sonorous consonants, such as /n, I, r, m/, can also be syllabic because of their strong vocalic features, for instance, in Czeck — "krk" (neck) and in English "garden" /ɡɑ: —dn/, "needn't" /ni: -dnt/, "castle" /kɑ:-sl/, "lighten" /laɪ — tn/.
So, phonologically, the syllable is a structural unit, which consists of a vowel alone or of a vowel (or a syllabic sonorant) surrounded by consonants in the numbers and arrangements permitted by a given language.
The syllable can be a single word: chair /ʧeə/, a part of a word: English /ˈɪŋ - ɡlɪʃ/, a part of the grammatical form of a word: later /ˈleɪ - tə/.
Syllables in writing are called syllabographs and are closely connected with the morphemic structure of words.
In English a syllable can be formed by a vowel, by a vowel and a consonant, by a consonant and a sonorant.
V (vowel)-types of syllable are called uncovered open.
VC (vowel-consonant)-types of syllable are called uncovered closed.
CV (consonant-vowel)-types of syllable are called covered open.
CVC-types of syllable are called covered closed.
THE PHONETIC ASPECT OF THE SYLLABLE
Phoneticians are not always in agreement in their definition of the syllable because in their analysis they proceed from either articulatory or acoustic aspects of the unit.
One of the phonetic theories — the expiratory, or chest pulse theory — defines the syllable as a sound or a group of sounds that are pronounced in one chest pulse, accompanied by increases in air pressure. According to this definition, there are as many syllables in a word as there are chest pulses (expirations) made during the utterance of the word. Each vowel sound is pronounced with increased expiration. Consequently, vowels are always syllabic. Boundaries between syllables are in the place where there occur changes in the air pressure. But it is impossible to explain all cases of syllable formation on the basis of the expiratory theory, and therefore, to determine boundaries between syllables. A. Gimson notes that it is doubtful whether a double chest pulse will be evident in the pronunciation of juxtaposed vowels as, for instance, in "seeing",though such words consist of two syllables .
The relative sonority theory, or the prominence theory, created by the Danish phonetician O. Jespersen, considers that sounds tend to group themselves according to their sonority.
Pronounced with uniform force, length and pitch, speech sounds differ in sonority (prominence, audibility or carrying power). The most sonorous sounds are vowels, less sonorous are sonorants /w, j, r, m, n, ŋ / and the least sonorous are noise consonants. O. Jespersen classifies sounds according to the degree of sonority in the following way (beginning with the most sonorous):
Sounds are grouped around the most sonorous ones, i.e. vowels (and sometimes sonants) which form the peak of sonority in a syllable. One peak of sonority is separated from another peak by sounds of lower sonority, i.e. consonants. The distance between the two points of lower sonority is a syllable , e.g. "October". The number of syllables is determined by the number of peaks of prominence. Thus in the word /melt/ "melt" there is one peak of sonority /e/ and the word is monosyllabic. In the word /metl/ "metal" there are two peaks of sonority - /e/ and /I/, separated by the least sonorous /t/, and consequently, there are two syllables.
Here are some more examples to illustrate the sonority theory: /wu:dn/ "wooden" /fild/ "filled", /fidll/"fiddle". In Czeck words like /krk/ “krk" and in English "pst" the sounds /I, r, s/ are sonorous peaks.
But there are cases that contradict Jespersen's theory.
e.g. /sta:/ "star", /skeɪt/ "skate", /nekst/ "next".
In these words the sound /s/ is more sonorous than /t/ and /k/ and forms the second peak of sonority. Yet, the words are monosyllabic.
It is evident that the relative sonority theory does not explain the mechanism of syllable formation. It only makes an attempt at explaining our perception of a syllable. Neither does it explain syllable division, as it does not say to which syllable the less sonorous sounds belong, e.g. /ǝn'aɪsmæn/ "an iceman" and /ǝ'naɪs'mæn/ "a nice man", /ǝn'eɪm/ "an aim" and /ə'neɪm/ "a name", "some addresses" and "summer dresses"
Nevertheless, the relative sonority. theory has been accepted by D. Jones and some other phoneticians.
The most widespread among Soviet linguists is the muscular tensiîn (or the articulatory effort) theory which is known as Shcherba's theory.
According to this theory a syllable is characterized by variations in muscular tension. The energy of articulation increases at the beginning of a syllable, reaches its maximum with the vowel (or the sonant) and decreases towards the end of the syllable. So, a syllable is an arc of muscular tension. The boundaries between syllables are determined by the occurrence of the lowest articulatory energy.
There are as many syllables in a word as there are maxima of muscular tension in it, Cf. /tɑ:/ "tar" and /tɑ:/ "tower" (a reduced variant of /taʊǝ/). The sound /ɑ:/ jn the second example is pronounced with two articulatory efforts, so there are two arcs of muscular tension and, therefore, two syllables.
Consonants within a syllable are characterized by different distribution of muscular tension. In accordance with this, L. Schherba distinguished the following three types of consonants.
1) Initially strong consonants, in the articulation of which the beginning is stronger while the end is weaker. They occur at the end of a closed syllable.
E.g. ɪt, ʌs, pɪn, sæd, pɑ:t
2) Finally strong consonants, in the articulation of which the beginning is weak while the end is more energetic. They occur at the beginning of a syllable.
E.g. mi:, taɪ, pɑ:t, sæd
3) Double-peaked consonants, in the articulation of which both the beginning and the end are energetic whereas the middle is weak. Acoustically they produce the impression of two consonants. These consonants occur at the junction of words or morphemes.
E.g. pennaɪf, ðættaɪm, mɪddeɪ.
The type of consonant is therefore a cue for syllable division. If in /ǝ naɪs haʊs/ the sound /n/ is initially strong, the syllabic boundary is after the /n/ — /ǝn aɪs haʊs/. If the sound /n/ is finally strong, the boundary is before it— /ǝ naɪs haʊs/. In other words, if there is a new onset of muscular tension on the sound /n/, the latter belongs to the second syllable, and if the new onset of muscular tension is on /aɪ/ ,the sound /n/ belongs to the first syllable.
The above theories define the syllable on either the production or perception level.
N. Zhinkin has worked out the so-called loudness theory, which takes into account both the levels. On the perception level the syllable is defined as an arc of actual loudness. The experiments carried out by N. Zhinkin, showed that the organ immediately responsible for the variations in loudness of a syllable is the pharynx. The narrowing of the pharyngeal passage and the resulting increase in muscular tension of its walls reinforce the actual loudness of the vowel thus forming the peak of the syllable, while the loudness of the marginal consonants is weakened. In the production of loudness variations of all the speech mechanisms are involved. So on the speech production level the correlate of "the arc of loudness" is "the arc of articulatory effort".
The acoustic aspect of the syllable has been studied by E. Zwirner, R. Jakobson and M. Halle. According to the results obtained, the peak of the syllable (a vowel or a sonant) has a higher intensity than its consonants, and in many cases a higher fundamental frequency. Perceptually, the peak is louder and higher in pitch. These acoustic features easily agree with the physiological definition of the syllable as an arc of articulatory effort (or muscular tension), In analysing the above theories of the syllable, we cannot but agree with the scholars who point out that each of the existing theories is correct to a certain extent, but none of them is able to explain reliably all the cases of syllable boundaries.
It seems that the phonetic definition of the syllable should also take into account the peculiarities of the articulatory basis of a concrete language, the characteristic tendencies in articulatory transitions from a consonant to a vowel (CV transition), from a vowel to a consonant (VC transition) and from a consonant to a consonant (CC transition).
In English CV transitions are loose, and, therefore the voiceless plosives /p, t, k/ before stressed vowels are aspirated. So the presence of aspiration can indicate that the consonant and the vowel belong to the same syllable, e.g. /plʌmpaɪ/.The absence of aspiration shows that they belong to different syllables, i.e. there is a syllable boundary after the consonant, e.g. in "plump eye" /plʌmpaɪ/.
VC transitions are often close in English, because of the checked character of short vowels under stress. Such a VC combination forms one syllable. In unstressed position a short English vowel is not checked and because of the loose VC transition it may form one syllable and the following consonant may belong to another one, e.g. "positive" /ˈpɒz-ɪ-tɪv/.
THE STRUCTURAL ASPECT OF THE ENGLISH SYLLABLE
To study the syllable as a phonological unit of English is to describe the structure of the syllable by stating the functions of the phonemes in it and the relations between the phonemes.
Syllable formation in English, as in other languages, is based on the phonological opposition of vowels and consonants. Vowels are always syllabic, they occupy a central position in the syllable. Consonants are non-syllabic and marginal. The sounds /w, r, j/, despite their strong vocalic features, function as consonants, occurring only before the vowel, e.g. /ˈwɪn—tǝ/, /'ri:—dǝ/, /jɑ:d/. The sounds /I, m, n/ normally function as consonants, in various sound combinations before the vowel. But in unstressed final position, when preceded by a noise consonant, they are syllabic, e.g. /petl/ "petal", /blɒsm/ "blossom',' /laɪtn/ "lighten".
It should be noted specially, that historically short English vowels /ɪ, e, æ, ʌ, ɒ, ʊ, ǝ/ never occur in stressed final position without the following consonant. In unstressed position the vowels /ɪ, ǝ/ ńŕn occur as final.
Consonants present particular interest in the study of the syllable, because it is due to the number and arrangement of consonants that the structure of the syllable varies. And it is largely due to consonants that we understand the utterance.
As to the presence, number and arrangement of consonants there are 23 syllable patterns in English, such as V, VC, CVC, CV, CCVC, CCVCC, CCCVC, CCCVCC, etc. The vowel may occur alone in a syllable or it may have up to 3 consonants before it and up to 4 consonants after it. The most frequent and fundamental pattern in English is CVC.
It is a feature of English that in initial position, i.e. before the vowel, there can be any consonant except /ŋ/; no consonant combinations are possible with /ð, z/, and such consonant clusters as /mh, sr,spw, fs, hr, stl/ cannot occur initially either.
J. O'Connor notes that final clusters are much more complex in English than initial ones. This is due to the fact that final clusters are used to express grammatical meanings of plurality, tense, ordinal number, e.g. "texts" /-ksts/, "mixed" /-kst/, "glimpsed"/—-mpst/. In Russian initial clusters are more complex and more numerous than the final ones, because they represent grammatical prefixes, e.g. /fskr-, fspl-, vzr-, kst-/.
Phonotactic possibilities of English phonemes predetermine the rules of syllable division.
English historically short vowels under stress (checked vowels) occur only in a closed syllable. Checked vowels are always followed by a consonant. So the syllabic boundary never occurs after these vowels.
The preceding and following vowels attract this consonant and the consonant is split into two. In speech the consonant forms a close link between the two syllables. If a checked vowel is separated by one consonant from a syllabic sonant the boundary between the two syllables is also within the consonant. E.g. ˈlɪtl, ˈkɒtn, ˈfætn,'bɪtn.
Historically long monophthongs, diphthongs and unstressed short monophthongs (free vowels) can occur both in the open and in the closed syllable. E.g. /kɑ:/ "car", /kɑ:t/ "cart", /taɪ—nil "tiny".
When a free vowel is separated from a succeeding vowel by only one consonant sound, the syllable in which such a vowel occurs, is always open. E.g. /aɪ—ˈdɪǝ/ "idea", /kɑ:—ˈtu:n/ "cartoon".
When a post-stressed short vowel is separated from a succeeding vowel by a single consonant, the boundary is most probably, before the consonant, because the short vowel is free in unstressed position.
When there is a cluster of consonants between two vowels, the place of the syllabic boundary is conditioned by whether this cluster is permitted at the beginning of words or not. If it does occur in initial position in English the syllabic boundary is before it. If it doesn't, the boundary is between the consonants. For instance the cluster /gr/ is used word—initially in English, therefore it can occur at the beginning of a syllable and the syllabic boundary is before the cluster. E.g. /ǝ—ˈgri:/ "agree", /rɪ—ˈgret/ "regret".
The clusters /dm/, /dv/ do not occur word-initially and cannot occur at the beginning of a syllable. The syllabic boundary is therefore between the consonants constituting the clusters. E.g. /ǝd—'maɪǝ/ "admire", /ed-ˈvaɪs/ "advice”.
When two vowels are separated by more than two consonants as for example in /ˈekstrə/ the boundary may be both before /s/ and /t/ because both /str/ and /tr/ occur at the beginning of words and /ks/ can occur in final position.
The so-called triphthongs in English are disyllabic combinations, because they contain two vowel phonemes. E.g. /ˈsaɪ—əns/ "science", lˈflaʊ - ǝ/ "flower".
The structure of an English syllable depends on whether it is stressed or not. The peak of the stressed syllable is always a vowel. In the unstressed syllable the peak may be a vowel or a sonant. When the peak of the stressed syllable is a short vowel, the syllable must be "closed" by a consonant.
FUNCTIONS OF THE SYLLABLE
As a phonological unit the syllable performs several functions, that may be combined into the main three: constitutive, distinctive and identificatory.
The constitutive function of the syllable manifests itself in the fact that the syllable forms higher-level units - words, accentual or rhythmic groups, utterances. Two aspects of this function can be emphasized. On the one hand, the syllable is a unit in which segmental phonemes are realized. L. Bondarko has proved experimentally that the relations between the distinctive features of the phonemes and their acoustic correlates can be revealed only within the syllable. On the other hand, within a syllable or a sequence of syllables prosodic (or suprasegmental) features of speech are also realized. These are distinctive variations in loudness (stress) in pitch (tone), and in duration (tempo, length). Thus syllables may be stressed and unstressed, high, mid or low, rising or falling, long or short. All these prosodic features are significant for constituting the stress—pattern of a word and the tonal and rhythmic structures of an utterance.
In forming words and utterances the syllable performs the delimitative function which is inseparable from the constitutive function. Some syllables can occur only word-initially (/ɡr/, /str/) and others only word-finally; /tn/, /dn/, /stl/ thus making the boundaries between words.
The distinctive function of the syllable is to differentiate words and word combinations. It has been mentioned that phonemes exist and function within the syllable. Therefore words are actually differentiated by the syllable as one articulatory and perceptible unit. For instance, the monosyllabic words /bi :t/ "beat" and /b i :d/ "bead" differ not only in their consonant phonemes/t/and /d/, but also in the length of/h/, which is conditioned by the neighbouring fort is and lenis consonants- Such words as /ɡɑ:dn/ "garden" - /ɡɑ:dz/ "guards", /bi:tn/ "beaten" - /bi:ts/ "beats" are distinguished not only by the phonemes /n/ versus /z/ and /n/ versus /s/ but also by their syllables as bisyllabic and monosyllabic words.
V. Vassilyev notes that the existence of such pairs of words makes it possible to consider syllabicity the only distinctive feature of the words and, on this account he distinguishes a separate phonological unit - the syllabeme.
Syllable division (syllabification) is very important too in distinguishing words and utterances.
The distinctive role of syllabification is illustrated by examples like
/naɪˈtreit/ "nitrate" - /ˈnaɪt ˈreɪt/ night-rate,
/ǝ ˈneɪm/ "a name" — /ǝn ˈeɪm/ "an aim",
/wil ˈəʊn/ "we'll own" — /wi ˈləʊn/ "we loan",
/aɪ ˈskri:m/ "I scream" - /aɪs ˈkri:m/ "ice cream",
Due to the distinctive importance of syllable division, the syllabic boundary is often regarded by the American descriptivists as a separate phonological unit — the juncture phoneme.
There are two types of juncture: open and close. Open juncture (or open transition) occurs between syllables, i.e. between two articulatory units. It may also be called intersyllabic juncture. Thus, in "we'll own" /wil ˈəʊn/ the open juncture is between /I/ and /əʊ/, and in "we loan" /wi ˈləʊn/ it is between /i/ and /I/;
Close juncture (or close transition) occurs between sounds within one syllable, i.e. within one articulatory unit. Therefore, the transitions from one sound to another are closer within a syllable than between syllables. Thus in "we loan" /wi ˈləʊn/ the close juncture is between /I/ and ləʊ/,/əʊ/ and /n/. This juncture may also be called intrasyllabic juncture.
The latest acoustic investigations of juncture show that the factors determining an open or a close juncture are the duration of the sounds, their intensity and formant transitions. Thus, according to the data obtained by I. Lehiste, the initial /n/ in "a nice man" is longer than the final /n/ in "an iceman". The pre-junctural /n/ has falling intensity, while the post-junctural /n/ has rising intensity. Formant transitions of /n/ and /aɪ/ are different in the contrasted pairs.
While the phonetic realization of open juncture is described by different phoneticians in approximately the same terms, there is less uniformity in their phonological interpretation of the phenomena. Some phoneticians consider the open juncture to be a segmental phoneme, others consider it a suprasegmental phoneme or a phoneme in its own right.
K. Pike and I. Lehiste regard the juncture to be a contrastive feature of high-level units but not a phonological unit in its own right.
The i dent i f icatory function of the syllable is conditioned by the hearer's perception of syllables as entire phonetic units with their concrete allophones and syllabic boundaries.
The listener identifies two syllables in "plum pie" and "plump eye" with the corresponding boundaries before /p/ and after /p/, because in the first example /p/ is aspirated and /m/ is as tang as if it were final, whereas in the second example /p/ is unaspirated and /m/ is shorter on account of the following fortis /p/.
That is why learners of English should take care not to mispronounce English sounds and not to shift the syllabic boundary as it may cause not only a strong foreign accent, but also misunderstanding on the part of the listener.