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The structure and functions of syllables in English

Articulatorily, the syllable is the minimal articulatory unit of the utterance.

Auditorily, the syllable is the smallest unit of perception: the listener identifies the whole of the syllable and after that the sounds which it contains.

Phonologically it is a structural unit which consists of a sequence of one or some phonemes of a language in numbers and arrangements permitted by the given language.

Syllable formation in English is based on the phonological opposition vowel – consonant.

In English the syllable is formed:

1. by any vowel alone or in combination with one or more consonants – not more than 3 preceding and not more than 4 following it, e.g. are [a:], we [wi:], it [it], sixth [siksθ].

2. by a word final sonorants [n], [1], [m] immediately preceded by a consonant: e.g. rhythm ['rIðEm], garden ['ga:dEn].

The English sonorants [w], [j] are never syllabic as they are always syllable-initial.

According to the placement of vowels and consonants the following types of syllables are distinguished:

open: the V is at the end, such a syllable is articulated with the opening of the mouth by the end: e.g. they, wri-ter;

closed: which end in C, at the end of such a S the mouth is closed: e.g. hun-dred, hat.

Structurally, the commonest types of the syllable in English are VC; CVC. CV is considered to be the universal structure. CV syllabic types constitute more than half of all structural types in Russia. The characteristic feature of English is monosyllabism. Most of the words of old English origin is of one syllable, the limit for the number of syllables in a word in English is 8, e.g. incomprehensibility.

The question of syllabification (that is the division of a word into syllables) in English is controversial: different phoneticians hold different views about it. It is advisable to pay our attention to the following rules which are well spread in teaching in British and American schools:

1)–CVC/– Closed syllables have a short vowel with 1 to 3 consonants following it. Examples are: rob/in, nap/kin, kit/ten, hun/dred, in, ask, truck, sock, stretch, twelfth.

2)–/cLEConsonant-LE syllables are found at the end of a word and are divided before the consonant that comes before the LE. The vowel sound in these syllables is the schwa sound that occurs before the l. Examples are: no/ble, jun/gle, mar/ble.

3)–CV/– Open syllables have a vowel hanging open at the end of a syllable. The vowel usually has a long sound. "When a vowel is left open, it says its own name." Examples are: mo/ment, va/ca/tion, no, she, I, a, spry.

4)–CVVC/ or CV/VC– Double vowels can be a usual digraph, such as ee, ea, ai, oa, oo, au, ea, ie, ou, ui (more correctly these are vowel combinations composed of digraphs and diphthongs), which is not divided and the first vowel has a long sound; or a vowel-consonant unit with a sound or sounds particular to that unit. Double vowels that are not a usual combination, such as ia or eu, can be divided between the two vowels to make a multisyllable word, such as dial or museum. E.g. rain, day, see, veil, pie, piece, noise, toy, cue, and true.

5)–CVCESilent-E syllables can come in the middle of a word, but are usually found at the end of a word. Often the vowel preceding the silent e has a long sound. Examples are: in/vite, home/sick, in/ten/sive, ate, ice, tune, slope.

6)–CVR– R-controlled syllables have a vowel followed by an r or one vowel followed by an r which is followed by a silent e, or a vowel combination followed by an r and can be found in any syllable of a word. Examples include car, or, care, ire, air, and deer, car/pet, fur/ther/more, thir/sty.

The division of a word into syllables is called syllabification [11, xix]. It is generally agreed that phonetic syllable divisions must be such as to avoid (as far as possible) creating consonant clusters which are not found in words in isolation. Thus it may be argued that candy should be ['kæn. dI] or ['kaend. I] but not ['kæ. ndI] since [nd] is not a possible initial consonant cluster in English. This principle is called the phonotactic constraint (фонотактичное ограничение) on syllabification.

Syllable divisions in Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (LPD) by J. C. Wells are shown by spacing, e.g. playtime ['plei taim].

In English Pronouncing Dictionary (EPD) by Daniel Jones [10], syllable division is marked with a dot – [.] as recommended by the International Phonetic Association (the IPA), e.g. admirable ['æd.mər.ə.bl].

The following rules of phonetic (spoken) syllable division are adopted in LPD-2000:

1. A syllable boundary is found wherever there is a word boundary, and also coincides with the morphological boundary between elements in a compound:

displace [,dis 'pleis], become [bi 'к٨m], countless ['kaunt ləs], hardware ['ha:d weə].

2. The English diphthongs are unisyllabic, they make one vowel phoneme, while the so-called triphthongs are disyllabic, because they consist of a diphthong + the neutral vowel/schwa:

ta/ble CV-CS, sci/ence CV-VSC, flow/er CSV-V

3. The English affricates [ʧ], [ʤ] cannot be split: catching ['kæʧ-iŋ].

4. Split up words that have two middle consonants. For example: hap/pen, bas/ket, let/ter, sup/per, din/ner, and Den/nis. The only exceptions are the consonant digraphs "th", "sh", "ph", "th", "ch", and "wh". Never split up consonant digraphs as they really represent only one sound.

A most GENERAL RULE claims that division of words into syllables in writing is passed on the morphological principle which demands that the part of a word which is separated should be either a prefix, or a suffix or a root (morphograph), e.g. pic-ture ['pik-ʧə].

Compound words can be divided according to their meaning: hot-dog; spot-light.


Now we shall consider three functions of the syllable.

The first is constitutive function. It lies in its ability to be a part of a word itself. The syllables form language units of greater magnitude that is words, morphemes, and utterances. Within a syllable (or syllables) prosodic characteristics of speech are realized, which form the stress pattern of a word and the intonation structure of an utterance. In sum, the syllable is a specific minimal structure of both segmental and suprasegmental features.

The other function is distinctiveone. In this respect, the syllable is characterized by its ability to differentiate words and word-forms. One minimal pare has been found in English to illustrate the word distinctive function in the syllabic: ['nai-treit] nitrate – ['nait-reit] night-rate.

The third function of the syllable is the identificatory function: the listener can understand the exact meaning of the utterance only when the correct syllabic boundary is perceived:

an aim — a name, an ice house — a nice house, peace talks — pea stalks.

Sometimes the difference in syllabic division might be the basic ground for differentiation sentences in such minimal pairs as:

I saw her eyes. — I saw her rise.

I saw the meat. — I saw them eat.

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