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The Syllabic Structure of English Words

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Phonemes usually occur in sequences. Sound sequences are pronounced in such a way, that not all the sounds are uttered with the same degree of force, the energy with which we articulate alternately increases and diminishes. Certain sounds are pronounced louder than the other ones. When we listen to the word even we’ll hear a distinct rise of prominence and loudness in pronouncing the [i:] sound. Several theories have been created to explain the mechanism of syllabic formation. Some explained the phenomenon of syllable formation by muscular tension impulses (L.V. Shcherba), some proclaimed a “loudness theory” (N.I. Zhinkin), others describe it as “sonority theory” (O.Jesperson).

This phenomenon can be analyzed on phonetic (the way we produce them) and phonological (the way phonemes are combined) levels. Phonetically a syllable is a sound sequence, consisting of a centre which has little or no obstruction to airflow and which sounds comparatively loud; before and after this centre there will be greater obstruction to airflow and less loud sound. In pronouncing a syllable the energy of articulation increases until it reaches its climax - the most energetically articulated sound - the syllabic phoneme (or the nucleus), one or more phonemes that follow it (the coda) are pronounced with less energy, the weakest articulation marks the boundary between two syllables. Some syllables have an onset – sounds that precede the nucleus, as in bar, key, law. There is no syllable without the nucleus, the presence of the onset and coda is optional. Usually the nucleus is a vowel, though in some languages this function can be performed by a consonant. In English, for example, the sonorants [l-m-n] can become syllabic if they occur in an unstressed final position preceded by a noise consonant, as in ˈgarden, ˈsettle, ˈtable.

A syllable may consist of one phoneme or a number of phonemes. Four types of syllables are distinguished in English according to the number and the arrangement of sounds:

1) open – no, he, be (CV)

2) closed – odd, it, is (VC)

3) covered – coat, mark, sat CV(C)

4) uncovered – are, or, err V(C)[1]

is called phonotactics. There are some universal and language-specific rules of phonotactics. In English the syllable can begin with a vowel, one, two or three consonants. No syllable begins with more than three consonants. The syllable may end with a vowel, or with one, two, three or four consonants. No word ends with more than four consonants. The consonant [ŋ] never begins and [w] never terminates the syllable. If there is a long vowel or a diphthong, or more than one consonant in the rhyme (nucleus + coda), the syllable is called heavy or long, for example, ˈbeauty, aˈttempt, aˈnnoy. Heavy syllables attract stress in English. The syllables with a short vowel without a consonant are called light or short, and they are normally unstressed.

The basic difference between Russian and English syllables is that the closed syllable is the fundamental one for the English language, while in Russian the most common type of syllable is the open one. This fact is proved by experimental data. In the Russian language there is a close contact between the onset consonant and the nucleus, in English the contact is closer between the nucleus and the following coda consonants. This difference is the source of mistakes of Russian learners in pronouncing English words, as in English short vowels should be checked (compare funny, city [ˈfʌn-ɪ, ˈsɪt-ɪ] \ Си-ти, Фа-ня). Besides such clusters of consonants at the end of a word as in “text, seventh” are unfamiliar to Russians as well. Here care should be taken not to insert a vowel between these consonants in learning English pronunciation.

There are still problems with the phonetic description of the syllable, and one of the most urgent is syllable division or rather its place. Let’s look at the word extra. There are 5 possible ways of dividing it into syllables:






In such cases the maximum onsets principle is applied. This principle states that where two syllables are to be divided, any consonants between them should be attached to the right-hand syllable as far as possible. In our case according to the rules of phonotactics in English (the syllables can’t begin with four consonants) it is [ek-strə].

In dividing an English word into syllables one should also remember that syllables with a short vowel and no coda do not occur in English (unless the vowel is [ə]). So the syllable division in such words as sorry, pressure, letter will be [ˈsɒr-ɪ], [ˈpreʃ-ə], [ˈlet-ə].

Now let’s consider the functions of the syllable. The most important are two functions – constitutive and distinctive.

1. Constitutive function. The syllable is either a part of a word or a word itself. It forms language larger units - morphemes, words and utterances. It is also a minimal prosodic unit in which prosodic features of pitch, length and loudness are realised. It is a specific minimal structure of both segmental and suprasegmental phonetics: on the one hand within a syllable the distinctive features of the phonemes and their acoustic correlates are revealed. On the other hand within a syllable prosodic characteristics of speech are realised, which form the stress-pattern of a word and the rhythmic and intonation structures of an utterance.

2. The other function of the syllable is its distinctive function. The syllable has the ability of differentiating words and word-forms. Depending on the syllabic boundary we can distinguish between the minimal pairs: an aim - a name; I scream – ice-cream, might rain – my train. As it has been mentioned already, the realization of the phoneme in different positions in a syllable results in different allophones, which makes it possible to differentiate the meaning of words, word combinations and utterances.

Russian learners of English should be well aware of these regularities and peculiarities of English syllables, as the wrong syllable division can lead to inadequate perception of phrases and misunderstanding.

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Stylistic modifications of sounds | The Accentual Structure of English Words

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