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Theory of phonetics.doc
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II. Syllable division.

Syllable formation in English is based on the phonological opposition vowel – consonant. Vowels appear to be syllabic, while consonants do not, with the exception of [l], [m], [n] which become syllabic if they occur in an unstressed final position preceded by a noise consonant. For example, little ['litl], blossom ['blPsqm], garden ['gRdn].

In English there are distinguished four types of syllables:

1) open




2) closed




3) covered




4) uncovered

oh, oak

[EV], [EVk]


As it was told the English language has developed the closed type of syllable as the fundamental one while in Russian it is the open type that forms the basis of syllable formation. The number of syllable varies from the point of view of their structure is 23. The structure of the English syllable reveals variations in the number of pre-vocalic consonants from 1 to 3 and post-vocalic consonants from 1 to 5.

As for the number of syllables in the English word it can vary from one to eight. For example, come ['kAm], Ricky ['rIkI], family ['fxmIlI], simplicity [sIm'plIsItI], unnaturally [An'nxCqrqlI], incompatibility ['InkPm"pxtI'bIlItI], unintelligibility ['AnIn"telIGI'bIlItI]. The syllabic division determines the syllabic structure of the language, its syllabic typology. The sounds of language can be grouped into syllables according to certain rules.

The part of phonetics that deals with this aspect of a language is called phonotactics. Phonotactic possibilities of a language determine the rules of syllable division. In the English language the problem of syllable division exists only in case of intervocalic consonants and their clusters like in the words city ['sItI], agree [q'gri:], extra ['ekstrq] and others. In such cases the point of syllable division is not easily found. Theoretically two variants are possible:

  1. the point of syllable division is after the intervocalic consonant;

  2. the point of syllable division is inside the consonant.

Let’s consider the first word “city”. The first syllable remains closed according to phonotactic rules of the English language, because the short vowel should remain checked. The results of instrumental analysis show that the point of syllable division in words like pity ['pItI], topic ['tPpIk], measure ['meZq], Bobby ['bPbI] is inside the intervocalic consonant. Comparing with Russian the stressed syllable in the structure (C)VCV(C) is always open in Russian. For example, у-ши, мя-та, о-бувь, while in English this kind of syllable is always closed if the syllabic vowel is short and checked.

Let’s examine another type of intervocalic consonant clusters – VCCV(C). For example, agree [q'gri:], abroad [q'brLd]. The words should be divided into syllables in the following way: [q - 'gri:], [q - 'brLd]. Because such combinations of consonants as [gr], [br] are permissible initial clusters for the English language. On the other hand, there are clusters that can never be found in the word initial position and consequently should be broken by syllabic boundary. For example, admire [qd - 'maI], abhor [qb-'hL].

In cases when there are more than three intervocalic consonants the natural way of syllable division is such: extra ['ek - strq]. It is fixed in dictionaries.

The constitutive function of the syllable is its ability to be a part of a word or a word itself. The syllable forms language units of greater magnitude, that is morphemes, words and utterances. We should emphasize two things:

  1. the syllable is the unit within which the relations between the distinctive features of the phonemes and their acoustic correlates are revealed;

  2. within a syllable (or a sequence of syllables) prosodic characteristics of speech are realized, which form the stress pattern of a word and the rhythmic and intonation structures of an utterance. In sum, the syllable is a specific minimal structure of both segmental and suprasegmental features.

The distinctive function of the syllable lies in its ability to differentiate words and word-forms. For example,

an aim [qn - 'eIm] – a name [q - 'neIm]

nitrate [naI - 'treIt] – night-rate ['naIt - 'reIt]

mice kill ['maIs – 'kIl] – my skill [maI - 'skIl]

an ice house [qn - 'aIs - 'haus] – a nice house [q - 'naIs - 'haus]

peace talks ['pi:s - 'tLks] – pea stalks ['pi: - 'stLks]

plate rack ['pleIt - 'rxk] – play track ['pleI - 'trxk]

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. or even – I saw them meet.

The majority of phoneticians regard the length of the syllabic vowel to be a defining characteristic of the syllable. It has been proved experimentally that the duration of a vowel increases when a rising nuclear tone occurs within it. In such cases the vowel becomes free enough to indicate the syllabic boundary line:

Isn’t this day hotter?

The days are getting hotter.

Thus the syllable could be conceived as a smallest pronounceable unit with potential linguistic importance. We should arrest our attention at the following peculiarities of the syllabic structure of English:

  1. syllabic boundary is inside intervocalic consonant preceded by vowels. For example, Nelly, bucket, bigger, body;

  2. syllabic boundary is before an intervocalic consonant if it is not preceded the above-mentioned vowels. For example, later, speaker;

  3. the sonorants [l], [m], [n] are syllabic if they are preceded by noise consonants. For example, kettle, sudden, blossom;

  4. there can’t be more than one vowel (a diphthong or a monophthong) within one syllable;

  5. the typical and most fundamental syllabic structure is of (C)VС type;

  6. word final consonants are normally of weak-end type.

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