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Theories of Syllables

  1. The Expiratory Theory.
  2. The Prominence Theory.
  3. The Muscular Tension Theory. Peculiarities of the Syllabic structure of thy English language.
  4. Functions of the Syllable.

In connected speech sounds are not pronounced by “themselves”. It is practically impossible to draw articulatory boundaries between them. If we slow down the tempo of utterance & articulate the sounds distinctly we shall see that the smallest unit into which the speech continuum is divided, are syllables.

The boundaries between the consonant & the vowel are not clearly marked. On the contrary, boundaries between syllables are marked by the alternation of openings & closings in sound production &, as a result, by the alternation of increases & 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 Russian linguists L. Chistovitch, V. Kozhevnikov, Z. Dzhaparidze, show that the listener can recognize the preceding sound only after he has analyzed the whole syllable.

A syllable can be considered as both a phonetic & a phonological unit. As a phonetic unit the syllable is defined in articulatory, auditory (perceptual) & acoustic terms with universal application for all languages.

As a phonological unit the syllable can be defined 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 syllable, “smth. Taken together”, from syn., “together” & labein, “take”).

The ancient Greek scholars noticed that the two main phonological types of sounds – vowels & 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 smth.” Con+sonant).

In other words, vowels are always syllabic & consonants are incapable of forming syllables without vowels.

But in a number of languages some sonorous consonants, such as /n, l, r, m/, can also be syllabic bec. of their strong vocalic features, e.g. in Czech – “krk” (neck), “vlk” (wolf) & in English “garden” / ga:-dn /, “needn’t” / ni:-dnt/, “castle” / kas:-sl/, “lighten” / lai-tn /.

So, phonologically, the syllable is a structural unit, which consists of a vowel alone or of vowel (or a syllabic sonorant) surrounded by consonants in the numbers &

arrangement permitted by a given language. Phoneticians are not always in agreement in their definition of the syllable bec. in their analysis they proceed from either articulatory or acoustic aspects of the unit.

One of the ancient phonetic theories – the expiratory (chest pulse) theory – define 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 vowels 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, & 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, e.g. in “seeing” / si:-in /, though such words consist of two syllables.

The relative sonority theory (the prominence) created by the Danish phonetician O. Jesperson, considers that sounds tend to group themselves according to their sonority (prominence, audibility or carrying power). The most sonorous sounds are vowels, less sonorous are sonorants / w, j, r, m, n, n / & the least sonorous are noise consonants. O. Jesperson classifies sounds according to the degree of sonority in the following way (beginning with the most sonorous):

1. Open vowels / /

2. Mid-Open vowels / /

3. Close vowels / i:, i, , u: /

4. Sonants / /

5. Voiced fricatives / /

6. Voiced stops / b, d, g /

7. Voiceless fricatives / f, , s /

8. Voiceless stops / p, t, k /.

Sounds are grouped around the most sonorous ones, i.e. vowels (& sometimes sonants) which from the peak of sonority in a syllable. One peak of sonority is separated from another peaks by sounds of lower sonority i.e. consonants. This distance between the 2 points of lower sonority is a syllable, e.g. / k – to - b / “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 / & the word is monosyllabic. In the word / metl / “metal” there are two peaks of sonority - / e / and / l /, separated by the least sonorous / t /, & consequently, there are two peaks.

In Czech words like “vlk”, “krk” & in English “pst” the sounds / l, r, s / are sonorous peaks. But there are cases that contradict Jesperson’s theory e.g. / sta: / “star”, / skeit / “skate”, / nekst / “next”. In these words the sound / s / is more sonorous than / t / & / k / & forms the second peak of sonority. Yet, the words are monosyllabic. It is evident that the relative sonority theory doesn’t 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 doesn’t say to which syllable the less sonorous sounds belong, e.g. / n aism n / “an ice-man” & / nais m n / “a nice man”, / n eim / “an aim” & / neim/ “a name”, / s m dresiz / “some addresses” & / s m dresiz / “summer dresses”.

Nevertheless, the relative sonority theory has been accepted by D. Jones & some other phoneticians.


The widespread among Russian linguists is the muscular tension (or the articulatory effort) theory which is known as Scherba’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) & 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 lower articulatory energy. There are as many syllables in a word as there are maxima of muscular tension in it. Cf. / ta: / “tar” & / ta: / “tower” (a reduced variant of / ta /). The sound / a:/ in the second example is pronounced with two articulatory efforts, so there are 2 arcs of muscular tension & therefore, 2 syllables. Consonants within a syllable are characterized by different distribution of muscular tension. In accordance with this, L. Shcherba distinguishes the following 3 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. / I|t /, / |s /, / pi|n /, / s |d /, / pa:|t/.

  1. 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. / m|I /, / t|ai /, / p|a:t /, / s| d /.
  2. Double peaked consonants, in the articulation of which both the beginning & the end are energetic whereas the middle is weak. They produce the impression of two consonants. These consonants occur at the junction of words or morphemes. E.g. / pe|nn|aif /, / tt|aim /, / mi|dd|ei/. The type of consonant is therefore a cue for syllable division. If in / nais ha s/, the sound / n / is initially strong, the syllabic boundary is after the /n / - / n ais ha s /. If the sound / n / is finally strong, the boundary is before it - / nais ha s /. In other words, if there is a new onset of muscular tension on the sound / n /, the latter belongs to the second syllable, & if the new onset of muscular tension is on / ai /, the sound / n / belongs to the first syllable.

The above theories define syllables 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 Zhinkin, showed that the organ immediately responsible for the variations in loudness of a syllable in the pharynx. The narrowing of the pharyngeal passage & 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 variations of all the speech mechanisms are involved. So on the speech production level the correlate of “arc of loudness” is “the arc of articulatory effort” (the latter term is suggested by V. A. Vassilyev).

The acoustic aspect of the syllable has been studied by E. Zwirner, R. Jacobson & M. Halle. According to the results obtained, the peak of the syllable (a vowel or sonant) has a higher intensity than its consonants & in many cases a higher fundamental frequency. Perceptually, the peak is louder & higher in pitch. These acoustic features easily agree with physiological definition of the syllable as an arc of articulatory effort (muscular tension).

In analyzing the above theories of the syllable, we cannot but agree with the scholar 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 syll. boundaries.

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