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Syllabification and allophony.

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Syllabification and allophony


In his complete revision of Daniel Jones’s English Pronouncing Dictionary (1977), Gimson did away with the hyphen symbol which Jones had considered ‘necessary ... [as] a means of showing “syllable separation” ... in all circumstances where the absence of suitable marking might lead to ambiguity in the interpetation of a phonetically transcribed word’ (Jones 1963: xxvi). Thus in the twelfth edition, his last, Jones transcribed toe-strap as /ˈtəʊ-stræp/ but toast-rack as /ˈtəʊst-ræk/. In Gimson’s revision these words appear simply as /ˈtəʊstræp, ˈtəʊstræk/. While recognising that ‘the situation of the syllable division (juncture) has implications for the duration and quality of the sounds involved’, Gimson justifies his decision on the grounds that ‘such divisions and their implications for pronunciation are generally evident from the orthography and from the meaningful segmentation (morpheme boundaries) of the word’ (Jones 1977: xiv).

I think this decision was unfortunate. Not only did it mean the removal of information which is undoubtedly part of the specification of a word’s pronunciation, but it also made it impossible to show competing pronunciations that differ only in syllabification. Jones was able to indicate that the word teaspoon is commonly pronounced in RP as if it were monomorphemic: he gave /ˈtiːspuːn/ as the first pronunciation, /ˈtiː-spuːn/ only as a less common variant. Under Gimson’s revision this information disappeared from the dictionary. Another of Jones’s examples is shellfish /ˈʃel-fiʃ/, where the /l/ ‘is treated as if it were final and is consequently pronounced long’, while the absence of any hyphen in selfish /ˈselfiʃ/ implies that the /l/ ‘is not so treated, but is short’ on account of the presence of the following /f/ (1963: xxvii).

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 ‘wield, wave’ /ˈbrænd.ɪʃ/) than when a following consonant is in a separate syllable (bran-dish ‘dish for bran’ /ˈbræn.dɪʃ/).

The main syllabification principle

If allophonic rules are to be allowed to refer to syllable boundaries as part of their conditioning environments, we need a principled way of specifying the location of such boundaries. I propose that English syllabification is governed by a straightforward principle:

(1) Subject to certain conditions (discussed below), consonants are syllabified with the more strongly stressed of two flanking syllables.

Thus the /k/ in packet belongs to the first, stressed, syllable. This analysis is supported by its homophony with pack it: both are /ˈpæk.ɪt/. The /f/ of dolphin belongs in the first syllable: /ˈdɒlf.ɪn/ has the same rhythm as selfish /ˈself.ɪʃ/, where this division is supported by the morphology. The /p/ in happy belongs in the first syllable, as evidenced by its relative lack of aspiration and by the pre-fortis clipping of the /æ/: /ˈhæp.ɪ/. Both the /n/ and the /t/ of enter belong in the first syllable, since the /t/ triggers clipping of both the /e/ and the /n/. The /p/ of typing /ˈtaɪp.ɪŋ/ conditions clipping of its syllable-mate /aɪ/: compare tiepin, where the /p/ exerts no such influence. (Such clipping of the /aɪ/ as there is in this latter word falls under the different heading of ‘rhythmic clipping’, the isochronising effect of unstressed syllables on a preceding stressed syllable.)

Similarly, crisis is /ˈkraɪs.ɪs/: compare rising /ˈraɪz.ɪŋ/, with a lenis syllable-final consonant, hence less clipping. The rhythmic difference between hearty /ˈhɑːt.ɪ/ and hardy /ˈhɑːd.ɪ/ has the same explanation, and is to be referred to the durational difference between heart and hard. In driver /ˈdraɪv.

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competitive, for example, has a stressed syllable /pe/; but American writers, alert to the implications for /t/ allophones, correctly insist on /.ˈpet./ (see, for example, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary). Grunwell (1982) assumes, equally without justification, that a word such as better is /ˈbe.tə/.

A more sophisticated idea is that a ‘left-captured’ consonant such as the /t/ in better is ambisyllabic, belonging to both syllables simultaneously (Kahn 1976: 33; Gussenhoven 1986). This notion has a respectable origin in the phonetic approach to the syllable in terms of sonority: the intervocalic consonant represents a trough of sonority and ‘belongs’ to neither peak. In modern terms, ambisyllabicity may be felt to allow us to satisfy at the same time both the putative universal preference for CV.CV and the overwhelming allophonic arguments in favour of CVC.V. The principle of Occam’s razor, though, shows that ambisyllabicity is not a useful concept. Those who believe in an absolute universal preference for unchecked (open) syllables must, I believe, accept that in English this can at best be true only of deeply abstract representations, and that by the level at which allophonic conditioning becomes relevant a resyllabification rule must have come into operation, namely the principle I propose. And this is uneconomical, since a word such as additive, morphologically /æd+ɪt+ɪv/, would have to have been switched to phonological /ˈæ.dɪ.tɪv/ before surfacing again as [ˈæd.ɪt.ɪv]. There may be occasions when the Duke of York gambit is necessary (Pullum 1976), but I do not believe this is one of them.


My debt not only to Jones and Gimson but also to Fudge and Kahn must be self-evident, even though I frequently do not agree with them. Gussenhoven (1986) was published only after I had already delivered the UCL staff seminar paper of which this article is a version; I am delighted to see that our thoughts are along the same lines.

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