LINGUIST List 12.1895

Wed Jul 25 2001

Sum: Syllabic Consonants

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Zoe Toft, Syllabic Consonants

Message 1: Syllabic Consonants

Date: Wed, 25 Jul 2001 11:05:38 +0000
From: Zoe Toft <>
Subject: Syllabic Consonants

Dear all,

A couple of weeks back I posted a query on Linguist regarding syllabic 
consonants. Below I summarize the responses I received and the original 
request. Let me here thank all those who contacted me with suggestions and 
expressions of interest.

Zoe Toft
My original request went as follows:

<<I am a PhD student at the school of Oriental and African Studies in 
London, UK and am looking for references on languages with so called 
syllabic consonants. Bell (1978) cites 85 languages with syllabic consonants 
but some of his original sources have been liberally interpreted for 
inclusion in this category and very few provide any sort of phonetic data 
(which is not surprising given the age of many of his sources). Therefore I 
am trying to update his database and would appreciate your input. Blevins 
(1995:220) provides a table on the parametric variation in syllabic 
segments, ranging from Kabardian, which only allows non high vowels as 
syllabic segments, to Imdlawn Tashlhiyt Berber which allows all types of 
segments, including fricatives and stops, to be syllabic segments. I would 
like to find more examples for inclusion in her table: Do you know of 
languages which allow for rhotic but not lateral or nasal sonorants as 
syllabic constituents (cf Sanskrit)? Or languages which allow for fricative 
syllabic consonants, but not stops (cf Dakelh/Carrier)?. I would be 
particularly interested to hear of a language where voicing plays a role in 
the potential of a segment to be syllabic: if we accept a general version of 
the sonority hierarchy (e.g. Katamba 1989:104), voiced segments are more 
sonorant than voiceless ones and thus one could conceive of a language 
which, for example, allows voiced fricative syllabic stops but not voiceless 
ones. Please send suggestions and references to me at:>>

James Fidelholtz suggested I consider interjections in English such as 
'pst', 'bzz', 'humph' /[Mm] when considering any difference in voicing with 
respect to syllabic consonants

John Frampton pointed me towards a paper of his called "SPE Extensions" 
which can be found at .

Yuri Kleiner remarked that ' practically any consonant can become syllabic 
in a less sonorant environment, e.g. /s/ in German PST! This has been known, 
at least, since Otto Jespersen. Even here, however, we ought to discern 
between the true syllabic consonants as in Czech BRNO (dissyllabic, stressed 
on the FIRST SYLLABLE) and cases like English (a) BOTTLE (syllabic l varying 
with schwa + l; likewise in German), (b) CODDLE and (c) TUMBLE (syllabicity 
retained in CODDLING and lost in TUMBLING; cf. Russian where the behaviour 
of the syllabic consonant in words like P'OTR - P'ETRA is similar to TUMBLE 
- TUMBLING, rather than CODDLE - CODDLING). As we can see, [+/- syylabicity] 
of the consonant, besides its phonetic chrarctristics (probably more or less 
universal) depends on the structure of the syllable, which is invariably 
language specific. Therefore any typology that does not take this into 
account is doomed to be misleading,' and referred me to an article of his: 
"The Privileged Position a Quarter Century Later." In: Kurt Gustav 
Goblirsch, Martha Berryman Mayou, and Marvin Taylor (eds.), Germanic Studies 
in Honor of Anatoly Libermans^1.s^0 North-Western European Language Evolution 
(NOWELE) 31-32. Odense: Odense University Press, 1997. Pp. 157-73. >>

Max Wheeler suggested John Coleman's article 'The phonetics and phonology of 
Tashlhiyt Berber syllabic consonants', Transactions of the Philological 
Society 99.1, 2001, 29-64, where Coleman argues against the claim that 
Tashlhiyt has many syllabic consonants.

Daniel Recasens told me that Majorcan Catalan (a dialect of Catalan spoken 
in the Balearic islands) has syllabic r and l word finally and that these 
consonants may be preceded by a stop or the fricative /f/. (Illustrative 
examples would be entr 'I go in', dobl 'I double'..) He has carried out some 
experimental work in order to find out about the voicing and syllabic status 
of these consonants using electropalatography and acoustics and has a paper 
on the subject.

Willem Visser pointed me towards a chapter on syllabic consonants in Frisian 
in his doctoral thesis 'The Syllable in Frisian (HIL Dissertations; 30), 
Holland Academic Graphics, The Hague, 1997, ISBN: 90-5569-030-9.'
Johannes Reese pointed me towards German and related languages like Low 
Saxon, Dutch, German dialects, Danish where nasals and laterals occur as 
syllable nuclei in reduced syllables. 'There are numerous examples of 
fricatives which break the sonority hierarchy, but are nevertheless included 
into the syllable, as in Stein [StaIn] `stone' or "Herbsts" [hE5psts] `of 
the autumn'.'

Christopher Miller wrote 'Serb/Croat is such a language: whereas Czech 
allows both syllabic /r/ and /l/ (e.g. trh '(market) square' and vlk "wolf", 
Serb/Croat only allows syllabic /r/, cf. trg '(market) square' but vuk 
instead of etymological vlk. (I give only a single example for each but the 
correspondences are quite regular across the two languages.) Neither 
language allows syllabic nasals. Mandarin Chinese may be another example, 
cf. the final retroflex -(e)r suffix and the retroflex realisation of 
orthographic <i> after (Pinyin) orthographic ch, zh, sh and r; it would also 
be worthwhile to consult relevant sources about the curious semifricative 
realisation of the same phoneme after c, z, and s.'

Alex Monaghan thought that Czech sounded as if it allowed voiced fricatives 
to be syllabic (but not voiceless ones, and not stops). However, to the best 
of my knowledge, descriptions of Czech restrict the set of syllabic 
consonants to /l/, /r/ and marginally /m/.
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