LINGUIST List 15.289

Mon Jan 26 2004

Sum: Onsetless Syllables

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Katalin Balogne Berces, Sum: Onsetless syllables

Message 1: Sum: Onsetless syllables

Date: Sun, 25 Jan 2004 15:31:42 -0500 (EST)
From: Katalin Balogne Berces <>
Subject: Sum: Onsetless syllables

Dear Linguists,

Quite a few months ago (sorry for posting the summary so late!) I had
a query that went like this (Linguist 14.1652):

I would like to collect information on the cross-linguistic
distribution and behaviour of vowel-initial syllables. For example, is
there any implicational relationship between the occurrence of
word-initial and word-medial ones, e.g., do you always have hiatuses
in languages with vowel-initial words? Or, do you know of any cases
where vowel-initial words behave in a special way?

First I would like to thank all those who replied, irrespective of
whether I am mentioning their names below or not. Here is the summary
of the replies.

Joaquim Brandao de Carvalho describes European Portuguese as having
frequent initial onsetless syllables but virtually no hiatuses since
they were eliminated during the history of the language. He also
expresses his hopes that there is no language which allows hiatuses
but not #V-syllables, and refers me to his paper where this is an
issue of the model of syllable structure proposed:

Carvalho, Joaquim Brandao de (2002). Formally-grounded phonology. From
constraint-based theories to theory-based constraints. Studia
linguistica 56, 227-263. [esp. p. 245, note 5].

Philip Carr writes: In Standard Malay, glottal stop insertion occurs
when a vowel-initial word is preceded by a vowel-final word, in
compounds, in reduplicated words and in sequences of words which form
syntactic phrases. Word-internally, when a prefix ending in a vowel is
attached to a vowel-initial root, a glottal stop is inserted. When a
vowel-initial suffix is added to a root ending in a high vowel, Glide
Formation takes place. If the root ends in a non-high vowel, a glottal
stop is inserted. Interestingly, Glide Formation doesn't take place
when a prefix ending in a high vowel is followed by a vowel-initial
root; rather, there's a glottal stop.

Rod Casali did his dissertation on hiatus resolution and says that
there are many languages that freely tolerate word-initial vowels and
yet do not have word-medial vowel sequences (or have such sequences
only under very restricted circumstances, e.g. where a consonant drops
out between two medial vowels) and moreover apply some means
(e.g. vowel deletion, glide formation, coalescence) of avoiding vowel
sequences that would arise in cases where underlying vowels are
adjacent across word or morpheme boundaries. (Many of the Niger-Congo
languages he looked at in his dissertation fall into this category,
just like the Amazonian languages Paumari and Banaw� Daniel L. Everett
refers me to.) Rod also points out that in the optimality theory
literature, some have argued that the constraint that drives hiatus
resolution is not a general constraint (ONSET) against onsetless
syllables, but a constraint against vowel sequences (*VV).

Unfortunately a few of you misunderstood my questions, and sent
information about languages that are/can be analysed as not having
onsets or having VC as the preferred syllable type. Although this is a
little bit beyond my topic, I'm providing the sources you referred me
to just in case anybody reading this is interested in this aspect of
the issue.

In the inventory of linguistic universals/rarities collected under the
direction of Frans Plank at Konstanz University, this specific problem
is mentioned under the heading 101 at:

The source of this item was Pier Marco Bertinetto, who was kind enough
to send me the link as well as a paper of his on the same topic. I'm
willing to forward it to anyone interested, but let me warn you that
it is written in Italian.

Anna Bosch provided the following titles:

Sommer, Bruce A. 1970. An Australian language without CV syllables.
International Journal of American Linguistics [IJAL] 36.

for a counterargument, see:

Darden, Bill. 1971. A note on Sommer's claim that there exist
languages without CV syllables. IJAL 37.

Borgstrom, C.H. 1937. The Dialect of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
Norsk Tidskrift for Sprogvidenskap, 8, Oslo.

Bosch, Anna. 1998a. "The Syllable in Scottish Gaelic Dialect Studies,"
Scottish Gaelic Studies XVIII, 1-22.

Bosch, Anna & Kenneth de Jong. 1998b. "Syllables and Supersyllables:
Evidence for Low Level Phonological Domains." Texas Linguistic Forum
41: Exploring the Boundaries Between Phonetics and Phonology, 1-14.

Bosch, Anna, & Kenneth de Jong. 1997. "The Prosody of Barra Gaelic
Epenthetic Vowels." Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 27, 1-15.

1994. "Syncope and Epenthesis in Scottish Gaelic: Rules and
Phonotactics." Proceedings from the Fourth Annual Meeting of the
Formal Linguistics Society of Midamerica, 35-47.

Angela Carpenter provided the following titles:

Lichtenberk, Frantisek 1983. A grammar of Manam. Oceanic Liguistics
Special Publications 18. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Davis, Stuart 1988. Syllable onsets as a factor in stress rules.
Phonology 5, pg. 1-19

Breen, G and R. Pensalfini 999. Arrernete: A language with no
syllable onsets. Linguistic Inquiry 30, pg. 1-25

(The bibliography in the Breen & Pensalfini paper might be especially
helpful, as Angela remarks.)

Thank you all again for this much help, and let me use this occasion
to ask further questions. I'm still looking for examples of languages
with unresolved hiatuses but no vowel-initial words (do such languages
exist?) and cases where vowel-initial words behave in a special way,
e.g. what examples of cross-word resyllabification/ambisyllabicity are
there? I'm fully aware of the story of English t/d-tapping/flapping,
but how about other languages?

Best regards,
Katalin Balogn� B�rces
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