Wednesday, 21 December 2011

nonfinal syllabic consonants

We usually exemplify the syllabic consonants of English with words that end in one, e.g. muddle ˈmʌdl̩, hidden ˈhɪdn̩.

Michael Rodeno asked
Is it possible to find syllabic sounds l, r, n, m in the middle or at the beginning of words?

Actually, if he’d consulted LPD he’d have seen that there I intentionally chose to illustrate the Syllabic Consonants article (p. 799) with the word suddenly ˈsʌd n li, which has a syllabic in the middle of a word.

There are plenty of other words with medial or : think sandals, muddled, saddleback, Middleton, battlefield, rattlesnake, vitally; frightened, gardens, woodenly, hadn’t, mightn’t, ardent, woodentop, Attenborough, Hottentot, gluttony, Gordonstoun, as well as the uncompressed versions of rattling, dawdling, Madeleine, Middleham, fattening, gardening, Tottenham, Sydenham etc.

A more useful way of describing the restricted distribution of syllabic consonants is not by reference to their position in the word, but by reference to their relationship to strong (= stressable) syllables: syllabic consonants typically follow them. That explains why syllabic consonants never occur in initial position in words in isolation.

For syllabic consonants in initial position, all I can offer are cases such as had a lot, had another if pronounced with no schwa, i.e. as hædl̩ɒt, hædn̩ʌðə. You readily get this in connected speech: I started early, because I had a lot to do before lunch. So I had another coffee and got cracking.

Is that ɡʊd n̩ʌf?

Syllabic consonants are never categorically required in English. There is always an alternative pronunciation available, with ə and a nonsyllabic consonant.

More on this topic tomorrow.


  1. Talking about English, not BrE, I would have mentioned that AmE NURSE and lettER are usually realized as a syllabic [ɹ̩], even in stressed and initial position, e.g. earn [ɹ̩ːn], murder [ˈmɹ̩ːdɹ̩].

  2. What about and at the beginning of a sentence? I think it ends up as syllabic quite a lot of the time.

  3. Not to mention the ancient city of Ur (AmE ɹ̩).

  4. In my accent (Northern Ireland) I have one disyllable with two consecutive syllabic Rs: mirror ˈmɹ̩ɹ̩. This contrasts only subtly with myrrh ˈmɹ̩ː, which has a single long vowel instead of two identical short ones. The distinction probably disappears in connected speech.

    The alternation between long and short syllabic R [ɹ̩]~[ɹ̩ː] is not phonemic but conditioned by the Scots Vowel Length Rule.

  5. You'd have the same for *myrrher (say, a myrrh merchant) as you have for mirror?

  6. I think I have [ɫ̩] in stressed syllables for both /ʊl/ and /ʌl/. Words like pull and dull are definitely homophones for me, and due to the spelling I only recently realized they weren't for others.

    (Midwest/rural US)

  7. Yes, I think myrrher would be a homophone of mirror, i.e. ˈmɹ̩ɹ̩ (or possibly ˈmɹ̩ːɹ̩). So that's quite unlike RP where the two are pronounced differently: 'məːɹə and 'mɪɹə.

    But I think these syllabic Rs are a bit different from what John's talking about, which was weak vowels. So apologies for going off topic.

    On another note, I don't think I've ever heard Tottenham pronounced uncompressed (except by Irish people and Americans, who would probably also pronounce the H). I think I'd argue that the word is pronounced ˈtɒtnəm and anything else is a spelling pronunciation.

  8. @Pete:

    I'd pronounce it /ˈtɒtənəm/, phonetically [ˈtɒtⁿn̩əm]. Don't think it's a spelling pronunciation.

    Those interested in syllabic Rs may want to take a look at the recent Language Log post on an Ohioan's pronounciation of "Career Center" (Google cache: the Language Log server seems to be down at the moment).

  9. I have syllabic consonants in isolated words (allegro speech is another matter) only at the end of a morpheme: consequently, ardent and Madeleine always have schwa. The contractions using -n't are an exception, and so is Hottentot, which "feels" like a morphemic boundary even though it isn't.

    As it happens, I don't have a syllabic consonant in sandals either, despite the morpheme boundary.

  10. Reply to initial post: I was just thinking about this this morning, as a possible pronunciation of family. So it's nice to see this post.

    Reply to first comment: Wouldn't nurse and earn be something different than a syllabic R, since the R in those words doesn't make a whole syllable? Vocalic R maybe?

  11. I normally begin such words as empower, enlist, election, erupt with V+C (V being usually my KIT vowel or my happY vowel, with the option of my DRESS vowel for extra clarity).

    Nevertheless, I think I could — in relaxed style with a familiar interlocutor — begin them with a syllabic consonant even outside the context John describes (within a phrase after a stressed syllable).

  12. @Ellen K;

    "Syllabic" in this context means "occurring as the syllable nucleus". It doesn't mean that the sound has to make up the entire syllable on its own.

    BTW, I would be unable to pronounce "family" with syllabic L because I have the unstressed KIT vowel, rather than schwa, in the second syllable. However, Barney, the children's dinosaur sings "family" with a quite prominent schwa in this word, which I always find a bit jarring :)

  13. @ dirck: I'm also from the Midwest. I'm from a small city in the Midland (as opposed to the North) dialect area. I also have pull and dull as rhymes. I might use a syllabic (vocalic?) [ɫ] in both words. I'll have to think about that.

    @ Pete: I didn't realize the SVLR applied to syllabic R as well. So it's long before a voiced fricative, /r/ or #, but otherwise short, right?

  14. @J Smith: The SVLR in Scotland doesn't normally apply to syllabic consonants because it only operates in accented syllables. But in NI there's a vocalic R (or an R-coloured vowel) which is subject to the SVLR.

    But yes, it works as you've described, except that /r/ doesn't trigger the long allophones in the NI version of the rule, I don't think.

  15. i tend to think of the syllabic consonants phenomenon in the middle or at the beginning of words as a style of a speech, rather than as the speech of native speakers (which always sounds like having a more less of the schwa+ assimilation(even the syllabic 'l' as in 'bottle' often sounds like as /əl/. If it is, then the question is whether not the schwa in the syllabic consonants environment is an allophone if schwa is not absolute phoneme.

  16. Am reminded of the fact that I and others pronounce "Kensington" as kɜŋzŋ̩tən which risks being mistaken for Kingston (particularly over the phone). But the pronunciation without the syllabic ŋ in the middle is very difficult for me to get my mouth around. Have no idea what proportion of speakers in different regions share my pronunciation.

  17. Somthing difficulty to imagine, unless you are having a sort /kɜŋz.ŋ̩.tən/ as [ˌkɜŋz.ˈŋ̩.tən]. Not sure though--just out of a quick thought without going in to its deeper.

  18. I have no idea why I appear to have typed ɜ instead of ɛ in my last comment. Probably lack of familiarity with the IPA keyboard I was using (in which they are adjacent buttons. The one I normally use wouldn't display the syllabic symbol under the ŋ.) Call it a typo.

    Nevillkumarfernando's point looks completely opaque from here.

  19. sorry. i just copied the mark without noticing it. yes, i see now. so you are right.

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