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Syllables in phonology Report (Assessment)

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Syllables in phonology form the basic foundation upon which words are constructed for all languages. The main components of these syllables vary with different languages as well as from word to word. This paper looks at some of the properties of syllables, attributes of sound change and similarities between Arabic and English syllables.

The Main Components of the Syllable

A syllable refers to a rhythmic element of language that occurs to create an easy flow in the speech stream for the human brain to comprehend (Odden, 2005). It is often made up of parts also known as segments or components. Each word comprises one or more syllables.

A syllable has a structure that can be split into individual components. These components consist of rhyme and onset. The rhyme is further categorized into two elements. The nucleus is the first element, whereas the coda is the second element. It is worth noting that not all syllables contain these components and that there is a likelihood of the occurrence of a small syllable that is only made up of a nucleus.

The onset, which marks the beginning sound when pronouncing a syllable, comes before the nucleus. In English, the onset components of syllables are often consonants. However, some consonants such as n, m, l, r alongside the velar nasal sometimes constitute the nucleus within a syllable. An example of an onset in a syllable is ‘r’ in the word ‘read.’ In the event that a word is made up of more than one syllable, each individual syllable comprises the normal syllable parts. For instance, window is pronounced as win.dow.

Rhyme includes the remaining part of the syllable after the onset is pronounced. It is subdivided into nucleus and coda. The nucleus is the fundamental part of a syllable that is essential for the existence of the syllable. The nucleus often bears a high pitch and can be slightly louder than other parts of the syllable.

Vowels make up a large number of nuclei in syllables. However, the velar nasal (‘ng’), the nasals and the liquids sometimes form the nuclei of syllables in English words. The coda is the ultimate part of the syllable that comprises the last consonant or consonant group.

Here is an example of the syllable components of the word ‘read.’

Onset [r]
Rhyme [id]
Nucleus [i]
Coda [d]

The Difference between Marked and Unmarked Syllable Forms

A syllable form that is avoided in unconnected languages is thought to be marked in comparison to the syllables that are not avoided (Kager, 2004). Conversely, the syllables that are not avoided are seen as unmarked. Syllables without onsets are marked in comparison with syllables that have onsets.

Though syllables without onsets occur, they are predisposed to elimination. In addition, syllables that contain codas are more conspicuous than open syllables. Though every language permits the use of open syllables, some languages such as Shona do not allow the use of closed syllables. The languages that permit the application of codas syllabify VCV as V.CV.

Regressive and Progressive Assimilation

Assimilation refers to the progression of sound variation where a certain sound is prompted or transformed by other sounds (Ladefoged, 2006). It is a conventional phonological occurrence where one sound is influenced by other sounds. The process of assimilation can happen within one word or among several words. The assimilation can be regressive, progressive or from a distance.

In regressive assimilation, the change in a phoneme is influenced by another phoneme that occurs after the modified phoneme. Regressive assimilation is often referred to as anticipatory assimilation or right-to-left assimilation due to the nature of the modifying phonemes. The sound change in this form of assimilation occurs backwards. An example of a regressive assimilation is in the pronunciation of the words ‘have to.’ ‘Have’ in this case is pronounced as ‘haf’ and is influenced by the letter ‘t’ in ‘to.’

Progressive assimilation is different from regressive assimilation in that the modification takes place in the onward process. In some unique scenarios, the two assimilating sounds display mutual inspiration. Though assimilation often happens between adjoining phonemes, it can happen between phonemes that are split up by other sounds. This type of assimilation is referred to as assimilation from a distance.

Unconditioned versus Conditioned Sound Change

A sound change is an occurrence in phonology that is generally accepted by all people who subscribe to a language or dialect. Modifications in sounds progressively circulate from one speaker to another in a wavelike design until the changes are adopted by all users of the language or dialect. This implies that sound changes do not just occur spontaneously in all languages.

The dependence or independence between the phonological progression that generates the modification in sound and the phonetic background in which change occurs determine whether a sound change is conditioned or unconditioned. A conditioned change in sound, therefore, occurs in a process that depends on the phonetic environment. On the contrary, the occurrence of an unconditioned sound change is not dependent on the phonetic environment.

An example of a conditioned change in sound is in assimilation where two different sounds become similar or influence each other as they become close to each other. Conditional sound changes also include insertion, deletion and disambiguation of sounds depending on the phonetic environment.

An example of an unconditioned sound change is metathesis where the order of sound changes. Raising or lowering the position of the tongue produces variations in sounds. Metathesis can also be achieved by moving the tongue forward or backwards. An example is evident in the pronunciation of the word ‘pat.’

Similarities between English and Arabic Syllables

English and Arabic speeches consider syllables as phonological elements on which words are constructed (Ladefoged, 2006). The two languages regard the syllable as the foundational unit on which the sequence, stress patterns and prosody of a language are constructed. English phonology views the syllable as an intricate element comprising the nucleus and the coda.

The Arabic language views the syllable as a unit according to each language. This implies that every language possesses its unique arrangements of vowels and consonants among other characteristics such as stress, length and intonation.

In English and Arabic, the syllable is seen as a phonological element made up of a vowel, which produces the nucleus, and a consonant that forms the coda and the onset. Both languages treat codas and onsets as categories of sound that precede and follow the peak. While the English syllable comprises a consonant and a rhyme made up of a compulsory nucleus and an optional coda, the Arabic language regards the syllable as an organized balance of analytic elements that rely on consonants (sawamit) and vowels (sawait).

The vowel (in Arabic) takes the peak position between the consonants that act as bases for the syllable. However, the Arabic syllable is an essential element of the structure. Unlike English, Arabic does not perceive the syllable as an independent morpheme.


Syllables are important elements in phonology and in the development of any language. The components of syllables vary in different languages and assist in the pronunciation of certain words.


Kager, R. (2004). Optimality theory. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Ladefoged, P. (2006). A course in phonetics. Boston, MA: Thomson.

Odden, D. (2005). Introducing phonology: A practical course. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

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