On Syllable-based Phonotactics and the Source of Syllabic Intuitions

Donca Steriade, UCLA Linguistics Department

November 17, 1998


Syllable structure is postulated in an effort to explain in unified fashion three distinct domains of facts:

  • Syllabic Intuitions:  Speakers appear to have reliable knowledge of syllable count and syllable divisions
  • Prosodic Peaks:  Some recurrent strings of segments attract tone, stress and metrical ictus in a way that suggests the existence of syllabic constituent such as heavy rimes.
  • Phonotactics:  The range of possible segment sequences within words is locally limited in ways that also lend itself to analysis in terms of syllabic units.

             The prevalent view on this is that constraints on possible syllables largely determine the phonotactic structure of words: e.g. when a CCC cluster is impossible that is attributed to the fact that it cannot be parsed into a  coda plus onset sequence.  Similar is the idea that the composition of consonant clusters is determined by the law that codas license fewer contrasts relative to onsets (cf. Goldsmith 1990 for a general formulation of this view.)

      A successful hypothesis regarding syllable structure is one that provides representations and constraints consistent with the data in (a)-(c).  In the first part of this talk I argue that  the study of syllabic intuitions can progress better if we assume that the phonotactics are largely independent of syllable structure:  it is not coda, onset or syllable alignment constraints that yield a successful analysis of phonotactic restrictions.  Rather the key to an understanding of segmental phonotactics are syllable-independent conditions that focus on the distribution of perceptual correlates to the features that compose the segments.

    In the second part, I suggest that when faced with a task of syllable division, speakers rely on a mix of several types of linguistic knowledge, none of which represent knowledge of syllabic organization laws per se.  These are:  phonotactic knowledge (in particular knowledge of possible word beginnings and ends), phonetic knowledge (knowledge of the coarticulatory effects neighboring segments have on each other), and  the uniformity assumption (one segment in the undivided word must correspond to exactly one segment in the syllabically divided output).