American English Phonetics

Another American English Faculty Project

If we apply MOP to the words happy, later, latex, bottle, after, we arrive at the following syllabifications: /(hæ)(pi)/, /(leɪ)(tər)/, /(leɪ)(tɛks)/, /(bɑː)(təl)/, (æf)(tər)/. Observe that the fortis stops /p/ and /t/ are syllable-initial in all four words. In fact, this represents their pronunciation in an artificially careful style of speech. In all styles other than the most careful a further syllabification rule will apply. This is the Weak Syllable Principle (WSP). It says: add the first consonant of the onset of a weak syllable to the preceding syllable, if this results in a well-formed coda. The idea is that a consonant that has undergone the Weak Syllable Principle will be both in the coda of one syllable and in the onset of the next. For example, the /p/ in happy, the /s/ in extra and the /t/ in entry will be ambisyllabic (as opposed to a unisyllabic). In order to indicate its dual membership, we will indicate the syllable structure of words with ambisyllabic consonants as follows: /(hæ(p)i)/, /(ˈɛk(s)trə/, /(ˈɛn(t)ri)/. This notation is intended to mean that happy, for instance, consists of the two syllables /hæp/ and /pi/, and that the /p/ of /hæp/ and the /p/ of /pi/ are one and the same consonant.

Notice that both the MOP and the WSP do not apply if the result is not a possible English onset (MOP) or coda (WSP).

For example, Bedford will be syllabified as /(ˈbɛd)(fərd)/ by the MOP, because */df-/ is not a possible onset. Similarly, the WSP would not apply to this word, because */-df/ is not a possible coda: no English word could begin with /df-/ or end in /-df/.

What is a ‘weak’ syllable? Recall that the syllables of English come in two kinds: strong (or ‘full’ or ‘unreduced’ or ‘stressed’), and weak (or ‘reduced’, or ‘unstressed’). Words that end in GA /i, oʊ, ə/ have weak final syllables, like happy, fellow, villa. (Some words have strong /iː/ and strong /oʊ/ in final position, like teepee (/ˈtiːpiː/) ‘wigwam,’ veto, NATO, which latter two words have aspirated /t/.) Word-internally, GA /ɪ/ may occur as a variant of /ə/, particularly before velars, as in educate /ˈɛd͡ʒɪkeɪt/ (or /ˈɛd͡ʒəkeɪt/). Note that /ə/ occurs in words like acrobatics /ˈækrəˈbætɪks/, popular /ˈpɑːpjələr/, not /(o)ʊ/. Before vowels, we may have /i,u/ word-internally, as in choreography /ˈkɔriɑːgrəfi/, and influential /ˈɪnfluˈɛnʃəl/.

Although initial syllables are not relevant to the WSP, it is pointed out that word-initial syllables can be weak as well. Examples are before /bəˈfɔr/, unite /jəˈnaɪt/ (or /juˈnaɪt//), and all words with Latinate prefixes, such as ab-, con-, ob-, re-, sub-, etc., as in abstain /əbˈsteɪn/, contain /kənˈteɪn/, obtain /əbˈteɪn/, retain /rəˈteɪn/ sustain /səˈsteɪn/.

Here are some words for practice. Look them up in LPD (unless you are absolutely certain how they are pronounced) and write S(trong) or W(eak) over each syllable, as appropriate.

asparagus                   leotard                         profession

benign                         library                          promise

Chinese                       November                   routine

concerted                    obtuse                         taxis (pl noun)

December                   October                       vernacular

fitted                            produce (noun)         window

leopard                       produce (verb)           zealot

Now give the syllable divisions. For example, asparagus /(ə)(ˈspɛ(r)ə(g)əs)/, etc.