In This Article Sonority

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Philosophical Discussions and Definitions of Sonority
  • The Representation of Sonority
  • The Innateness of Sonority
  • Perceptual Alternatives to Sonority

Linguistics Sonority
Steve Parker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0042


Sonority is a nonbinary phonological feature categorizing sounds into a relative scale. Many versions of the sonority hierarchy exist; a common one is vowels > glides > liquids > nasals > obstruents. The phonetic basis of sonority is contentious; it is roughly but imperfectly correlated with loudness. A primary function of sonority is to linearize segments within syllables: more sonorous sounds tend to occur more closely to the peak. Thus onsets prototypically contain an obstruent plus an approximant. Furthermore, the propensity for a segment to pattern as moraic is proportional to its sonority. These observations have led to implicatures such as lower sonority nuclei entailing the existence of nuclei from all higher sonority classes in a particular language. However, while generalizations of this kind are strong, some have counterexamples, raising questions about the adequacy of sonority and how to encode it grammatically. Recent research on sonority has revived a debate about its innateness. For example, experiments asking speakers of various languages to rate the naturalness of or pronounce forms containing non-native clusters show that universal markedness constraints involving sonority predict accuracy on such tasks. However, different studies counter that this knowledge can be acquired by extrapolating statistical generalizations from the lexicons of those languages, without a prior bias concerning preferred sonority differentials. An exciting development is computational algorithms that can directly calculate the relative sonority of acoustic samples and potentially segment them, based on various phonetic parameters; these algorithms have contributed to automated speech recognition. Also, connectionist networks have been used to automatically syllabify random strings of segments in Berber. In this approach, sonority is a function of bidirectional excitation of competing segments across time, driven by global harmony maximization using exponentially weighted constraints. Another important issue involves the functional explanation of sequencing tendencies. The analysis of clusters in terms of well-configured sonority slopes has been rejected by some scholars in favor of an optimal ordering of segments to enhance their auditory cue robustness. This approach replaces sonority with perceptual constraints ranking phonological environments by their likelihood of assisting the hearer to recover critical aspects of the speech signal. Cutting-edge technology has made a significant contribution in other related areas, too. For example, a study of Italian with electromagnetic articulography shows a difference in the coordination patterns of gestural targets for initial clusters such as /pr/ versus /sp/ (a sonority reversal). This finding suggests that the two sequences have different prosodic structures, a crucial detail that is often downplayed—if “exceptional” clusters such as /sp/ are not in fact tautosyllabic, then they actually confirm the sonority principle rather than violate it.

General Overviews

The domain in which sonority is most often invoked is the syllable. Three chapters in major phonology handbooks are cited in this section, each one noting the close connection between sonority and syllable structure. The first is Blevins 1995, couched in a generative framework. Goldsmith 2011 authors the discussion of syllables in its revision of this handbook, taking a more historical perspective. Zec 2007 situates the account of sonority effects within Optimality Theory, in keeping with the focus of that handbook. Other general reviews of sonority include Parker 2002 and Parker 2011. The former is a dissertation focusing entirely on sonority, including an eighty-six-page literature summary. The latter is a follow-up chapter in The Blackwell Companion to Phonology, the most comprehensive reference work currently available. The physical substance of sonority is the main topic of Nathan 1989, which concludes that attempts to characterize sonority along a single phonetic parameter have failed (see the Physical Basis of Sonority). Finally, Cser 2003 focuses on the relevance of sonority to a formal account of lenition and fortition. Despite this limited theme, its review of sonority is of general interest.

  • Blevins, Juliette. 1995. The syllable in phonological theory. In The handbook of phonological theory. Edited by John A. Goldsmith, 206–244. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

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    A brief summary of the primary uses of sonority in generative phonology. Posits a universal sonority scale constructed from a hierarchy of binary features. Includes a parametric table illustrating cross-linguistic variation in syllabic segments, based on sonority.

  • Cser, András. 2003. The typology and modelling of obstruent lenition and fortition processes. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.

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    Invokes sonority in a formal explanation of historical change, but limited to Indo-European languages. Provides a fifteen-page review of sonority, including its articulatory and acoustic correlates. Critically discusses the shortcomings of various phonological models in terms of their structural representation of sonority as a feature hierarchy. Slightly revised from a dissertation written in Hungarian for Eötvös Loránd University in 2002.

  • Goldsmith, John. 2011. The syllable. In The handbook of phonological theory. 2d ed. Edited by John Goldsmith, Jason Riggle, and Alan C. L. Yu, 164–196. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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    A historically oriented survey of three views of the syllable: waves of sonority, constituent structure, and segment sequencing. Ultimately concludes that sonority is the most promising. Cites early scholars such as William Dwight Whitney and Ferdinand de Saussure.

  • Nathan, Geoffrey S. 1989. Preliminaries to a theory of phonological substance: The substance of sonority. In Linguistic categorization. Edited by Roberta Corrigan, Fred Eckman, and Michael Noonan, 55–67. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series IV: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 61. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/cilt.61.05natE-mail Citation »

    A functionalist perspective using natural phonology. States that sonority is the opposite of consonantal strength. The problems in defining sonority as a unitary category are avoided by considering it a constellation of gestural prototypes, including vocalicity or svara, voicing, loudness or energy, prolongability or duration, and openness.

  • Parker, Stephen George. 2002. Quantifying the sonority hierarchy. PhD diss., University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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    Explores five phonetic correlates of sonority in English and Spanish: intensity, intraoral pressure, first formant, airflow, and segmental duration. Also confirms the role of sonority in English reduplicative freezes such as roly-poly. Distributed by the University of Massachusetts Graduate Linguistics Student Association.

  • Parker, Steve. 2011. Sonority. In The Blackwell companion to phonology. Vol. 2. Edited by Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen, Elizabeth Hume, and Keren Rice, 1160–1184. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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    An article-length overview summarizing the major issues and challenges of sonority in phonological theory. Couched in a formalist, typologically oriented perspective.

  • Zec, Draga. 2007. The syllable. In The Cambridge handbook of phonology. Edited by Paul de Lacy, 161–194. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486371.009E-mail Citation »

    Models sonority thresholds on the nucleus and mora by using the peak and margin hierarchies of Prince and Smolensky 2004 (cited under Berber Syllabification). Also touches on sonority distance and syllable contact. A typologically oriented chapter in a major reference work focusing on Optimality Theory.

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