In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Syllables

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Edited Collections
  • Handbook Articles
  • The Role of Sonority in Syllable Structure
  • Ambisyllabicity
  • Phonotactics with and without Syllables

Linguistics Syllables
Adam I. Cooper, Draga Zec
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0084


The syllable is a grouping of segments that typically includes a vowel preceded, and possibly followed, by consonants. The unmarked syllable type consists of a consonant vowel sequence, or CV, with the more marked types including V, CVC, VC, CCV, CCVC, CVCC, CCVCC, etc. All known languages group their segments into syllables of roughly these shapes. Crucially, while the numbers of consonants may vary, at most one vocalic element, or more generally at most one highly prominent element, may occur. Moreover, the CV syllable is present in all languages and is implied by all other syllable types. The syllable has been used as a descriptive tool in the accounts of sound patterns of individual languages. This unit goes far back, having been recognized already by the ancient Sanskrit and Greek grammarians; the word syllable can be traced back to Greek syllabē “that which is held together.” As a unit, the syllable is a purely phonological entity. The grouping of sounds that corresponds to a syllable is undefined at the levels of morphology or syntax. Clear phonetic correlates of the syllable have not yet been established, although extensive experimental work has shed light on its essential properties. The syllable is a recurrent unit, and so are sound sequences associated with it, due to this, the syllable has standardly been considered as essential for characterizing the phonotactics of segments.

Foundational Works

The syllable as a phonological unit has figured in the foundational works developed within several influential linguistic traditions of the first half of the 20th century. The listed works propose that the syllable is a unit of phonological organization. Hockett 1955 and Haugen 1956 propose a ternary syllabic constituency with onset, peak, and coda as its subparts, while Kuryłowicz 1948 and Fudge 1969 propose that the coda and peak be grouped into the rime constituent. Bloomfield 1933 simply proposes to subclassify sequences of segments into those that are syllabic and those that are non-syllabic, while Hjelmslev 1939 proposes to subclassify such sequences into nuclei and margins. Jakobson 1962 proposes an important typology of syllable inventories, with CV as a universal type present in all languages. Trubetzkoy 1939 subclassifies syllables in terms of types of nuclear and moraic segments.

  • Bloomfield, L. 1933. Language. New York: Holt.

    Discusses the difference between syllabic and non-syllabic segments, focusing on sonorants, which may be either syllabic or non-syllabic. This distinction can either be allophonic—that is, determined by context—or phonemic.

  • Fudge, E. C. 1969. Syllables. Journal of Linguistics 5:253–286.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022226700002267

    Argues for the relevance of the syllable in organizing segments into sequences, and for onset versus rime, and within rime, nucleus versus coda structure.

  • Haugen, E. 1956. The syllable in linguistic description. In For Roman Jakobson. Edited by M. Halle, H. G. Lunt, and H. McClean, 213–221. The Hague: Mouton.

    Argues for the syllable, which subdivides into onset, nucleus, and coda as a unit of phonology.

  • Hjelmslev, L. 1939. The syllable as a structural unit. In Proceedings of the third international congress of phonetic sciences. Edited by E. Blancquaert and W. Pée, 266–272. Ghent, Belgium: Laboratory of Phonetics of the Univ. [of Ghent].

    Proposes a subdivision of the syllable as a linguistic unit into the nucleus and the margins, and strongly relates it to the notion of accent.

  • Hockett, C. 1955. A manual of phonology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Argues for the syllable as a unit of phonology, with ternary structure involving onset, peak, and coda.

  • Jakobson, R. 1962. Typological studies. In Selected writings 1: Phonological studies. 2d ed. Edited by Linda L. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston, 523–532. The Hague: Mouton.

    Presents a typology of syllable inventories and establishes that CV is the universal syllable type.

  • Kuryłowicz, J. 1948. Contribution à la théorie de la syllable. Bulletin de la Société Polonaise de Linguistique 8:80–114.

    Proposes a constituent-based view of the syllable and posits an onset-rime divide.

  • Trubetzkoy, N. S. 1939. Principles of phonology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Presents a typology of syllable nuclei and syllable weight, with the mora as the weight unit.

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