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Segmental configurations favouring or disfavouring the occurrence of a syllabic sonorant consonant
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This topic investigates segmental configurations in which syllables headed by a sonorant consonant are either favoured or disfavoured. The (dis)favouring factors concern a) the nature of the onset consonant, b) the nature of the syllable contact, c) complex onsets, d) words ending in -<{l/r}m>.

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There are segmental configurations in which syllables headed by a sonorant consonant are either favoured or disfavoured. The (dis)favouring factors concern a) the nature of the onset consonant, b) the nature of the syllable contact, c) complex onsets, d) words ending in -<{l/r}m>. These will be treated in turn.

  • Syllables headed by a sonorant consonant are more common with a plosive than with a fricative as onset. So, bûten/butən/[butn̩]outside, for example, is a more common form than wazem/va:zəm/[va:zm̩]steam, vapour. It might be argued that the syllabic consonant is more salient only in the former. But it is also simply the case that a syllabic consonant is easily realized when it is preceded by a plosive, but not that easily or not at all when preceded by a fricative. The following might serve as a (functional) explanation. A syllable headed by a consonant must have an onset. Now, the unmarked onset segments are obstruents, particularly plosives, since they are the least sonorous, least vowel-like consonants. An obstruent creates a maximal sonority contrast between onset and nucleus, which is the least complex, hence most preferable, state of affairs (see Clements (1990:306-308)) for complexity rankings for demisyllables with syllabic consonants as peaks). Syllabification gives rise to an atypical kind of syllable, viz. one without a vocalic head. It might be hypothesized then that the onset takes over the function of marker of the syllable from the nucleus. It is the unequivocal marker of the starting point of the syllable, which is of crucial importance for the identification of the syllable as a whole, now that the vocalic nucleus is lacking. The possibility of identification is maximal when the syllable has an unmarked onset segment, viz. a plosive.
  • Syllables headed by a sonorant consonant are more common − and the syllabic sonorant consonant is more perceptible as well − when they are preceded by an open syllable, see the examples in (1):
    Example 1

    Examples of syllabic consonants preceded by an open and a closed syllable
    siken /sikə+ən/ [(si)(kŋ)] the sick; breaths vs sykten /siktə+ən/ [(sik)(tn̩)] diseases
    sinen /sɪnə+ən/ [(sɪ)(nn̩)] sinews; nerves vs sinten /sɪnt+ən/ [(sɪn)(tn̩)] money (lit.: cents)

    According to the Syllable Contact Law, the contact between two word-internal syllables is better to the extent that the first syllable ends in a more sonorous and the second one begins with a less sonorous segment. Preferably thus the sonority contrast between the rhyme of the first and the onset of the second syllable is maximal. A syllable with a consonantal head appears to find a better embedding in a configuration of the more preferred syllable contact. The onset of a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant − which is of vital importance for the identification of the syllable as a whole, see above −, stands out more when it is preceded by a vowel.

  • Syllables headed by a sonorant consonant cannot have a complex onset, not even one of the ideal form of an obstruent and a liquid. As a starting point, take the examples in (2) of complex forms with a sequence of two schwa syllables:
    Example 2

    Examples of complex forms with a sequence of two schwa syllables
    wankelen /vaŋkəl+ən/ [(vaŋ)(kə)(lən)] staggered, reeled (plural form)
    inkelen /ɪŋkəl+ən/ [(ɪŋ)(kə)(lən)] a few
    simpeler /sɪmpəl+ər/ [(sɪm)(pə)(lər)] simpler

    A sequence of two schwa syllables is a less preferred configuration from a rhythmic point of view, so there will be phonological pressure on forms such as those in (2) to delete a schwa syllable. Deletion of the left-most schwa syllable yields the syllabifications in (3):

    Example 3

    The syllabification of the forms in (2) after deletion of the left-most schwa syllable
    [(vaŋ)(klən)] wankelen
    [(ɪŋ)(klən)] inkelen
    [(sɪm)(plər)] simpeler

    As these forms show, a schwa syllable can have a complex onset, though preferably it does not. The right-most syllable of such forms, however, cannot be headed by the final sonorant consonant, as shown in (4):

    Example 4

    The forms of (3) with the right-most syllable headed by the final sonorant consonant
    [*(vaŋ)(kln̩)]
    [*(ɪŋ)(kln̩)]
    [*(sɪm)(plr̩)]

    The right-most, offending syllable has a complex onset the right-hand member of which has a higher sonority rank than the nucleus. But this cannot explain its ill-formedness, for syllables with this sonority profile do occur, as in jellen/jɛlən/[(jɛl)(ln̩)]yard(stick) and wollen/vol+ən/[(vol)(ln̩)]woollen. Though a schwa syllable and a syllable headed by a consonant show similar behaviour in many respects, there are some asymmetries as well. One is that the former, though it greatly prefers a simplex onset, can have a complex one, whereas this is absolutely impossible for the latter. Another one is that a schwa syllable must have an onset, but can do without it in specific circumstances, whereas having an onset is imperative for a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant. In always requiring 'onset support', the latter syllable type emerges as weak in comparison to the schwa syllable.

  • Words ending in -<{l/r}m>
    Nouns ending in -<{l/r}m>, e.g. skelmrogue, rascal and foarmform, end in /-{l/r}m/ or /-{l/r}əm/ underlyingly, according to dialect (see word-final sequences of a liquid and a nasal). When they end in /-{l/r}m/, they are pluralized with the suffix -en (/-ən/), yielding skelmenrogues, rascals and foarmenforms, which are syllabified as [(skɛl)(mən)] and [(fwar)(mən)], respectively. Verb stems ending in -<{l/r}m>, on the other hand, invariably end in /-{l/r}əm/. This means that verbs like tsjirm(je)to moan; to ail, to be sickly; to lament, to wail and erbarm(je)to have mercy (up)on have schwa in their underlying representation: /tsjɪrəm/ and /ɛrbarəm/. When a suffix of the form schwa + sonorant consonant is attached to the stems in question, as in the preterite plural form tsjirmenmoaned; ailed, were sickly; lamented, wailed and the agent noun erbarmerhe who has mercy (up)on, the resulting forms are syllabified as [(tsjɪr)(rə)(mən)] and [(ɛr)(bar)(rə)(mər)], respectively. There is a rhythmic tendency to delete the left-hand schwa here, yielding the syllabifications [(tsjɪr)(mən)] and [(ɛr)(bar)(mər)].

    In this configuration, the right-most schwa syllable cannot be headed by the sonorant consonant, so the realizations [*(skɛl)(mm̩)], [*(fwar)(mm̩)], [*(tsjɪr)(mm̩)], and [*(ɛr)(bar)(mr̩)] are impossible. This is counter to expectation, since all conditions on the occurrence of a syllabic consonant seem to be met here. What, then, is it that renders the result of syllabification ill-formed in this particular context?

    As to this, the following can be put forward. First, a syllable headed by a sonorant consonant is more common when it is preceded by an open syllable (see the nature of the syllable contact). Moreover, there is a bad syllable contact here: the first syllable may end quite sonorously, the second one begins quite sonorously as well. The beginning of the second syllable therefore is hardly marked at all. A strategy in order to keep the final syllable as identifiable as possible might be to keep it complete, viz. to preclude schwa deletion. Third, if the right-most syllable of a word like erbarmerhe who has mercy (up)on is headed by the final consonant, this results in a sequence of three adjacent sonorant consonants: [ɛrbarmr̩]. This is most inconvenient as to the syllable division, there being no salient onset. Fourth, the fact that in words like foarmen and tsjirmen[n] has to assimilate to the preceding [m] might be a complicating factor. Taken together, a number of independently motivated tendencies jointly have the effect that a syllable headed by a consonant gives an ill-formed outcome after [{l/r}m].

References:
  • Clements, George N1990The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabificationPapers in Laboratory Phonology1Cambridge University Press283-333
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