Syllable & its Structures – Consonant Clusters, Syllabic Consonants

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This article may be useful for the students of English Literature and the examinees of UGC NET English. For English learners also this is a nice topic.

When we study a language, the minimal contrastive unit of sound is called phoneme. Phoneme is the smallest contrastive sound segment which may bring about a change of meaning. English has 44 phonemes in its sound system. Example – pin, bin, tin etc.

The syllable is the next higher unit of sound or sounds in which vowel sound is compulsory sound or vowel sound is the nucleus whereas consonants are marginal and optional elements. Syllable is a part of a word. A word can be monosyllabic, disyllabic and polysyllabic.

  • Monosyllabic – / Cup /
  • Disyllabic – / De – bate /
  • Polysyllabic – / Ex-a-mi-nation /

Structure of the Syllable –

Being the next higher unit than the speech sound, the syllabic is made up of one or more than one speech sound. Speech sounds are either vowels or consonants. The vowel element is essential to the structure of a syllable. In other words, the vowel element is obligatory.

If the syllable consists of one sound, the sound will be a vowel. For example, the English syllables air, eye consist of one vowel each. If a syllable consists of more than one sound, one of them must be a vowel and the remaining sounds, consonants, as in the syllables -/go/, /it/, /sit/, /bee/. With the help of symbols ‘v’ for vowel and ‘c’ for consonant, we can analyse the structure of different kinds of syllable.

For example –

i. One sound – /I/ – v, /Air/ – v

ii. Two sounds – /An / – vc

iii. Three sounds – /Can/ – cvc

iv. Four Sounds -/ Spray / – cccv etc.

In English, a syllable can have a cluster of three consonants at the beginning and a cluster of four consonants at the end.

Consonant Cluster –

English allows up to three consonants to begin a syllable and up to four consonants to end it. Such sequences of consonants at the beginning or at the end of the syllable occurring together are called Consonant clusters.

For example- /nd/ in ‘send’ is a consonant cluster because it forms part of the same syllable, whereas /mb/ as in the word ‘ number’ is not a cluster since /m/ and /b/ belong to two different syllables. /m/ and /b/ in the word ‘number’ are called abutting consonants.

Syllabic Consonants –

As all of us know, vowel is the nucleus of a syllable, and the consonant occupies a marginal place in its structure. However, this is not always the case. There are syllables in which nuclear place is occupied by certain consonants, but then, these consonants function like vowels.

In the words such as /button/, /bottle/, / rhythm/, tn, tl, and thm, constitute independent syllables by themselves without any vowel between them. In such cases, n, l and m tend to form the nucleus and are called syllabic consonants.

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