Apr 20, 2010 by

This cartoon, discussed also in yesterday’s posting, suggests that one direction in which English is going is “dropping the vowels”. Here I rush to assure the reader that this is probably not going to happen.

Consider what would English sound like if (some of the) vowels were dropped. As a result, the new English would end up with significant piles of consonants, pronounced in a row (the technical term is “consonant clusters”).

Languages differ as to the complexity of consonant clusters that they allow. The rules that restrict the number and nature of consonants that can appear one after another are concerned with allowable syllable structures. The number of syllables in a word or utterance is usually equal to the number of vowels. Consonant sequences appearing between vowels can sometimes be broken down and assigned to the two syllables in different ways: for example, the English word pastry can be syllabified as past.ry or as pas.try (where the dot represents a division between syllables). Because both paste and tree are perfectly acceptable words of English, either syllabification will agree with the rules concerning possible syllables of English. But another important lesson is to be learned from this example: in order to figure out what can or cannot be a true consonant cluster (syllabified into the same syllable), we have to look either at the beginning or at the end of words. And the beginning of words are more helpful since as a general cross-linguistic rule, the beginnings of syllables (the technical term is “onset”) are more liberal than the ends of syllables (the technical term is “coda”, from the Latin word for ‘tail’).

So languages differ as to what sequences/clusters of consonants can appear in the beginnings of words. Linguists usually represent syllable structure as a string of C and V symbols, where C stands for a Consonant and V for a Vowel sound. The one kind of syllable which appears to occur in every language is CV, that is, a syllable consisting of just one consonant preceding a vowel. In some languages, such as Hawaiian (Austronesian), CV is the only possible syllable. In other languages, such as Fijian (Austronesian) and Igbo (Niger-Congo; Nigeria), CV syllables co-exist with syllables that consist just of the Vowel.

The next set of languages expands the CV syllable model by allowing also syllables with one more consonant in the beginning or the end of the syllable: CCV or CVC syllables. Such languages typically restrict what that additional consonant can be. For example, Japanese allows both CV and CVC syllables, but the nature of the consonant in the coda is severely restricted: san is a possible syllable/word in Japanese, but sat is not. Similarly, languages that allow CCV syllables typically restrict what the second consonant in a cluster can be. An example is Darai (Indo-Aryan; spoken in Nepal): it allows syllables as complex as CCVC, as in /bwak/ ‘(his) father’, but the only possible second consonant in a sequence of two is /w/.

The third set includes languages that permit even more complicated syllable structures. An example of such a language is Georgian (Kartvelian; Georgia). It famously allows words that start with two, three, four, six or even in some cases eight consonants, as in gvprtskvni ‘you peel us’ and gvbrdgvni ‘you tear us’. Note that these words are not monomophemic (consisting of one morpheme): the most complex consonant clusters in Georgian arise at morpheme boundaries.

Where does English fit into this model? Maddieson (2008) considers English as belonging to the third group of languages with the most complex syllable structure, citing its most complex syllable structure as (C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C) — parentheses indicate that an element is optional. In other words, a syllable in English may start with as many as three consonants and end in as many as four. Only one monosyllabic word of English fits that full pattern; can you guess which? (The answer will appear in tomorrow’s posting.) But it is relatively easy to find syllables beginning with three consonants or ending with four, as in split and texts (/tɛksts/).

Still, English has a long way to go to match the consonant clusters of Georgian. Or even of Russian, which allows such clusters as dl- and tl- (as in dlja ‘for’ and tlja ‘louse’). Unsurprisingly, when an English speaker pronounces Georgian or Russian words with a consonant cluster unpermissible in English, s/he inserts a vowel! Ask your English speaking friends to pronounce the name of the capital of Georgia — Tbilisi — and you will hear a vowel between the two initial consonants: an English speaker renders this as a four-syllable word (Te-bi-li-si), whereas for a Georgian it has only three syllables.

Not only is English somewhat limited as to what consonant clusters it allows, it became more restrictive during its history. In the Old English period (5th-11th century), English allowed words to start with /kn/ or /gn/ and to end in /mb/ or /xt/. Our present-day spelling still retains traces of those older pronunciations. This is why we write knee and gnome, lamb and light with consonants that are not pronounced. And the word knight was once pronounced /knixt/ — much more similar to its relative, the German Knecht. So if anything, English has been dropping its consonants, but holding on to its vowels!

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