An Overview of English Phonotactic Constraints

Elaboration, 2016

8 Pages, Grade: 2,0




What are phonotactic constraints?

How Languages build Syllables

Phonotactic differences between languages

Maximum Onset Principle




The following essay is going to examine phonotactic constraints and how syllables are produced. Phonotactics resolve the question about how words are formed and if there are any rules for word and syllable creation. At first, the essay is going to explain the term of phonotactic constraints. The second topic is going to be about building of syllables, including the sonority sequencing principle. After that, English phonotactics will be compared with German and Turkish phonotactics. Finally, the maximum onset principle is to be explained, followed by a conclusion.

What are phonotactic constraints?

Phonotactics is a part ofPhonology and deals with the possibilities in which syllables can be created in a language. Phonotactics take care of the rules and restrictions which define what types of sounds are allowed to occur next to each other, in terms of syllable structure, consonant clusters and vowel sequences. Therefore, words in languages aren’tjust randomized segments of sounds, the sound sequences a language follows are a systematic and predictable part of its structure.1 All languages have a set of constraints. Every language differs in what is accepted as a well-formed consonant cluster. In English, for example, no word begins with /kn/ nowadays. Nasal consonants are not allowed to occur as the second consonant in an onset consonant cluster, unless the cluster starts with an /s/. In times of Anglo-Saxon, this consonant cluster was permissible, which made words like “knot” or “knight” originate, but drop out later in time.

The English language has a set of fourteen constraints on phonotactics. Firstly, a well- formed English word has to be made up of at least one syllable. The English language allows to have one or more consonants in the onset or coda, but without any consonants, a vowel is still eligible to be a syllable by itself (as the first syllable in apart, /9/). Hence, all English words must contain at least one syllable and have to contain at least one vowel.2 Another example for a constraint is the rule of three-consonant clusters that have to start with an /s/. Three-consonant clusters are the highest number of consonants that are allowed next to each other in English onsets. Unless the cluster starts with an /s/, it is not possible to create an eligible onset. The second consonant should be a voiceless stop, such as [p], [t] or [k] and the third consonant must be a liquid or a glide, such as [1], [r], [j] or [w].

The amount of syllables which can be perceived by the listener from a given sequence of phonemes, and the limits on the talker’s ability on how to pronounce segments of sounds as one syllable, are the main reasons why phonotactic constraints exist. Therefore, we not only want the listener to perceive the amount and types of phonemes in the word, but also that it consists of a certain amount of syllables.3 What a speaker wants to convey with the production of a word like “trump” is not only the amount and types of phonemes that it consists of, it is also the fact that it happens to be monosyllabic. The Onset of“trump” /tr/ is a voiceless plosive followed by a liquid. It is not a problem to pronounce this sequence for English speakers. However, ifboth phones in the onset swapped positions, resulting in /rt/, it would be hard to pronounce this segment and additionally, it cannot be pronounced in a way which results in the segment being monosyllabic before the vowel.

How Languages build Syllables

To define whether a syllable is eligible for the language concerned, the so-called sonority comes into use. Sonority is about the relative loudness of a spoken sound. The sonority is basically the tool for syllable creation, it defines a loudness hierarchy on which words are based on. The hierarchies are especially important when analysing the structures of syllables. It shapes the form ofboth onsets and codas. An example is the loudness of [a] compared with the loudness of [t], A vowel like [a] is an open vowel, meaning that the vocal tract is open during pronunciation and that large amounts of acoustic energy can be emitted. On the flipside are voiceless oral stops “/?/” since it is impossible to emit large amounts of acoustic energy when the vocal tract is closed during the pronunciation. Ifboth of the examples would be screamed, it should be clear that [a] is definitely higher ranked in the hierarchy than [t], since [t] can’t be screamed.

Next is the sonority hierarchy, to get an insight of the loudness ranking. The hierarchy can be split in the middle, differentiating between sonorants (Low vowels [a,ae], high vowels [i,u], glides [j w] and liquids [1 r]) and obstruents (Voiced fricatives [v z], voiceless fricatives [f s], voiced plosives [b d g] and voiceless plosives [p t k]). Sonorants are typically voiced, making approximants, nasal stops and vowels fall into the louder category. The less sonorant phonems are called obstruents, which are usually oral stops and fricatives. Generally, phonemes gain more or less sonority depending on their acoustic properties. The most sonorous sounds are vowels which are pronounced with an open mouth, such as [a] and [ae]. The least sonorous vowels are vowels that are pronounced with the mouth closed like [i] or [u]. Followed by the vowels, are the consonants. The most sonorous consonants are the liquids [1 r], the least sonorous, and therefore the bottom of the hierarchy, are the voiceless plosives [ptk].

The phonotactic principle that aims to outline the structure of the syllable in terms of sonority is called the “Sonority Sequencing Principle”. To create a syllable, a few things must be considered. The center of a syllable is always the nucleus, which is usually a vowel. This leads the center of the syllable to a peak ofloudness, which is called “The Sonority Peak”, the most sonorous segment of a syllable. In addition, the peak has to be preceded and, or followed by a sequence of consonantal segments, with a progressive decrease in the sonority hierarchy and therefore in loudness.

An example for a monosyllabic word is “trump [tj a m p]". The words scheme is CCVCC, a therefore has a double consonant onset, a single vowel as the nucleus and a double consonant coda.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

This graph displays the sonority of each phone during the pronunciation of the given word. At first, the sonority is at its lowest due to the voiceless plosive [t], which belongs to the obstruents and the least sonorous sounds in the hierarchy. Next, is a liquid [j], which belongs to the sonorants. In the centre of the word is the low vowel [a], which produces the most sonorous sound in the monosyllabic word “trump”. After that, a nasal [m] is followed by another voiceless plosive [p], which makes the sonority decrease towards the edge of the graph. Finally, the sonority peak can be seen during the pronunciation of the nucleus, with decreasing sonority towards both edges of the graph. The first and last consonants are both ranked at the bottom of the sonority hierarchy.

The sonority sequencing principle has an exception, and that is the behaviour of /s/. An /s/ is one of the English consonants, which cannot become the nucleus, or syllabic. The exception states the behaviour of three consonant clusters.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

First, all three consonant clusters have to start with an /s/. Additionally, nasals cannot occur as the second consonant in a consonant cluster at the onset, unless the first consonant is /s/, as in “snot”. If it is not a nasal, the second consonant has to be a voiceless oral stop like [p], [t], or [k]. At last, the third consonant has to be a liquid or a glide like [1], [r], [j] or [w]. Due to this, there are no words in English that begin with /bm/ or /dn/. Other languages do not have this kind of constraint, like the German “Knoten” for example. However, the English vocabulary contains words like “knot” or “knight”, which show clusters that should be forbidden. The reason for words like these, is the time of Old English, which was around the 13th century. “Knight” was actually pronounce as /kniht/, until it became /najt/ in Modern English. Old English also allowed an /h/ finally and before consonants, Modern English does not. As a result of this change, the /h/ disappeared in words like “night”, “bought” and “sigh” and became an /f/ in words like “tough” or“enough”.


1 Vgl. Connor-Linton, Jeff and Fasold, Ralph (2014): An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, p.48. 2nd Edition. United Kingdom, St. Ives: Clays.

2 Vgl. Harley, Heidi (2003): A Linguistic Introduction to English Words, p.62.

3 Cox, Felicity; Harrington, Jonathan; Phonetics and Phonology: The syllable and Phonotactic Constraints."ology/syllable/syll_phonotactic.html

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An Overview of English Phonotactic Constraints
University of Vechta
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Phonotactic Constraints, Linguistik, Linguistics, Phonetics, Phonetik
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Aykut Sahingöz (Author), 2016, An Overview of English Phonotactic Constraints, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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