Is there a set of rules to know when syllabic consonants (l, m, n, ng, r) occur in a word?

For instance, I used to think that there was a schwa before the l, m, n, ng, and r in the words police, employees, problem, seven, inclined, fishery, etc. But it turns out that all of those words contain syllabic consonants.

I imagine it must be difficult for students who are learning to transcribe using phonetic symbols to determine when to use the syllabic consonant symbols just by hearing the words the professor pronounces.

Is there a way to know when these syllabic sounds occur and therefore when to use the correct symbols in your transcriptions?

  • Which l, m, n, ŋ, or r are you referring to in the word okay? There is nothing there that can be reduced to a syllabic resonant, as far as I know—unless you count okie as having in its second syllable a syllabic /j/ derived from an alternative /ˡokəj/ instead of regular /oˡke ~ oʊˡkeɪ/. But that would be rather non-standard, I'd say. Oct 31, 2015 at 14:01
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks for your observation. I made a slip. I included the word "OK" because I saw some examples where its first syllable was pronounced as a syllabic ng. Please check this website where I found the original examples: [linguistics.berkeley.edu/~kjohnson/English_Phonetics/… I would like to know if this pronunciation of "OK" is common in America or any other English speaking countries.
    – Luke
    Nov 1, 2015 at 2:17
  • No, it's not. It occurs, but I wouldn't call it common. More importantly, I wouldn't call it a pronunciation of okay, but a variant version of the word. It has many—others include kay, hokies, hmmkoy, etc. Some of these are more common than others, but they're all basically (more or less exaggerated) stylistic variations of the basic interjection. Kind of like how ow, ouch, and ayyoucha are variations on the ‘pain’ interjection, rather than pronunciations of a single word. Nov 1, 2015 at 2:35
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I get it now. Thank you!
    – Luke
    Nov 1, 2015 at 2:53

1 Answer 1


There is a tradition of transcription which treats all syllabic sonorants in English as deriving from schwa plus sonorant sequences, and that is a phonologically credible analysis. The tradition that transcribes syllabic [n] as [ən] is basically using a broader transcription than the one transcribing this as [n̩]. There is actually phonological evidence that schwa is deleted, coming from an allophonic rule where /t/ becomes [ʔ] immediately before [n, n̩], but not before schwa. You see this in "lighten" ([laɪʔn̩]) but not "light a newspaper" ([laɪɾənuʊs....]). This shows that /t/ and the nasal are phonologically adjacent, thus there is no phonetic schwa after the glottal stop (thus supporting the syllabic sonorant transcription).

The problem is that for something like "seven", there is a brief period between the release of the fricative and moment when lingual closure is made, where there is something that could be called a schwa-like vowel. There is no definitive test that will tell you whether that moment is "a vowel" or simply a transition between a consonant and a syllabic nasal. The same goes for "problem".

In the case of the initial syllable of "employee", I would say that is unambiguously [ɛm...], not even schwa, but that is no doubt a dialect difference, and I can imagine there are dialects with reduction. If you switch to "employ", I can pronounce that [ɛmploɪ] or [m̩ploɪ] (not particularly natural, but not totally out), so reduction to syllabic nasal is optional for me, word initially. In that context, you don't get *[əmploɪ]. This argues that the apparent schwa-like vowel is just a release feature, and there actually is a rule reducing schwa plus sonorant to a syllabic sonorant (obligatory for me; reduction to schwa is what is optional, for me).

It is very hard for students to believe instructors telling them that there is a schwa, or that there isn't a schwa, when the student's own pronunciation is different. I am a fairly aggressive reducer, and I found that some students had syllabic sonorants (thus agreed with me) and others had schwa plus sonorant (thus disagreed with me, and some of their colleagues).

  • Try as I might, I cannot get a proper syllabic out of employee. I can get to deleting the surface vowel in rapid speech, but in a context like “bonuses that employees benefit from”, the final /t/ in that steadfastly refuses to reduce to a glottal stop unless I switch to an accent where all final /t/’s are glottalised. Oct 31, 2015 at 14:05
  • [m̩ploɪ] but *[əmploɪ] is a neat example (and my judgements are the same).
    – Greg Lee
    Nov 1, 2015 at 2:57
  • "lighten" / "light a newspaper" is simply devastating. great example.
    – hunter
    Nov 4, 2015 at 16:01
  • Is the "r" in the word 'universe' syllabic. I am still confused because I can identify some words and find it hard to identify others.
    – User384789
    Mar 26, 2018 at 11:56

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