Suppose that, in some hypothetical language, there were two different words:

  • /tump/
  • /tump/

What's the difference?, you might ask. In the first one, the word is one syllable long. In the second one, the word is two syllables long because the /m/ is syllabic.

How do you express this difference with IPA?

  • 2
    Good question but I think you might have chosen bad examples. Sep 16, 2011 at 0:13
  • 1
    I don't know if there are any minimal pairs in English to use a side-by-side illustration like you've chosen. But English words like "button" and "bottle" are often described as having syllablic "n" and "l". Not in all transcriptions but I'm not sure about all dialects. If not perhaps we can compare dialects rather than minimal pairs. Sep 16, 2011 at 7:50
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    Importantly, for me it doesn't ring true to have a syllabic consonant beside a vowel, but perhaps that is indeed frequent but just outside my experience. Sep 16, 2011 at 7:51
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    @hippietrail, I think what the asker is saying is that the syllable count in those hypothetical forms is dependent on whether or not the nasal is syllabic. In his hypothetical language, the word in which the [m] is not syllabic contains one syllable, but the one in which the [m] is syllabic contains two syllables. Oct 11, 2011 at 15:14
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    Incidentally, I think part of the confusion here is also stemming from everyone's use of diagonal slashes in transcriptions. Normally we would notate the pronunciations (i.e. phonetic transcriptions) of words with brackets, so the pronunciation of button would be notated as[bʌʔn̩]. Few linguists would analyze that word as having the underlying form /bʌʔn̩/; rather, they would transcribe it with a vowel (maybe a schwa) in the second syllable and posit a rule whereby the vowel-nasal sequence in the underlying form gets realized as a syllabic nasal in the surface form. Oct 11, 2011 at 15:25

2 Answers 2


I've always seen a dot below the syllabic consonant. This is common in British dictionaries which indicate syllabic consonants - the various dictionaries vary quite a bit in this regard as it happens. But the majority of British dictionaries do use IPA which is still quite uncommon in their American counterparts.

Then again Unicode provides COMBINING VERTICAL LINE BELOW for this purpose:

/bʌtn̩/, /bɒtl̩/

  • +1 - By the way, I wanted to try looking up one of your examples in two dictionaries, so I've searched button in the NOAD (American) and the OALD (British), neither had the dot; I don't understand why, but anyway, I agree with you: it's the one adopted by the IPA. :D
    – Alenanno
    Sep 16, 2011 at 11:37
  • Online dictionaries might not do it for technical reasons like not enough fonts, web browsers, operating systems, or some of their software working with the Unicode symbols. You should find it in print dictionaries because the publishers have full control over their typesetting and are used to weird symbols. Also you can Google directly for the IPA! Sep 16, 2011 at 11:50
  • I guess you're right, not all computer might be able to view those symbols, although it might be pretty standard by now. :D I didn't check my paper dicts, I was just trying to see if it was present in the dictionaries I knew, because I never paid attention to that. :)
    – Alenanno
    Sep 16, 2011 at 22:58
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    Nitpicky correction: the IPA diacritic for a syllabic consonant is NOT a dot; it's an "understroke", as shown in the IPA diacritic chart: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/e/e3/IPA_diacritics_2005.png. Strictly speaking there is no IPA diacritic that consists of a single dot under the symbol, although a small circle represents voicelessness and a pair of dots represents breathy voice. Oct 11, 2011 at 14:49
  • @musicallinguist: I'm sure I'd seen a dot in British dictionaries but I don't have access to my dictionary collection right now as I'm hitchhiking around the world. Anyway I covered both my memory and Unicode versions. Oct 12, 2011 at 8:24

You can use [ . ] such as /tu.mp/ as a symbol for a syllable break (often left-off in normal usage). But I don't think your specific case (tump) is possible in a language a syllabic consonant would appear after a syllable ending with a vowel.

Edit: there is also a syllabic consonant diacritic. For your examples the transcriptions would look like this [tump] [tum̩p].

  • Out of curiosity, why don't you think it's possible? Unless I'm missing something, it seems to be easily pronounceable. Sep 17, 2011 at 0:43
  • @peter sorry, more correctly what I meant was my intuition said nobody would pronounce them like that. On second thought I might be wrong.
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 18, 2011 at 15:37

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