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In Syllabification and Allophony John Wells argues for a view of English syllabification based on phonetic processes within the pronunciation of words. He mentions elsewhere that it is unorthodox, but to my eyes his arguments are very convincing.

What are the arguments against his viewpoint? Why is it not universally accepted?

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  • Did you refer this ( phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/syllabif.htm ) or this ( linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/7162/14731 ) Oct 8 '17 at 15:19
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    The former; I linked to it in my question.
    – dpk
    Oct 8 '17 at 16:12
  • Relevant paper that presents an alternative analysis of English syllabification (I won't post an answer based on it because I don't fully understand it yet: bermudez-otero.com/amphichronic.pdf) I think most linguists are fairly strongly attached to the maximal onset principle Oct 8 '17 at 17:38
  • @sumelic Why are they attached to it, though? Since (a) it fails to predict details of pronunciation which are mentioned by Wells (like the clipped /iː/ in ‘teaspoon’) and this implies that (b) no ‘regular’ (in the Chomskyan sense) syllabification of English can predict these features, surely a more flexible approach is called for?
    – dpk
    Oct 10 '17 at 18:53
  • Allophony can be explained as being conditioned by other things than syllabification. Wells, for example, need to take into account the effects of stress, and possibly of vowel reduction. So it's not necessary to leave all the phenomena Wells mentioned unexplained Oct 10 '17 at 18:56
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The tags include "phonetics" but not "phonology", but people often ask questions about phonetics and tag them "phonology", so I assume that you're asking about a phonological issue. If you really mean specifically and only "as a question of phonetics, to be answered in strictly phonetic terms", I refer you to myriad statements by the phonetician John Ohala which can be summed up by asking "Where do you see syllables in the phonetic facts?". Syllabification is not a phonetic matter that can be transcribed in the same way that aspiration (VOT), length (duration) etc can be. It is purely phonological (if we assume the syllable, and such-and-such structure, we can efficiently account for the observable facts of speech – we should also inquire about the analysis that omits the syllable, since it could be redundant).

There are two questions here, one about "arguments against", and one about "why not universally accepted". The answer to the latter is pretty straightforward. Universal acceptance is an unattainable goal: even wide acceptance is close to non-existent. The reasons for non-acceptance are going to be myriad, and will especially be sensitive to one's philosophical "primaries" in linguistic research. Some linguists take descriptive adequacy to be the most important consideration and abjure theoretical speculation; others take theoretical enlighteningness to be primary, and are willing to dispense with a few inconvenient-looking empirical challenges (known as "problems for future research"). If Wells' account fails to cover certain facts, that would be a particular problem for people of the first type: if it fails to be stated elegantly in a well-supported linguistic theory, that would be a problem for people of the second type. (Alternatively, fail to state the analysis in such a way that it could be easily translate into such a theory). It's very hard to satisfy people who want the best of those two worlds.

It is not clear to me that I can empirically test the paper, because it depends on non-obvious factual claims. His analysis relies on a 5-point continuous stress scale, which gives meaning to "more strongly" in his basic rule of syllabification. I take "main stressed", "secondarily stressed" and "unstressed" to be fairly uncontroversial observational primaries, and question the two additional degrees. I see no way to dispose of at least three distinctions, since in a word with two stresses (ˈtarpən, ˈtæmˌpɔn, ˌlæmˈpun), you can't predict which syllable has the primary stress. However, I do not actually know if that would be his analysis of these words – we need a guide that enables us to know where stress marks are to be introduced, vs. omitted.

His distinction between 4 and 5 stress hinges on the full versus reduced vowel distinction, exemplified with substitution-product /ˌsʌb.stɪ.ˈtjuːʃ.ən.₀prɒd.ʌkt/ and magnitude /ˈmæg.nɪ.tjuːd/. The former is claimed to have the stress profile 2, 5, 1, 5, 3, 4 with [ən] having 5 strength, and the latter is X, 5, 4 (he doesn't say – I assume it is 1). The 4/5 distinction has to do with having a reduced vowel or not – how do we determine that a vowel is reduced? I assume that [ə] is always a reduced vowel in English, and if you have a schwa-like vowel that isn't reduced, you transcribe it as [ʌ]. In "magnitude", following his transcriptions, the 5-strength vowel is [ɪ], not [ə]: but not every [ɪ] is a reduced vowel (at least I don't think that is the case). I can make all sorts of conjectures about what his analysis would be for various words, but the fact is, since I do not know when he will say that a given vowel is reduced vs. unreduced, I can't empirically test his theory against a wider corpus. I simply do not know if he gets the facts right. I am inclined to assume that the system is descriptively adequate, but faith-based theory-testing is not proper science. (This could be a framework-related communication problem: he knows what he means, and so do others working in his framework, but I don't).

I presume that your underlying question is about empirically adequacy and you're not concerned with abstract theory comparison, but in case that is of interest, I will simply say that I resist the idea that theoretical entities can be created and exploited ad libitum: this is the problem with his stress-strength scale. In a similar vein, I find the condition "Phonotactic constraints on syllable structure (as established with reference to monosyllables) are not violated" to be theoretically incomprehensible, and even descriptively pretty imprecise. It is not clear to me how he gets the distinction between "militaristic" and "capitalistic", with an aspiration contrast between itʰarist and italist. We would have to assume syllabification differences i.tarist and it.alist: but how does that come about? For instance is "it" in "capitalistic" more strongly stressed, compared to "militaristic"? Or does he have some kind of "surface analogy" rule where the pronunciation of these words is determined by referring to the pronunciation of "military, capital"? No doubt he has answers to these questions, but if I don't know the answer, I can't evaluate his theory.

Overall, something like his theory looks like it is correct, since it restates the Selkirk-Ito-Mester (and others) perspective on English allophony and syllabification, indeed continues a line of analysis that Kahn could have more rigorously pursued in his analysis (the main point of difference being the treatment of "city": [sɪ.ti] for Kahn).

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  • Wells has a blog post mentioning the difficulty of distinguishing "strong"/"unreduced" and "weak"/"reduced" [ɪ] here: phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2011/03/strong-and-weak.html He suggests that it is sometimes possible to distinguish them based on weak-vowel mergers resulting in e.g. [ə] in Australian English, or t-flapping (voicing) behavior Oct 8 '17 at 21:33
  • For example, I have t-voicing in "-Vtic" words(e.g. "emphatic", "pragmatic"), but not in "Vtism" words (e.g. "astigmatism", "pragmatism"), so it could be said that the first has weak [ɪ] for me and the second, strong [ɪ]. I have read accounts that analyze this in terms of foot structure rather than with reference to vowel reduction or consonant syllabification Oct 8 '17 at 21:39
  • I have added the tag ‘phonology’, which I did not see at first. I don’t see how ‘Phonotactic constraints on syllable structure (as established with reference to monosyllables) are not violated’ is unclear — Wells is saying that if there’s a monosyllabic word that exhibits particular phonotactics, then that word is (in the context of English) conclusive proof that that phonotactic feature is valid in an English syllable in the context of a polysyllabic word. See how he justifies the syllabification /ˈmeʒ.ə/ with reference to the monosyllabic word /beɪʒ/, for instance.
    – dpk
    Oct 10 '17 at 18:47
  • I included ‘phonetics’ as a tag since Wells’s argument depends on phonetic details to observe (what he regards as) phonemic syllable boundaries. I think his 5-level scale is intended as a formalization able to capture every possible adjacent difference in stress in English. I agree that the inclusion of ‘tertiary’ stress is not that natural but there are undoubtedly 3–4 distinctions and 4–5 distinctions in the examples he gives. /ɪ/ has also been understood to be a weak vowel in English besides /ə/ since Jones’s day, though as you say it can also be a full strong vowel.
    – dpk
    Oct 10 '17 at 18:58
  • @DavidP.Kendal: A complicating factor is that some analyses theorize that word-final consonants may be "extrametrical" in English. There is some phonological evidence for this (see ipc.tohoku-gakuin.ac.jp/~rprg/pdf/nasukawa_word-finalC_2004.pdf) and this theoretical concept also has some cross-linguistic support. Oct 10 '17 at 19:01
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How can there be arguments against a "viewpoint"? I agree with many of Wells' observations. Not all. I'm not convinced that the facts really support his idea that there is a 5-way distinction of vowel stress necessary to correctly predict the syllable membership of medial consonants in English, for instance.

I am not an unbiased observer, since I have my own theories about English stress and syllabification. I describe consonants in syllable onset as stressed and in syllable offset as unstressed. Then the shifting of consonants into the preceding syllable before an unstressed vowel is due to a simple stress assimilation: a consonant becomes unstressed (i.e. goes in syllable offset) before an unstressed vowel. If we adopt Wells' idea that the degree of stress of the vowel is important to syllable membership, then I'd predict that the syllable membership of the consonant subject to such assimilation is also a matter of degree.

However that may be, I mention this to distinguish between a phonological theory and Wells' observations, with which I mostly agree. Wells is a keen observer. I'm not convinced he has a theory.

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