Good morning,

Is the "r" is the word "Universe" syllabic?

I learned how to identify the syllabic letters, but still find it hard to do so.

  • 1
    1 if your Scottish, I think, 2 if you're Amercan. – user6726 Mar 26 '18 at 15:36

"Universe" certainly might be pronounced with a syllabic r. Whether it actually is depends on your accent. Many American English speakers can have "syllabic r" in any position in a word, unlike other syllabic consonants, which must occur in unstressed syllables.

However, because syllabic r in American English behaves similarly in terms of phonology to a vowel + consonant sequence or just a vowel, it may be transcribed as something like ər, ɜr, əɹ, ɜɹ, or ɚ, ɝ. (A transcription like er would not be considered correct!)

But a transcription like [ɹ̩] is not incorrect. See the following handout from the website of Kevin Russell at the University of Manitoba: [ɹ̩] -- Syllabic [ɹ]

There is a major split between English dialects where the pronunciation of the word bird contains an [ɹ] sound (e.g., western Canada, central and western U.S., northern England) and those where it does not (e.g., southern England, Australian, parts of the north-east and southern U.S.). In dialects which do not use an r sound in bird, the vowel between the [b] and the [d] is traditionally transcribed as [ə] or [ɜ].

Dialects which do use an [ɹ] sound in bird tend to use nothing but. In normal western Canadian or American speech, the period of time between the [b] and the [d] will be entirely occupied by an [ɹ] sound, and there will be no other vowel in the word. The [ɹ] is acting as the core of the syllable in [bɹd], a privilege which is usually reserved for vowels. A vertical line diacritic is used to mark those occasions where [ɹ] has a special vowel-like role in a syllable. The usual transcription bird is therefore [bɹ̩d]. (Sometimes you'll run across the symbols [ə˞] or [ɜ˞] or even the sequence [əɹ] used instead of [ɹ̩].)

The phonological analysis of syllabic consonants is somewhat complicated, but I think a fairly common analysis is to treat them all as sequences of schwa + a consonant phoneme. So you may be more likely to encounter something like /junɪvərs/ or /junəvərs/1 in the context of phonemic transcription.

(Actually, a number of American dictionaries seem to feel like there is something special about the last syllable of universe relative to the last syllable of a word like Oliver’s, in that they mark the last syllable of universe with a stress marker, or transcribe it with the symbol ɜ. This can sometimes indicate a lack of vowel reduction; however, I myself cannot hear any difference in quality between the supposedly unreduced or minor-stressed /ɜr/ or /ˌər/ and reduced, fully unstressed /ər/. However, I guess the absence of “flapping”/“tapping” of the /t/ in the final syllable of words like dramaturge, thaumaturge, taciturn, Astroturf could be considered to imply that either the presence of minor stress or the presence of vowel reduction is phonologically contrastive for [ɹ̩] in American English. Thus, if we mark stress, and use the symbol ˌ to indicate minor (i.e. tertiary) stress as well as secondary (major) stress, it may be correct to transcribe the pronunciation of universe in American English as /ˈjunɪˌvərs/ or /ˈjunəˌvərs/1.)

  1. Many American English speakers have the "weak vowel merger" and so do not feel like they have a phonemic contrast between /ɪ/ and /ə/ in fully unstressed syllables. The neutralization of /ɪ/ and /ə/ is typically transcribed as /ə/, although word-final /ə/ in American English (e.g. in comma or Rosa) tends to be realized with a more open quality (often near the realization of the STRUT vowel, which may be somewhere around [ɜ] or [ɐ]) than the neutralization of /ɪ/ and /ə/ that occurs in non-word-final positions.
  • Can [k, x, q,χ] be a natural class in phonology? – User384789 Feb 9 '20 at 17:58
  • @User384789: is that comment related to the question here? It seems to me like it should be posted as a new question – brass tacks Feb 9 '20 at 18:02

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