Trying to understand the difference between regular consonants and Syllabic Consonants. Two examples are from Danish.

To start (for some context), the way I would naturally pronounce solen is "só-lin", but hearing the pronunciation above, it is more like "soul-lán", with a sort of pausing/lengthening around the l, and the l seems to occur in both syllables (end of one and start of another), not sure if that's relevant. For skinnede I hear "skinew", I don't hear the d (ð̩) as in "the".

From reading about syllabic consonants:

[It] is a consonant that forms a syllable on its own, like the m, n and l in the English words rhythm, button and bottle, or is the nucleus of a syllable, like the r sound in the American pronunciation of work.

I understand rhythm, since it's like rhyth-m, two syllables basically (more like rhyth-thm, where the first syllable starts the th sound, and the next syllable finishes it. Same with button, it's like but-n, and bottle as bot-l.

So wondering if one could better explain what a syllabic consonant is by providing a comparison with regular consonants. For example, comparing solen with golen or some other random word (just made that up). Something close but that demonstrates a non-syllabic consonant. Also knowing how syllabic consonants relate to the nucleus would help make it more understandable.

  • The example isn't the word "American", but the American pronunciation of "work" (as opposed to RP or Australian or…). – Draconis Sep 24 at 3:15
  • Lol haha, oops. – Lance Pollard Sep 24 at 3:24
up vote 8 down vote accepted

One way to get a better grasp of the phonetics of syllabic consonants is to listen to a minimal pair in a language that has them, such as here. This is the pair [mbááŋgàà m̩̀bááŋgàà] (in that order) meaning "I am arranging", "you pl. are arranging", in Logoori. Phonologically, the difference is that [m̩] is an entire syllable, and [m] is just a consonant which has to be followed by a vowel (b, w, j could come between m and the vowel). Because [m̩] is a syllable, it has a tone (every syllable has some tone), but [m] has no tone. Phonetically, the most obvious clue that you have a syllabic is duration; preconsonantal [m] is very short, under 60 msc, and syllabic [m̩] is about 140 msc long.

I would not recommend Danish as the best exemplar of syllabic consonants, since Danish phonetics is extremely complicated and theoretically fraught. If you are interested in Danish, I recommend Hans Basbøll's The phonology of Danish, which mercifully gives phonetic transcriptions. The claim about syllabic ð̩ is about "some pronunciations", not necessarily the one you got on Forvo.

The question of "syllabicity" comes down to syllable structure. Every known language has some sort of prosodic unit that we can call a "syllable", usually (but not always!) smaller than a whole word and larger than a single phoneme. In languages with morae, like Japanese, syllables are also larger than morae.

And in particular, every syllable seems to be built around a nucleus, potentially with other things before and after it. This nucleus is always something that can be extended to an arbitrary length (so usually not a plosive—but even a plosive nucleus is attested in certain African languages!) and it's always there, never entirely missing.

This nucleus is said to be syllabic, since it's the core of a syllable. And anything that's not a syllable nucleus is non-syllabic. Vowels by default are syllabic, and consonants are not. But this is a very arbitrary distinction that the IPA chooses to draw, rather than any real phonetic property! While [j] is a "voiced palatal approximant" and [i] is a "high front unrounded vowel", the only real difference between the two is that [i] is syllabic and [j] is not. So [dai] is two syllables unless otherwise specified, while [daj] is one.

One way to tell the difference between them is that a syllabic sound can stand on its own, while a non-syllabic one can't. Try saying [m] without a vowel next to it, then the same for [b]. This is a hint that that in English, [m] can be syllabic while [b] can't. Or, look for words where that sound is a syllable nucleus: that's the only way to really be sure.

  • "So [dai] is two syllables unless otherwise specified" Wouldn't that be a diphthong unless otherwise specified? – curiousdannii Sep 24 at 4:46
  • @curiousdannii, Yes, by old fashioned convention. But the trouble with that convention is that it leaves one with no natural way to write a two-vowel two-syllable [dai]. – Greg Lee Sep 24 at 6:00
  • You can always write that [da.i], although since syllable boundary are often left unmarked in IPA transcriptions, it could easily be argued that it's better to mark the diphthong as such than the hiatus as such, – LjL Sep 24 at 18:55
  • By "marking the diphthongs as such", and given that any bivocalic sequence can be a diphthong, do you mean "write one of the vocalic segments as a superscript, or with a breve" or some such convention. That is, I don't know how one writes diphthongs as such. – user6726 Sep 25 at 1:46

There's a minimal pair in English: "Lightening" - to reduce weight, with a a syllabic 'n', and "Lightning" - electrical discharge. At least they are distinct when I say them.

A syllabic consonant is a term for when the nucleus of a syllable is a consonant and not a vowel. Normally, vowels form the nucleus of a syllable because they are the most sonorous.

For example, in the word, "Alabama" [æ.lə.ˈbæ.mə] there are four syllables separated by the .symbol.

Do you see how each syllable has a vowel (as its nucleus, in fact)?

In English, it is common to form words that contain syllables which have no vowels at all, as in "rythm" [ɹɪ.ðm̩]. So, we say that the [m] in the second syllable of the word "rythm" is a syllabic consonant because it forms the nucleus of the syllable. In IPA, the diacritic that you use to mark a syllabic consonant is a small vertical line (placed underneath the syllabic consonant, see example). Some languages, like Spanish, don't permit syllabic consonants (an exception being Mexican Spanish beacuse of the -tl suffix from nahuatl)

If this doesn't make sense, you should read some introductory phonology, I recommend the book "Introductory Phonology" by Bruce Hayes.

  • I don't understand why it needs to be marked though in IPA, it seems like it's built into the structure of how you make the sounds. – Lance Pollard Sep 24 at 4:13
  • I suppose it doesn't need to be marked into the IPA and people would still know it's a syllabic consonant because there is no vowel for a given syllable, at least for English. In English, and probably in most languages, syllabic consonants can only be liquids and nasals. Maybe it would be used to clear up ambiguity for a language in which you don't know which consonant is the nucleus. – axme100 Sep 24 at 4:19
  • Also: many languages don't have syllabic consonants, so it's an interesting thing to mark. Some English language, learners, for example struggle with the pronunciation of syllabic consonants and may insert vowels to avoid pronouncing a syllabic consonant. – axme100 Sep 24 at 4:29

Except for rapid speech, a syllabic sound has a steady state, during which there is no appreciable change in the position of articulation for that sound. [This is just my own attempt to characterize the practice of phonologists -- others will probably disagree.]

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