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I should do a words analysis. More specifically given a word I should split it into syllables and I was wondering if, given a word, there is only one syllables subdivision. This is because I have read on internet different splitting for the same word such as: - a-ni-mal, - an-i-mal

  • Hello! Welcome to the Linguistics Stack Exchange – Ergative Man Apr 3 '20 at 22:28
  • That's a great question, but I think it suits better the English Language & Usage site! :) – Ergative Man Apr 3 '20 at 22:29
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  • Like a lot of sinusoidal functions, there's clear agreement on the peaks of syllables but not always enough information about the troughs. Like electrons, syllable-margin consonants can be in two places at once, since everybody has their own theory of syllabification, and their own habits about applying it. – jlawler Apr 4 '20 at 3:59
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As a question about linguistic theories, the answer is "definitely no" and as a question about English, the answer is "probably no". The unifying fact is that there is no agreement on the rules of syllabification: there are many ways to divide words into syllables.

One test that is often used is the hyper-slow speech test, saying "peo.....ple", with a big pause between the first and second syllables. At least based on 4 decades of anecdotal observation, it seems that in the US, it breaks peo-ple and not peop-le ([pi-pl̩], not [pip-l̩]. Except, some people (a minority) double the p ([pip-pl̩]). But usually, "hammer" is divided [hæm-mɹ̩], and not [hæ-mɹ̩] or [hæm-ɹ̩]. What distinguishes those two words is the kind of vowel in the stressed syllable – long tense [i] verse short lax [æ]. This was a substantial part of Daniel Kahn's dissertation on syllabification. It turns out that there is massive disagreement on where to put the syllable breaks, when you have a bunch of consonants. It's not total chaos, but there is a lot of disagreement.

Kahn uses certain other tests regarding pronunciation, such as the presence of aspiration. The problem is that we don't know for sure that the proposed syllable-related conditions are indeed correct. One statement of the rule of aspiration is that /p,t/k/ become aspirated when at the beginning of the syllable and not also at the end of some syllable. This gives you aspiration in [ɛpɹ], but not in the second p of[pʰɛpɹ] because in Kahn's analysis, the second p is both in the beginning of syllable 2 and the end of syllable 1. The rule that puts /p/ in two syllables is kind of complex. Then another complication is words like after, where t is not aspirated. There are other complicated rules that make /t/ be in both syllables in after. Generally, we now recognize that the attempt to account for aspiration in terms of syllable position was simply wrong. What that means is, aspiration doesn't tell you where syllable boundaries are. Aspiration, and the related matter of flapping, can be accounted for in terms of the notion of "stress foot" – stops are aspirated only when initial in the stress foot. Unfortunately, nobody has systematically worked through all of these low-level details without assuming that it's syllable position that governs the occurrence of flaps etc.

In general, the reason why we don't have a good understanding of syllable breaks are is that there aren't any features of pronunciation that would tell you where the syllable breaks are, once you consider the possibility that the stress foot is responsible for some of these allophonic differences.

All that said – we're talking here about sylabification, not hyphenation. Rules for hyphenation are a whole other non-linguistic kettle of fish. The internet doesn't do syllabification.

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I have studied syllabification, yet I often find myself uncertain whether a consonant is in the syllable of a preceding vowel or the syllable of a following vowel. Yet there are phonetic clues to listen for. When a word boundary forces a consonant into a preceding syllable, an intervocalic single alveolar stop will flap, but when a word boundary forces it into a following syllable, it does not flap. Compare "ten apples" where [n] goes in the preceding syllable and it does flap, with "to need", where [n] does not flap, since it goes in the following syllable.

For the example you mention, "animal", since the "n" does flap, that tells us that it goes in the syllable of the preceding vowel, an-im-al. Of course, if you ask people what the syllables are, they may very well say it is a-ni-mal, but that is just their incorrect theory you're getting, presumably based on a pronunciation with all the vowels stressed, where there is no flapping.

I know of other phonetic clues to the syllabification, yet sometimes, I am left without a clue.

  • Another example based on other clues: It's common to affricate /t/ when /ɹ/ follows in the same syllable-onset. Thus some pronounce "country" as ['kʰʌntʃɹi] (the t and ʃ are meant to be tied), thus suggesting the syllable-division "coun.try". Some people who glottalise syllable-final /t/ will pronounce e.g. "country" as ['kʰʌnʔɹi], thus suggesting the syllable-division "count.ry". – Rosie F Apr 6 '20 at 9:28

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