I've noticed that several languages of East Asia and the Pacific islands like Japanese, Chinese, and Hawaiian, have much stricter rules governing phonotactics than languages in other parts of the world.

Is this a legitimate trend, or have I just not been looking at the right languages?

And if it is legitimate, are there any possible reasons for it?

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    I wouldn't have thought of Chinese as having simple syllable structure, what with tone, fricatives as nucleus, medials, etc., but Polynesian languages do tend to have relatively simple syllable structures. May 29, 2013 at 9:41
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    If you think this only happens in East Asia, try comparing the syllable structure of English with Proto-Germanic with Proto-Indo-European… If you're interested in this topic, you might like this book: amazon.com/Language-Complexity-Evolving-Evolution-ebook/dp/… . There's an article by Walter Bisang on East Asia. May 29, 2013 at 13:53
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    You might find this interesting: wals.info/feature/… It looks like many IE languages have complex syllable structure. Comparing to other non-IE regions, I don't really find East Asia that unusual.
    – dainichi
    May 30, 2013 at 8:55
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    What is an East Asian language? Languages in the Russian Far East, like Nivkh or Itelmen can have very complex syllable structure.
    – limetom
    May 30, 2013 at 18:45
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    Also, consider the complex onsets in Tibetan and in various reconstructed phonologies of Old Chinese.
    – jogloran
    Sep 19, 2013 at 4:46

2 Answers 2


Recently, the World Phonotactics Database was launched. While I've noticed some errors in languages I'm familiar with, it may be useful to check there.

First off, is there a trend across languages in terms of syllable structure? To start with, let's look at how many consonants can be in an onset. Their sample contains 2,338 languages. Of these, 2 do not allow onsets, 1,363 allow for at most 1 consonant in their onset position, 727 allow for at most 2 onset consonants, 229 allow for at most 3 consonants, 15 allow for at most 4 consonants, and 2 allow for at most 6 consonants (note that they have no languages in their sample with at most 5 onset consonants).

Let's also look at how many consonants can be in a coda. They again sample from 2,338 languages. Of these, 485 languages do not allow for coda consonants, 1,373 allow for at most 1 coda consonant, 358 allow for at most 2 coda consonants, 107 allow for at most 3 coda consonants, 12 allow for at most 4 coda consonants, and 3 allow for at most 5 coda consonants.

With this in mind, I think it's likely that what we're seeing in the rest of the world--where "familiar" languages allow for complex onsets and codas--is actually a result confirmation bias. Indo-European languages, for instance, with the exception of highly divergent languages like English or Russian, really only allow for at most 2 or 3 onset consonants (2s include Armenian, Spanish, and Punjabi; and 3s include Albanian, Irish, and Lithuanian).

In most of the world's languages, a CV structure is preferred. This is, as far as I'm aware, a very old typological generalization. The Universals Archive cites Jakobson and Hale (1956) as the first statement of this structure being a linguistic universal.


The answer is you might be oversimplifying the facts. We have no data on Hawaiian or other ancient languages of Pacific phylum yet, but here are some points proving that at least Chinese and Japanese do not fall under the same category:

  1. The Chinese is basically monosyllable, CV, V, Vc or CVc-structured language while Japanese is a polysyllabic, mora-structured language.

  2. The Japanese used to have vowel harmony.

  3. Some languages of the area (Thai, Burmese and tribal languages of China) have different prosodic structures, including C2C1V- initial syllables.

There are languages like Finnish or ancient Kretian sharing the same predominant CV- structure for syllable like Hawaiian or Japanese (although Hawaiianan word may also have +VV+ syllable structure), but this does not mean these languages are related by their syllable-structuring principles.

  • 1
    While I agree with your conclusion, I think your points 1) and 2) are irrelevant to the question (which was about syllable structure). And the OP nowhere suggested that the languages in question were related.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 19, 2013 at 15:31
  • The OP unites the languages under a category of 'having much stricter rules'. But the rules for Chinese and Japanese are different (I am sure the TS is aware of difference between Chinese and Japanese). Vowel harmony is more typical for Paleo-Asiatic / Uralic / Altaic languages than for the languages of the East Asia and Pacific, adding one more rule to the sylable formation principle. In some Paleo-Asiatic and Native American languages there is either a consonant harmony, or both consonant-vowel harmony as well, but these are not languages of the area mentioned in OP.
    – Manjusri
    Jun 19, 2013 at 15:47
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    We do know a lot about the historical linguistics of Austronesian languages, especially the Oceanic group. Proto-Oceanic has been worked out in some detail as has proto-Polynesian. I'm not sure why you mention Papuan languages and a 'language union'. Jun 20, 2013 at 15:02
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    It does, I think, present a pretty decent overview. And the 4 page bibliography points to a lot of information on Austronesian historical linguistics, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Jun 21, 2013 at 0:48
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    The existence of vowel harmony in Old Japanese is by no means a certainty—rather, it is hotly debated, and no consensus has been reached. Also, it is not clear whether you are talking about Modern Finnish, but if you are, it is quite a stretch to say that its syllable has a “predominant CV structure”, considering the vast number of CVC syllables that are found in Finnish. Jul 27, 2013 at 20:41

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