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(Note: I am not sure on how to phrase this question, so if you can, please edit for clarity)

So, recently a question came into my mind about whether we can actually define where syllables begin and end in a situation where three or more consonants occur in between vowels, especially between words.

When there are only one or two consonants, we can usually say. For example there is a clear difference between 'me rant' (ignoring the obvious meaninglessness) and 'mere ant' or 'nigh star' and 'nice tar' because a glottal stop is inserted in the first example and an easily distinguishable open syllable is caused in the second, although quickly saying the second may also cause ambiguity.

My question however mainly applies to when three or more consonants occur between vowels, such as in 'cork screw' versus 'cork's crew' in between which there is no difference in pronunciation, even when spoken slowly, unless the speaker intentionally pauses between words. Here the distinction of where the first syllable ends and the other begins seems to be purely morphological (am I using the term correctly?), and you could divide them as you wish. Same thing, but slightly different, the popular phrase 'thank you' could be realised as /θæŋk.juː/, or /θæŋ.kʲuː/, or even /θæŋ.cuː/, in normal speed speech, they all sound the same. So, my question is whether you can define where one syllable ends and the other begins in this kind of situation (without looking at where the words draw the line) or is it just as the person wishes.

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  • There’s no glottal stop in me rant/mere ant when I say it. The difference there is that they have different vowels: /miː rant/ vs /mɪər ant/. In nigh star/nice tar, neither has an open syllable (except the last syllable in non-rhotic dialects) – the primary difference is the aspiration of the /t/ in tar and the clipped (shortened) quality of the diphthong in nigh. The same is true of corkscrew/cork’s crew: the latter has an aspirated /k/ in the second syllable (which also devoices the /r/), while the former does not – so yes, there is a difference, even in rapid speech. May 19 at 9:27
  • are you sure nigh in nigh star isn't open? How are you defining open in this case as you're clearly syllabifying it as nai.star (no ipa keyboard) to get the deaspiration
    – Tristan
    May 19 at 9:30
  • @Tristan Well, I suppose it depends how you define closed and open syllables. I consider diphthongs to close syllables (/aɪ/ = /aj/) phonetically in English, though I suppose that’s not universal. May 19 at 9:59
  • as the off-glide can only occur after certain vowels, that seems to rather overcomplicate English phonotactics. An exception would be schwa off-glides in non-rhotic varieties which probably are best thought of as consonantal rather than part of polyphthongs, them being strongly associated with the phoneme /r/ in native speakers' minds, and allowing for a more concise explanation of both linking and intrusive r's
    – Tristan
    May 19 at 10:02
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I don't know, when I say them slowly, sure they are aspirated, but in rapid (and not even that rapid, just normal speed) speech, they aren't. May 19 at 10:14

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