Wikipedia says that Gokana has been argued to lack syllables, a radical claim because syllables are traditionally considered to be universal, offers no details, but points out that later the claim has been lessened to syllables playing a minor role. Googling produces little information besides this stuffy paper I do not have the linguistic vocabulary to fully understand. It does seem to corroborate the article on Wikipedia.

What I managed to grasp is that (correct me if I'm wrong), moras play a more crucial role and that the language has very bizarre laws pertaining the distribution of sounds that can be better described by other phenomena outside syllable formation. But much of the nuance about those phenomena has been lost on me.

  • While addressing an interesting claim this question is currently kind of open-ended and not well suited for this site. Try to narrow it down. Sep 16, 2021 at 17:35
  • Is the question in the title narrow enough by itself or should I narrow it even further? I'm interested in what evidence people have put forward to corroborate this claim.
    – Sodalite
    Sep 16, 2021 at 17:43
  • This answer might help you linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/2152/445
    – Alex B.
    Sep 17, 2021 at 13:43

1 Answer 1


The claim is technical, so if you don't understand phonological theory and you don't understand Professor Hyman's "stuffy paper", you probably won't understand my stuffy explanation.

The underlying question is, what are the universally mandatory representational objects of human languages, and the related question is what are the optional objects. Example: it turns out that all languages have vowels and consonants, so you could say that vowels and consonants are mandatory. Some languages have ejectives and others do not: ejectives are optional. Every language potentially could have ejectives, or implosives, but some don't have them. Phonology has used two distinct systems of logic for building the theory: "If it's possible to say that X is present in all languages, you must say it is present in all languages", and "Only say that X is present in a language if there is direct evidence for it in the language".

The notion of syllable is one of the notorious examples of things that have been arbitrarily claimed to exist in all languages (similarly, "noun" and "verb" are stipulated universals). The stuffy argument is that there is no sufficient evidence to support the claim in Gokana that there must be syllables in Gokana. There is a pretty long literature regarding syllables and alternatives to syllables, the point being that there may be evidence for other things that aren't really syllables. For example, a cluster of prevocalic consonants might behave like a single unit, but we could say that "they are in the same syllable" or we can set that "they are in an onset". Hyman in his original paper points out, correctly, that reference to "mora" is sufficient. It is not seriously disputed in the theory that the concept "mora" is necessary; it is seriously disputed whether an additional concept "syllable" is sufficiently motivated. But of course, the question of something being "sufficiently motivated" depends on your logical framework: the earlier epistemology of the field was heavily tilted towards arbitrary claims as to what is in Universal Grammar, and it is really only recently that the approach changed towards a more minimalist version of UG.

It's not clear to me whether this is the part that you didn't understand: I'd say that reading Hyman's original descriptive works (1983, 1985) is the first thing you should do to understand the language facts.

  • My confusion stems from the fact that it's a language whose words have a lot of vowels and vowels are normally the backbone of syllables. Written form isn't very different from say English. When I attempt to read the words provided, what stands out for me are the tones. What I don't understand is why for example can't you just confer with a native speaker in order to clarify natural breaks. Is it also not clear for them?
    – Sodalite
    Sep 16, 2021 at 19:09
  • 1
    @Sodalite This is talking about the syllable as a technical term, an abstract notion used when analysing language. That’s different from what native speakers think of as the natural breaks in their own speech, the stuff that preschoolers are taught by clapping in time. Sep 16, 2021 at 20:09
  • Leaving aside Gokana, there is a separate question about native speaker feelings about "breaks". I don't think Gokana is actually written, what you are seeing is linguist's transcriptions. Usually, speakers don't understand what a "syllable" is unless they were taught the idea for French or English, and try to apply the rules of English to their own language.
    – user6726
    Sep 16, 2021 at 20:14
  • Anyhow, the point is not that it's impossible to fit Gokana into a particular procustean bed, it is whether there is a reason to say that such a bed exists and fits this language.
    – user6726
    Sep 16, 2021 at 20:16
  • Just to add, it's also about whether it's possible to write an adequate description of the structure of the language without needing to refer to the idea of the syllable, as per the quote at the bottom of p 55 Sep 17, 2021 at 0:41

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