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What features of a word make a word sound natural in a language. For instance in two made up words 'mobify' sounds more natural in English than 'jlkrtz'.

  • Uhm, not sure if it's the case to add those tags. Remember that tags are for questions, not answers. – Alenanno Sep 2 '13 at 20:12
  • Both whistler and @Alenanno, feel free to remove the tags I added if you consider them inappropriate or misleading! – robert Sep 2 '13 at 20:27
  • Not including the name of a concept in a question asking about a concept is still a question about that concept. This is a phonotactics question whether or not whistler uses that word in the question and indeed whether or not he even knows the word. Now "computational linguistics" on the other hand might apply to an answer but not to the question. – hippietrail Sep 3 '13 at 4:16
  • @hippietrail Yes, it still applies. But in other instances we have only used the tags that were on the question. You don't replace tags on the question according to the answers that come up. That is why I commented about that. – Alenanno Sep 3 '13 at 7:26
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    @Anixx this is wrong. non-vocalic nuclei exist, and there is measurably no shwa in a word like "prst". Some languages even allow stops like "t" to be nuclei. – Fryie Sep 4 '13 at 12:29
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By 'natural' you seem to be referring to what sounds (or phonemes) can be combined in what order. This is called phonotactics.

For example, mo in your example mobify is a combination of a consonant and a vowel that fairly often occurs in English, in words such as motor (for simplicity I'm ignoring here that spelling doesn't exactly reflect pronunciation - ultimately phonotactics is about what sounds/phonemes can combine and English spelling can be very misleading when it comes to pronunciation - but I hope the examples are straightforward).

But your example jlkrtz cannot be an English word because several combinations in this word are 'illegal' in the sense that they do not follow the sound laws of English. jl is not a legal consonant cluster, kr is, but krtz is not.

English does allow fairly long consonant clusters, such as in twelfths /twɛlfθs/ (four consonants in the coda). But consonant clusters of this length are rare and only a fraction of all possible combinations are allowed. Just try replacing /θ/ with /b/, /p/, /m/, /n/, /z/ or /k/, none of these are allowed.

For further details take a look at the 14 rules in this Wikipedia article.

P.S.: Nobody really pronounces very long consonant clusters except in very special contexts. twelfths has /twɛlfθs/ as so-called citation form. This pronunciation would be used when talking to learners of English (including children) or when speakers are aiming for very clear and accurate pronunciation. But in any common communication task at least one of the four coda consonants would usually be left out, even by newsreaders.

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    Uhm, I feel like you wrote the core concepts I wanted to write, but you did it in a much better way. :D Well done! – Alenanno Sep 2 '13 at 20:11
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    Sixths is even harder than twelfths, since the final cluster /ksθs/ is practically impossible to say. One more component of "sounding natural", besides the phonotactics, is the phonosemantics. There are a number of prominent semantic associations with English rimes and assonances, for instance, and there are similar associations with different lexical groups (e.g, in Indonesian, where most roots are CVCVC, the phonosemantic groups are the CVC- and the -VC). – jlawler Sep 2 '13 at 20:50
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I think it depends of concrete language. For example in some languages are words with only consonants.

There is the phrase in (both) Czech an Slovak languages which worth of the article in Wikipedia: Strč prst skrz krk (translation to English, pronunciation, explanation in Wikipedia).

For Czechs and Slovaks it is natural phrase.

In Armenian language there are surnames like Mkrtychan. There are more people with this surname you can find in Google.

Every language has its own set of rules, and I think that exact answer on your question possible to find in Generative linguistics, not in phonology only. Why phrase Strč prst skrz krk is natural for Czech and Slovaks, but very bizarre for another people, for another human beings with similar speech organs?

There exists the Generative grammar of Chomsky, which explains construction of sentences. I think if Generative phonology would really exists like branch of science it can give proper answer to your question.

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    I'm afraid i have to downvote this. It's not really an answer to the question - you point out that different languages are, well, different, and that phonology should have an explanation for this. I'm sure everyone's on board with this, but an answer would say a little bit about what that explanation is. – P Elliott Sep 7 '13 at 20:45

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