My intro linguistics class was doing a demonstration of how to break up single syllables into their vowel trees. We came up with three different interrpretations and were looking for more opinions.

For the word strawberry we concluded that in our collective English dialects it would most likely be spelled as [stɹa/ɔbɛɹi], with some variation between the vowel [a] or [ɔ]. Where we ran into trouble was where to break up the syllables. We all agreed it had three syllables.

One group thought it was broken up as [stɹa/ɔ] [bɛ] [ɹi]. Broken down as [stɹ] as the onset to [a/ɔ], [bɛ] with [b] as the onset to the rhyme [ɛ], and [ɹi] with the onset of [ɹ] of the rhyme [i].

One group thought it was [stɹa/ɔ] [bɛɹ] [i] with [stɹ] as the onset to [a/ɔ], [b] as the onset of the nucleus [ɛ] with a coda of [ɹ], and [i] as a separate nucleus.

And one group thought it was [stɹa/ɔ] [bɛɹ] [ɹi] with [stɹ] as the onset to [a/ɔ], [b] as the onset of the nucleus [ɛ] with a coda of [ɹ], and [ɹ] as the onset of the rhyme [i].

Here is a illustration for further clarification. An image of hand drawn IPA syllable trees for the three variations of the word strawberry above.

Any insights would be appreciated!

  • 6
    How to analyze these so-called "ambisyllabic" consonants is an issue that linguists still disagree about, so unfortunately you may not get a single canonical answer to this.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 15:44
  • No [stra/ɔ] [bɹ̩/ə(ɹ)] [(ɹ)i] option? Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 23:46
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I’m not aware of any accents that pronounce that word using [ɹ̩]. Which accents were you considering? I assume the OP and their classmates speak American varieties of English which, like my idiolect, would never use any phoneme other than the SQUARE vowel for the middle syllable of strawberry. I believe some Brits skip the second to last syllable that we always use in /-ɹi/ words like satisfactory, primary, and presumably strawberry, and neither their transcription nor yours accounts for those realizations.
    – Graham H.
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 3:37
  • @GrahamH. That pronunciation/transcription looks fine to me from a British English perspective; I would say [strɔbɹ̩i] myself. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 8:47
  • @GrahamH. My transcription here was intended to highlight the ambisyllabicity of the /r/ (which is the point of the question). In regular transcription, I would write it [ˈstrɔːb(ə)ɹi], since the paenultimate syllable may be realised as either a reduced vowel or deleted altogether; and [bəɹi] and [bɹ̩ɹi] are equivalent in English. Incidentally, AmE also frequently reduces the vowel in primary, and I’m not aware of any dialect that doesn’t have a reduced vowel in satisfactory. I’ve also definitely heard Americans reduce the e in -berry to a schwa. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 11:08

2 Answers 2


There is a gap in the theories, precisely for this kind of "ambisyllabic" case. So stepping outside of the theories, I would consider the answer of Group 3 to be most reflective of the way English is actually spoken.

English syllables do prefer onsets when available, so here perhaps the 3rd syllable has borrowed or pulled on the coda consonant of the 2nd syllable to create an onset for itself, yet the 2nd syllable does not lose its coda. Or perhaps conversely, since the vowel of the 2nd syllable /ɛ/ is a lax vowel and English lax vowels prefer a syllable with a coda, the 2nd syllable has pulled a coda for itself from the onset of the 3rd syllable. The fact that the English orthography uses two "R"s is consistent with this. (The theories might perhaps need to be expanded to include a shared or dual-duty Consonant???)

Attempting to pronounce the word "strawberry" according to solution 1 or solution 2 does not result in a natural sounding utterance. When I coach non-native speakers of English on pronunciation, I tell them to use the consonant for both syllables, and when they do that, their pronunciation becomes much more natural sounding.


The answer depends on what principles you assume must be in Universal Grammar. The three groups arrived at all of the analyses posited for English: coda-only, onset-only and both coda and onset. This is regardless of there being a rhyme constituent. If you make it obligatory as a matter of theory for there to be an onset if a consonant is available, then it must be an onset. If you forbid segments appearing in two syllables, that rules out the ambisyllabic analysis 3ˊ.

Group 3 posits a "deviant" variant of the ambisyllabic treatment where you have two separate r segments, which nobody posits (instead, the single segment is in two positions). Insofar as English does not have sequences of identical segments within a morpheme, we can rule that analysis out. In general, there has to be some solution to the analysis of VCV, regardless of what the consonant is. Based on the facts of flapping, we can conclude that analysis 3 is wrong, but a variant with ambisyllabic 3 could still be right because that segment remains "intervocalic".

There are many subtle phonological facts (discussed in Kahn 1976) which point to apparently syllable-based treatments, but it has also been shown that reference to the stress foot adequately accounts for those facts, and that syllable structure is not necessary for all of the facts. Phonologists thus generally conclude that there are no compelling phonological arguments that argue for a specific syllable-related structure, instead, the analysis follows from some theoretical premise.

  • I’m interested in what this phonological debate has to do with universal grammar. You only mention the connection briefly at the beginning of your answer.
    – Graham H.
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 3:40

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