The way I understand/guess it, it's not significant in English, that is, there's no example where a word changes meaning by how it is broken into syllables. I guess and ask because there are different opinions on whether a word like "very" is to be syllabified as "ver-y" or "ve-ry". If this mattered in the spoken language, the pronunciation ought to be different and would therefore settle this.

Is this true for every natural language, or are there language(s) where it matters how a word is broken into syllables? In that case, how do you tell syllables apart (in spoken language)? I would prefer examples in languages as closely related to English as possible if any exist.

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    Not sure if it counts as being ‘significant’, but in Danish, syllabification is generally taken as the main factor in how border consonants (i.e., consonants that separate word-internal syllables σ1 and σ2) are pronounced. Syllabification is based on the reduction of the vowel in σ2: if reduced, syllabify as late as possible, otherwise as early as possible: for example, (archaic) rata ‘rate’ has full /a/ in σ2, yielding /raː.ta/ [ˈʁɑːtˢʰæ]; while (normal) rate has reduced /ə/ in σ2, yielding /raːt.ə/ [ˈʁɑːd̥ə/. Commented Jan 16 at 12:17
  • There is blurry syllabification and ambisyllabicity in English. Well explained here: linguistics.ucla.edu/people/hayes/120a/HayesAmbisyllabicity.pdf Not everyone agrees on how a word is analyzed in syllables.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 16 at 16:09
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    What about English, RP: see Zion [siː.zaɪ.ən] vs. sees iron [siːz.aɪ.ən]? It took me about a couple of minutes to come up with this one, and I'm sure many more of those are possible in English alone.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jan 18 at 23:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Interresting, do you have a more "modern" example? I didn't find those words on wiktionary.
    – skyking
    Commented Jan 22 at 9:56
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    @skyking There is a very heavy tendency towards vowel reduction in Danish, so there are far more words that match rate than rata. There are still lots of instances of unreduced vowels, but I’m having trouble thinking of minimal pairs. One example (which is odd and irregular) is the suffix -isk ‘-ish’, which sometimes acts as reduced and sometimes not, even in etymologically related contexts: logisk ‘logical’ is unreduced /ˈloːˀ.ɡisk/ [ˈloː.ɡ̊isɡ̊], while suffixal -ologisk ‘-ological’ (‘biological’, etc.) is reduced /oˈloːˀg.isk/ [oˈloːˀ.isɡ̊]. Commented Jan 22 at 11:17

1 Answer 1


It's famously been claimed that syllabification is contrastive in Blackfoot, with near-minimal pairs like i.stawáʔsiwḁ "he grew" and ɪs.tatánsiwḁ "he bragged", or ipi.ksit "flee" and ipik.ksit "be anxious", distinguished primarily by syllable boundaries.

But this can also be analyzed as contrastive length within consonant clusters, or "contrastive mora assignment", which is what Elfner is really arguing for.

  • Magic?! I'm going to be really ticked if this doesn't receive the green checkmark!
    – Fomalhaut
    Commented Feb 3 at 9:09
  • @Fomalhaut I've not really digested this answer yet, but I will likely accept it.
    – skyking
    Commented Feb 28 at 6:59

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