How can I use C's and V's to describe syllable structures in a way that rules out highly unlikely syllable structures?

For example, I recently looked up the fact that "The structure of the Hawaiian syllable can be represented as being (C)V(V), where the round brackets around C and second V mean that the syllable-initial consonant is optional and the syllable may have a long vowel or diphthong.[30]"

(The latter quote was from the Wikipedia article on Hawaiian Phonology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawaiian_phonology )

If we remove both optional elements from the syllable structure listed above, we get V. So if we have a Hawaiian word that's six syllables long, there's nothing in the description of the syllable structure that rules out a Hawaiian word with this structure: VVVVVV. For that matter, what part of the (C)V(V) expression would rule out a Hawaiian word with the following structure? VVVVVVVVVVVV.

If it is not necessary for the C & V notation to rule out words with the latter structure, why is it not necessary?

  • 4
    Because that's the structure of a syllable, not the structure of a word. If there are constraints on number of syllables in a Hawai'ian word, that's a separate issue (though I doubt there are such constraints -- Hawai'ian words can get very long). But in any case, every syllable in a word will be of the form (C)V(V) -- or conceivably (C)(V)V; after all, how could you tell the difference?
    – jlawler
    Aug 7, 2014 at 22:39
  • Is word structure generally marked in the lexicon across languages? Aug 8, 2014 at 0:26
  • 1
    What does "marked in the lexicon across languages" mean?
    – jlawler
    Aug 8, 2014 at 3:07
  • I meant that, in any given language, a given word's structure, within limits imposed by phonology, is stored in the lexicon, which is why Hawaiian doesn't have any twelve syllable words that comprise only vowels. Aug 8, 2014 at 4:52
  • Well, if you can find the lexicon, you can see what's stored in it. Unfortunately, "the lexicon" is as abstract as the structure, and neither of them correspond to any physical or biological phenomenon. This is the kind of theoretical embellishment that comes from accepting presuppositional IOUs instead of data.
    – jlawler
    Aug 8, 2014 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


The premise that grammatical theory should be responsible for predicting diminishing probabilities of occurrence is a problem. All you can do is generate / not generate a class of structures; so you'd have to identify something about the class that distinguishes it from other structures that are generated. What you can do with just C and V is very limited.

You should look at the original source of the technology, Clements & Keyser's CV Phonology: a Generative Theory of the Syllable. Their theory starts with the concept of a "core" CV syllable, and transformations on them. One is allowing onsetless syllables -- that means that no language has obligatorily onsetless syllables. Another is allowing syllable codas. This means that no language could have only onsetless syllables, or only closed syllables. Some languages allow any number of vowels in a syllable, and they allow "*" meaning "one or more" to follow V and C, and in fact allow a specific integer value for any instance of *, thus a grammar could allow a maximum syllable of the form "32 consonants plus 6 vowels plus 12 consonants". However, as far as I know no case has ever been made for setting a specific numeric limit on consonants, since observed maximum sequences always follow from a separate principle.

Other aspects of the theory address the featural content of syllable-initial and -final sequences, such as the fact that English onsets can be [st] but not [ft]. This is the mechanism that drives most of the power to rule out odd i.e. "unlikely" clusters like [mk]. In a later paper ("The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabification") Clements develops a general theory for encoding sonority generalizations, but there will still be language-particular restrictions on certain sequences. The C&K theory has two sequencing mechanisms, positive conditions such as that onset clusters of obstruent plus glide / liquid (tr) are allowed in English, and negative conditions that non-strident coronals cannot be followed by a lateral (tl). Using these kinds of conditions, one can actually allow in unbounded set of onset and coda consonants in English, and derive the observed limit (CCC in onsets for instance) from the impossibility of parsing CCCC while obeying these sequencing conditions.

Returning to "*" in core syllables, it does appear that vowel sequences are different, in that there are languages that allow just two Vs in a syllable. Hawaiian would be an example. Within CV theory, one would say that Hawaiian has a (C)V2 syllable template, where V2 means "up to two vowels", at least if it is true that Hawaiian doesn't allow more than two vowels in a syllable. (I've never seen a phonological argument to that effect, it's just stipulated). In that case, hooiaioia 'certified' (documented as a Hawaiian word, not just an internet meme) would have to be more than one syllable -- 4 syllables, perhaps more. Let us suppose that there is no word with the form CVVVVVVVVV, which would have to be at least 5 syllables. But there are 9-syllable words like kawaiolaonapukanileo "choral group", so there cannot be a word-size limit that words have to be under 5 syllables. The notion of morpheme- or word-structure conditions fell into disrepute and there isn't a formal theory of them, so it's hard to tell how one might state such a limit -- at any rate, it would not be a limit pertaining to syllables, it would be about phoneme sequences.

There is no word "plagrafufu" in English. There is no reason to elevate that gap to the level of a matter of formal principle, i.e. rule it out. Likewise, there is no reason to specifically rule out apparently non-existent hooiaioiai in Hawaiian. Especially in languages with long words, the set of "actual" words in a language is often a small subset of those generated by motivated syllable structure principles.

  • Your documentation for hooiaioia appears to be just a conventional spelling. Should we take it seriously as a correct phonemic form? How many syllables does it have?
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 1, 2015 at 17:06
  • 1
    If you have specific knowledge that there are orthographic artifacts like silent letters in kawaiolaonapukanileo or hooiaioia or any other word of Hawaiian, please do tell. Or if you really do think that six consecutive vowels is actually ruled out by the grammar of Hawaiian, you can make the case. I'm not even willing to commit to the claim that there are syllables in Hawaiian or elsewhere: again, if you know of a diagnostic, you can present your evidence.
    – user6726
    Mar 1, 2015 at 17:15
  • My doubts concern how many syllables oi and ai have. If they are both diphthongs with one syllable, that reduces the number of V syllables in your example hooiaioiai to zero. Is it really up to me to prove this dubious example is mistaken? It was your example.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 1, 2015 at 17:24
  • Notice that I said that the word has at least 4 syllables. That presupposed no V syllables. If you want to make a more specific claim, e.g. that there are exactly 4, or only 3, or anything more specific, then you have to give some evidence. You also have to give evidence to support your doubt that this is a word, or that there is a special relationship between spelling and pronunciation applicable to this word.
    – user6726
    Mar 1, 2015 at 17:36
  • you've lost me. You're supposedly answering a question about syllable structure, you disclaim any belief that there even are syllables, then you start talking about syllables again, you mix up glides and vowels, you mischaracterize what I said as doubting your example is a word, which I did not do. I think we're done here.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 1, 2015 at 18:42

Let me introduce you to the David Stampe's Natural Phonology theory of morpheme structure -- i.e. what patterns of segments in morphemes are possible. It's simple and elegant. The possible phonological processes in human language are universal among languages, but we don't necessarily apply all of them, so languages differ in regard to which processes children must suppress, or "unlearn", in order to master their native languages. A particular pronunciation will be impossible in a language if it would be changed to something else by a phonological process which remains unsuppressed in that language. If a speaker is confronted with the problem of pronouncing a word of some language he doesn't know, he will adapt the word to his own native language by applying to it all those phonological processes which he never had to suppress when he learned his own language.

So the problem of describing morpheme structure for a language is essentially the same as the problem of describing how loan words will be adapted to a language. The morphemes of the language may have any form which will not be altered by any of the processes which have not been suppressed in that language.

Finally getting around to the initial question, "How can I use C's and V's to describe syllable structures in a way that rules out highly unlikely syllable structures?", the answer is that you find those phonological processes which would be applicable to unlikely syllable structures in a language so as to change them to some different pronunciation, but which cannot apply to any native admissible syllable structure of the language.

For instance, for a language with all open syllables, which of the universal processes would be inapplicable to any open syllable? Those are the processes which children learning the language never had to unlearn, and so continue to be active in the phonological systems of adults. Those would include processes that delete syllable offset consonants and processes that epenthesize vowels in syllable final consonant clusters or after syllable final consonants.

It's not possible in Natural Phonology to formulate a theory of admissibility without at the same time giving a theory of loan phonology. The syllable patterns that fail to occur in a language's words are those which would be altered when a word is borrowed from another language.

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