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Realized syllable numbers in language

  Tags: Phonetics
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Bilingual Heptaglot
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 Message 1 of 6
22 March 2013 at 2:19pm | IP Logged 
I was curious, do languages have a generally established or agreed number of recognized
syllable combinations? By that I mean have studies been made to identify how many
syllables actually exist in a language.

Given an average roman alphabet, European languages would have tens of thousands of
combinations (25x25, and then you have to account for tri or even quad syllables), but
the reality is that most of those combinations are either impossible, redundant (e.g.
"HHA"), or simply not used. From what I have been gathering, it seems most languages
have between 2,400-2,800 syllables.

One English page I wound claimed English had 2,700.
Mandarin has some 450 syllables by many accounts, but that is before assigning tone.
With four tones plus a neutral tone, you would expect that number to probably triple.

So that's it really, nothing very deep. Just wondering if syllable counts for various
languages had been made.

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 Message 2 of 6
22 March 2013 at 3:13pm | IP Logged 
Actually it is a fairly deep question. I can't imagine that there is a settled number of permitted syllables in any language, although it can't be excluded either. But languages vary in the degree of strictness or laxness of the selection rules they obey in different environments. For instance an early forerunner of Spanish had a rule that prevented words from beginning with sp- or st- etc., and therefore the name of Spain is "España". Early and modern Italian didn't obey this rule so there the country is called "Spagna". Early French much have had some Spanish-like aversion against "sp-" and "st-" since Spain became "Espagne" (and it still is), while the imperfect which started out as a word beginning with "st..." changed into "est-" and later into "ét-" (sta(ba)t, estet, estoit, etait). But the rules have changed there so modern Francophones don't need to add that extra e- to avoid the scary sp- or st- clash.

The total number of syllables in a language will only become lower if such restrictions are valid in all contexts, and that takes some of the interest out of the absolute syllable numbers. But of course there are restrictions which actually are valid in all native words (loanwards may behave differently). And the more a language has of those general restrictions the fewer syllables it will possess.

Edited by Iversen on 24 March 2013 at 2:56pm

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 Message 3 of 6
22 March 2013 at 5:49pm | IP Logged 
It also depends on how to devide a word at syllables.
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 Message 4 of 6
22 March 2013 at 5:49pm | IP Logged 
A problem here is with loan words. Where do you draw the line? Will you count "schmuck" as a word in English? What about "garage"? And what about local dialect words? Most uncommon syllables will occur in these sorts of words.

EDIT: Also, what pronunciation standard? Are "Wales" and "whales" pronounced differently in "English"? What about "fair" and "fur"? "Meet" and "meet"? "Cot"/"caught"? "Pour"/"poor"? "Mary"/"merry"/"marry"/"Murray"? In all of these examples, there are varieties of English that distinguish them and varieties that do not.

Mandarin is an example here. Will you count the Bijing-style erhua sounds? That will increase the amount of possible syllables by a huge amount. In Cantonese, there are loads of words with unique types of syllables that don't occur in any other words. These are variyingly spread across different places and age groups, some very common, others quite local. In French, too, there's the "-ing" ending with a phoneme that is only found in loan words from English. Will you count those or not?

Edited by Ari on 22 March 2013 at 5:55pm

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 Message 5 of 6
22 March 2013 at 10:04pm | IP Logged 
Ulrich Stiehl writes after thorough research, that classical Sanskrit has around 800 ligatures. If you add 23 simple consonants and 11 usual vowels, there cannot be more than about 9000 possible syllables. Not all combinations of consonants and vowels may have been realized, but these are the ones phonotactically possible.
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 Message 6 of 6
23 March 2013 at 5:57pm | IP Logged 
All of the possible Mandarin syllables can be listed on a table that fits on one page – you find these in textbooks or dictionaries. I’m not sure how this sort of table can be put to use in learning Chinese though.

Have you looked at WALS? Chapter 12, Syllable Structure, divides the world’s languages into those with simple ((C)V only), moderately complex (CVC and/or CCV also possible) and complex (multiple Cs in initial and/or final positions) syllable structures. Mandarin is actually moderately complex, since it allows nasal finals (-n and –ng). Cantonese would have more possible syllables, with its final stops. Vowel length in Cantonese might be seen as upping the count too, although not by WALS’ definition, it seems.

I suppose some Oceanic languages like Hawaiian would have far fewer possible syllables than Mandarin, because the structure is CV only, and the inventories of both vowels and consonants are quite limited. But I’ve never seen an absolute number given. Many African languages have simple syllable structure, and presumably also tone – it would be interesting to look more closely at possible correlations between these two features.

Here’s the link for WALS – check out the map, too.

WALS Syllable Structure

Edited by viedums on 23 March 2013 at 5:59pm

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