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Olivia Alter "The role of syllables in language is clear. Their structure is much less so." Discuss with reference to English and another language. The notion of the syllable as a relevant linguistic and phonological unit has been contested over the last few decades, since it is fairly simple to outline its role in language, yet there is no agreed definition for it. There is evidence for the syllable as a unit, and it is often regarded as more fundamental than segments, but much of the argument against it comes from the fact that syllable structures are not present in underlying representations, so phonologists have attempted to create models of syllable structure which could provide some clarity. There are also universal principles for syllabification, but when one moves on to specific languages, the idea of a syllable could become confused. Therefore, it seems that in order to define a syllable, one should examine its role in language; from this, one can move on to its structure, universally and within specific languages, to see if the syllable really does become a more complex concept. Syllables are clearly important units, not least because certain languages (such as Chinese) write in a syllabified alphabet. However, it is important to maintain that their function lies within phonology rather than phonetics, as their particular roles 1 will demonstrate. One role of a syllable is in conditioning the application of phonological rules within a language. In other words, there are language-specific constraints on how vowels and consonants can be combined, and these are best stated in terms of syllables. For example, in English, one can use the sequence [tl] as long as each phoneme belongs to a different syllable, such as in the word 'atlas' [aet.las] (where a '.' signifies the boundary between syllables). Another role is in controlling the combination of features that make up segments; this is done by providing an analysis of internal structures of segments, and indicating the number of rhythmic units in a syllable. Nevertheless, this would require the presence of a CV-tier in a syllable structure, and, as will be discussed later, this does not suit all languages. The final role of a syllable is in the treatment and organisation of suprasegmental phenomena (such as stress and tone), since particular phonological rules use segments grouped in units the size of a syllable. 1
As outlined in Katamba, F. (1995) An Introduction to Phonology
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