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Phonotactics (from Ancient Greek phōnḗ "voice, sound" and taktikós "having to do with arranging")[1] is a branch of phonology that deals with restrictions in a language on the permissible combinations of phonemes. Phonotactics defines permissible syllable structure, consonant clusters, and vowel sequences by means of phonotactical constraints.

Phonotactic constraints are highly language specific. For example, in Japanese, consonant clusters like /st/ do not occur. Similarly, the sounds /kn/ and /ɡn/ are not permitted at the beginning of a word in Modern English but are in German and Dutch, and were permitted in Old and Middle English. In contrast, in some Slavic languages /l/ and /r/ are used as vowels.

Syllables have the following internal segmental structure:

  • Onset (optional)
  • Rime (obligatory, comprises nucleus and coda):

Both onset and coda may be empty, forming a vowel-only syllable, or alternatively, the nucleus can be occupied by a syllabic consonant. Phonotactics is known to affect second language vocabulary acquisition.[2]

English phonotactics

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The English syllable (and word) twelfths /twɛlfθs/ is divided into the onset /tw/, the nucleus /ɛ/, and the coda /lfθs/, and it can thus be described as CCVCCCC (C = consonant, V = vowel). On this basis it is possible to form rules for which representations of phoneme classes may fill the cluster. For instance, English allows at most three consonants in an onset, but among native words under standard accents (and excluding a few obscure learned words such as sphragistics), phonemes in a three-consonantal onset are limited to the following scheme:[3]

/s/ + stop + approximant:
  • /s/ + /m/ + /j/
  • /s/ + /t/ + /ɹ/
  • /s/ + /t/ + /j/ (not in most accents of American English)
  • /s/ + /p/ + /j ɹ l/
  • /s/ + /k/ + /j ɹ l w/

This constraint can be observed in the pronunciation of the word blue: originally, the vowel of blue was identical to the vowel of cue, approximately [iw]. In most dialects of English, [iw] shifted to [juː]. Theoretically, this would produce **[bljuː]. The cluster [blj], however, infringes the constraint for three-consonantal onsets in English. Therefore, the pronunciation has been reduced to [bluː] by elision of the [j].

Not all languages have this constraint: compare Spanish pliegue [ˈpljeɣe] or French pluie [plɥi].

In English, there exist fourteen constraints on phonotactics:[4]

  1. All syllables have a nucleus
  2. No geminates
  3. No onset /ŋ/
  4. No /h/ in the syllable coda
  5. No affricates in complex onsets
  6. The first consonant in a complex onset must be an obstruent
  7. The second consonant in a complex onset must not be a voiced obstruent
  8. If the first consonant in a complex onset is not an /s/, the second must be a liquid or a glide
  9. Every subsequence contained within a sequence of consonants must obey all the relevant phonotactic rules (the substring principle)[5]
  10. No glides in codas
  11. If there is a complex coda, the second consonant must not be /ŋ/, /ʒ/, or /ð/
  12. If the second consonant in a complex coda is voiced, so is the first
  13. Non-alveolar nasals must be homorganic with the next segment
  14. Two obstruents in the same coda must share voicing

Sonority hierarchy

In general, the rules of phonotactics operate around the sonority hierarchy, stipulating that the nucleus has maximal sonority and that sonority decreases as you move away from the nucleus. The voiceless alveolar fricative [s] is lower on the sonority hierarchy than the alveolar lateral approximant [l], so the combination /sl/ is permitted in onsets and /ls/ is permitted in codas, but /ls/ is not allowed in onsets and /sl/ is not allowed in codas. Hence slips /slɪps/ and pulse /pʌls/ are possible English words while *lsips and *pusl are not.

That said, in some cases /s/ is "invisible" to the sonority hierarchy; as a fricative, it is more sonorant than the plosive /t/. However, combinations like [stiːɫ] (steal), which violates the sonority hierarchy, are seen and are even common in English. This is even more obvious in the syllable coda, where both /st/ (e.g. best /bɛst/) and /ts/ (e.g. bets /bɛts/) are permitted codas. This same property is seen in many other languages for either /s/ or /z/ and is thus a human universal.[citation needed]

Notes and references


  1. φωνή, τακτικός. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  2. Laufer 1997.
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General references

  • Bailey, Todd M. & Hahn, Ulrike. 2001. Determinants of wordlikeness: Phonotactics or lexical neighborhoods? Journal of Memory and Language 44: 568–591.
  • Coleman, John S. & Pierrehumbert, Janet. 1997. Stochastic phonological grammars and acceptability. Computational Phonology 3: 49–56.
  • Frisch, S.; Large, N. R.; & Pisoni, D. B. 2000. Perception of wordlikeness: Effects of segment probability and length on processing non-words. Journal of Memory and Language 42: 481–496.
  • Gathercole, Susan E. & Martin, Amanda J. 1996. Interactive processes in phonological memory. In Cognitive models of memory, edited by Susan E. Gathercole. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
  • Hammond, Michael. 2004. Gradience, phonotactics, and the lexicon in English phonology. International Journal of English Studies 4: 1–24.
  • Gaygen, Daniel E. 1997. Effects of probabilistic phonotactics on the segmentation of continuous speech. Doctoral dissertation, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. & Jenkins, James J. 1964. Studies in the psychological correlates of the sound system of American English. Word 20: 157–177.
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  • Luce, Paul A. & Pisoni, Daniel B. 1998. Recognizing spoken words: The neighborhood activation model. Ear and Hearing 19: 1–36.
  • Newman, Rochelle S.; Sawusch, James R.; & Luce, Paul A. 1996. Lexical neighborhood effects in phonetic processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 23: 873–889.
  • Ohala, John J. & Ohala, M. 1986. Testing hypotheses regarding the psychological manifestation of morpheme structure constraints. In Experimental phonology, edited by John J. Ohala & Jeri J. Jaeger, 239–252. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
  • Pitt, Mark A. & McQueen, James M. 1998. Is compensation for coarticulation mediated by the lexicon? Journal of Memory and Language 39: 347–370.
  • Storkel, Holly L. 2001. Learning new words: Phonotactic probability in language development. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 44: 1321–1337.
  • Storkel, Holly L. 2003. Learning new words II: Phonotactic probability in verb learning. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 46: 1312–1323.
  • Vitevitch, Michael S. & Luce, Paul A. 1998. When words compete: Levels of processing in perception of spoken words. Psychological Science 9: 325–329.
  • Vitevitch, Michael S. & Luce, Paul A. 1999. Probabilistic phonotactics and neighborhood activation in spoken word recognition. Journal of Memory and Language 40: 374–408.
  • Vitevitch, Michael S.; Luce, Paul A.; Charles-Luce, Jan; & Kemmerer, David. 1997. Phonotactics and syllable stress: Implications for the processing of spoken nonsense words. Language and Speech 40: 47–62.
  • Vitevitch, Michael S.; Luce, Paul A.; Pisoni, David B.; & Auer, Edward T. 1999. Phonotactics, neighborhood activation, and lexical access for spoken words. Brain and Language 68: 306–311.

External links