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Research Seminar: "Syllabification in English: Contextualizing the Law of Initials and the Law of...
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Topic:  Research Seminar: "Syllabification in English: Contextualizing the Law of Initials and the Law of Finals"
posted itemPosted - 18/02/2010 :  11:38:15


Department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics

Research Seminar


Syllabification in English: Contextualizing the Law of Initials and the Law of Finals


Presented by


Professor San Duanmu

Department of Linguistics, University of Michigan




4 March 2010 (Thursday)


4:30 - 6:00pm


P4904 (Level 4, Purple Zone), Academic Building, CityU






From Most works on syllabification assume the Maximal Onset Principle, which can be stated in (1). 
(1)   The Maximal Onset Principle (MOP, Pulgram 1970, Kahn 1976)

Put as many consonants in the onset as is allowed by the given language. 

For example, in expect [ɪk][spɛct], the second onset is [sp], which is allowed in English, but not [ksp], which is not allowed in English. Similarly, singing is [sɪŋ][ɪŋ] and not  [sɪ][ŋɪŋ], because [ŋ] can be a coda but not an onset. Whether a syllable boundary is allowed or not in turn depends on more fundamental principles, which have been called the Law of Initials and the Law of Finals (Vennemann 1988), restated in (2) and (3).

(2)   The Law of Initials (LOI): Word-medial onsets should resemble word-initial onsets.

(3)   The Law of Finals (LOF): Word-medial rimes should resemble word-final rimes.

Blevins (2004) argues that in some cases the LOI and the LOF cannot be satisfied at the same time, which creates ambiguity between alternative analyses. Consider the examples in (4).  

(4)   Analysis of lemon and city

[lɛm][ən]         [ən] violates the LOI, because word-initial V is preceded by [ʔ]
[lɛ][mən]         [lɛ] violates the LOF, because no word ends in [ɛ] or any lax V
[sɪɾ][i]              [i] violates the LOI and [sɪɾ]  violates the LOF (no word ends in [ɾ])
[sɪ][ɾi]              [ɾi] violates the LOI (no word starts with [ɾ]) and [sɪ] violates the LOF

I argue that Blevins’s analysis is based on words in isolation, which is inadequate. Instead, we should consider the LOI and the LOF in context, where word-final [ɾ] and word initial V are both found. For example, in get it [gɛɾ][ɪt], the first word ends [ɾ] and the second word starts with V without [ʔ]. Indeed, since a word-medial syllable boundary lies between adjacent syllables, it is more appropriate to compare it with adjacent words. Therefore, I propose the Contextualized LOI (CLOI) and the Contextualized LOF (CLOF), shown in (5) and (6). 

(5)   CLOI: Word-medial onsets should resemble phrase-medial word-initial onsets.

(6)   CLOF: Word-medial rimes should resemble phrase-medial word-final rimes.

I show that there is no longer a problem, or ambiguity, with words like lemon and city. The entire CELEX lexicon will be used to demonstrate that the CLOI and the CLOF can always be satisfied.




San DUANMU is Professor of Linguistics, University of Michigan. He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from MIT in 1990 and has held teaching posts at Fudan University, Shanghai (1981-1986) and the University of Michigan (1991-present). He is the author of The Phonology of Standard Chinese (2nd edition, Oxford 2007) and Syllable Structure: The Liminits of Variation (Oxford 2009).


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