English Pronunciation and Syllabic Consonants

by Jim Vinci
(Des Plaines, Illinois 60018)

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I have been working on building a database of American English words and am developing what I call ease of pronunciation and ease of spelling indexes for each word. These indexes depend on the frequencies of the phoneme and grapheme correspondences, which my computer program identifies based on stored information on pronunciation for each word.

I have struggled a bit with how to characterize and identify syllabic consonants, and dictionaries are of no help. Would you say that the letter 'l' in words like azalea, Australia, and Amelia are syllabic? Are there rules that govern syllabic consonants? Also, would you say that the letter 'l' in these words are dark or clear?

Thanks for your help.


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Comments for English Pronunciation and Syllabic Consonants

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May 25, 2009
A Gray Area of Pronunciation
by: Charles Becker

Hi Jim,

I'm always glad to offer my help.

This is a tricky and obscure question about a gray area of pronunciation. It requires a long answer full of "teacher talk." Now, I know you want to read on!

In general, in order for something to constitute a syllable, it must have a vowel sound in it.

"Syllabic consonants" act as an exception to this rule. (They're really rare in English.)
Syllabic consonants are consonants which function as syllables without a vowel sound.

The l's in Australia, Amelia and Azelea, are not syllabic consonants as far as I can tell. There is a vowel sound in each syllable of a word like "A ze li a."

Here's an example of what some consider a syllabic /l/ in English - "bottle - bo ttle".
The /l / may be considered a syllabic consonant but that's really in colloquial, sloppy speech. Also "cuddle", "throttle.."

Many sources, including myself, would not count this as a true case because there should be a schwa vowel sound in between the "t" and the "l" when it's pronounced correctly.

A better example of a syllabic consonant in English would be when we substitute a sound called the "glottal shock" for the sequence in words like button, cotton or mountain.

Instead of /t schwa n/, we sometimes make a glottal shock sound. Hence, there is no vowel- just a consonant sound in the second syllable.

Finally, sound words like ""shhh..."-as in be quiet." or "pssst..." -as in give me your attention, are true syllabic consonants.

Dark l's or clear l's
The l's in Amelia, Australia, Azelia could be considered "dark ls". Dark l's come at the end of syllables in English. In dark l, the back of our tongue is raised.

"Clear l" comes at the beginning of syllables and is like the /l/ you find in Spanish. (back of tongue is not raised)

However, the /l/ in these words could also be perceived as clear because they occur in the middle of the word. We can we break it up this way: a ze li a.

But what also sets these examples apart is that a speaker may not actually touch their gum ridge with the tip of their tongue because the next sound is a consonant.

Like I mentioned ... gray areas.

-Charles Becker :)

Charles Becker teaches English pronunciation and accent reduction in New York City. He has years of professional experience teaching ESL students from all over the world.

Charles is also the creator of the Best Accent Training MP3s

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