Sonority Sequencing Principle

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The Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP)[1][2] is a phonotactic principle that aims to outline the structure of a syllable in terms of sonority.

The SSP states that the center of a syllable, namely the syllable nucleus, often a vowel, constitutes a sonority peak that is preceded and/or followed by a sequence of segments – consonants – with progressively decreasing sonority values (i.e., the sonority has to fall toward both edges of the syllable). The sonority values of segments are determined by a sonority hierarchy.

A good example for the SSP in English is the one-syllable word "trust": The first consonant in the syllable onset is t, which is a stop, the lowest on the sonority scale; next is r, a liquid which is more sonorous, then we have the vowel u /ʌ/ – the sonority peak; next, in the syllable coda, is s, a fricative, and last is another stop, t. The SSP explains why, for example, "trend" is a valid English word but *"rtedn" (flipping the order of consonants) is not.

Some languages possess syllables that violate the SSP (Russian and Arabic, for example) while other languages strictly adhere to it, even requiring larger intervals on the sonority scale: In Italian for example, a syllable-initial stop must be followed by either a liquid, a glide or a vowel, but not by a fricative (except: [ps] borrowed words like: pseudonimo, psicologia). Some languages allow a sonority "plateau"; that is, two adjacent tautosyllabic consonants with the same sonority level. Modern Hebrew is an example of such language.

A number of unrelated languages that typically follow the SSP will violate it with /s/ + stop clusters. For example, in the English word "string" or Italian "spago" the more sonorous /s/ comes before a less sonorous sound in the onset. In native English words, no phoneme other than /s/ ever violates the SSP.


  1. ^ Selkirk, E. (1984). On the major class features and syllable theory. In Aronoff & Oehrle (eds.) Language Sound Structure: Studies in Phonology. Cambridge: MIT Press. 107-136.
  2. ^ Clements, G. N. (1990). The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabification. In J. Kingston and M. E. Beckman (eds.) Papers in Laboratory Phonology I: Between the grammar and the physics of speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 283-333.