A syllabic consonant is a consonant which either forms a syllable on its own, like the m, n and l in the English words rhythm, button and bottle, or is the nucleus of a syllable, such as the r sound in the American pronunciation of work. The diacritic for this in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is the under-stroke, ⟨U+0329 ̩ combining vertical line below⟩. It may be represented by an over-stroke, ⟨U+030D ̍ combining vertical line above⟩, if the symbol that it modifies has a descender, such as in [ŋ̍].
Most languages that have syllabic consonants have syllabic sonorants such as nasals and liquids. A very few have syllabic obstruents such as stops and fricatives in normal words, though English has syllabic fricatives in paralinguistic words like shh! and zzz.
In many dialects of High-German and Low Saxon, pronouncing syllabic consonants may be considered a sign of nativity. In High-German and Tweants (a Low Saxon dialect spoken in the Netherlands), all word-final syllables in infinite verbs and feminine plural nouns spelled -en are pronounced with syllabic consonants. The High-German infinitive laufen (to walk) is pronounced [ˈlaufn̩] and its Tweants counterpart loopn is pronounced [ˈlɔːʔm̩]. Tweants scholars even debate whether or not this feature should be incorporated in spelling, resulting in two generally accepted spelling forms (either loopn or lopen).
Many dialects of English may use syllabic consonants in words such as even [ˈiːvn̩], awful [ˈɔːfɫ̩] and rhythm [ˈɹɪðm̩], which English dictionaries' respelling systems usually treat as realizations of underlying sequences of schwa plus consonant (e.g. /ˈiːvən/).
In Danish, a syllabic consonant is the standard colloquial realization of combinations between the phoneme "schwa" /ə/ and a resonant, generally referred to as "schwa-assimilation", e.g. katten (the cat) /ˈkatən/ = [ˈkʰad̥n̩], dame (lady) /ˈdaːmə/ = [ˈd̥æːm̩], cykel (bike) /ˈsykəl/ = [ˈsyɡ̊l̩], myre (ant) /ˈmyːrə/ = [ˈmyːɐ], sove (sleep) /ˈsɒːʋə/ = [ˈsɒːʊ], reje (shrimp) /ˈraːjə/ = [ˈʁɑːɪ], huset (the house) /ˈhuːˀsəð/ = [ˈhuːˀsð̩ˠ].
All of these consonants are sonorants. The only time obstruents are used syllabically in English is in onomatopoeia, such as sh! [ ʃ̩ː] (a command to be quiet), sss [s̩ː] (the hiss of a snake), zzz [z̩ː] (the sound of a bee buzzing or someone sleeping), and tsk tsk! [ǀǀ] (used to express disapproval or pity), though it is not certain how to define what a syllable is in such cases.
Sanskrit ṛ [r̩] and ḷ [l̩] are syllabic consonants, allophones of consonantal r and l. This continues the reconstructed situation of Proto-Indo-European, where both nasals and liquids had syllabic allophones, r̩, l̩, m̩, n̩.
Many Slavic languages allow syllabic consonants. Some examples include:
- Czech and Slovak r [r] and l [l], as in the phrase Strč prst skrz krk 'stick your finger through your neck'. In addition, Slovak also has long versions of these syllabic consonants, ŕ and ĺ, e.g.: kĺb 'joint', vŕba 'willow', škvŕn '(of) spots'. In addition, Czech also has m̩ and n̩, e.g.: sedm [sedm̩] (or, in dialect, [sedn̩]) 'seven'.
- Slovene (orthographically) r [r], e.g. smŕt 'death', vŕt 'garden', kŕt 'mole', vŕba 'willow'; in Styria also vŕv 'rope', as well as (non-orthographically) m, n, and l in non-native words, e.g. Vltava
- Serbo-Croatian r [r], e.g., trčati 'to run', l [l], e.g. Vltava 'Vltava', and n [n], e.g. Njutn 'Newton'.
- Macedonian р [r], e.g., прв [ˈpr̩f] 'first', ѕрцки [ˈd͡zr̩t͡ski] 'peepers', срце [ˈsr̩t͡sɛ] 'heart', незадржлив [nɛˈzadr̩ʒlif] 'irrepressible', and ’рбет [ˈr̩bɛt] 'spine', ’рѓа [ˈr̩ɟa] 'to rust', ’рчи [ˈr̩t͡ʃi] 'to snore', etc.
Cantonese features both syllabic m ([m̩]) and ng ([ŋ̍]) that stand alone as their own words. The former is most often used in the word meaning 'not' (唔, [m̭̍]) while the latter can be seen in the word for 'five' (五, [ŋ̬̍]) and the surname Ng (吳, [ŋ̭̍] or 伍, [ŋ̬̍], depending on the tone), among others.
Mandarin and syllabic fricatives
A number of languages have syllabic fricatives or fricative vowels. In several varieties of Chinese, certain high vowels following fricatives or affricates are pronounced as extensions of those sounds, with voicing added (if not already present) and a vowel pronounced while the tongue and teeth remain in the same position as for the preceding consonant, leading to the turbulence of a fricative carrying over into the vowel. In Mandarin Chinese, this happens for example with sī shī rī. Traditional grammars describing them as having a "buzzing" sound. A number of modern linguists describe them as true syllabic fricatives, although with weak frication. They are accordingly transcribed ⟨sź̩ ʂʐ̩́ ʐʐ̩́ ⟩ respectively.
However, for many speakers, the friction carries over only into the beginning of the vowel. The tongue and teeth remain where they were, but the tongue contact is lessened a bit to allow for a high approximant vowel with no frication except at the beginning, during the transition. John Wells at University College London uses the detailed transcriptions ⟨sz̞ᵚ⟩ for si and ⟨ʂɻᶤ⟩ for shi (ignoring the tone), with the superscript indicating the "color" of the sound and a lowering diacritic on the z to indicate that the tongue contact is relaxed enough to prevent frication. Another researcher suggests ⟨s͡ɯ⟩ and ⟨ʂ͡ɨ⟩ for si and shi, respectively, to indicate that the frication of the consonant may extend onto the vowel. Some speakers have even more lax articulation, opening the teeth and noticeably lowering the tongue, so that sī shī rī are pronounced [sɯ́ ʂɯ́ ʐɯ́], with the same vowel [ɯ] in each case and no r-coloring.
Standard Liangshan Yi has two similar "buzzed" vowels that are described as syllabic fricatives, [β̩, ɹ̝̍]. The former may even be trilled [ʙ̞̍].
Sinologists and linguists working in the Chinese analytical tradition frequently use the term apical vowel (舌尖元音 shejian yuanyin) to describe the sounds above and others like them in various Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages. However, this is a misnomer, as the tongue is actually laminal. The nonstandard symbols ⟨ɿ ʅ ʮ ʯ ⟩ are commonly used to transcribe these vowels in place of ⟨z̩ ʐ̩ z̩ʷ ʐ̩ʷ⟩ or ⟨C͡ɯ C͡ɨ C͡u C͡ʉ⟩, respectively. The term apical vowel should not be taken as synonymous with syllabic fricative, as e.g., the bilabial syllabic fricative [β̩] in Liangshan Yi is not pronounced with the tongue.
Berber, Salish, Wakashan and Chemakuan languages have syllabic obstruents in normal vocabulary, such as Nuxálk [p̍ʰ.t̩ʰ.k̩ʰ.ts̩ʰ], [s̩.pʰs̩] "northeast wind", [s̩.χ̍.s̩] or [sχ̍.s̩] "seal blubber", [ɬ̩.q̍ʰ] "wet", [ť̩.ɬ̩.ɬ̩] "dry", or [nu.jam.ɬ̩.ɬ̩.ɬ̩.ɬ̩] "we (ɬ̩) used to (ɬ̩.ɬ̩) sing (nu.jam.ɬ̩)".
In Standard Yorùbá, the consonants m and n may be syllabic and carry tone-like vowels. However, they can only stand alone as syllables not being able to stand as syllable nuclei.
In the Baoulé language, the consonant m or n may be syllabic. As a stand-alone word, it means “I” (first person subject pronoun), as in “N ti baule” (I speak Baoulé). Its quality varies with the consonant following it, as in “M bá aiman” (I will come tomorrow).
The Hungarian word s [ʃ̩], a high-register variant of és "and", is a syllabic consonant.
Japanese is frequently described as having a syllabic N, which has its own "syllabic" letter in Japanese kana, but it is actually moraic. The only actual syllabic consonant is a syllabic nasal as an informal variant of un "yeah", similar to syllabic nasals with similar meanings in English.
- International Phonetic Association, Handbook, pp. 14–15.
- For example, see the Pronunciation guide of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
- Toporišič, Jože. 1992. Enciklopedija slovenskega jezika. Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga, p. 377.
- Jerry Norman (1988). Chinese (Cambridge Linguistic Surveys). Cambridge University Press. P. 142.
- S. Robert Ramsey (1987). The Languages of China. Princeton University Press. P. 45.
- San Duanmu (2008). "Syllable Structure in Chinese" (ch. 4). In Syllable Structure. Oxford. 304 pp. Accessed Feb 21, 2013.
- UCLA Phonetics Lab Data: .
- John Wells (March 15, 2007). "Chinese apical vowels. John Wells's phonetic blog. Accessed Feb 21, 2013.
- Kwan-hin Cheung, 1992. "北京話 '知' '資' 二韻國際音標寫法商榷" [IPA transcription of the so-called 'apical vowels' in Pekinese], in T. Lee, ed., Research on Chinese Linguistics in Hong Kong, Linguistic Society of Hong Kong.