When we're talking, the words we put together aren't just made out of a mishmash of sounds, with no relation to one another. No, we group our sounds into syllables, and within the syllables, the different sounds play different roles. Every syllable will have a nucleus, the core that the rest of the syllable orbits around. Usually, this is a vowel; all vowels are strong and loud enough to serve as nuclei, and they'll always get their own syllables. In some languages, though, a subset of consonants, like [m] or [n], can fill in when there's not an available vowel to deal with.
The consonants that sit around to either side of the vowel get treated differently. If you have a consonant that comes at the beginning of the syllable, before the vowel, it's known as an onset. Some languages really like these, and require them in every syllable; others treat onsets as optional, but there's no language that doesn't allow them at all. On the other hand, consonants coming after the vowel, at the end of a syllable, are known as codas. Codas aren't as good as onsets to languages; in fact, many languages don't like codas at all, and disallow them completely, or only allow a small subset of the sounds in the language to appear in coda. So if there's a choice, consonants prefer to appear in the onset rather than in the coda, if a consonant finds itself between two vowels. A consonant will only go into the coda if it has to. Finally, if we want to rhyme things, we pay attention to the combination of nucleus and coda, known as the rime.
So we talked in the episode about whether consonants are allowed to go in onset or coda for any given language. These rules about where different sounds can go, and in what combinations, is known as phonotactics, and it's something every language has its own set of specific rules for. Let's take a look at a few examples of different consonants and where they can go.
As we touched on briefly in the video, the two consonants in English that aren't allowed to go both in the onset and the coda are [ŋ] and [h]. [ŋ] can go at the end of a syllable, like in fang [fæŋ], but it can't go at the beginning in English. But that's a rule for English; plenty of languages allow for [ŋ] to show up in the syllable onset:
1) a. ŋonevuli student (Fijian)
b. ŋamk seven (Nivkh)
c. ŋĩəŋ Nguyen (Vietnamese)
That last word, in (1c), is the most common surname in Vietnam, with about 40% of the population bearing the name. And it's got a nice velar nasal right on the front. So people definitely can produce [ŋ] at the beginning of a syllable; we just don't in English. Although it's not just English that disallows [ŋ] in onset; a bunch of other languages do, too, as we'll come back to shortly.
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about syllables, rhyming, the power of vowels and how to work out stress. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!