Pittayawat Pittayaporn

Chulalongkorn University




Sesquisyllabicity: sonority and syllabification


The term “sesquisyllable”, literally “one-and-a-half syllable”, refers to words consisting of an unstressed “minor” syllable  followed by a stressed “major” (Matisoff 1973). Many Austroasiatic languages are claimed to show sesquisyllabicity, but the phonological characterization of sesquisyllables is little understood. Cross-linguistically, consonant sequences are parsed into syllables under restrictions on their sonority patterns. The Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP) dictates that the first consonant in a cluster be less sonorous than the second, e.g. [pr-], [sr-] in contrast to *[rp-], *[rs-] (Selkirk 1984). Furthermore, a cluster must show a certain sonority distance, e.g. Spanish allows [pr-] but bans *[pn-] (Harris 1983). Based on data from Kammu (Svantesson 1983), I argue that these constraints neutralize the contrast between monosyllables and sesquisyllables. In Kammu, clusters in monosyllables can only consist of an obstruent plus a liquid, e.g. [kléʔ] ‘to appear’, and [krɔ̀̀:ŋ] ‘stalk’. This type of consonant sequences both obeys SSP and meets the sonority distance required. In contrast, sequences of minor syllable followed by the onset of the major syllable may violate SSP, e.g. [r.mà:ŋ] ‘rich’, and [l.mà:c] ‘(exp) to get stuck’, or show relatively low sonority distance, e.g. [k.màʔ] ‘rain’, and [k.nóh] ‘cutting board. This indicates that most sesquisyllabic structure result from failure of consonant sequences to form permissible onset clusters. However, contrast between such pairs as [kló:k] ‘bamboo bowl’ and [k.ló:k] ‘slit drum’ also exists, indicating that sesquisyllability must also be specified in the underlying representation. Therefore, I argue that sesquisyllanbic structure is contrastive, but the contrast between sesquisyllabic and monosyllabic structures surfaces only where sonority-based constraints fail to neutralize it.



Harris, James W. (1983). Syllable structure and stress in Spanish: a nonlinear analysis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Matisoff, James A. (1973). Tonogenesis in Southeast Asia. In L. M. Hyman (Ed.), Consonant types & tones (pp. 71-95). Los Angeles: The Linguistic Program, University of Southern California.

Selkirk, Elizabeth O. (1984). On the major class features and syllable theory. In M. Aronoff & R. T. Oehrle (Eds.), Language sound structure (Vol. 107-136). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Svantesson, Jan-Olof. (1983). Kammu phonology and morphology. Lund: CWK Gleerup.