Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Linguistic Lingo and Lyric Diction VII-Phonotactics

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Linguistic Lingo and Lyric Diction VII-Phonotactics

Article excerpt

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IN THE FIELD OF SUNG DICTION, the linguistic term "phonotactics" is seldom encountered. The discipline, however, is a very practical one that affects us all in everyday life at an applied level. It is of interest to musicians to the extent that it examines many of the most practical challenges involved in the unfolding of text, whether in our first language or one less familiar.

The focus of articulative phonetics must begin at the segmental level, while the branch of phonetics known as phonotactics looks at sounds suprasegmentally-that is, how individual articulations behave when placed in succession. But the discipline of phonotactics is primarily thought of as a branch of phonology, not phonetics-one that deals with the tautosyllabic (within the syllable) combinations of phones as found in language. It examines the constraints that a language or dialect imposes upon adjacent articulations in its native vocabulary, primarily at the syllabic levels (the focus of this article), but also at the morphemic and lexical levels. A phonetic inventory of all articulations in a language of course does not imply that all possible permutations of articulations, when placed in succession, will be found in the lexis of that language.

Linguists have developed notation methods for indicating phonotactic rules. Onset and coda, as employed above, are standard terms indicating the beginning and end of syllables. In CV phonology, the following terms are now considered standard:1

CV: simple onset, no coda

CV:C simple onset, simple coda

CCV: complex onset, no coda

CCV:C complex onset, simple coda

CCCV: very complex onset, no coda

CCCV:C very complex onset, simple coda

CCV:CC complex onset, complex coda

We shall employ this nomenclature here.

Constraints upon successive articulations fall loosely into two categories: those that are unwieldy or impossible physiologically, and those that are simply shunned by the native speakers, and thus the lexis, of a language. For instance, most languages have a maximum of three consonants at the onset of a word or syllable. In English, further constraints exist:

1. the first of these must be an /s/.

2. the second can only be an unvoiced plosive, /p/, /t/, or /k/.

3. the third must be a liquid or a glide, /l/, /r/, /w/, or /j/.

Thus, clusters such as /sfl/, /skv/, and /slw/, while phonetically possible, are inadmissible in English. Moreover, the articulations allowed by the rules above are necessary but not sufficient conditions for English onset clusters. Clusters such as /spw/, /skj/, and /stl/ follow the rules, but are gaps in the lexis.2 A cluster such as /pvk/, while not impossible to articulate, is disallowed in most languages, because of the "sandwiching" of a continuant between two plosives, and the awkward combination of unvoiced/voiced/unvoiced.3 One can imagine /psk/ to be a more likely candidate. Plosive followed by plosive, as in /pks/, is quite possible, and not so unwieldy as one might at first imagine. However, the languages of western Europe fail to employ it.

Other languages will impose their own constraints upon the succession of consonants in onset (syllable-initial) and in coda (syllable-final), which may or may not align with the phonotactic rules of English. For instance, German allows /∫/ as well as /s/ in 1. above, and clusters such as /∫pr/ are certainly not unwieldy from a purely phonetic standpoint. German allows /mpf/ (Rumpf) and occasionally also English (humpf), but the cluster is disallowed in Spanish. Russian goes further, allowing clusters such as /fsl/, /mgl/, and /ps/ as onset sequences. When English disallows onset /ps/, but retains , the word has migrated from a language allowing /ps/ onsets to one that does not. Pronunciation is more mutable than orthography over time, especially since Gutenberg.

Some linguists posit universal constraints on the phonetic production of sounds in language. …

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