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Old 08-12-2013, 02:31 PM
Cheshire Human Cheshire Human is offline
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English language question: How many different pronounceable syllables are there?

Some languages, such as Japanese, have a writing system based on pronounceable syllables in the spoken language. If we were to invent a writing system based on pronounceable syllables1 for English, how many different characters would we need?

Let's pretend that homonyms aren't an issue, and neither are transliterations of foreign words that don't fit the syllable based writing system, here. We can retain the standard alphabet for things like that, just like Japanese kinda does.

1 There's a word for this type of writing system, but I can't remember what it is. Bonus points to anyone who can tell me what it is and make me go
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Old 08-12-2013, 02:57 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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Syllabaries are the writing systems based on syllables.
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Old 08-12-2013, 04:13 PM
Kiyoshi Kiyoshi is offline
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I've wondered the exact same thing myself!

I don't know if it's even possible to find an answer, though. For starters, the number would vary depending on accent / dialect of English. (But using Received Pronunciation as an example, there are 24 consonant sounds and 17 vowel sounds and diphthongs.

Also, English syllables can be a lot more complicated than Japanese: -

* Japanese syllables can only be (Vowel), (Consonant+Vowel), (Consonant+Y+Vowel), or (N).

* English syllables can be anything from a single vowel to a word like scrunched (CCCVCCC). So there are a lot more possible combinations.

I have no idea how you could work out which combinations of consonants and vowels are valid English syllables, and which are nonsense. But I imagine the answer to your question would be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. A heck of a lot more than the 104 Japanese syllables.
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Old 08-12-2013, 04:16 PM
aNewLeaf aNewLeaf is offline
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I have no idea how you could work out which combinations of consonants and vowels are valid English syllables, and which are nonsense
Benjamin Worf drew out a diagram of this, it's in Language, Thought, and Reality
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Old 08-12-2013, 04:43 PM
Cheshire Human Cheshire Human is offline
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Originally Posted by pulykamell View Post
Syllabaries are the writing systems based on syllables.
Thank you.
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Old 08-12-2013, 05:40 PM
Kiyoshi Kiyoshi is offline
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Ok, because I have no life whatsoever, I tried to work out a number.

I tried to list all the combinations of consonant sounds allowed in English, and got: -

* 65 beginnings (including "no consonant")
* 17 vowel sounds / diphthongs
* 94 endings (including "no consonant")

Multiply these together, and you get 103,870 different syllables.

Obviously this isn't a perfect answer, because I'm sure I must have missed some sounds when I was making my list. And it also includes a lot of nonsense syllables like flamps and scridged, which are pronounceable but not used in English.

But it's the best answer I can get!
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Old 08-12-2013, 06:05 PM
Martian Bigfoot Martian Bigfoot is offline
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Originally Posted by Kiyoshi View Post
And it also includes a lot of nonsense syllables like flamps and scridged, which are pronounceable but not used in English.
Actually, how would an English syllabary deal with those? "Flamps" isn't a word now, but I could invent a device called a "flamp" and start selling it. Would a new symbol need to be invented for it? Are there situations like that in real-life syllabaries?
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Old 08-12-2013, 06:09 PM
obfusciatrist obfusciatrist is offline
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Approximately 15,831 in active use by the English language according to this list.

But it notes that English is not particularly efficient at using the full range of possible syllables. 3-letter syllables in the consonant-vowel-consonant form are almost entirely pronounceable in English. But of the 11,500 or so possible, only about 2,700 are used.

So more than 15,000 symbols to cover English a it exists and many, many more to enable it to make up any new word it wants, even if it includes "footh".
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Old 08-12-2013, 06:12 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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Originally Posted by Kiyoshi View Post
Obviously this isn't a perfect answer, because I'm sure I must have missed some sounds when I was making my list.
Yeah, it is difficult, because the range of sounds will also vary based on dialect. Plus, are you counting the two different "th" (voiced vs unvoiced) and "ng" either /ŋ/ as in "finger" or "nj" as in "singe" as two different possible sounds? Also, there must be some places where it's pronounced as /ng/, but I'm blanking. (ETA: It probably won't matter, as it should occur across a syllable boundary, so "singer," which is /sɪŋ ər/ and "finger," which is /fɪŋ gər/, have two different "ng" pronunciations, but they would be represented by two different syllables, anyway, so it doesn't make a difference. It doesn't seem like there are any words it's pronounced /ng/, but if there is, it's probably a compound where the first word ends in "n" and the second starts with "g.")

Last edited by pulykamell; 08-12-2013 at 06:16 PM.
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Old 08-12-2013, 06:50 PM
Chronos Chronos is online now
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In my dialect, "singer" and "finger" are exact rhymes, and I can't see how the sound in them would be any different from an /ng/ sound. But assuming that there are some dialects where there is a difference, what would "bingo" be?
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Old 08-12-2013, 06:55 PM
hibernicus hibernicus is offline
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Originally Posted by Chronos View Post
In my dialect, "singer" and "finger" are exact rhymes, and I can't see how the sound in them would be any different from an /ng/ sound. But assuming that there are some dialects where there is a difference, what would "bingo" be?
In such dialects, "bingo" and "finger" have a [g] sound, whereas "singer" does not.
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Old 08-12-2013, 07:39 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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Originally Posted by Chronos View Post
In my dialect, "singer" and "finger" are exact rhymes, and I can't see how the sound in them would be any different from an /ng/ sound.
"Finger" has an enunciated /g/ sound, while "singer" does not. While alot of people think they are pronouncing a /g/ in words ending in "-ing," if they are speaking what might be called Standard American English, it's not a /g/ but a /ŋ/.

If you listen here, there are audio pronunciations of "singer." To my ears, the one for "Isaac Singer" has the /g/ enunciated, but the one for "Isaac Singer" has the more standard pronunciation for "singer." The regular "singer" pronunciation is also the /ŋ/ sound, and not /ŋg/.
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Old 08-12-2013, 07:48 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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And /ng/ would be even different, with a plain alveolar /n/ followed by a velar /g/. In other words, when you say "ennnnnnnnnn" pay attention to where your tongue is. The front should be up on the alveolar ridge, touching it. If you pay attention to how you say "-ing", the front of your tongue should not be touching the alveorlar ridge. It's a velar consonant sound, made by the back of your tongue curling up and touching the soft palate, just like in a /g/ or /k/ sound. The difference is that the "-ng" (/ŋ/) sound is nasal, while a /g/ is not--it's just a velar stop. To roughly approximate it, imagine a made-up phrase like "sin girl" and compare how you would pronounce that versus "singer" with an "l" tacked on.

Last edited by pulykamell; 08-12-2013 at 07:50 PM.
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Old 08-12-2013, 07:57 PM
Hari Seldon Hari Seldon is offline
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Actually, when talking about syllabaries, it generally refers to consonant + vowel cluster. For English, the simplest way would be to allow the vowel to be empty, call it EV. Then scrunched would be spelled SEV-KEV-RU-NEV-CHEV-DEV, using five "syllables". FWIW, one linguistics book I read claimed that various dialects typically have between 22 and 24 distinguishable vowels (I assume that includes diphthongs). Then there are maybe 18 consonants, so you would need 400 or more syllables. Not worth the effort. Incidentally, the fact that the number of vowels varies with the dialect illustrates one of the difficulties in spelling reform. You say "tomaahto" and I say "tomayto".
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Old 08-12-2013, 09:37 PM
Tom Tildrum Tom Tildrum is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pulykamell View Post
"Finger" has an enunciated /g/ sound....
And yet you never hear them fing.
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Old 08-15-2013, 10:43 AM
Cheshire Human Cheshire Human is offline
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Thanks, all. The numbers in posts 6 & 8 are just what I was looking for. Potentially possible from 6, and actually used in 8. I only wanted a rough idea, since I have no desire to make an english syllabary. A thought had crossed my mind just before I posted the OP, and my curiosity woke up and needed feeding.
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Old 08-15-2013, 11:31 AM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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Originally Posted by Hari Seldon View Post
Actually, when talking about syllabaries, it generally refers to consonant + vowel cluster. For English, the simplest way would be to allow the vowel to be empty, call it EV. Then scrunched would be spelled SEV-KEV-RU-NEV-CHEV-DEV, using five "syllables". FWIW, one linguistics book I read claimed that various dialects typically have between 22 and 24 distinguishable vowels (I assume that includes diphthongs). Then there are maybe 18 consonants, so you would need 400 or more syllables. Not worth the effort. Incidentally, the fact that the number of vowels varies with the dialect illustrates one of the difficulties in spelling reform. You say "tomaahto" and I say "tomayto".
Also, Wikipedia's English phonology page is useful to figure out how many consonants and vowels you want to count. If you're counting consonants like "ch" ("t"+"sh") and "j" ("d"+"zh") as single consonants, you have roughly 24 consonants, plus a /x/ if you're Scottish and pronounce the "ch" in "loch" with that throaty "h." If you only count consonants represented by a single IPA symbol, you can subtract two from that total (for "ch" as in "church" and "j" as in "judge.") Remember, this doesn't count glottal stops or alveolar flaps (like the way many Americans pronounce "water" so it sounds a bit like "wadder," even though neither the standard "t" nor "d" are being used there.) But you can probably eliminate those for simplicity and to standardize the language a bit.

As for the vowel part, you're looking at 14-21 by those charts, depending on what you count.
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