Hidden rules of sounds

In English no words begin with the consonant cluster /kstr/, but it does appear in the middle of “extra.” In contrast, Slovak can begin a word with “žblnkn” and Hawaiian never begins a word with more than one consonant. Why?

Open mouth
Arabella Tancred / CC BY-SA

Last year I wrote a short post about the hidden rules of English – specifically, about the rules that determine the correct order of adjectives. Today I want to tell you about phonotactics: the rules that govern which sounds can appear next to which other sounds, and where sounds can appear in a word.

(A warning: I’m going to use some IPA notation here, but I’ll give you plain-language equivalents when I can.)

In English the rules of phonotactics set out a particular pattern for each syllable. Take the consonant sounds at the start of a word, for example: you can have up to three consonants before a vowel, but only if the first of those consonants is an /s/ – as in “strength” or “split.” The second consonant must be a voiceless stop (/ p t k /) and the third must be an approximant (/r l j/). So, “strength” is okay, and “split” is okay, you would never see an English word beginning with “rst” or “lps.”

Those sequences of sounds aren’t impossible to pronounce – we have “first” and “alps” after all – it’s just a hidden rule of English that you cannot begin a word that way. And it’s not a rule that remains true for all languages: other languages have more restrictive or more permissive rules about how sounds can be arranged.

The Slavic languages are notorious for allowing very long and complex clusters of consonants. Slovak is a great example. The word “žblnknutie” meaning “flop” has six consonants in a row:

  • /ʒ/ (the “zh” sound from “fissure”)
  • /b/
  • /l̩/
  • /ŋ/ (the end of “thing“)
  • /k/
  • /n/

In contrast, many languages forbid more than one consonant at the beginning of a word. Hawaiian, Māori, pretty much all the languages of Polynesia to be honest – they all keep their initial consonants completely unclustered.

You will sometimes see exceptions to the standard phonotactic constraints when words are borrowed from a different language. For example, English words don’t usually begin with “shm” (/ʃm/) but some Yiddish words borrowed into English do: “schmooze,” “schmuck,” and “schmaltz.” In general, though, the phonotactic constraints dictate what sounds go where, and in fact comprise part of the character of a language.

What do I mean there? Consider the word “vont.” It’s not an English word, but it sounds like it could be one. In contrast, “tverlg” does not sound like it could ever be in English. Such is the power of phonotactics. It’s also something that fantasy fiction authors should pay attention to, otherwise their fictional names sound odd to our ears.

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