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Phonotactics: Don't put that there!

Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 3:17 AM by Citrinin
Updated October 13th, 2009 at 1:56 AM by Citrinin

For those not familiar with the term, phonotactics is the linguistic phenomenon which controls which structures of words are acceptable.

Let's make up two words. Clestrath and Pkan. Try to pronounce them. Assuming you're an English monoglot, you probably found the first far easier to say than the second.

This is because the first complies with English phonotactics - even though it's longer, the two consonant clusters "cl" and "tr" are acceptable.

"Pkan", however, could not be a word in today's English. That's because the cluster "pk" is not allowed at the beginning of a word. It's allowed in the middle of a word, like in "napkin", but not at the start.

English actually has rather flexible phonotactics, as evidenced by the word "strength". At the beginning of the word, there's a cluster of three consonantal sounds, and at the end there are two. (Yes - there are four letters, but they only represent two sounds. A phonologist would probably find this cluster more interesting than a layman, with the massive difference between the velar nasal "ng" and voiceless interdental fricative "th". But I digress.)

Now, what does a language with very restrictive phonotactics look like? We'll have a look at Japanese, which has very restrictive phonotactics.

The syllable structure of a Japanese word is always (C)(y)V(V)(n), where C is a consonant, V is a vowel, y is the English "y" consonant, and n is a nasal consonant. The brackets, as you've probably guessed, mean that the component is optional.

So, "Sten" could not be a Japanese word because it fits a CCVn structure, which is invalid. Even though "s", "t", "e", and "n", are all valid Japanese sounds, "Sten" is not a valid hypothetical Japanese word. Just like "Pkan" is not a valid hypothetical English word.

Other other hypothetical words that are easy to pronounce for us but can't be in Japanese are "Kot", "Bomed", "Esta", and others.

(Some might note that ts is a valid cluster in Japanese, like in tsunami. Technically, "ts" is one consonant, and is treated as such by the language. If you're interested, it's a special type of "compound" consonant called an affricate.)

Conversely, Georgian has an even less restrictive phonotactical system than English. გვფრცქვნი (gvprckvni) is a real word, meaning "you peel us", in Georgian.

So, this begs the question: why did phonotactics develop? Did certain words become so entrenched in our mind that we lost our ability to string together other possible combinations with ease? But that would make it highly improbable that rigid systems like Japanese would arise, if it was only on the pattern of use. So, why?
Posted in Linguistics
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  1. Old Comment
    Luck's Avatar
    Then you should be grammatically correct next time >:(
    Posted October 4th, 2009 at 5:28 PM by Luck Luck is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    If everyone was grammatically correct, then grammar Nazis would be out of business. D:
    Posted October 5th, 2009 at 3:34 AM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Luck's Avatar
    But that is a good thing. At least everyone would be literate then.
    It's like saying all the cops would go out of business if crime ended. Their point was to end crime, or at least stabilise it.
    And I used an "s" because I'm cool like that >:3
    Posted October 5th, 2009 at 5:53 PM by Luck Luck is offline

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