Sonority hierarchy

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The Sonority hierarchy is a hierarchy representing the sonority of classes of sounds.

Speech sounds are typically ranked according to their manner of articulation. Accordingly, in all sonority hierarchies, vowels are at the top of the hierarchy, consonants at the bottom. Most hierarchies are more finely graded:

greatest sonority >  least sonority  
vowels > sonorant consonants > obstruents (Zec 1995), 


vowels > glides > liquids > nasals > obstruents (Clements 1990)


vowels > glides >  nasals > voiced obstruents   > voiceless obstruents (Katamba 1989)


vowels > liquids > nasals > voiced fricatives > voiceless fricatives = voiced plosives > voiceless plosives (Anderson & Ewen 1987)

Some hierarchies assign each individual sound to a rank of its own, thus ranking sounds also according to their place of articulation (Ladefoged 1993).

The sonority hierarchy can be used, to explain distributions of segments in syllables. The nucleus (i.e. vowel) of a syllable is the most sonorous element. The sonority of the surrounding consonants must decrease to the left and to the right starting from the vowel. Put differently: the more sonorous a segment, the closer to the nucleus of the syllable.


in English the syllables matl, lkon are impossible since in matl the sonority in the sequence tl increases (must be: decreasing) and in lkon the sonority of the sequence lk decreases (must be increasing).


Utrecht Lexicon of Linguistics


  • Anderson, John M. and Colin J. Ewen (1987) Principles of Dependency Phonology, Cambridge: CUP.
  • Clements, George N. (1990) "The role of the sonority cycle in core syllabification". In Papers in Laboratory Phonology I: Between the Grammar and Physics of Speech, John Kingston, and Mary E. Beckman (eds.), 283-333. CUP.
  • Katamba, F. 1989. An Introduction to Phonology, Longmans, London.
  • Ladefoged, Peter (1993) A Course in Phonetics (3rd ed.), New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
  • Selkirk, E.O. 1980. "The Role of Prosodic Categories in English Word Stress", Linguistic Inquiry 11, pp. 563-605
  • Zec, Draga (1995) "Sonority constraints on syllable structure", Phonology 12: 85-129.

Other languages

German Sonoritätshierarchie