Syllable weight

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Syllable weight is a property of syllables, referring to the quantity or internal structure of syllables.

Syllables can be divided into light and heavy depending on language-specific requirements (in some languages also superheavy syllables are distinguished). Initial consonants of syllables are irrelevant to quantity. Depending on language-specific requirements there can be an opposition between short and long vowels: V and VC group together as light as opposed to VV which is heavy.

Another distinction commonly found is that between a short vowel (light) and VV/VC (heavy). Superheavy are VVC and VCC in languages that distinguish light/heavy/superheavy. Syllable weight plays a determining role in the distribution of stresses in Quantity-Sensitive stress systems (see Quantity-(in)sensitivity). Heavy syllables generally attract stress regardless of their position in the word. Light syllables are stressed only according to their position in the word.

There are at least two approaches to formalizing the concept of syllable weight. In theories of syllabic constituency the heavy/light distinction can be characterized as branching vs. non-branching nucleus or rhyme. The other approach, moraic theory, assumes moras. The distinction light/heavy is made on the basis of mora count. Segments are assigned one mora or two: light syllables are monomoraic and heavy syllables are bimoraic. The two types of representation can be illustrated, for example, in a language that makes a distinction between V (light) and VC/VV (heavy):

 	Syllabic constituency         Moraic theory
	   light:   heavy:            light:     heavy:
	   rhyme    rhyme              m         m   m
	     V      V  V               V         V   V
	            V  C                         V   C

See also



  • Hayes, B. 1981. A metrical theory of stress rules, PhD diss. MIT Cambridge, MA. Revised version distributed by IULC, published by Garland Press, New York, 1985.
  • Hyman, L. 1985. A theory of phonological weight, Foris, Dordrecht.
  • McCarthy, J. and A. Prince 1986. Prosodic Morphology, ms. Univ. of Massachusetts, Brandeis Univ.
  • Prince, A. 1983. Relating to the Grid, Linguistic Inquiry 14, pp.19-100
  • Van der Hulst 1984. Syllable structure and stress in Dutch, Foris, Dordrecht.
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