Chapter 118: Syllable onsets

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 118.

1. Introduction

Syllable onsets, i.e. the initial parts of syllables which precede the vowel, may show different degrees of complexity. The three values assigned to this feature represent the increasing complexity of syllable onsets. On an implicational scale, languages with more complex onset types seem to also have all the less complex types (see Blevins 1995 and Carlisle 2001). An example is Afrikaans, which has straf ‘punishment’ (complex syllable onset) but also kry ‘get’ (moderately complex syllable onset) and kat ‘cat’ (simple syllable onset).

No distinction is made in this feature as to whether the syllable occurs word-initially or word-internally, and recent unassimilated loans have been ignored.

A comparison with the WALS feature 12 ‘syllable structure (Maddieson 2005b) is not possible because in the WALS feature, syllable onsets (this chapter) and syllable codas (Chapter 119) are conflated.

2. The values

We distinguish the following three values:

Only simple onsets10
Onsets at most moderately complex25
Onsets may be complex41

Value 1 (only simple onsets) means that the languages has only syllables without onsets and syllables with one consonant in onset position, like a, sa or ka in Principense ‘kind of ant’, a prenasalized consonant as in Sango mbo ‘dog’, or an affricate such as ʧ in Singapore Bazaar Malay ba.ʧa ‘read’. Further examples of simple onsets are Angolar ô.u thread or n.tê head, Saramaccan mbé.ti ‘animal, meat’, Kikongo-Kituba mbwa ‘dog’, Lingala mbó.ló.kó ‘antelope’, Juba Arabicú.ka ‘gutter’, Chinese Pidgin Russian wu.ʧ ‘yesterday’, and Pidgin Hawaiian ‘bran’.

Value 2 (onsets not more than moderately complex) refers either to the combination of an obstruent with a liquid or glide, such as gr in Diu Indo-Portuguese gray ‘crow’, and pl in Jamaican ‘plantain’, or it refers to the combination of s and another consonant, such as st in Trinidad English Creole stap ‘stop’, or sk in Cameroon Pidgin English skul ‘school’.

Further examples of moderately complex onsets are Guyanais pre.myè ‘first’, Kinubi stá.gal ‘to work’, Sri Lankan Malay skul.ser ‘teacher (literally ‘school sir’)’, Cavite Chabacano pla.ti.ká ‘to talk’, Chinese Pidgin English pro.per ‘proper’, Pidgin Hindustani ‘stubby’, Yimas-Arafundi Pidgin trəŋ ‘tooth’, and Media Lengua prish.ta ‘to loan’.

Value 3 (onsets may be complex) is represented by those syllables that consist of

  1. s + obstruent + sonorant, as str in Negerhollands strom ‘current, waves’;

  2. obstruent + nasal, as km in Sranan kmo.po ‘to come from’;

  3. obstruent + obstruent, as bz in Cape Verdean of São Vicente bzot ‘you (pl.)’ or pt in Reunion Creole and Seychelles Creole pti ‘small’.

Further examples of complex onsets are Berbice Dutch spring.han ‘grasshopper’, Haitian Creole strik ‘strict’, Casamancese Creole stra.da ‘road‘, Santome ‘job’, Pichi skrach ‘scratch’, Fanakalo stre.yit ‘straight, completely’, Batavia Creole di skri.bang ‘writing materials’, Ambon Malay strep ‘stripe’, Bislama splin ‘spleen’, Norf’k striet ‘straight’, Zamboanga Chabacano skrí.ma ‘fence’, and Chinuk Wawa q'wlan ‘ear’.

None of the APiCS languages shows more than three consonants in syllable onsets. However, other languages allow for more consonants in this position, as for example Russian vstr in vstreča ‘meeting’.

Only in 13% of the APiCS languages are syllable onsets restricted to the simplest single-consonant type; in the overwhelming majority of the APiCS languages (87%), syllable onsets are non-simple, and more than 50% have complex onsets.

True pidgins, i.e. non-extended pidgins, have simple as well as complex syllable onsets. Simple syllable onsets occur in Singapore Bazaar Malay, in Chinese Pidgin Russian, and in Pidgin Hawaiian. Moderately complex syllable onsets are found in Chinese Pidgin English, in Pidgin Hindustani, in Yimas-Arafundi Pidgin, and in Eskimo Pidgin, while complex syllable onsets occur in Chinuk Wawa and Fanakalo. Since these pidgins are not spoken natively, their syllable onset values vary according to the onset values of the speakers’ native languages.

3. Areal distribution

Simple syllable onsets (value 1) are virtually absent from the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, South Asia, and South East Asia, but the other two values (moderately complex and complex syllable onsets) are found in all regions. See also Chapter 119 on syllable codas.