Linguistics ETDs

Publication Date

Summer 7-14-2017


The syllable is a natural unit of organization in spoken language. Strong cross-linguistic tendencies in syllable size and shape are often explained in terms of a universal preference for the CV structure, a type which is also privileged in abstract models of the syllable. Syllable patterns such as those found in Itelmen qsaɬtxt͡ʃ ‘follow!’ and Tashlhiyt tsskʃftstt ‘you dried it (f)’ are both typologically rare and theoretically marginalized. This dissertation is an investigation of the properties of languages with highly complex syllable patterns. The aims are (i) to establish whether these languages share other linguistic features in common such that they constitute a distinct linguistic type, and (ii) to identify possible diachronic paths and natural mechanisms by which these patterns come about over time. These issues are investigated in a diversified sample of 100 languages, 24 of which have highly complex syllable patterns.

Languages with highly complex syllable structure are characterized by a number of phonological and morphological features which serve to set them apart from languages with simpler syllable patterns: these include specific segmental and suprasegmental properties, a higher prevalence of vowel reduction processes, higher rates of morphologically complex clusters, and higher average morpheme/word ratios. The results suggest that highly complex syllable structure is a linguistic type distinct from but sharing some characteristics of other proposed holistic language types. The results also point to word stress and specific patterns of gestural organization as playing important roles in the development of these patterns out of simpler syllable structures.




phonological typology, syllable structure, linguistic complexity, language change

Document Type


Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name

Department of Linguistics

First Committee Member (Chair)

Caroline L. Smith

Second Committee Member

William Croft

Third Committee Member

Joan Bybee

Fourth Committee Member

Ian Maddieson

Fifth Committee Member

Ioana Chitoran