Syllabic Consonants

In certain circumstances in English, a consonant can constitute the centre (or peak) of a syllable instead of a vowel. It is clear that whereas a word like sad / s{d / has one syllable, a word like sadder / "s{d@ / has two. There is clearly a vowel articulated in the second, albeit unstressed, syllable after the consonant / d /. However, in words like sadden and saddle, the matter is not so clear, because the consonant / d / can be followed by either the consonant / n / or / l / without a vowel intervening. Listen to the two words in slow motion: sadden, saddle; if you imitate these pronunciations, you should notice that the blade of the tongue maintains some kind of constriction as you proceed from the / d / to the / n / or / l / - there cannot possibly, therefore, have been a vowel in between!

In cases like these, the / n / of sadden and the / l / of saddle constitute the centre of the second, unstressed, syllable; this syllabic function of theirs is marked by a small mark ( =) below the consonant symbol. Sadden and saddle are transcribed thus:

"s { d n= "s { d l=

Syllabic / n / and / l / typically occur in an unstressed syllable immediately following the alveolar consonants, / t, s, z / as well as / d /. Listen to, and transcribe, the following words

cotton ____ cattle ____

listen ____ whistle ____

risen ____ drizzle ____

Syllabic / l / can also follow / st / or plain / n / or / nt /: pistol, tunnel, mantle.

Transcribe these words:

muddle, widen, smitten, hospital, loosen, hassle, cousin, weasel, gentle


Bristol Channel _____________________

and the names: Gordon, Jordan, Tarzan, Norton


When the –ING suffix is added to a verb with a syllabic consonant, the syllabic consonant may either be retained as such or it simply becomes the initial consonant of the extra syllable. So, for instance, if –ING is added to the verb listen, the word becomes either a trisyllabic word with a syllabic consonant in the middle: listening / "lIsn=IN /, or a disyllabic word: / "lIsnIN /.

Listen to them again and compare them: / "lIsn=IN /; / "lIsnIN /.

Transcribe these words in these two ways:

whistling, drizzling, muddling, widening, loosening



But note that an intervening / @ / occurs in

wanton, London, Hampton

Notice that a syllabic / m / often occurs in the word happen in colloquial speech as in If you want to make things happen / "h{pm= / … And occasionally in the word open, as in None of them are open / "@Upm= /. With -ING added to these verbs, an / n / is retained: happening / "h{pnIN /; opening / "@UpnIN /.

In all these cases, the syllabic consonant follows immediately on a consonant made at the same point of articulation (homorganic articulation). Otherwise, the neutral vowel / @ / intervenes as in, for example autumn / "O:t@m /, bacon / "beIk@n /, apple / "{p@l /. Listen to, and transcribe, the following words with an intervening neutral vowel / @ /:

table, soften, seven, southern, struggle, camel, cannon / canon


million, fashion, dungeon


When the –ING suffix is added to a verb with the neutral vowel preceding the final consonant, the neutral vowel will often disappear. So, for instance, if

-ING is added to the verb soften, the word becomes either / "sQf@nIN / with three syllables, or / "sQfnIN / with two. Transcribe these words in these two ways:

struggling, tackling, fashioning, beckoning, strengthening


The ending –ISM is also pronounced with a neutral vowel between the / z / and / m /: for instance prism: / "prIz@m /; racism: / "reIsIz@m / ; feminism: / "fEmInIz@m /. Also the word chasm: / "k{z@m /.