Defining Phonotactics In Phonology

Phonotactics is a study in phonology that assesses ways that phonemes can be combined in language. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound that can convey any meaning.

The study of language and the history of language is an interesting subject. Over time, any language can go through many different phonotactic variations and changes. Today, we will be looking at understanding phonotactics and its modern-day constraints and some examples of phonotactics in phonology.

Understanding the Constraints Of Phonotactics

Phonotactic restrictions are the restrictions that concern how we can create syllables in the way we speak and write. Elizabeth Zsiga, a known linguist, has observed that languages “do not allow random sequences of sounds; rather, the sound sequences a language allows are a systematic and predictable part of its structure.”

She points out that phonotactic restraints are the restrictions we place on the words we allow to be in one particular sequence. In other words, phonotactic restraints control what words go where in a sentence. 

In particular, English has conditions placed on it that native speakers learn inherently without necessarily realizing it. This is why, when non-native speakers are learning the language, it may be important to include this in your structured literacy program.

Constraints Of Phonotactics In the English Language

In The Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies, Michael Pearce pointed out that some languages, such as English, allow for clusters of consonants. Meanwhile, other languages, such as Maori, do not. 

In English, these consonant clusters are subject to phonotactic constraints that control the length, what sequences of words are allowed, and where syllables can occur in a sentence. This is often why learning English as a second language can be frustrating when your first language does not allow consonant clusters.

Eva Fernández and Helen Smith Cairns pointed out in Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics that some phonotactic constraints are universal, particularly in syllable structure. All languages contain syllables made up of a consonant and then a vowel, but different languages are more specific in their constraints. 

English allows for just about any type of consonant to appear in the syllable-final position. Japanese and Spanish are languages that have stricter rules for their syllable-final consonants.

The More Arbitrary Phonotactic Constraints

Many different constraints feel arbitrary and unnecessary, as some limits are based purely on the idiosyncrasies of a language, not on any form of articulation. For example, a constraint doesn’t allow for a sequence to end when followed by a nasal word. This is why words like knee and knife are pronounced like “ni” and “narf.” These words did not historically have the initial “k,” which we still see in many different languages.

This is but one example of a discrepancy between pronunciation and orthography today, as English orthography has not been revised for many years. Thus, constraints exist that are now arbitrary because they have yet to be updated for modern-day use, so we have words like ‘knife’ that are not spelled optimally.

Concluding Thoughts

We have many different rules and constraints that determine which words go where in a sentence. Some are now arbitrary thanks to a lack of updating the rules as our languages have evolved. At the same time, some are important for keeping some semblance of rigidity when mastering a language.

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