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Chinese Syllable Structure  

Jisheng Zhang

Chinese is generally considered a monosyllabic language in that one Chinese character corresponds to one syllable and vice versa, and most characters can be used as free morphemes, although there is a tendency for words to be disyllabic. On the one hand, the syllable structure of Chinese is simple, as far as permissible sequences of segments are concerned. On the other hand, complexities arise when the status of the prenuclear glide is concerned and with respect to the phonotactic constraints between the segments. The syllabic affiliation of the prenuclear glide in the maximal CGVX Chinese syllable structure has long been a controversial issue. Traditional Chinese phonology divides the syllable into shengmu (C) and yunmu, the latter consisting of medial (G), nucleus (V), and coda (X), which is either a high vowel (i/u) or a nasal (n/ŋ). This is known as the sheng-yun model, which translates to initial-final in English (IF in short). The traditional Chinese IF syllable model differs from the onset-rhyme (OR) syllable structure model in several aspects. In the former, the initial consists only of one consonant, excluding the glide, and the final—that is, everything after the initial consonant—is not the poetic rhyming unit which excludes the prenuclear glide; whereas in the latter, the onset includes a glide and the rhyme–that is, everything after the onset—is the poetic rhyming unit. The Chinese traditional IF syllable model is problematic in itself. First, the final is ternary branching, which is not compatible with the binary principle in contemporary linguistics. Second, the nucleus+coda, as the poetic rhyming unit, is not structured as a constituent. Accordingly, the question arises of whether Chinese syllables can be analyzed in the OR model. Many attempts have been made to analyze the Chinese prenuclear glide in the light of current phonological theories, particularly in the OR model, based on phonetic and phonological data on Chinese. Some such studies have proposed that the prenuclear glide occupies the second position in the onset. Others have proposed that the glide is part of the nucleus. Yet, others regard the glide as a secondary articulation of the onset consonant, while still others think of the glide as an independent branch directly linking to the syllable node. Also, some have proposed an IF model with initial for shengmu and final for yunmu, which binarily branches into G(lide) and R(hyme), consisting of N(ucleus) and C(oda). What is more, some have put forward a universal X-bar model of the syllable to replace the OR model, based on a syntactic X-bar structure. So far, there has been no authoritative finding that has conclusively decided the Chinese syllable structure. Moreover, the syllable is the cross-linguistic domain for phonotactics . The number of syllables in Chinese is very much smaller than that in many other languages mainly because of the complicated phonotactics of the language, which strictly govern the segmental relations within CGVX. In the X-bar syllable structure, the Chinese phonotactic constraints which configure segmental relations in the syllable domain mirror the theta rules which capture the configurational relations between specifier and head and head and complement in syntax. On the whole, analysis of the complexities of the Chinese syllable will shed light on the cross-linguistic representation of syllable structure, making a significant contribution to phonological typology in general.