U-M Linguistics professor San Duanmu will give a colloquium on Thursday, November 7, at Michigan State University. His talk is titled “A Comparative Study of Syllable Counts in English and Chinese.” The talk begins at 4 p.m. in B342 Wells Hall. Read the abstract below.
It is often reported that English has many times more syllables than Chinese. However, previous statements were often based on estimates, which vary widely. For example, Jespersen (1930) states that English has at least 158,000 syllables; Kindaichi (1985) states that English has more than 80,000 syllables; Pan (1997) states that English has around 10,000 syllables; Barker (2009) states that English has 15,831 syllables; Pellegrino et al. (2011) states that English has 7,931 syllables; and Shi (2019) states that English has between 3,000 and 40,000 syllables. I show that differences among previous estimates result from different interpretations of what a syllable is and how syllable boundaries should be placed. Uncertainties are found in Chinese as well, in regard to the number of unstressed syllables and the number of ‘er-suffixed’ syllables. I illustrate several ways of counting syllables, using the CELEX word-form lexicon, and argue that, to exclude the influence of affixes at word edges, and to avoid excessive over-prediction, the structure of the English syllable ought to be based on non-edge positions. In this perspective, the maximal syllable size is the same in English and Chinese, and the number of syllables in English is less than twice the number of syllables in Chinese. In addition, among monosyllabic words, English has fewer syllables than Chinese. Implications for syllable theory and for cross-language comparison will be discussed as well.