Consonant cluster

Consonant cluster

In linguistics, a consonant cluster (or consonant blend) is a group of consonants which have no intervening vowel. In English, for example, the groups /spl/ and /ts/ are consonant clusters in the word splits.

Some linguists argue that the term can only be properly applied to those consonant clusters that occur within one syllable. Others contend that consonant clusters are more useful as a definition when they may occur across syllable boundaries. According to the former definition, the longest consonant clusters in the word extra would be /ks/ and /tr/,[1] whereas the latter allows /kstr/. The German word Angstschweiß (/aŋstʃvaɪs/; "fear sweat") is another good example, with a cluster of five consonants: /ŋstʃv/.



Languages' phonotactics differ as to what consonant clusters they permit.

Many languages do not permit consonant clusters at all. Maori and Pirahã, for instance, don't permit any two consecutive consonants in a word. Japanese is almost as strict, but it allows clusters of consonant plus /j/ as in Tokyo [toːkjoː], the name of Japan's capital city. Across a syllable boundary, it also allows a cluster of a nasal consonant plus another consonant, as in Honshū [honɕuː] (the name of the largest island) and tempura [tempuɽa] (a traditional dish). A great many of the languages of the world are more restrictive than English in terms of consonant clusters; almost every Malayo-Polynesian language forbids consonant clusters entirely. Tahitian, Samoan and Hawaiian are all of this sort. Standard Arabic does not permit initial consonant clusters, or more than two consecutive consonants in other positions; neither do most other Semitic languages, although Modern Israeli Hebrew permits initial two-consonant clusters (e.g. pkak "cap"; dlat "pumpkin"), and Moroccan Arabic, under Berber influence, allows strings of several consonants.[2] Khmer, as do most Mon–Khmer languages permits only initial consonant clusters with up to three consonants in a row per syllable. Finnish has initial consonant clusters natively only on South-Western dialects and on foreign loans, and only clusters of three inside the word are allowed. Most spoken languages and dialects, however, are more permissive. In Burmese, consonant clusters of only up to three consonants (the initial and two medials—two written forms of /-j-/, /-w-/) at the initial onset are allowed in writing and only two (the initial and one medial) are pronounced. These clusters are restricted to certain letters. Some Burmese dialects allow for clusters of up to four consonants (with the addition of the /-l-/ medial, which can combine with the above-mentioned medials.

At the other end of the scale, the Kartvelian languages of Georgia are drastically more permissive of consonant clustering. Clusters in Georgian of four, five or six consonants are not unusual—for instance, /brtʼqʼɛli/ (flat), /mt͡sʼvrtnɛli/ (trainer) and /prt͡skvna/ (peeling)—and if grammatical affixes are used, it allows an eight-consonant cluster: /ɡvbrdɣvnis/ (he's plucking us). Consonants cannot appear as syllable nuclei in Georgian, so this syllable is analysed as CCCCCCCCVC. Some Slavic languages such as Slovak may manifest formidable numbers of consecutive consonants, such as in the words štvrť /ʃtvr̩tʲ/, zmrzlina /zmr̩zlɪna/, and žblnknutie /ʒbl̩ŋknutje/, but the liquid consonants /r/ and /l/ can form syllable nuclei in Slovak, and behave phonologically as vowels in this case. Another example is the Serbo-Croatian word opskrbljivanje /ɔpskr̩bʎiʋaɲɛ/, though note that ⟨lj⟩ and ⟨nj⟩ here are digraphs representing single consonants: [ʎ] and [ɲ], respectively. Some Salishan languages exhibit long words with no vowels at all, such as the Nuxálk word /xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ/: he had in his possession a bunchberry plant. It is extremely difficult to accurately classify which of these consonants may be acting as the syllable nucleus, and these languages challenge classical notions of exactly what constitutes a syllable.


Consonant clusters occurring in loanwords do not necessarily follow the cluster limits set by the borrowing language's phonotactics. The Ubykh language's root psta, a loan from Adyghe, violates Ubykh's rule of no more than two initial consonants; also, the English words sphere /ˈsfɪər/ and sphinx /ˈsfɪŋks/, Greek loans, violate the restraint (or constraint, see also optimality theory) that two fricatives may not appear adjacently word-initially.


In English, the longest possible initial cluster is three consonants, as in split /ˈsplɪt/ and strudel /ˈʃtruːdəl/, all beginning with /s/ or /ʃ/ and ending with /l/ or /r/;[3] the longest possible final cluster is five consonants, as in angsts /ˈæŋksts/, though that is rare and four, as in twelfths /ˈtwɛlfθs/, sixths /ˈsɪksθs/, bursts /ˈbɜrsts/ and glimpsed /ˈɡlɪmpst/, is more common.

However, it is important to distinguish clusters and digraphs. Clusters are made of two or more consonant sounds, while a digraph is a group of two consonant letters standing for a single sound. For example, in the word ship, the two letters of the digraph ⟨sh⟩ together represent the single consonant [ʃ]. Also note a combination digraph and cluster as seen in length with two digraphs ⟨ng⟩, ⟨th⟩ representing a cluster of two consonants: /ŋθ/; or even lights with a silent digraph ⟨gh⟩ followed by a cluster ⟨t⟩, ⟨s⟩: /ts/.

See also


  1. ^ J.C. Wells, Syllabification and allophony
  2. ^ The extent of consonant clusters in Moroccan Arabic depends on the analysis. Richard Harrell's grammar of the language postulates schwa sounds in many positions that do not occur in other analyses. For example, the word that appears as ktbu "they wrote" in Jeffrey Heath's Ablaut and Ambiguity: Phonology of a Moroccan Arabic Dialect appears as ketbu in Harrell's grammar.
  3. ^ If the ⟨ew⟩ /juː/ is thought of as consonant plus vowel rather than as a diphthong, three-consonant clusters also occur in words such as skew /ˈskjuː/

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