The Southeast Asian Sesquisyllable

A review of Deconstructing the Southeast Asian sesquisyllable: a gestural account, by Becky Ann Butler

Among linguistic typologists, mainland Southeast Asia is often described as a quintessential Sprachbund, an area where genetically unrelated languages are found to share a high number of features (N.J. Enfield, Areal linguistics and mainland Southeast Asia, Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, 2005, pp. 181-206). Along with the presence of tone and a lack of morphological inflection, one feature often identified as diagnostic of a canonical Southeast Asian language is the presence of so-called sesquisyllables (J.A. Matisoff, “Tonogenesis in Southeast Asia,” in L. M. Hyman, ed., Consonant types and tone, Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 1973, pp. 73-95), a unit of metrical organization intermediate between monosyllables (like English go) and disyllables (going). Often described as ‘one and half syllables,’ a sesquisyllable is commonly understood as a ‘major’ syllable, which can bear the full range of contrasts available in a language, preceded by a ‘minor’ syllable, which may contain only a subset of possible sounds in a language and usually has a reduced or optional vowel. However, the term has also been used ambiguously to describe a range of syllable types, leading to uncertainty over whether it describes a unified linguistic phenomenon. In her dissertation, Becky Ann Butler presents an integrated descriptive and analytic framework for understanding the sesquisyllable, supported by data from her own instrumental fieldwork on three Southeast Asian languages. While Butler’s findings have important repercussions for areal specialists, they also speak to issues of the relationship between phonetic form and linguistic structure, broadening the potential audience of the work beyond those with an interest in the phonetic details of Southeast Asian languages.

In Chapter 1, Butler provides an introduction to the sesquisyllable, asking: what is it exactly, and where is it found? After reviewing a range of structural, prosodic and acoustic properties that could be used as a universal linguistic basis for the identification of sesquisyllables, Butler proposes a working definition of sesquisyllables as (maximally) disyllabic iambs (an iamb being an syllables with a weak-strong pattern, e.g. English above, today), where the penultimate (minor) syllable is phonologically reduced. She then complements this with a requirement, couched within the theoretical framework of Articulatory Phonology (C. Browman & L. Goldstein, “Towards an articulatory phonology,” Phonology Yearbook, 3, 1986, pp. 219–252), that the (reduced) minor syllable have an associated articulatory gesture. This move creates a distinction between two types of minor syllables: those where the vowel is epenthetic versus those where it is excrescent (correlating with the presence or absence of an associated gesture). Butler’s definition of the sesquisyllable encompasses the former type, but not the latter.

As Butler points out, this definition would seem to conflate sesquisyllables with disyllabic iambs, but the maximality restriction creates an asymmetric relation between the two: that is, all sesquisyllables are disyllabic iambs, but the reverse is not always true. The difficulties of diagnosing syllable weight in the absence of iterativity notwithstanding, having a prosodic account of the structural constituents of the sesquisyllable allows Butler to shift focus to a previously unstudied empirical domain: the acoustic characteristics of the minor syllable.

The next three chapters focus on empirical case studies of three Southeast Asian languages: Khmer, Bunong, and Burmese. While each of which have been claimed to have sesquisyllables, they also differ in ways that allow Butler to test different aspects of her proposal. Despite the proposal hinging on the presence or absence of an articulatory gesture, the methodology Butler employs is strictly acoustic. This seems to have been largely a practical consideration, but should not detract from the importance of the findings, as considerable information about articulation can often be induced from the acoustic record.

Chapter 2 addresses Khmer. As suggested by the title “‘Minor syllables’ are not syllables: phonetic evidence from Khmer,” in this chapter Butler advances the position that at least some Khmer ‘minor syllables’ are actually onset clusters separated by excrescent vocoids, and thus not truly sesquisyllabic. She presents acoustic analyses of words such as ម្នោស់ /mnoah/ ‘pineapple,’ focusing on the predictability and acoustic characteristics of the interconsonantal transition, and compares them to the nuclear vowel in monosyllables such as មឹន /mɨn/ ‘to patch.’ Her comparisons of the durational and spectral properties of different syllables types suggest that Khmer syllables like /mnoah/ are best understood as monosyllables with word-initial consonant clusters that have gestural underlap, instead of a separate word type. The elegance of the AP perspective is immediately apparent here: on previous accounts such as that of Thomas (“On sesquisyllabic structure,” Mon-Khmer Studies, 21, 1992, pp. 206–210), words like ប្ដី /pdəy/ > [pədəy] ‘husband,’ where the consonants are separated by a vocoid, were considered structurally distinct from words like ផ្ទះ /pteah/ > [phteah] ‘house,’ where they are instead separated by a still predictable but voiceless aspiration. On Butler’s account, both word types are given a single, coherent treatment.

Chapter 3 discusses Bunong, an under-documented Bahnaric language of Cambodia and Vietnam. After a brief introduction to Bunong phonology, Butler demonstrates how the initial vowel of Bunong minor syllables such as /rʌlʌŋ/ ‘type of bird’ are acoustically distinct from both vowels in true monosyllables such as /lʌŋ/ ‘section of bamboo’ as well as the transitional vocoid separating the initial consonant cluster of words such as /klʌŋ/ > [kəlʌŋ] ‘to miss.’ This suggests that minor syllables in Bunong are thus disyllabic iambs and therefore ‘true’ sesquisyllables, unlike their apparent counterparts in Khmer. This chapter also includes a discussion of how the proposed gestural representations might change over time, relating the findings to previous work highlighting the diachronic instability of the sesquisyllable (e.g. M. Brunelle & P. Pittayporn, “Phonologically-constrained change: The role of the foot in monosyllabization and rhythmic shifts in Mainland Southeast Asia,” Diachronica 29(4), 2012, pp. 411–433).

Chapter 4 considers Burmese, which differs from many Southeast Asian languages (including Khmer and Bunong) in that it (a) features active processes of compounding and reduction that dynamically alter word shapes and (b) permits multiple minor syllables per word, e.g. in forms like [kʌ.lʌ.bjéː] < [kʌ.làː] + [bjéː] ‘Indian’ + ‘country’ (Butler, p. 145). In this chapter, Butler examines the vowels in these so-called ‘extended’ sesquisyllables. Acoustically, these vowels resemble the minor syllables Bunong more than those of Khmer, but the nuclei in words with multiple minor syllables appear to vary by speaker, item and context. This finding challenges Butler’s general thesis of sesquisyllables as disyllabic iambs, as the data are partially consistent with two different analyses of prosodic constituency. Although more research is needed here, Butler’s Burmese data, considered together with the Khmer and Bunong findings, underscore the overall importance of considering prosodic constituency in any characterization of the sesquisyllable.

Butler set herself two goals with the present work: to provide a unified structural-phonetic account of the sesquisyllable, and to consider the ways in which phonological analysis can be informed by the particulars of phonetic realization. While is not yet clear if this definition of sesquisyllabicity will stand the test of time, Butler’s study of the topic is without doubt the most comprehensive to date and makes important empirical contributions to the study of Southeast Asian languages and syllable structure more generally. Her dissertation provides a particularly clear illustration of how careful instrumental phonetic analysis can inform and deepen our understanding of phonological structure. Importantly for linguistic typology, Butler’s findings suggest that the status of the sesquisyllable as an implicitly unified areal feature may well warrant careful reconsideration. Deconstructing the Southeast Asian sesquisyllable will hopefully inspire linguists who are not specialists in Southeast Asian languages to engage fully with the implications of the data from this region, as well as to encourage areal specialists to understand and promote their work in a broader theoretical context.

James Kirby
Linguistics & English Language
University of Edinburgh

Primary sources
Linguistic-phonetic fieldwork in Cambodia and the United States

Dissertation Information
Cornell University, 2014. 229 pp. Primary advisor: Abigail Cohn

Image: Photo by author, taken in Mondulkiri, Cambodia.

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