CV phonology

 Historical Background

G.N. Clements and Samuel Jay Keyser

CV phonology



Historical Background:

    CV phonology introduces a new approach to syllable representation. Minimally extending the hierarchical approach developed by D.Kahn in his MIT dissertation. The theory derives from two earlier studies by G.N. Clements and Samual Jay Keyser: "A Three-tiered Theory of the Syllable, "published in 1981 as Occasional Paper No.19 of the Center for Cognitive Science at MIT, and "The Hierarchical Nature of the Klamath Syllable, "privately circulated in1980.


G.N. Clements and Samuel Jay Keyser

G.N. Clements is Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department at Cornell University. Samuel Jay Keyser is Peter de Florez Emeritus Professor at MIT and an emeritus member of the Linguistics and Philosophy faculty. He is currently special assistant to the Chancellor at MIT.

Samuel Jay Keyser’s site:


CV phonology :

1. Overview

CV phonology proposes an additional tier in phonological representation –-the CV-tier—which defines functional positions within the syllable, as well as allowing a simple account of such syllable-related phenomena. A diphthong can be shown as two vowel qualities functioning as, or filling the position of, a single vowel; or a lengthened or geminate consonants can be represented as a single segment spreading over two C position.

It is a theory of syllable representation which characterizes the syllable as a three-tiered structure having the formal properties of autosegmental system. It claimed that the terminal elements of syllable trees are not vowels and consonants themselves, but rather the units of the CV-tier which define positions in syllable structure that particular consonants and vowels may occupy. The independence of the CV-tier and the segmental tier is evidenced by the fact that phonological rules may apply independently to the members of either tier, or may affect the manner in which the elements of these two tiers are associated with each other. Moreover, phonological rules may be sensitive to the difference between identical syllable trees which differ in the composition of the CV-tier.

Syllable trees consist of three-tiered representations, in which each tier has a certain vocabulary associated with it. The vocabulary of the first, or σ-tier, consists of the single elementσ. The vocabulary of the second, or CV-tier, consists of the two element C,V; and the vocabulary of the third, or segmental tier (nucleus tier), consists of single-column phonetic matrices characterizing consonants and vowels in usual manner. Well-formed strings on each tier consist of concatenations of the members of the alphabet defined on that tier. In the three- tier representation, the term Jennifer will be represented as follows:


σ-tier                           σ      σ       σ      


CV-tier                     C    V  C   V   C   V  C




segmental tier             d  ζ  ε  n   ì    f       r


The elements of the CV-tier distinguish between syllable peaks and syllable non-peaksor syllable margins.Specially, any segment dominated by V is interpreted as a syllable peak, and any segment dominated by C is interpreted as a non-peak. Thus in the above mentioned example, the terminal elementsε】【ì】【rconstitute syllable peaks; the remaining elements are non-peaks. Elements of neighboring tiers may be related in much the same way that syntactic elements are related in tree structures. In syntactic theory these relations are specified in terms of lines which are called “branches” while in multi-tiered phonological representations they are specified in terms of “association lines. The notion of “immediate constituent” holds in multi-tiered phonological representations just as it does in syntactic theory. Therefore, the consonants /n/ and the sequence/dζ/ in the example of the term Jennifer are both immediate constituents of the category C , and the string /nif/ is a immediate constituent of the category syllableσ.

While the similarity between syntactic trees and syllable trees is instructive, there are several differences between them. First, the notion of tier plays no significant role in current syntactic theory. Thus, in the tiered representations presented here, the number of levels between the root and the terminals of a given structure is fixed at three. In syntactic trees no such fixed number is characterized. Second, while in syllable theory the elements of the alphabet are exhaustively partitioned among the three tiers of syllable representationi.e. each tier has its own alphabet and shares it with no other tier, in syntactic theory the non-terminal symbols may appear at any non-terminal level of the tree.

2.  Core Syllables

       The primary set of core syllable types comprise 4 sequences: CV, V, CVC, VC. VC is the most highly marked in the sense that any language that has VC sequence must also have CV, V, CVC sequences. Syllable type CV belongs to the grammar of all languages. This syllable type may be operated on to yield one or more of the other core syllable types by the following two operations:

a. delete syllable initial C

b. insert syllable final C

Some languages allow core syllable types to include sequences of consecutive V-elements. Some languages allow one C-element in initial or final postion in the syllable.

         Constraints on cooccurrence within the syllable are represented by positive and negative syllable structure conditions which, taken together, generate the set of well-formed core syllables for each language.The positive syllable structure conditions (PSSCs) state the general canonic form of well-formed consonant or vowel clusters in terms of sequences of natural classes. The negative syllable structure conditions (NSSCs), applying to the output of the PSSCs, specify certain subsequences within the syllable as ill-formed, thus performing a filtering operation.



Clements, George N. & Samuel Jay Keyser. 1983. CV Phonology: A Generative Theory of the syllable. MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass.

Clements, G.N. “Syllable and Mora in Luganda.” unpublished manuscript. Harvard University. 1978.

Clements, G.N. “Akan Vowel Harmony: a Nonlinear Analysis.” In G.N. Clements,

Ed. Harvard Studies in Phonology 2. Indiana University Linguistics Club, Bloomington, Indiana. 1981.

Clements, G.N. “Compensatory Lengthening and Consonant Gemination in Luganda.” Paper presented at the Minifestival on Compensatory Lengthening, Harvard University. May 1982.

Clements, G.N. and K.C. Ford. “Kikuku Tone Shift and its Synchronic Consequences.” Linguistic Inquiry. 10.2, 179-210.1979.

Clements, G.N. and S.J. Keyser. “The Hierarchical Nature of the Klamath Syllable.” Unpublished manuscript. Harvard and MIT. 1980.

Clements, G.N. and S.J. Keysler. “A Three-Tiered Theory of the Syllable.” Ocassional Paper No.19. The Center for Cognitive Science. MIT.1981.

Kahn, D., Syllable-based Generalizations in English Phonology, doctoral dissertation, MIT, 1976published by Garland Publishing Company. New York. 1980.