consonant clusters

Posted in Random thoughts at 3:38 pm by ducky

A few people and I were sitting at breakfast talking about consonant clusters. Some languages — like Maori — are syllable-oriented: their words are pretty much consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel.

English, on the other hand, frequently has consonant sounds with no vowels in between, like school (S.K.oo.l) or desk (d.eh.S.K). I’m talking about sounds here, not letters, so taxi has a consonant cluster (t.aa.K.S.ee) in one letter, while phase has two letters but no consonant cluster (F.ay.z).

We got to wondering what the biggest sequence of consonant phonemes we could come up with in English was. The talented Bryan Theissen came up with sixth street (s.ih.K.S.TH.S.T.R.ee.t), which has six in a row. (Yes, yes, it’s two words, but I’m looking at spoken language, and there are no pauses between words.)

I did some searching on the Web and found that some Slavic languages have six consonants in a row (and they seem to mean spoken consonants, not just written), but I couldn’t find anything about seven (spoken) consonants in a row in any language. I wonder, is six consonantal phonemes the most that humans’ vocal production systems can handle?

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