The Syllable’s A-Foot

Professor Laura Catharine Smith explained the important role that syllables play in the modern study of Germanic linguistics.

Laura SmithPROVO, Utah (Feb. 5)—When asked, most people can correctly identify that there are four syllables in Mississippi, or three in contractor. Syllables are such an intuitive part of language that we often don’t think much about them, let alone consider their importance to the study of language development.

Laura Catharine Smith, associate professor of German linguistics, gave her presentation “The Syllable’s A-Foot: Solving the Mysteries of the History and Structure of German and Dutch” in a Humanities Center colloquium, outlining the part syllables have played in the study of linguistics.

In 1983, Robert W. Murray and Theo Vennemann released an article introducing their Preference Laws for Syllable Structure. Their work began when Murray asked whether syllables (or prosody) could be used to account for language change. This was the first theory that attempted to draw a connection between prosody and language change.

For an example, Smith referred to former president George W Bush. During his presidency, Bush was often the target of ridicule for how he pronounced certain words, especially nuclear. “I grew up near a power plant, so I didn’t understand what the problem was with him pronouncing it nucular, because that’s what we all called it,” she said. “Essentially, he was simply breaking up the ‘cl’ in the beginning of the syllable. He still said a word that was three syllables long, but instead of a ‘cl’ sound, you get a ‘cu.’”

Murray and Vennemann’s work paved the way for more approaches to language change drawing on “prosody” (e.g., syllables, accent, etc.). Those who came after them examined “feet” – structures built from syllables – and how they were used to build language.

Smith cautioned that linguistic study cannot be confined to written language, or even the standard variety of language. The danger, Smith explained, lies in developing theories based on standard languages instead of reflecting the more natural language that hasn’t been imposed on speakers through education. She said, “When we start taking a look at what’s coming out of the mouths of actual speakers, we start to see that sometimes there are remnants of the history still entrenched in the language in some areas. And in some areas they’ve been lost altogether.”

More recently, theories have arisen that there is no need for prosody in linguistic theory, and that phonetics is sufficient. However, Smith closed her presentation by reaffirming the importance of prosody and said, “People have an invitation to start thinking, ‘Could some of the structures that we haven’t considered to be important in our language really be what’s pulling the strings?’”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies, ’16)