CVX Theory in CCCCCCVX Languages: Implications for Universal Grammar

Michael Marlo 1
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1University of Michigan

Copyright ⓒ 2016, Sejong University Language Research Institue. This is an Open-Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License ( which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Published Online: Jan 01, 2017


This article provides a critical review of Duanmu’s (2002) proposal that there is a universal CVX syllable structure, having a single- consonant onset position (C) and a rhyme (VX) that consists of two positions: one for a vowel (V) and one for either a second vowel or a consonant (X). Duanmu reanalyzes possible and impossible consonant clusters in onset position of English and Chinese in terms of what can fit into the single C slot, given the restrictions on what constitutes a segment in articulator-based feature theory, rather than in terms of sonority, as in “classic” analyses (e.g., Kenstowicz 1994). The predictions of Duanmu’s CVX theory are evaluated here in light of data from three languages that superficially, at least, pose the greatest challenges to a theory that predicts a universally simple syllable structure: Spokane Salish, Bella Coola, and Sipakapense Maya—languages that have been reported to allow long sequences of consonants in onset position. Careful evaluation of the data reveals that the languages indeed appear to have simple syllable structure, as claimed in Duanmu’s theory, although slightly different turn from the predictions of the CVX theory. Given these results, implications for phonological universals and the role of sonority, prosodic licensing, and stray erasure in phonological theory are considered.

Keywords: phonology; syllable structure; universals



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