Sonority scale

Sonority hierarchy

A sonority hierarchy or sonority scale is a ranking of speech sounds (or phones) by amplitude. For example, if you say the vowel [a], you will produce much louder sound than if you say the plosive [t]. Sonority hierarchies are especially important when analyzing syllable structure; rules about what segments may appear in onsets or codas together, such as SSP, are formulated in terms of the difference of their sonority values. Some languages also have assimilation rules based on sonority hierarchy, for example, the Finnish potential mood (e.g. -tne- → -nne-).

Sonority hierarchies vary somewhat in which sounds are grouped together. The one below is fairly typical:

Sonority Type Son/Obs Cons/Vow
(lowest) plosives Obstruents Consonants
nasals Sonorants
high vowels Vowels
(highest) non-high vowels

Sonority scale

In English, the sonority scale, from lowest to highest, is the following:

It should be noted that more finely nuanced hierarchies often exist within classes whose members cannot be said to be distinguished by relative sonority. In North American English, for example, of the set /p t k/, /t/ is by far the most subject to weakening when before a vowel not stressed (v. the usual American pronunciation of /t/ as a flap in later, but normally no weakening of /p/ in caper or of /k/ in faker). Similarly, Romance languages often show geminate /mm/ to be weaker than /nn/. In such cases, many phonologists refer not to sonority, but to a more abstract notion of relative strength, which, while once posited as universal in its arrangement, is now known to be language specific.


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