Sonority hierarchy

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The concept of the sonority hierarchy assumes that phones that belong to different sound classes also differ in their sonority , i.e. their sound volume. The feature serves to explain the segmental syllable structure by means of the gradation of sonority, i.e. the delimitation of the syllables in the word and the inner structure of the syllable. In a sequence of phones, the respective sonority peaks count as a syllable nucleus , while the sonority minima mark a syllable boundary. Thus, the sonority falls within a syllable towards the syllable edges, and both the syllable attachment and the syllable coda have a lower sonority than the syllable core. The sonority principle says that the sonority of each syllable increases towards the syllable core and decreases towards the syllable boundary.

The increase in sonority towards the syllable kernel is regarded as a linguistic universality , as it can be applied to the great majority of the languages examined . One explanation for this observation is that the division of the speech signal into syllables is facilitated by the sequence of sections of high and low sonority.

The sonority hierarchy runs from the plosives with increasing sonority in the direction of the vowels :

Sonority value Sonority class
1 Plosives
2 Fricatives
3 Nasals
4th Liquid
5 Approximants
6th closed vowels
7th open vowels

In the following example, the different sonorities of the various phones are shown by the height of the bar above; the numerical values ​​can be found below this bar. The syllable boundary, characterized by the point found at the Sonoritätsminimum after the first occurrence of the sound [⁠ n ⁠] .

1 6th 3 2 6th 3 2
/ k ɔ n . z ɛ n s /

The approach of describing syllables with the sonority hierarchy began at the end of the 19th century. Eduard Sievers introduced the sonority hierarchy of the sound classes in 1881. Later the principle found its way into phonology and can be found in the markedness restrictions of the optimality theory .

Although the sonority hierarchy has been described as universally valid, there are also syllables in many languages ​​whose structure does not correspond to the sonority hierarchy. Also in German we have such counter-examples: In the word stocking [ ʃ͜tʀʊmp͡f is both] initial sound a fricative [⁠ ʃ ⁠] before a plosive [⁠ t ⁠] and in the final sound a fricative [⁠ f ⁠] for a plosive [⁠ p ⁠] . Nevertheless, it can be said that the structure of a syllable preferably follows the sonority hierarchy.


  • Helmut Glück (Ed.), With the collaboration of Friederike Schmöe : Metzler Lexikon Sprache. 3rd, revised edition. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2005, ISBN 3-476-02056-8 , p. 603.
  • Judith Meinschaefer: Syllable and sonority in language and brain. Dissertation Bochum 1998, pp. 26-76 ( PDF ; 858 kB).
  • Eduard Sievers : Basics of Phonetics as an introduction to the study of phonetics in the Indo-European languages. Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig 1881.
  • Theo Vennemann : On the syllable structure of the German standard language. In: Theo Vennemann (Ed.): Syllables, segments, accents. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1982.
  • Theo Vennemann: Recent developments in phonology. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 1986.
  • Theo Vennemann: Preference Laws for Syllable Structure and the Explanation of Sound Change. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 1988.

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Wiktionary: sonority hierarchy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations