Questioning the universality of the syllable: evidence from Japanese*

Laurence Labrunea1

a1 University of Bordeaux


This paper reexamines the issue of the mora, the foot and the syllable in Tokyo Japanese, and shows that whereas the mora and the foot are indisputably present and active, the evidence for the syllable is inconspicuous and disputable. Building on this observation, I claim that Tokyo Japanese makes no use of the syllable. Instead, two types of mora are distinguished: regular CV moras and weak (deficient) moras. Weak moras include the moraic nasal, the first part of a geminate and the second part of a long vowel, as well as moras containing an onsetless vowel, a devoiced vowel or an epenthetic vowel. I further argue that feet obey a set of structural constraints stipulating that they be properly headed by a regular full mora. With this enriched notion of mora type, the paper argues that neither the syllable nor any other level of the prosodic hierarchy is obligatory in all languages.


* I would like to thank François Dell, Jacques Durand, Tanaka Shin'ichi, Takayama Tomoaki and many other colleagues for helpful comments and discussions. Oral versions of this paper were presented at the Toulouse CLLE ERSS seminar in 2009, the 32nd Annual Congress of the German Linguistic Society in Berlin in 2010 and the East Asian Linguistics Workshop held in Paris Diderot University in 2010. I also thank the editors, an associate editor and three anonymous reviewers for many valuable comments and criticisms on earlier versions of this article.