Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

What do Flickr, Tumblr, Pooln, and Kaboodle all have in common? The obvious answer would be to say that they’re all “Web 2.0” sites, relying on user input and participation to succeed. However, there’s a less obvious (and far more language-related) characteristic that these and many other Web 2.0 sites share: Syllabic Consonants.

Phonology 1013: Syllable structure

Take an utterance like “Eddie poked a badger with a spoon”. There are several different ways we can break this down into smaller parts. We could simply break it into words (as we do in writing), giving us “Eddie”, “poked”, etc. At the other end of the spectrum, we could break it into individual sounds (phonemes), giving us “ɛ”, “d”, “i”, “p”, and so on.

However, as all speakers of all languages know (at some level), there’s a middle step: syllables. A syllable is a phonological unit comprised of one or more sounds which are naturally grouped together in speech. We would break our above example into syllables as follows: “E-ddie poked a ba-dger with a spoon”.

Most speakers, if asked to repeat something very, very slowly, will naturally break words into syllables, and all languages can be described in terms of syllables. Syllables are handy for determining the stress pattern of a word (in some languages), for dictating when sounds are allowed to be used (the velar nasal can’t start a syllable), and they play a major role in the phonology (sound system) of most languages.

A syllable has two sections. The first is the onset, or beginning of a syllable, is always a consonant (or several). Not all syllables need one, but they’re pretty common. For example, in the word “bat”, the onset is “b”. The rhyme (or rime) is the second part of the syllable, and is composed of the “nucleus” and the “coda”. The coda is the final consonant(s) of a syllable (t in “bat”). Coda consonants are less common, and some languages (like Hawaiian) don’t allow a coda at all.

The nucleus, however, is the fundamental piece of a syllable. You can have a syllable with no onset or coda (“a”), but you have to have a nucleus. The nucleus of a syllable is usually a vowel (as in “bat” or “scowl”), but some languages allow consonants to live in that spot and function as a syllable’s nucleus. When that happens, it’s called having a “syllabic consonant”, and is represented in the IPA with a small vertical line under the sound.

Some languages use syllabic consonants frequently. For instance, as one of my readers pointed out in a comment, in Czech, syllabic R’s are used frequently, and can result in seemingly unpronounceable sentences like “Strč prst skrz krk” (‘Put your finger down your throat’). However, most relevant to our discussion, in English, only /l/, /r/, /m/ and /n/ can be syllabic, and only in certain situations.

Now that we know what a syllabic consonant is, we can better explore the world of Web 2.0.

Syllabic Consonants and the Web

As you can now see, Flickr, Tumblr, Pooln, and Kaboodle are all pronounced with syllabic consonants at the end of their names (/r/, /r/, /n/, and /l/, respectively). This is interesting to me for two reasons.

First, syllabic consonants (especially /r/) are extremely common at the end of Web 2.0 site names (see this list for proof). First flickr, then variations on it, and now sites like tumblr and even twitter are on the syllabic bandwagon. At first, I thought that it might be an isolated case (with the -r ending just being trendy), but then I noticed that other syllabic sites were popping up. Kaboodle ends with a syllabic /l/, and now sites like pooln are working their way through the other syllabics in English. It’s worth noting, though, that google beat everybody to the syllabic /l/, even though they don’t draw attention with the trendy spelling.

Second, people seem to be recognizing the syllabicity of these final consonants, and skipping the written vowels altogether when creating their site names. The flickr -r may well have started the game, but now completely unrelated sites are becoming Web 2.0 by not including the written vowel in words with syllabic endings. Pooln chose its site name over “Poolin” or “Poolen”, tumblr over “tumbler”, and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the first sites ending in /l/ pop up (at the time of writing, rumbl, tumbl and bumbl were already reserved). Interestingly, I’m yet to see a syllabic M site (perhaps because we generally just write the m with now vowel, as in “chasm” or “orgasm”). Who knows, though, maybe “phantm” is the next Web 2.0 ghost hunting site

Web 2.0: Complexity, Interactivity, Syllabicity

So, it’s pretty tough to deny the correlation between “Web 2.0-ness” and syllabic consonants. Of course, there are plenty of Web 2.0 sites that are vowel-nucleus-only (YouTube, Facebook, MySpace), but there does seem to be a trend at work here.

What does it all mean? Well, if you’re hoping to start a new Web 2.0 business, you might want to talk to a linguist or a phonologist. Syllabic consonants might not be the only key to success, but do you really want to take that chance? I assure you, my rates would be quite reasonabl.

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