요르단 아랍어에서의 음절 습득

Acquisition of Syllable Structure in Jordanian Arabic

Article information

Commun Sci Disord Vol. 24, No. 4, 953-967, December, 2019
Publication date (electronic) : 2019 December 31
doi : https://doi.org/10.12963/csd.19657
aDepartment of English Language and Literature, The Hashemite University, Zarqa, Jordan
bDepartment of Rehabilitation Sciences, Jordan University of Science and Technology, Irbid, Jordan
MashaqbaBassil M.aorcid_icon, Al-ShdifatKhalid G.,borcid_icon, Al HuneetyAnas I.aorcid_icon, AlhalaMais Abuaorcid_icon
aHashemite University
bJordan University of Science and Technology
Correspondence: Khalid G. Al-Shdifat, PhD Jordan University of Science and Technology, P. O. Box 3030, Irbid 22110, Jordan Tel: +962779098548 Fax: +96227095123 E-mail: kgalshdifat@just.edu.jo
Received 2019 October 5; Revised 2019 November 9; Accepted 2019 November 19.


배경 및 목적

본 연구의 목적은 요르단 아랍어를 산출하는 아동의 초기 단어 음절 구조와 주요한 음운 과정을 살펴보는 것이다.


총 20명 아동의 이름대기 발화와 자발화를 전사하고 음절 구조를 분석하였다. 참여자의 연령대는 1–3세였으며 1;0–1:6, 1:7–2;0, 2:1–2:6, 2:7–3;0세 등 총 네 연령대 집단으로 구분되었다. 이후 발화자료는 단어 음절 구조와 음절수에 영향을 주는 10가지 음운 과정에 따라 분석되었다.


CVC가 모든 연령대에서 가장 빈번히 관찰된 음절 구조였다. 음절수에 있어서는 2음절 단어가 가장 빈번히 사용되었다. 의성어, 약음절 생략, CVVC 폐쇄음절의 CVV음절로의 생략 등이 첫번째 연령대에서 관찰되었다. 자음군 생략과 초성/종성생략이 2:1–2:6개월 연령집단에서 가장 빈번히 관찰되었다. 음절 생략은 3세까지 관찰되었다.

논의 및 결론

요르단 아랍어를 사용하는 아동은 초기 발화의 이음절과 다음절 단어에서 CVC 음절 구조를 주로 사용하는 것으로 나타났다. 아동은 아랍어 음운 단어의 최소 양모라 값을 유지하기 위하여 CV 혹은 CVC 일음절을 회피하였다. 의성어는 1세 이후부터 3세까지 나타났는데 음절 축약이 함께 나타났다. 이러한 결과가 최근 문헌과 관련 지어 논의되었다.

Trans Abstract


The aim of this research was to investigate the early word syllable structure and notable phonological processes in the speech of Jordanian Arabic (JA)-speaking children.


Elicited and spontaneous speech productions of 20 children were transcribed and analyzed by syllable structure. The ages of the participants ranged from 1 to 3 years, divided into four age groups: 1;0–1;6, 1;7–2;0, 2;1–2;6, and 2;7–3;0. Then, the data was analyzed according to ten phonological processes influencing word syllable structure and number.


CVC was found to be the most prevalent syllable structure used across all age groups. In terms of syllable number, disyllabic words were the most frequently used. Onomatopoeia, weak syllable deletion, and closed syllable CVVC reduction to CVV were noticed in the productions of children in the first age group. Cluster reduction and onset/coda deletion occurred the most with the age group 2;1–2;6, while syllable deletion was evident until age 3.


It appears that JA-speaking children use CVC syllable structure heavily in bisyllabic and polysyllabic words in their early speech; they avoid monosyllabic CV or CVC syllables to preserve the minimal bimoraic weight of Arabic phonological words. Onomatopoeia is noticed beyond the age of 1 with syllable deletion in the speech of children up to 3. The results are discussed within the context of the current literature.

Consistency in language production is a fundamental principle for understanding, building and shaping the linguistic relations and connections that assist the production of the target units (including syllables). The configuration of prosodic words including segmental, melodic, syllabic and prosodic levels; in correlation with age-stages, plays a crucial role in determining the accuracy of the child's production. Bearing this in mind, the progressive increase of syllable perception and acquisition can be linked to improvement in the accuracy and stability of correct articulation of words comprising different syllable shapes (cf. Bohland & Guenther, 2006).

Acquisition of phonological aspects is of great interest to those concerned both with language acquisition in general and communication disorders in children in particular. Different studies have been conducted on the phonological processes young children use during their acquisition of the syllable structure in different languages, such as Spanish-English (Keffala, Barlow, & Rose, 2018), Dutch (Levelt, Schiller & Levelt, 2000; Rose, 1997), Polish (Ł ukas-zewicz, 2007), and Indonesian (Raja, 2008). The phonological processes include assimilation, cluster reduction, syllable deletion, cluster gemination, cluster deletion, metathesis, epenthesis, syllable duplication (for details, refer to Fee & Ingram, 1982; Kehoe, 1994, 1995; Pater, 1997; Dyson & Amayreh, 2000; Kehoe & Stoel-Gammon, 2001; Raja, 2008; Young, 1991, among others). These are termed normal phonological processes and take place in typically developing children's speech to repair and compensate for the loss of the syllables they are not yet ready to produce when trying to imitate adult word production.

Many studies have examined varieties of Arabic acquisition, e.g., Cairene Arabic (Ammar & Morsi, 2006; Ragheb & Davis, 2010; Saleh, Shoeib, Hegazi, & Ali, 2007), Kuwaiti Arabic (Ayyad, 2011; Ayyad & Bernhardt, 2009), and Jordanian Arabic (Al-Btoush, 2005; Al-Tamimi, Owais, Khabour, & Khamaiseh, 2011; Daana, 2009; Dyson & Amayreh, 2000, Mashaqba, Al-Khawaldeh, AlGweirien, & Al-Edwan, in press). These fall short of providing a full account of the acquisition of syllable structure in Arabic, especially Jordanian Arabic (JA). Syllable acquisition based on the number of occurrences was observed and types of syllables used has also been considered (Ayyad, 2011; Jakobson, 1968; Dyson, 1988; Ragheb & Davis, 2010; Stoel-Gammon, 1987; Young, 1991). Nonetheless, the findings of those studies are variable, which might be attributed to the different methodologies used in data collection. Moreover, no quantitative work has been carried out on their syllable structure, specifically that of JA-speakers. The present study thus aims to fill a gap in the literature by examining the acquisition of syllabic structure by JA-speaking children. The findings of this work highlight the importance of this study, in that it focuses on the syllable structure acquisition and word syllable structure and number in the speech of 1- to 3-year-old JA-speaking children.

A syllable consists of an obligatory vowel (nucleus), which is pre-ceded and followed by optional consonants (onset and coda) (Gurský, 2005; Laver, 1994). JA exhibits fixed syllable structures; it has open, closed and doubly closed syllables. The syllable types that may occur are CVV/CV as in /ma:.ma/ ‘mum’, CCV as in / nħa.raʔ/ ‘burnt’, CVC such as / mal.ʕab/ ‘playground’, CCVC as in / btil-ʕab/ ‘play’, CVVC as in /ki:s/ ‘bag’, CCVVC, /ṣħu:n/ ‘plates', CCVCC, /drobs/ ‘candy’, and CVCC such as /kalb/ ‘dog’. The most frequent word syllable numbers are disyllables and trisyllables, although there are mono-syllables and a very few usages of words that are quadrisyllabic or more (Al-Wer, 2007; Huneety, 2015; Mashaqba, 2015).

A number of phonological processes are employed by children to repair the syllable structure: cluster reduction, deletion (onset deletion, weak syllable deletion and coda deletion/CVVC > CVV), syllable epenthesis, assimilation, gemination, metathesis and onomatopoeia. Clusters are consonants that follow each other in the syllable structure. The process of cluster reduction is common in children's speech and has an impact on their syllable structure. It is one of the persistent phonological processes during speech acquisition in children (McLeod, Van Doorn, & Reed, 2001; Rvachew & Andrews, 2002), and is still seen in the speech production of 5-year-old (Haelsig & Madison, 1986) with incidences in the speech of children aged 8–9 (Roberts, Burchinal, & Footo, 1990; Smit, 1993; Smit, Hand, Freilinger, Bernthal & Bird, 1990; Tempun, 1957). Nevertheless, some children produce certain clusters at the age of 2 (e.g., French, 1989; Lleó & Prinz, 1996; Preisser, Hodson, & Paden, 1988; Stoel-Gammon, 1987; Watson & Scukanec, 1997). Children whose phonological systems are developing tend to delete at least one of the consonants in a multi-consonant cluster (e.g., Bernhardt & Stemberger, 1998; Ingram, 1974, 1989; Kiparsky & Menn, 1977; Olmsted, 1971; Smith, 1973; Vihman, 1980).

Deletion of phonological elements is used widely by children at-tempting to produce multisyllabic words in the early stages (Dyson & Amayreh, 2000; Kehoe, 1994, 1995, 2001; Pater, 1997; Young, 1991). The target of deletion is either the onset, the coda or the weak unstressed syllable in multisyllabic words (Dyson & Amayreh, 2000). Intriguingly, investigating syllable structure acquisition cross-linguistically proves the universality of weak/strong syllable rules indicating weak syllable deletion with preservation of the strong (stressed) syllables (Al-Btoush, 2005; Al-Tamimi et al., 2011; Gerken, 1994; Kehoe & Steol-Gammon, 1997, 2001; Levey & Schwartz, 2002; Pater, 1997; Raja, 2008). By way of contrast, epenthesis refers to the addition/insertion of a segment (vowel/consonant) in order to meet the language syllable structure (Trask, 1996). Some linguists restrict the term to word-medial intrusion, and others to consonant intrusion. This process is very frequent in adult speech in Arabic— e.g. Wadi Mousa Arabic (Huneety, 2015) and Wadi Ramm Arabic (Mashaqba, 2015). Intriguingly, insertion of bigger prosodic elements has been registered in children's speech, where syllable epenthesis refers to the insertion of a syllable in the phonological word (Kehoe, 1994, 1995).

Assimilation refers to the process whereby a sound overrides or takes features of a neighboring sound (progressively or regressively), so that the sounds become more alike or identical (Ladefoged, 2006; Roach, 2009). Chomsky and Halle (1968) refer to assimilation as one segment altering its features so as to become more similar to a nearby segment. Goldsmith (1976, 1979) defines it as spreading rules. Simply, assimilation is a kind of ease of articulation because of the tendency to articulate efficiently by copying or spreading a phonetic property from one segment to the other (Fromkin, Rodman, & Hyams, 2013, p. 301).

Gemination typically refers to segment duplication (Al-Mashagbah, 2010; Raja, 2008). The behavior of geminates in linguistic systems is a problem for researchers, and various definitions have attempted to identify geminate production: (1) prolongation/consonant lengthening involving one phase of production (e.g., Al-Ani, 1970; Blanc, 1953; Cantineau, 1960); (2) duplication where the production of geminates involves two phases: the consonant acquires a coda position, and then it acquires an onset position (e.g., Abdo, 1980; Delartte, 1968); and (3) greater energy/tension and a stronger articulation of a sound segment (Jessen, 1998; Ridouane, 2007).

Metathesis (Ɂiqlāb in Arabic terminology) refers to the process of transposition in the usual sequence of elements, normally of two consonants in a word or syllable. It is very frequent in children's speech (Alqattan, 2015). The process is also found in performance errors (also called tongue-slips) or in Spoonerisms (cf. Crystal, 2008).

Onomatopoeia refers to words that imitate real sounds, whether human or non-human. In linguistics, the term refers to the direct motivated, non-arbitrary association between the phonetic form and its meaning (Inose, 2007; Trask, 1996).



Samples were collected from 20 participants divided into the four age groups (1;0–1;6, 1;7–2;0, 2;1–2;6, and 2;7–3;0 each with three males and two females). A participant datasheet was prepared which included all relevant information about the children, including code names, ages, their medical history, and languages spoken at home. Participants were screened by one of the co-authors, a spe-cialized pathologist, for any possible hearing or developmental dis-orders; all passed the pure-tone audiometry hearing test, with the exception of two of the participants originally selected, because of hearing impairment. None of the participants had any history of speech language therapy. Approval to conduct the study was obtained from the departmental research committee at the first author's institution, The Hashemite University, Jordan (IRB no. 2520182019). The participants were recruited from different nurseries in Am-man. Consent forms were sent to the parents through the nurseries and were signed by the parents and returned to the first author to indicate their approval for their children to participate in the study.

Stimuli and Procedure

A trained research assistant (RA) conducted the data collection. A picture-naming task and objects were used to elicit speech productions from the children within a play context. The task involved 50 colorful prompts which depicted familiar objects, e.g., animals, parts of the body, daily activities, furniture, and toys. All images were taken from a children's picture dictionary and included words of different weights and syllable shapes. The task entertained the children and ensured their continuity throughout the research project. All JA phonemes were considered. Participants were asked to name the object in each picture; they were given clues if necessary, and if still unable to name the object, delayed imitation was used. The data was further supplemented by spontaneous speech samples from the children. This involved asking questions on topics related to the selected pictures, and asking them to narrate routine activities. All of the children's productions were recorded, trans-lated and transcribed for further analysis and for inter-rater reliability testing.


The picture-naming task and spontaneous recording samples yielded 284 words that varied in shape and syllable weight. The syllable structure for each word was carefully analyzed to reveal the phonological processes applied, and the results were compared to adults' productions in JA. The data was entered into Excel sheets, and the frequency analysis was calculated by counting the percentage of each syllable structure occurring in relation to the syllable number. The analysis considered syllable structure, syllable shapes across age groups, word syllable structure, syllable numbers across age groups, and notable phonological processes affecting syllable structure. An expert who had no knowledge of the purpose and design of the study randomly selected 25% of the data and rescored it; inter-rater reliability was 96% and disagreement was resolved through discussion.


This section summarizes the major findings concerning the syllable shapes and numbers across age groups. A further sub-section is devoted to explaining the phonological repair processes (prosodic and melodic) involved in the production and development of syllable structures produced by typical JA children.

Syllable Shape across Age Groups

This section summarizes the frequency of the syllable shapes produced by the four age stages, as shown in Table 1.

Syllable shapes across age groups

In the first three age stages, children produced open and closed syllables. They produced a certain set of syllable shapes which included CV, CVV, CVC, and CVVC. The most frequent syllable shape used was CVC and the least were CVV and CVVC (see Table 1). Consonant clusters were observed in the speech of the older age group, but limited to monosyllabic words as in / burʒ/ >[burd] ‘bridge’. In this oldest group, children could also use more diverse open and closed syllable shapes compared to the younger age groups. Children in the youngest age group, on the other hand, used CV, CVC and CVV syllable shapes in the majority of their productions. As can be seen from Table 1, the most frequent syllable shape used was CVC (38% of the total usage of different syllable shapes) among children in the four age groups, while the least used shapes were those containing consonant clusters (0.2%) like CCVCC, CCV and CCVV. This result supports the assumption that acquisition of consonant clusters significantly emerges in the oldest group.

Word Syllable Structure

Table 2 summarizes the syllable shapes in monosyllabic, bisyllabic and trisyllabic words.

Word syllable structure

As seen in Table 2, children in the youngest age group tended to produce monosyllabic words with all of its ‘bimoraic’ shapes at a relatively high percentage (50%). The most-used monosyllabic structure was CVG, which had the highest percentage (36%); the least-used was CV (4%), which was attested once in a bisyllabic word. The first group also produced bisyllabic words with all of the syllable structures (46%). The most-used structure was CVV/CV with 26% of occurrence, while the least-used were CVV/CVV and CV/ CVC. Children rarely produced trisyllabic words at this early age, with usage of 3% observed in three occurrences only; only two shapes were acquired, namely CVC/CVC/CV and CVC/CVV/CV. No words of more than three syllables were produced at this age. The children's productions of monosyllabic words in the second age group were low (17%), which is much lower than the first group; only CVG and CVVC were noticed at this age. Bisyllabic words were produced the most frequently with all shapes totalling 82%. The most-used structure was CVC/CVC, accounting (28%), and the least CVVC/CV. An increased use of trisyllabic words over the previous age group was noticed: 11% overall, with the most frequent shape being CVC/CV/CV and the least frequent CV/CV/ CVVC and CVC/CV/CVVC. Quadrisyllabic words were not produced at this age.

The production of monosyllabic words in the age of 2;1–2;6 was further reduced, with an average of 25%, limited to CVG (11%) and CVVC (14%). Bisyllabic words were produced most frequently, 61% overall. The most-used structure was again CVC/CVC (33%), and the least-used CV/CVC. These children produced a higher proportion of trisyllabic words than the previous groups, indicating the complexity and variability of word production at this age. Three shapes accounted for 14%, of which the most frequent one was CVC/CVV/CV (80%). Words of four or more syllables were still not produced.

The percentage of monosyllabic words produced by the oldest group was 29%, which is higher than the next two younger age groups. This discrepancy might seem illogical, but consonant clusters were acquired at this age and this started with the production of clusters in monosyllabic words. Different shapes were produced, the most frequent being CVCC and the least frequent CCVCC, which occurred only once. Bisyllabic words were produced frequently with all shapes, the highest being 39%. The most-used structure was also CV/CVC (27%). This group also produced the highest percentage of trisyllabic words (32%), the most frequent being CVC/CV/CV (29%). Although quadrisyllabic words were still not produced, future research might investigate their appearance in children aged 3 and above.

Table 3 shows the syllable number used by each age group. Mono-syllables were readily produced in all groups; bisyllabic words were also widely used and were the most frequent word shape overall. Trisyllabic word occurrence increased with age; however, quadrisyllabic words where not found in the current data.

Syllable numbers across age groups

While the first age group preferred monosyllabic and bisyllabic words, across all the other groups, bisyllabic words were the most-preferred word structures.

Notable Phonological Processes Involving Syllable Structure

This section summarizes the key findings for the phonological processes in the JA children's speech corpus. Table 4 shows the syllable structure processes seen in the speech samples.

Syllable structure processes

Cluster reduction

Cluster reduction was consistently and frequently used by children below the age of 3, although it declined after this as children started to acquire clusters in syllable initial and final positions. The percentage of this process in the first two age groups is lower than in the third age group (23.5%, 16%) because of the tendency to delete syllables in all positions and to use open syllables instead of closed ones. The occurrence of this process was the highest in the third age group (50%) because children started to suppress syllable deletion processes leading to more complex phonological systems. Examples include: /kalb.na/ ‘our dog’>[kab.na], /ʔ ird. e:n/‘two monkeys'>[ʔ id.e:n].


Based on this data, deletion was divided into three groups according to the process that affected the syllable: onset deletion, weak syllable deletion, and coda deletion (CVVC > CVV):

Onset deletion

Onset deletion was rarely used by different age groups. It appeared once in the speech of children in the two youngest groups, twice in the speech of children in the third youngest group, but was not seen in the speech of the oldest group (see Table 4, and the examples below).

(1a) /ʔ a.lo:/ >[ʔ o:]‘hello’

(1b) /ʔ a.lam/ >[ʔ a:m]‘pen’

(1c) /tə.ʕ a:l/ >[ta:l]‘come’

In the first and third instances (1a & 1c), truncation was performed, i.e., deletion of the onset of the second syllable while the long vowel from the second syllable was preserved. In the second example (1b), truncation and compensatory vowel lengthening were operating. Although the frequency of occurrence of onset deletion is very low in the younger three age groups, their suppression in 3-year old children marks their increased use of multisyllabic word production.

Weak syllable deletion

Weak syllable (otherwise called unstressed syllable) deletion was the most frequent in the youngest age group with 55.7% of occurrences, followed by 21.4%, 21.4%, and 1.5% for the remaining groups. The data here points to the suppression of this phonological process by age 3. Weak syllable deletion appears to last longer than the onset and coda deletions. The following are examples of weak syllable deletion:

(2a) /laj.mu:n/ >[mu:n]‘lemon’ (age of 1;0–1;6)

(2b) /duk.ka:.nə h/ >[na:.neh] ‘shop’ (age of 1;7–2;0)

(2c) /til.fiz.jo:n/ >[ʔ iz.jo:n] ‘television’ (age of 2;1–2;6)

(2d) /maʕ.kə.ro:.nə h/>[mə k.ko:.nə h]‘pasta’ (age of 2;7–3;0)

As reported in previous studies (Al-Btoush, 2005; Al-Tamimi et al., 2011; Gerken, 1994; Kehoe & Steol-Gammon, 1997, 2001; Levey & Schwartz, 2002; Pater, 1997; Raja, 2008), children tended to delete non-final and unstressed syllables.

Coda deletion (CVVC>CVV)

This process affects CVVC in monosyllabic words and in word-final positions, changing them from closed to open (CVVC> CVV). Examples of this process are:

(3a) /mi:n/ >[mi:]‘who’

(3b) /nu:r/ >[nu:]‘proper f. name’

(3c) /go:l/ >[go:]‘goal’

(3d) /tu:t/ >[tu:]‘blueberry’

(3e) /ṣ a.la:ḥ/ >[sa.la:] ‘proper m. name’

As can be seen from Table 4, only children in the youngest age group used this process in producing monosyllabic and bisyllabic words.

Vowel lengthening and shortening

Processes of vowel lengthening (7%) and shortening (3%) were only seen among children in the youngest age group in this study. Vowel lengthening occurred as in /ʃ a.ʕ ar />[sa:l] ‘hair’, where lengthening of /a/ took place to compensate for the deletion of the onset in the ultimate syllable, thus resyllabifying the CV.CVC into CVVC. Vowel shortening occurrence was 3 as in /ha:.da/ >[ʔ a.da] ‘this' changing the first syllable from CVV into CV.

Syllable epenthesis

Syllable insertion occurred in the oldest age group, but only three times; it is rarely used in the speech of JA-speaking children similar to English (Kehoe, 1995). Use of syllable epenthesis included insertion of a word-medial syllable as in /tiʃ.rab/>[ti.si.la:b] ‘drink’ CVC.CVC > CV.CV.CVVC and insertion of a word-initial syllable to break CC onset clusters, as in /mna:ħ/>[ʔ in.na:ħ] ‘good’ CCVVC > CVC.CVVC.


Assimilation is observed in the speech of the youngest two groups, for example:

(4a) /Ɂ aʕ.ṭ i:.ni/ >[ni:.ni]‘give me’ (age of 1;0–1;6)

(4b) /ḥṣ a:n/ >[na:n]‘horse’ (age of 1;0–1;6)

(4c) /bas.ko:.ta/ >[to:.tǝ h] ‘biscuit’ (age of 1;7–2;0)

In example (4a), after the deletion of the initial syllable, the stop /ṭ/ in the penultimate /ṭ i:/ is assimilated with the initial nasal /n/ in the ultimate syllable /ni/, producing [ni:.ni] ‘give me’. In example (4b), one child deleted the initial /ḥ/, and then assimilated the emphatic fricative /ṣ/ with the final nasal /n/ in the same syllable, producing the monosyllabic word [na:n] ‘horse’. In example (4c), the child produced /bas.ko:ta/ ‘biscuit’ as [to:.tǝ h]. Three stages were involved: /bas.ko:ta/ >[ko:.tǝ h]>[to:.tǝ h]. After deleting the initial syllable, the velar plosive /k/ was totally assimilated to the alveolar plosive /t/.


Given that gemination is a typical phonological process in Arabic, it is frequently preserved by children of different ages (see Table 4). Examples of gemination produced by different age groups are given below.

(5a) /ʕ aṣ.fu:r/ >[Ɂ af.fu:l]‘bird’ (age of 1;0–1;6)

(5b) /Ɂ al.bas/ >[Ɂ ab.bas]‘get dressed’ (age of 1;7–2;0)

(5c) /mas.ba.ħ ah/ >[sab.ba.ħ ah] ‘rosary’ (age of 2;7–3;0)

In (5a), /ʕ aṣ.fu:r/ ‘bird’ was produced as [Ɂ af.fu:l] in which the /ṣ/ was deleted and compensated by geminating the fricative /f/. In (5b), /Ɂ al.bas/ ‘get dressed’ was produced as [Ɂ abbas]. After deleting the coda consonant /l/, the C slot needs to be filled to compensate for the weight of the syllable, thus gemination of the onset of the right-hand syllable takes place. In example (5c), gemination takes place when metathesis was applied to the first syllable. Gemination might be one of the first steps in the development of more complex word and syllable structure in children's early speech production in Arabic. As can be seen from Table 4, the highest frequency of this process is seen in the second age group, i.e., 1;7–2;0 years, after which a marked but gradual decline is evident in the two older age groups. Moreover, it seems that as the children's phonological systems are developing, they tend to resort to the use of gemination in their attempts to produce longer and more complex words although the word underwent other phonological processes.


Some interesting examples of metathesis were collected:

(6a) /ta.la.fo:n/ >[ta.fa.lo:n]‘phone’ (age of 1;0–1;6)

(6b) /ʕ ab.lah/ >[ʕ al.bah]‘proper name’ (age of 1;7–2;0)

(6c) /nas.ka.fe:h/ >[san.ka.fe:h]‘Nescafe’ (age of 2;1–2;6)

No rule has been applied to metathesis according to syllable or even other factors such as sonority; for similar results, see Raja (2008). The reordering of segments does not affect the template of the word; for example, the words /ʕ ab.lah/ and [ʕ al.bah] have the same template but with different segmental ordering, i.e. both have CVC.CVC.


Onomatopoeia was only used by children in the youngest age group (19%). The following are examples:

(7a) /sə j.ja:.rə h/ >[Ɂə nn] ‘car’

(7b) /gi:.ṭ a:r/ >[tu:t] ‘train’

(7c) /kalb/ >[haww/ʔ aww] ‘dog’

(7d) /tuf.fa:.ħ ah/ >[ʔ am/nan.nah] ‘apple’


The JA children adhered to the universally structured syllable that started as CV and at a later stage became CVC, as opposed to what they are exposed to in their input CVCC structure (Daana, 2009). They produced a variety of syllable types to build their own words. The older age group produced the least-used syllable shape CV. Intriguingly, monosyllabic words take CVV, CVVC, or CVG forms across all age bands (the oldest age group also has CCVVC, and CCVCC). This confirms that JA children develop the ability to maintain the bimoraic weight parameter, which rises across age bands. This dictates that the moraic weight of a prosodic word in JA must minimally comprise two moras (for details on syllable weight in JA, refer to Huneety & Mashaqba, 2016; Mashaqba & Huneety, 2018).

In terms of syllable shape across age groups, the oldest children were able to produce a greater variety of open and closed syllable shapes than the younger groups. Children in the youngest age group, on the other hand, used CV, CVC and CVV syllable shapes in the majority of their productions, similar to the pattern of English-speaking children, as these syllable shapes are usually found in children's late babbling stage and early word production (Locke, 1983).

According to the corpus of the present study, the first attempt to produce a final coda cluster (other than geminate consonants) in a monosyllabic word was registered by one child in the oldest age group (Table 1). This observation indicates that children are able to produce coda clusters at an early age. However, our results do not agree with those of French (1989), who reported that his son produced the first consonant cluster word at age 1;10 and five other words by 2;2. The emergence of the production of clusters in mono-syllabic words in the oldest age group might mark a shift from cluster reduction to production and might be setting the stage for the production of syllable clusters in multisyllabic words. This would explain why the least-used syllable shapes (0.2%) were those containing consonant clusters like CCVCC, CCV and CCVV. This result supports the assumption that consonant clusters emerge in older children. This important result suggests that children can significantly increase the production of consonant clusters after the age of 2;7, with maturity of their speech mechanisms and continuous development of the vocal tract. Future studies on older Arabic-speaking children might consider looking at the trajectory of consonant cluster production in children beyond the age of 3. For example, Ammani Arabic children acquire consonant clusters in both positions at 3 (Daana, 2009).

In adult-speech of JA, clusters are usually produced frequently, but the children of this age in the current study could not produce them correctly. Consequently, they often deleted a sound to simplify the cluster. For example, word-initial CCV and word-final CVCC syllables were simplified to CV and CVC respectively. Although Dyson and Amayreh (2000) did not provide evidence of cluster reduction in their study, this might be explained by limitations in their elicitation protocol; the picture-description task which elicited single words did not contain consonant clusters. Nonetheless, they did find consonant sequence reduction. Al-Tamimi et al. (2011) found no evidence for cluster reduction in their sample of children with cleft lip and palate; this may be because the data scoring protocol they used in their study relied on the occurrence of at least 20% of a phonological process for consideration in the data analysis. Another explanation of this discrepancy might be the severe limitations in the speech of their children with cleft lip and palate. However, our data is in agreement with the findings of Grunwell (1987), who found that cluster reduction is noticeably reduced after the age of 3. It should be noted that children tend to produce the second consonant in the cluster when it occurs in the coda, regardless of sonority; for example /kalb.na/ ‘our dog’ to [kab.na] and /ʔ ird.na/ ‘our monkey’ to [ʔ id.na]. Similar findings were reported in Cairene Arabic (Ragheb & Davis, 2010). However, these findings disagree with those of Abdoh (2011), which can be attributed to the limited data in the speech of her participants (i.e., only one example of this process was found in her sample).

As for the phonological processes employed by children, the acquisition of clusters is one of the longest-lasting aspects of speech acquisition by normally developing children (Mcleod et al., 2001, p. 99). Children as young as 2 produce some consonant clusters correctly (e.g., Preisser et al., 1988; Stoel-Gammon, 1987; Watson & Scukanec, 1997). Naturally, children tend to delete a consonant in consonant clusters; such a conclusion is also attested to in previous investigations (e.g., Bernhardt & Stemberger, 1998; Ingram, 1974, 1989; Kiparsky & Menn, 1977; Olmsted, 1971; Smith, 1973; Vihman, 1980). The acquisition of consonant clusters has been investigated in different positions of syllables; word-initial clusters are acquired at 2, before clusters that occur word-finally. The latter are acquired at 2;6 (Kehoe & Steol-Gammon, 2001). Given that syllable weight is maximally bimoraic in JA where a syllable cannot include more than two moras (Huneety & Mashaqba, 2016; Mashaqba & Huneety, 2018), and given that final codas and initial onsets are moraically weightless (extrametrical), then children are expected to be very sensitive to the prosodic weight at an early stage in their language development; they reduce the syllable structure via deleting the peripheral weightless elements and keeping the core elements which count to the prosodic weight. Recall that V has one mora, VV has two moras, geminates have one mora, and onset singleton consonants and word-final consonants are weightless (Hayes, 1995).

The results here corroborate the findings of Ragheb & Davis (2010), who provided several examples in support of final cluster reduction regardless of sonority. In the onset clusters, the order of the consonants has no influence on cluster reduction as children produced obstruents and deleted sonorants; for example /bri:ʔ/ ‘jug’ was produced as [bi:ʔ], /mħ am.mad/ ‘Mohammad’ as [ħ am. mad], and /mba:.riħ/ ‘yesterday’ as [ba:.liħ]. The children also produced voiceless and deleted voiced obstruents when they occurred in the onset, as in /btiʒ.li/ ‘she is washing’ which was produced as [tiz.li]. Recall that the voiceless /t/ is acquired before the voiced /b/, and /ħ/ and /b/ are acquired before /m/ in the cluster. These results seem to be similar to those of Watson & Scukanec (1997). For more detail on patterns of word-initial cluster reduction see Locke (1983, pp. 68–71).

In terms of deletion (onset/coda/syllable), although the frequency of the occurrence of onset deletion is very low in the younger three age groups, their suppression in 3-year-old children seems to mark an increase in their multisyllabic word production. As for weak syllable deletion, it appears to last longer than the onset/coda deletion, confirming the work of Grunwell (1987) and Ingram (1989). These results indicate that this process is used by children more in the early stages because they cannot produce superheavy syllables and multisyllabic words easily like adults. The CVVC > CVV (coda deletion) process was seen in the speech of children in the youngest age group, perhaps because of their limited ability to produce a more complex syllable structure; recall that final C is extrametrical. In the older groups, children were able to produce multisyllabic words, which led them to use other phonological processes like cluster reduction.

Syllable epenthesis rarely occurred in the oldest age group. This result is in line with Kehoe (1995). Studies on Arabic-speaking children considered epenthesis from a segmental perspective as they documented it in cluster word-final position (Ayyad, 2009; Dyson & Amayreh, 2000), but they provided no evidence of the syllable epenthesis that was found here. The current study found syllable epenthesis in word-medial position, which is in agreement with the finding for English-speaking children (Kehoe, 1995); however, contrary to English which has epenthesis in word-final position, Arabic also showed epenthesis in word-initial position. Even though use of epenthesis was rare in our data, its use was observed in the older group, meaning that some children might be using it as a trochaic template to compensate for the demands on their phonological systems to produce multisyllabic words (cf., Kehoe, 1994). Basically, the purpose of simple syllable insertion is to facilitate meaningful acquisition of words, where children (whether deliberately or otherwise) develop their own ability to articulate multisyllabic words without resorting to complex structures (cf., Lleó, 1990; Moskowitz, 1973). Syllable insertion can also be regarded as a successful strategy in repairing the prosodic word structure if the child is unable to appropriately produce the other syllables of the word (cf., Ingram, 1974, p. 54). Future research on children with speech-sound disorders in Arabic might consider investigating the use of syllable epenthesis, as it might provide prognostic signs in those trying to compensate for their disordered phonological system in an attempt to approximate the adult system.

Assimilation observed in the speech of the youngest two groups is in agreement with that reported for English-speaking children. It is believed that these assimilatory processes are part of the normal phonological development. Where they persist beyond the age of 3, they might be a sign of a speech-sound disorder (Grunwell, 1987). This warrants more caution and testing of Arabic-speaking children exhibiting this process on the part of speech language pathologists. However, this process is not seen in all typically developing children (Grunwell, 1987) as is the case here for the Arabic-speaking children participating in the study.

In agreement with Dyson & Amayreh's (2000) findings, gemination is preserved even when segments have undergone substitution processes. Gemination was also maintained even though the word underwent a syllable structure deletion process. Gemination was preserved even when segments were simplified (cf., Dyson & Amayreh, 2000), but with the doubling of the consonant sequence. Intrigingly, JA children resort to gemination (and assimilation) to rescue the bimoriac minimality forced by the prosodic parameters of Arabic phonology. Adding a new segment grants extra moraic weight to the phonological word. If the child produces bis alone (instead of biss ‘cat’), the word structure loses its bimoraic property, which is a basic principle of adults' language. Given that children's articulatory system is not yet fully developed, this is a simple way to use extra elements that belong to the first produced segments.

Use of onomatopoeia by the youngest group seems to be a sign of their limited phonological systems, which are still unable to produce certain set of consonants, complex word or syllable structures; this is obvious from their frequent use of monosyllabic (CVG and CVVC) words. One explanation of the use of onomatopoeic words might be their salient features, i.e., clear prosodic features; when produced by mothers, they might help children learn them as frequent early productions (Laing, 2014). However, this process had completely disappeared in the three older groups, which also means that the children's abilities to produce complex word and syllable structures were developing. Consequently, the persistence of onomatopoeia may provide clinicians and researchers who study child language development in Arabic with an early indicator to warrant indepth testing of children's phonological systems, in order to rule out the presence of speech sound disorders as most of the target words which underwent change to onomatopoeia also underwent syllable structure processes (i.e., reduction to one-syllable words).

In conclusion, this research examined development of the syllable, word syllable structure and number, and notable phonological processes among JA-speaking children aged 1 to 3. Children acquire syllables by imitating adults' production of different words. They tend to apply phonological processes to repair syllables to adult-like shapes and to compensate for the loss of a syllable or its parts. Ten processes were investigated: assimilation, cluster reduction, syllable deletion, changing from closed to open syllables (CVVC > CVV), gemination, metathesis, onomatopoeia, vowel lengthening, vowel shortening, and syllable epenthesis. Analysis of the data shows that the most frequent syllable shape used was CVC and the least were those with consonant clusters. In line with Rvachew, Nowak, & Cloutier (2004, p. 251), it was shown that the progressive increases of phoneme perception are mainly linked to improvements in the accuracy and stability of syllable and word articulation, as the children adapt their speech production to approach the phonetic and prosodic characteristics of native language speech-sound features. The corpus of the present work proves that children try to develop the metrification system in Arabic at an early stage. They are aware of the inherit weight assigned to segments in the core and peripheral positions and of the coda non-final positions assigned by the Weight by Position rule. The children resort-ed to multiple repair processes to preserve that mora instead of deleting it when encountering an articulatory problem such as gemination, assimilation, and syllable insertion.

Word syllable shapes were investigated in this study, the most frequently used shape being bisyllabic words. Trisyllabic word usage increased as children grew older, but quadrisyllabic words were not produced by any of the children in the four age groups recruited in this study. Children's first words usually target adult words of simple prosodic structure (minimally bimoraic), and one- or two-syllable word forms with open syllables, no clusters and core consonants (stops, nasals, glottals and glides). Despite the documented similarities across children in terms of the sound segment and syllabic types produced, there is often a wide range of differences in the target words that are attempted. This discrepancy re-lates to patterns of preference for, and avoidance of, particular sounds or sound classes or certain syllabic shapes (Ferguson & Farwell, 1975; Vihman, 2013). The study can promote future research on JA that might use larger samples of children.

Finally, this study might provide researchers and clinicians (speech language pathologists) with valuable information on the development of the early syllable and word structure in Arabic-speaking children, which might aid in the early identification of at-risk children and in the best choice of therapy targets in terms of developmental syllable structure.


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Table 1.

Syllable shapes across age groups

Syllable shape Age group (yr;mo)
Total Frequency (%)
1;0–1;6 1;7–2;0 2;1–2;6 2;7–3;0
CV 43 32 33 45 153 30.0
CVV 25 9 15 12 61 12.0
CVC 40 49 60 41 190 38.0
CVVC 16 23 24 11 74 14.7
CCV 0 0 0 1 1 0.2
CCVV 0 0 0 0 1 0.2
CCVVC 0 0 0 6 6 1.2
CCVC 0 0 0 3 3 0.6
CCCVV 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
CCVCC 0 0 0 1 1 0.2
CVCC 0 0 0 11 11 2.2
CCVC 0 0 0 3 3 0.6
CVVCC 0 0 0 0 0 0.0

C = consonant; V = vowel.

Table 2.

Word syllable structure

Age (yr;mo) Word syllable shapes Number of occurrences Frequency (%) Overall frequency (%)
1;0–1;6 Monosyllabic words CVV 12 20 50
    CVG 22 36  
    CVVC 13 21  
  Bisyllabic words CVC/CVC 7 18 46
    CVC/CVVC 2 5  
    CV/CV 8 21  
    CVC/CV 9 24  
    CVV/CVV 1 3  
    CVV/CV 10 26  
    CV/CVC 1 3  
  Trisyllabic words CVC/CVC/CV 1 33 3
    CVC/CVV/CV 2 67  
1;7–2;0 Monosyllabic words CVG 3 23 17
    CVVC 7 77  
  Bisyllabic words CVC/CVC 11 28 82
    CVC/CVVC 8 20  
    CVC/CV 10 25  
    CVVC/CV 2 5  
    CVV/CV 9 22  
  Trisyllabic words CV/CV/CVVC 1 14 11
    CVC/CV/CV 3 43  
    CVC/CV/CVVC 1 14  
    CVC/CVV/CV 2 29  
2;1–2;6 Monosyllabic words CVG 7 11 25
    CVVC 11 14  
  Bisyllabic words CV/CVVC 2 5 61
    CV/CVC 1 2  
    CVV/CV 9 21  
    CVV/CVC 2 5  
    CVC/CV 7 16  
    CVC/CVVC 8 19  
    CVC/CVC 14 33  
  Trisyllables words CV/CVV/CV 1 10 14
    CVC/CVV/CV 8 80  
    CVC/CVC/CV 1 10  
2;7–3;0 Monosyllabic words CCVVC 6 32 29
    CCVCC 1 5  
    CVVC 2 11  
    CVCC 10 53  
  Bisyllabic words CCV/CVC 1 4 39
    CCVC/CVC 3 12  
    CV/CVVC 2 8  
    CV/CVC 7 27  
    CVV/CV 3 12  
    CVV/CVC 1 4  
    CVVC/CVC 1 4  
    CVC/CV 2 8  
    CVC/CVV 1 4  
    CVC/CVVC 3 12  
    CVC/CVC 2 8  
  Trisyllabic words CV/CV/CV 1 5 32
    CV/CVV/CV 1 5  
    CV/CVV/CVC 1 5  
    CV/CVC/CV 3 14  
    CVC/CV/CVC 1 5  
    CVC/CV/CV 6 29  
    CVC/CVV/CV 5 24  
    CVC/CVVC/CVVC 1 5  
    CVC/CVC/CV 1 5  
    CVC/CVC/CVVC 1 5  

C = consonant; V = vowel; G = geminate.

Table 3.

Syllable numbers across age groups

Syllable number Age (yr;mo)
1;0–1;6 1;7–2;0 2;1–2;6 2;7–3;0
Monosyllables 49 10 18 19 96
Bisyllables 38 40 43 26 147
Trisyllables 3 7 10 21 41
Total 90 57 71 66 284

Table 4.

Syllable structure processes

Process Age (yr;mo)
1;0–1;6 1;7–2;0 2;1–2;6 2;7–3;0
Cluster reduction        
  Number of occurrences   9   6   19   4
  Frequency across age groups (%)   23.5   16   50   10.5
  Frequency within age group (%)   9   10   42   33
Deletion of onset        
  Number of occurrences   1   1   2   0
  Frequency across age groups (%)   25   25   50   0
  Frequency within age group (%)   1   2   4   0
Weak syllable deletion
  Number of occurrences   39   15   15   1
  Frequency across age groups (%)   55.7   21.4   21.4   1.5
  Frequency within age group (%)   9.5   6.25   8.25   2
Closed syllable to open syllable (CVVC to CVV)        
  Number of occurrences   7   0   0   0
  Frequency across age groups (%)   100   0   0   0
  Frequency within age group (%)   7   0   0   0
Vowel lengthening
  Number of occurrences   7   0   0   0
  Frequency across age groups (%)   100   0   0   0
  Frequency within age group (%)   7   0   0   0
Vowel shortening        
  Number of occurrences   3   0   0   0
  Frequency across age groups (%)   100   0   0   0
  Frequency within age group (%)   3   0   0   0
Syllable epenthesis
  Number of occurrences   0   0   0   3
  Frequency across age groups (%)   0   0   0   100
  Frequency within age group (%)   0   0   0   33
  Number of occurrences   4   2   0   0
  Frequency across age groups (%)   67   33   0   0
  Frequency within age group (%)   4   3   0   0
  Number of occurrences   14   31   7   2
  Frequency across age groups (%)   26   57   13   4
  Frequency within age group (%)   14   51   16   17
  Number of occurrences   1   6   2   1
  Frequency across age groups (%)   10   60   20   10
  Frequency within age group (%)   1   10   4   8
  Number of occurrences   20   0   0   0
  Frequency across age groups (%)   100   0   0   0
  Frequency within age group (%)   19   0   0   0