Syllabic Consonants

In general, every syllable in a spoken language has a vowel at its core. English allows up to three consonant phonemes on either side. So the words a, me, him, and strengths are one-syllable words. So, despite varying quite a bit in the presence, absence, and position of consonants, each of these examples has only one vowel and, therefore, one syllable.

Syllabics in Speech

In spoken English, certain consonants can have vowel-like characteristics. Because of the unique productive qualities of these spoken consonant sounds (classified as liquids and nasals), they can also sometimes function as the core, or nucleus, of a syllable: /l r m n/. When saying the words bottle, flicker, chasm, and button, the final consonant of each word may serve as the core of the syllable instead of a vowel.


In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), syllabics are shown with the letter symbol for the phoneme with a special diacritic mark (a small vertical line) written below: n̩ m̩ l̩ r̩. 

Problems with Syllabics for Cueing

Difference in Quality: Speech and Cueing are Inherently Different

In speech, vowels and consonants are typically defined by airflow. Vowels allow more airflow than consonants. Consonants are described as constrictions in airflow. In the example of the word hidden (/hhhhhhhhhɪĭiɪĭiɪĭiˈˈˈˈˈˈˈˈˈdddddddddnnnnnnnnn/), airflow for /n/ is released through the nose, allowing an extra syllable. 

When cueing the word (/hhhhhhhhhɪĭiɪĭiɪĭiˈˈˈˈˈˈˈˈˈdddddddddnnnnnnnnn/, however, handshape 4 does not have any vowel-like quality. It does not resemble a vowel placement and escaping airflow from the nose is not perceptible to the deaf receiver. 

Choosing Rules

Cueing words that end with a syllabic consonants are straightforward. One can cue /hhhhhhhhhɪĭiɪĭiɪĭiˈˈˈˈˈˈˈˈˈdddddddddnnnnnnnnn/ by transitioning from handshape 1 to handshape 4 at the side with no extra movement. There is a problem inherent in the consonant-vowel (handshape-placement) structure of cueing that causes cuers to make a choice. 

Take, for instance, the word lighten. One could easily cue it ending in a syllabic /n/ at the side placement. Now consider the word lightening, which is pronounced with a syllabic consonant, as in "I'm considering lightening my hair." In this case, the syllabic /n/ goes to the throat for the following vowel. The word will appear to the deaf consumer as the two-syllable word lightning.

If you imagine the word pronounced with three syllables, how would it be cued? While hearing cuers believe they are cueing an extra syllable with handshape 4, there is nothing about handshape 4 that gives a word an extra syllable. The same problem occurs in a word like tickling. To show the extra syllable in these cases, the cuer would have to add a schwa before the syllabic consonant (using the side-down vowel movement).

This highlights the fact that while hearing cuers believe they are cueing an extra syllable when placing certain consonants at the side, it is questionable as to whether or not a syllable is conveyed to the deaf cue reader. 

Syllabic /r/?!

Another issue facing cuers is the fact that /r/ is often regarded as a syllabic consonant, as in ticker tape. For cuers, though, this syllable is placed at the mouth, giving it a clear status as a syllable with a vowel at its core. The use of the /ɚûrurɚûrurɚûrur/ at the mouth has the schwa built in and gives some support as a precedent for using a schwa to ensure that syllables are clearly perceived by the cue reader.

Should We Cue Syllabic Consonants?

The issue of whether or not to cue syllabic consonants is somewhat controversial. The decision, of course, cannot be left solely to the ears of hearing people who want to convey what they perceive. Matters of cueing mechanics must also take into account what is perceived (and perceptible) to deaf cuers. The administrators of currently hold the position that every syllable gets a vowel. So a schwa is needed for words like tickle, hidden, chasm, and lightening


button, bottle, prism, ticker, lighten, fatten, bosom, hidden, mittens, happen