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In linguistics, a consonant cluster (or consonant blend) is a group of consonants which have no intervening vowel. In English, for example, the groups /spl/ and /ts/ are consonant clusters in the word splits.
Some linguists argue that the term can only be properly applied to those consonant clusters that occur within one syllable. Others contend that the concept is more useful when it includes consonant sequences across syllable boundaries. According to the former definition, the longest consonant clusters in the word extra would be /ks/ and /tr/, whereas the latter allows /kstr/. The German word Angstschweiß (/aŋstʃvaɪs/; "fear sweat") is another good example, with a cluster of five consonants: /ŋstʃv/.
Languages' phonotactics differ as to what consonant clusters they permit.
Many languages forbid consonant clusters altogether. Maori and Pirahã, for instance, forbid any two consecutive consonants in a word. Japanese is almost as strict, but allows clusters of consonant plus /j/ as in Tokyo [toːkjoː], the name of Japan's capital city. Across a syllable boundary, it also allows a sequence of a nasal plus another consonant, as in Honshū [honɕuː] (the name of the largest island) and tempura [tempuɽa] (a traditional dish). A great many languages are more restrictive than English in terms of consonant clusters; almost every Malayo-Polynesian language forbids consonant clusters entirely. Tahitian, Samoan and Hawaiian are all of this sort. Standard Arabic forbids initial consonant clusters and more than two consecutive consonants in other positions. So do most other Semitic languages, although Modern Israeli Hebrew permits initial two-consonant clusters (e.g. pkak "cap"; dlat "pumpkin"), and Moroccan Arabic, under Berber influence, allows strings of several consonants. Like most Mon–Khmer languages, Khmer permits only initial consonant clusters with up to three consonants in a row per syllable. Finnish has initial consonant clusters natively only on South-Western dialects and on foreign loans, and only clusters of three inside the word are allowed. Most spoken languages and dialects, however, are more permissive. In Burmese, consonant clusters of only up to three consonants (the initial and two medials—two written forms of /-j-/, /-w-/) at the initial onset are allowed in writing and only two (the initial and one medial) are pronounced. These clusters are restricted to certain letters. Some Burmese dialects allow for clusters of up to four consonants (with the addition of the /-l-/ medial, which can combine with the above-mentioned medials.
At the other end of the scale, the Kartvelian languages of Georgia are drastically more permissive of consonant clustering. Clusters in Georgian of four, five or six consonants are not unusual—for instance, /brtʼqʼɛli/ (flat), /mt͡sʼvrtnɛli/ (trainer) and /prt͡skvna/ (peeling)—and if grammatical affixes are used, it allows an eight-consonant cluster: /ɡvbrdɣvnis/ (he's plucking us). Consonants cannot appear as syllable nuclei in Georgian, so this syllable is analysed as CCCCCCCCVC. Some Slavic languages such as Slovak may manifest formidable numbers of consecutive consonants, such as in the words štvrť /ʃtvr̩tʲ/, zmrzlina /zmr̩zlɪna/, and žblnknutie /ʒbl̩ŋknutje/, but the liquid consonants /r/ and /l/ can form syllable nuclei in Slovak, and behave phonologically as vowels in this case. Another example is the Serbo-Croatian word opskrbljivanje /ɔpskr̩bʎiʋaɲɛ/, though note that ⟨lj⟩ and ⟨nj⟩ here are digraphs representing single consonants: [ʎ] and [ɲ], respectively. Some Salishan languages exhibit long words with no vowels at all, such as the Nuxálk word /xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ/: he had in his possession a bunchberry plant. It is extremely difficult to accurately classify which of these consonants may be acting as the syllable nucleus, and these languages challenge classical notions of exactly what constitutes a syllable.
There has been a trend to reduce and simplify consonant clusters in East Asian languages, such as Chinese and Vietnamese. Old Chinese was known to contain additionally medials such as /r/ and/or /l/, which yielded retroflexion in Middle Chinese and today's Mandarin Chinese. The word 江, read as jiang in Mandarin and kong in Cantonese, was most likely klong or krung. Additionally, initial clusters such as "tk" and "sn" were analysed in recent reconstructions of Old Chinese, and some were developed as patalalised sibilants. Another element of consonant clusters in Old Chinese were analysed in coda and post-coda position. Some "departing tone" syllables have cognates in the "entering tone" syllables, which feature a -p, -t, -k in Middle Chinese and Southern Chinese varieties. The departing tone was analysed to feature a post-coda sibilant, "s". Clusters of -ps, -ts, -ks, were then formed at the end of syllables. These clusters eventually collapsed into "-ts" or "-s", before disappearing altogether, leaving elements of diphthongisation in more modern varieties. Old Vietnamese also had a rich inventory initial clusters, but these were slowly merged with plain initials during Middle Vietnamese, and some have developed into the palatal nasal.
Consonant clusters occurring in loanwords do not necessarily follow the cluster limits set by the borrowing language's phonotactics. The Ubykh language's root psta, a loan from Adyghe, violates Ubykh's rule of no more than two initial consonants; also, the English words sphere /ˈsfɪər/ and sphinx /ˈsfɪŋks/, Greek loans, violate the restraint (or constraint, see also optimality theory) that two fricatives may not appear adjacently word-initially.
In English, the longest possible initial cluster is three consonants, as in split /ˈsplɪt/ and strudel /ˈʃtruːdəl/, all beginning with /s/ or /ʃ/ and ending with /l/ or /r/; the longest possible final cluster is five consonants, as in angsts /ˈæŋksts/, though that is rare and four, as in twelfths /ˈtwɛlfθs/, sixths /ˈsɪksθs/, bursts /ˈbɜrsts/ and glimpsed /ˈɡlɪmpst/, is more common. In compound words, longer clusters are possible, as in handspring /ˈhændspriŋ/.
However, it is important to distinguish clusters and digraphs. Clusters are made of two or more consonant sounds, while a digraph is a group of two consonant letters standing for a single sound. For example, in the word ship, the two letters of the digraph ⟨sh⟩ together represent the single consonant [ʃ]. Also note a combination digraph and cluster as seen in length with two digraphs ⟨ng⟩, ⟨th⟩ representing a cluster of two consonants: /ŋθ/; lights with a silent digraph ⟨gh⟩ followed by a cluster ⟨t⟩, ⟨s⟩: /ts/; and compound words such as sightscreen /ˈsaɪtskriːn/ or catchphrase /ˈkætʃfreɪz/.
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