Common Topic

Phonology and Orthography

Keywords: phonology orthography phonotactics prosody stress timing

In this unit, we will look at the sounds, syllable patterns, spelling and general speech patterns of Common.


Common has six phonemic vowels and fifteen phonemic consonants. The number of consonants rises if allophony is considered. We will first talk about the generally recognised phonemes of Common, that native speakers clearly recognise as different sounds, then talk about the rules of allophony.


Table 1 shows the phonemic consonants of the Common language. The most interesting feature of this inventory is that it is missing a feature that is extremely common in the world's languages, that of opposed series of consonants varying by some common feature, such as voice, as in English, or aspiration, as in Chinese. Where English, for example, has unvoiced series such as /t/, /s/, /k/ versus voiced /d/, /z/, /g/, Common has just /t/, /s/ and /k/. It actually has the sounds [d], [z] and [g], but as allophones of [t], [s] and [k] in complementary distribution, and native speakers of Common don't perceive them as different. This may account for the famously 'thick' or 'lazy' sound of the accent of Common-speaking elites when trying to speak English or other languages.

Table 1: Phonemic consonants of Common
  Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m   n        
Stop p t       k  
Affricate       t͡ʃ      
Fricative f θ s ʃ     h
Approximant   l     j w  
Trill     r        

These symbols are from the International Phonetic Alphabet - click the link for a further explanation of their meaning.

In general, this inventory is not terribly 'international'. While it is arguably on the small side, it is by no means minimal, and it has a couple relatively less common sounds such as the dental fricative. It does contain all of the most common consonants found in the world's languages.

The actual phonetic inventory is represented in Table 2. This set represents all of the consonantal sounds that exist in standard High Common according to the conventional reading. In voiceless/voiced pairing, voiced consonants are on the right.

Table 2: Phonetic consonants of Common
  Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m   n   ɲ ŋ  
Stop p~b t~d       k~g  
Affricate       t͡ʃ~d͡ʒ      
Fricative f~v θ~ð s~z ʃ~ʒ ç x h
Approximant   l     j w  
Trill     r        

Any consonants except /j/, /w/ and /h/ can be geminated. Geminate consonants occur internally to words only, and the syllable boundary runs right through them. The letters <j>, <w> and <h> corresponding to /j/, /w/ and /h/ may appear doubled in writing due to affixation but are treated as a single, normal-length consonant.

For some speakers, and in some circumstances such as speaking emphatically or enunciating carefully, aspirated consonants may be heard, especially in areas where a major substratum language has them, such as phonemically in Chinese or allophonically as in English. However, such sounds don't participate in systematic allophonic variation and are generally ignored in a basic discussion of the sound structure of Common. Systematic allophonies are taught, because a large amount of Common learning is L2, and L2 speakers need to understand these rules for good pronunciation. The rules of allophony are not reflected in spelling and must be understood through native speaker intuition or learnt.

Similarly, the glottal stop [ʔ] can be heard in some dialects, and often at the beginning of a word that begins with a vowel when the speaker is trying to emphasise that word. The flap [ɾ] can be found in allophonic variation with [r], with [ɾ] inside words when not geminate and [r] at the beginning and end of a word or when geminate, especially among non-careful speakers in areas with major substratum languages such as Spanish that behave this way. However, these sounds are not considered phonemes or allophones of Common.

There are four basic systematic allophonies:

1. Stops, Fricatives and Affricates (Except /h/)

All sounds in this category undergo the same rules. Table 3 summarises the sets of allophones.

Table 3: Stop, Fricative and Affricate Allophones
Phoneme Allophones
p p, b
t t, d
k k, g
t͡ʃ t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ
f f, v
θ θ, ð
s s,z
ʃ ʃ, ʒ

Taking the convention that the consonants in this set are all unvoiced by default, the following rules allow you to determine when they should be voiced. Let C be the consonant in question.

C > [+voice] / [+voice]__[+voice]

Essentially this means that inside a word, a single consonant in this class will always be voiced if it is between two sounds which are always voiced. These voiced sounds would be things like vowels, or consonants without unvoiced variants, like /l/, /w/, /r/, /n/, and /m/. If a consonant cluster or geminate (double) consonant occurs, matters become more complicated. If the cluster starts with a continuant (any sound which does not completely obstruct the airflow, such as [s] but not [t]), the voicing does not take effect; otherwise it does, except in the case of gemination. geminate consonants in this class are always devoiced.

[-cont]C > [+voice][+voice] / [+voice]__[+voice]

Because geminate consonants (think of the way double consonants are pronounced in Italian) are also always devoiced, in some regional dialects of Common, especially in areas where a major substratum language does not have gemination, it is common for speakers to not pronounce the gemination and instead only pronounce the devoicing. In this fashion, these dialects actually have developed phonemic voicing distinctions, as minimal pairs of words can be formed that differ only by voicing. However, careful High Common speakers worldwide are careful to pronounce the geminate consonants.

2. Bilabial Nasal /m/

The phoneme /m/ systemically assimilates to an alveolar place of articulation (becomes [n]) if followed by a dental or alveolar consonant.

[m] > [n] / __[+dental]
[m] > [n] / __[+alveolar]

So /m/ is pronounced [n] before /n/ (becomes geminate, or disappears in nonstandard dialects that don't have gemination), /t/, /θ/, /s/, /l/ and /r/.

3. Alveolar Nasal /n/

The alveolar nasal /n/ tends to assimilate to the place of articulation of anything that follows it. It becomes /m/ before labials /f/ or /p/ or labialised semivowel /w/, /ɲ/ before palatal /j/, and /ŋ/ before velar /k/ (but not /w/).

[n] > [m] / __[+labial]
[n] > [ɲ] / __[+palatal]
[n] > [ŋ] / __[+velar]

4. Glottal Approximant /h/

The glottal approximant /h/ assimilates to the approximate place of articulation of any vowel that precedes it - it is essentially pulled forward by the preceding vowel to save effort in making the constriction for the /h/ sound. It becomes /ç/ after front vowels or /ə/, and /x/ after back or low vowels. This allophony can be observed when word beginning with /h/ is compounded with another word in front of it which ends in a vowel. Some speakers also exhibit some assimilation to the place of articulation of preceding consonants, but this isn't taught as standard pronunciation.

[h] > [ç] / V[+front]__
[h] > [ç] / V[+central]__
[h] > [x] / V[+low]__
[h] > [x] / V[+back]__


Common has six vowels, diagrammed in Table 4. The vowel system shows a high/low symmetry, which was an intentional feature in the design of the language. In the language's pseudo-history, explained in some of the writings of the language's creator, Peter K. Davidson, there was a phase where a high-low vowel harmony was an important feature of the language's phonology. This pattern can be seen in some of the language's older words, coined closer to the language's original creation, and was actually important to the grammatical feature of gender, which was lost relatively early in the language's history of real world use. Vowel harmony is not important to the language today, but due to that existing pattern, that speakers pick up on, it continues to have echoes in slang and in new coinings.

Table 4: Vowels of Common
  Front Mid Back
High i   u
Mid e ə o
Low   a  

Common also has two diphthongs, [ai] and [au]. In some dialects with a strong English substratum influence, these are realised as [aɪ] and [aʊ] for many speakers, but for careful speakers of High Common, end noticeably higher than the similar English diphthongs do. They are written in phonemic transcription as /aj/ and /aw/. A diphthong is pronounced approximately the same length of time as a pure vowel. Vowels do not have a length distinction. This vowel system resembles that of Malay or Indonesian.

With the exception of these two diphthongs, where the second element is represented by a semivowel in writing, any two vowels which are not the same vowel twice can be next to each other in any order. In these cases, each vowel form the nucleus of its own distinct syllable and the vowels are separated by hiatus.

The central vowel schwa, /ə/, is the least stable element of this system. It is prone to being reduced or deleted in casual speech in unstressed syllables. It can occur in stressed syllables, where in many dialects it has a tendency to pull front or back between [ø] or [ʌ] depending on the place of articulation of any preceding consonant, or to favour some kind of consistent shift. In High Common, /ə/ is pronounced carefully and consistently, especially in stressed syllables.

Phonemic Stress and Vowel Reduction

Common does have phonemic stress, like English or Russian. Unlike those languages, there is no vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, and the overall stress pattern is more monotonous, with first syllable stress dominating. Stress is manifested via pitch and volume on stressed versus unstressed syllables. There are minimal pairs between words that differ only by which syllable is stressed. With that said, a common feature of non-native accents where the speaker is influenced by a language like English or Russian is to hear English- or Russian-style vowel reduction towards schwa in unstressed syllables.

Points for English Speakers

There are a few facts about Common phonology that should be emphasised for English speakers.

1. Aspiration. English aspirates certain initial consonants in allophonic variation with their non-aspirated counterparts. Put your hand over your mouth and pronounce the words 'pie' and 'spy'. Feel the puff of air for the p in pie that is absent for the p in spy. That is because the p in pie is aspirated. In good Common, no consonants are aspirated - in this regard it is more like Spanish or French than English.

2. Dental stops. Notice that t is listed as a dental stop in Common. In English, the tip of the tongue is placed on the alveolus, right behind the teeth, to pronounce t. In Common, again in common with French and Spanish, it is farther forward, touching the teeth. This creates an acoustic difference. As well, in many English dialects, it is common for intervocalic t to become a flap or a glottal stop - this type of change is always incorrect in Common, where the stop is always clearly articulated.

3. Diphthongs. English is full of diphthongs that speakers don't necessarily perceive as such. Take the word 'hope', which English speakers generally think has a pure o sound, but which in fact is pronounced with a slight raising at the end, [hoʊp]. Common vowels, when pronounced correctly, are pure monophthongs, and there are only two diphthongs, /aj/ and /aw/. English speakers need to be careful to listen for the pure quality of the vowels.

4. Rhoticity. The letter r in English signals an ingliding diphthong after a vowel rather than being pronounced as a rhotic. English speakers need to take care that Common is rhotic, and all r's are pronounced - much the same as in learning Spanish. Common has no letters that are silent or exist to modify the pronunciation of another letter. Speakers of rhotic dialects of English in North America have an easier time with this one. Also, remember that r is a trill, as in Italian, no exceptions.

5. Lateral approximant. English has a "dark l" sound in allophonic variation with l in final positions. Compare the tongue position in 'light' versus 'hall' - the former is pronounced [laɪt] and the latter is pronounced [hɑɫ], there is a distinct humping of the tongue up towards the velum in the latter. Common only has the light variant, even in final position, much like French.

6. Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables. English, like Common, has phonemic stressed, but unlike Common, tends to have vowel reduction towards a central vowel in unstressed syllables. When speaking Common, the vowel has to be clearly articulated in each syllable.

Orthography (Writing System)

Common, of course, is written in a variant of the Latin alphabet. It uses the following letters natively:

a, c, e, f, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, w, x, y, z

It omits the following letters:

b, d, g, q, v

Thus, Common uses a 21 letter alphabet. The Common writing system tends to be a very good phonemic representation of Common pronunciation, but does not capture any of the rules of allophony. The other five letters, however, are part of the official Common alphabet and are actually used, although increasingly rarely. They exist for historical reasons, because the first keyboards used by writers of Common had these letters, and because Common writers routinely employed some loanwords without adjusting their spelling to the rules of Common.

Even today, some loanwords may have these letters, and they introduce an element of chaos into Common spelling. The best, encouraged style today is to 'Common-ise' such borrowings to use the closest approximation using the 21 official letters, but a significant number of official, proper spellings using these letters still exist, and as well they are common in personal and place names. The general strategy that Common speakers use to handle such a letter if it appears is to treat it the same as the letter it's most similar to, so to treat d as the same as t, for example, but this is complicated by many factors, such as preservation of irregularities found in the source language, and the fact that many speakers actually can distinguish and pronounce the voiceless/voiced distinction, and do so deliberately, to show off their erudition, or because they are already a speaker of the source language or another, similar language.

The alphabetical order, including the non-standard letters is the same as English. This came about because of the early influence of English on the development of the language - the language's creator was an Anglophone, The Hillbillies screenshow itself was an American show, the show's first audience was Anglophone, and the first published materials for the language were written in English. Table 5 summarises the alphabet and how the letters are used. Non-standard letters and the basic repair strategy used if they are encountered are included, in italics.

Table 5: The Common Alphabet
Letter Name Phoneme Allophones
A, a a /a/ [a]
B, b ype Nonstandard Same as p
C, c ce /t͡ʃ/ [t͡ʃ], [d͡ʒ]
D, d yte Nonstandard Same as t
E, e e /e/ [e]
F, f fe /f/ [f], [v]
G, g yke Nonstandard Same as k, but may also be used as a silent letter to trigger /n/ to be read as [ŋ] in exotic loanwords.
H, h ahe /h/ [ç], [x], [h]
I, i i /i/ [i]
J. j ja /j/ [j]
K, k ke /k/ [k], [g]
L, l le /l/ [l]
M, m me /m/ [m], [n]
N, n ne /n/ [n], [m], [ɲ], [ŋ]
O, o o /o/ [o]
P, p pe /p/ [p], [b]
Q, q akwa Nonstandard [kw] or [gw] if spelt qu, otherwise same as k
R, r re /r/ [r]
S, s se /s/ [s]. [z]
T, t te /t/ [t], [d]
U, u u /u/ [u]
V, v yfe Nonstandard Same as f
W, w we /w/ [w]
X, x xe /ʃ/ [ʃ], [ʒ]
Y, y hyn /ə/ [ə]
Z, z ze /θ/ [θ], [ð]

Common uses both upper and lower case letters. As in English, case is used as part of the rules of style and does not have a phonetic implication.

The diphthong /aj/ is spelled aj, and the diphthong /aw/ is spelled aw.

There is an accent mark, 'na can pah' (see attached article for more details), an acute accent, which is used to mark irregular (non-first-syllable) phonemic stress. Unlike the other aspects of Common spelling, which are usually highly regular and stable, the can pah is a source of enormous disagreement between different prominent writers and authorities and is used inconsistently in practice, with many works omitting it, or using it sparingly. It is officially permissible or even recommended to omit it. However, I shall use it consistently for the same reason why its use remains stubbornly persistent, it's quite helpful for learners.

The names of the 21 letters of the proper Common alphabet came from the names Davidson gave the glyphs they corresponded to in the writing system for the Hillbillies screenshow. The other letters were given names by the fan community in the early period, with the versions used today being the versions unofficially blessed by Davidson (officially, Old Common never used these letters). The letter names are pronounced as spelt, with any leading y unstressed.

High Common follows highly predictable spelling rules as above for native or nativised words. For loanwords, especially names, nonstandard pronunciations may be used and just have to be learnt. Common speakers who don't know a special pronunciation may attempt a spelling pronunciation, which can produce some strange results.

A good example is the name of the current NWO Chancellor, Eve Tanaka, who is of Japanese-American heritage and uses the traditional spelling of her name. The most common way this name gets rendered by Common speakers is ['iv.ə ']. The surname follows the stress pattern of Common, and speakers tend not to be conscious of the fact the k is supposed to be unvoiced, because there are no nonstandard letters in the word. However, the presence of the 'v' in Eve signals to most speakers that this word is supposed to have a special pronunciation, so there is a tendency to add a schwa to the end of the word to make the 'v' voiced, and often to pronounce the vowel [i] instead of [e]. Where Tanaka is a very well-known public figure, many people know details about her, such as that her name is spelt the old English way and pronounced [iv], but in other cases, more of a spelling pronunciation might prevail.

In general, the presence of a special letter can be a signal that a word may have a special pronunciation.


Common was invented in North America, and punctuation of the language's romanisation and current native orthography (as we will discuss in more detail when we talk about the history of Common, the language had a special orthography for the show that was subsequently lost) was not a matter that the language's creator considered important enough to consider or dictate. Therefore, the punctuation of North American English heavily informs the punctuation of Common. Capitalisation is very similar to English, with proper nouns and modifiers considered to be part of the name of something capitalised, as well as the first letter of sentences. Quotations and other punctuation follow the old American English style for the most part. In numbers, periods are used for decimal points, and commas for number separators.

There are differences and subtleties to the way punctuation works compared to North American English, which we will revisit later when we talk about good written style. Writers used to British English will mainly find that the way inverted commas work for quotations takes a little getting used to, but otherwise, punctuation isn't especially difficult for English speakers.

The biggest, most noticeable difference between High Common punctuation and North American English is that High Common uses inverted question marks and exclamation marks to open questions and exclamations in a manner similar to Spanish. In much of the early period Common this was not the case, but by the middle period, some writers were borrowing the inverted marks from Spanish, especially for speeches. Common, like Spanish, relies heavily on intonation to signal questions, and speakers reading a speech found the additional marks convenient to help them control their intonation at the outset of a sentence for things like rhetorical questions.

By the modern period, the inverted marks were seen as an option, but what helped drive their wider acceptance was the fact that the first head of the Akkatemi na Xafen Zisse (AXZ), the standard-setting organisation for the Common Language, David Chang, chose to use these marks and recommended them in his first codification on the modern language, because he felt they were helpful to learners, and went well with the structure of Common. The modern AXZ simply states they must be used. It is still very common to omit them in casual writing.

Writing and Keyboards

Like British English, Common is primarily written using keyboards, either physical or touchscreen, and secondarily using pen and paper. Historically, during much of its development, Common was written almost exclusively on keyboards, heavily favouring touch devices.

During much of its development, Common was written using the English QWERTY keyboard we still use in Britain today, or in variants - people who used the Roman alphabet natively tended to use their native keyboard, because the Common alphabet is a subset of most language's alphabets. This situation had certain impacts on the development of Common - for example, the tendency of writers in Common to omit accents, despite the fact Common has a small amount of phonemic stress, arose partly through laziness, because it is more work to write accents than not on a QWERTY keyboard, even a smart one.

The modern Common keyboard is quite different than the British QWERTY keyboard, although plainly a descendent. The physical version still has the Ctrl, Shift and Alt keys, and works on the principle that capital letters and special characters are obtained by using a shift key or toggle, and it still has a limited amount of punctuation directly available with a single keypress, especially on physical keyboards.

However, the letter layout is based on frequency of use and the maximise speed and comfort of typing for touch typists on physical keyboards. Only the 21 letters of the Common alphabet are available directly as a single keypress. The other five letters, b, d, g, q and v, are available as shift characters on a physical keyboard, alt-shift for capitals, and on toggle keyboards on touchscreens.

Therefore, the keyboard layout will be quite difficult for newcomers to Common at first when visiting NWO territory, and it pays to practice on the layout before going.

The impact of this change over time is that early to early modern Common borrowed vocabulary containing the b, d, g, q and v quite often, because it was convenient to type, but in modern times, there is a much stronger tendency to 'Commonise' borrowed words, even people's names, not only because of official efforts to encourage this, but also because these letters are now inconvenient to type.

Phonotactics: Syllable Pattern of Common

Common allows a relatively complex syllable pattern, one of the chief criticisms raised against it for the suitability of its design as an international language in earlier debates. We will use the Common orthography directly in talking about syllable patterns and ignore allophony - allophony happens automatically and does not influence allowed syllable patterns.The allowed pattern of a Common syllable is:


V can be any vowel or diphthong. C3 can be any consonant other than a semivowel (j and w are out - if they appear, it will be in a CV type syllable where V is a diphthong). C1, C2 and C3 are all allowed to be ∅, so V is an allowed syllable. If C1 is ∅, C2 can be any consonant. If C2 is a stop, lateral or nasal, C1 can be s. If C2 is a trill [r], it may be preceded in C1 by a dental consonant, z or t. Those are all of the allowed onset patterns. Listing off the possible syllable onsets, they are:

Null: ∅
Single consonant: c, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, w, x, z
Two consonants: sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, tr, zr

In addition, while the only Cr combinations that appear in native Common words are tr and zr, Common speakers don't have much trouble with stops and fricatives other than h before r, so pr, fr, sr, xr, and kr show up in some loanwords without a repair strategy explicitly employed. Speakers who need a repair strategy insert an epenthetic y into the cluster to break it up in speech.

In forming words from syllables, there are certain sound clusters that can form that are disallowed under the rules of Common. Polysyllabic native roots never break these rules, but new compound word and loanwords can, and repair strategies have to be employed. They are:

Table 6: Syllable boundary rules
Occurrence Rule/Repair Strategy
Two vowels in a row that are not the same vowel Pronounced as two separate vowels of equal length with a hiatus
The same vowel twice in a row. Not allowed. Common does not have long vowels. Insert an epenthetic h, which then follows the allophony rules for h.
Two consonants in a row that are not the same consonant Allowed, even if they form a pattern that is not allowed syllable onset. Voicing follows rules of allophony.
Three vowels in a row Uncommon. Not allowed. Repair strategy is usually to insert an epenthetic h after the first vowel, or at an identifiable morpheme boundary if possible.
Three consonants in a row Not allowed, relatively common. Repair strategy is usually to insert an epenthetic y after the first consonant, or at an identifiable morpheme boundary if possible.
The same consonant twice in a row The consonants will be geminated. If the consonant has an unvoiced variant, it will be unvoiced.
A t followed by a c Allowed in writing, but Common speakers will pronounce this as a long /d͡ʒː/ instead of /dd͡ʒ/

Common roots are typically one or two syllables for native words, although three syllable native roots are possible. Through compounding and affixation, longer words are possible, although Common has relatively minor tendency to agglutination and very long words are not common.


Common roots have stress on the first syllable. In compounds, there will usually be a primary stress on the first syllable, and a secondary stress on the first syllable of the head. Prefixes are generally not stressed, but may have a secondary stress on their first syllable if they have more that one syllable. Some suffixes may take a secondary stress on their first syllable.

Stress is not usually indicated in orthography and has to be learnt. In a few cases, stress is indicated orthographically with an acute accent ('na can pah', 'the hard mark') on the stressed vowel for words with irregular stress - this is most common in personal and place names. It is common to use an acute accent to indicate stress for the benefit of learners, but real-world Common often omits the accents. Accented letters are not considered letters in their own right but simply variants of the unaccented forms.

Stress in Common is typically indicated by loudness, and depending on the regional variety, may also be indicated by pitch and by articulating the vowel more carefully and distinctly. While all syllables in Common generally take the same amount of time to pronounce, there are regional varieties where the vowel of the stressed syllable may be pronounced appreciably longer than the other syllables of the word. Unlike in English, there is no vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, and the vowel needs to be articulated with a very clear quality.

A number of words that fictively or actually arose from compounding a prefix onto a root have irregular stress on the first syllable of the putative head. This creates words with irregular stress. For the benefit of the reader, we will indicate irregular stress in most places that it occurs. but bear in mind that in actual writing, except in educational writing, writers will frequently omit these accent.


Common is a syllable-timed language, with each syllable taking about the same length of time to produce. It does not tend to vowel reduction, although in casual speech and in some dialects, the sound y in unstressed syllables may be prone to reduction or deletion. Deletion of y has been a historically important process in the development of modern Common from early 21st century Common.

Difference in characteristic intonation patterns is a common feature of different regional accents of Common, but in general, the intonation pattern will not be too unfamiliar to English speakers, with a characteristic falling tone at the end of declarative sentences, and a typical rising tone at the end of yes/no questions. The intonation pattern of Common is heavily influenced by English, because this is one area that was little-specified in the original language, and the early speakers, who were predominantly English-speaking, tended to apply intonation patterns from their native language without much thought.

Tempo is another area that is not greatly defined in Common. Certain dialects, such as the Nuják (New York) or Parat (India), are known for rapid speech, while others, such as Kaskétija (Cascadia - note the accents on the stressed syllables in these place names) are known for slower speech. Speakers trying to sound like they do not have an accent, such as screen announcers, will tend to speak more slowly and enunciate carefully in order to sound more like a Cascadian.

Word Shape: Roots, Syllable Weight and Syllabification

The syllable structure of Common, including forbidden sequences and repair strategies, was built into the original design of Old Common and comes down to us more or less unchanged to the present day in High Common. However, there are tendencies of Common which have been studied and characterised after the fact that appear not to have been consciously designed into the language but to have either been unconscious inventions of Davidson, to have arisen spontaneously in the speaker community, or to just be how modern experts on Common like to think of it.

Syllable Weight

Syllable weight was not a concept that Davidson talked about in any of his writings, but is part of how modern grammarians think of Common.

Syllables in Common are either light or heavy. A heavy syllable is one that has a coda. A light syllable is one that is missing a coda.

Syllables of the form VC, CVC, CCVC where V can be a diphthong or a monophthong, are heavy. Syllables of the form V, CV and CCV are all light.

In moraic theory as most Common grammarians apply it to Common, all Common syllables have one or two morae, with light syllables having one mora and heavy syllables having two morae. In this interpretation, diphthongs are considered to be a single mora. This interpretation is somewhat controversial, however, and there is a minority school of thought that counts diphthongs as two morae and considers Common to have superheavy syllables as well - the syllable 'haj' would be considered to be heavy rather than light, and the syllable 'hajk' to be superheavy rather than heavy. The controversy hinges on whether diphthongs are considered to be longer than monophthongs in Common, the majority opinion being that they are not.


When syllabifying words, Common grammarians apply the following rules, more or less in order:

  1. Start syllabifying from the left-hand side of the word.
  2. Do not break any of the official syllable boundary rules or phonotactics of Common
  3. Prefer to respect morphemic boundaries if possible.
  4. If two consonants appear in a row, break them up with a syllable boundary. This is true even if the adjacency of the consonants has phonological consequences like suppressing voicing or nasal assimilation, and even if the two consonants could make a legal onset for the second syllable and avoid making the earlier syllable heavy.
  5. Geminate consonants are broken up in the middle, treated as the coda of the preceding syllable and the onset of the following, which forces the preceding syllable to be heavy.
  6. Two vowels in a row are always broken up with a hiatus and form the nuclei of their own, separate syllables.
  7. Otherwise, prefer to place the syllable boundary in such a way as to make the preceding syllable light rather than heavy.

While these rules may seem arbitrary, they appear to have real consequences when it comes to the way in which Common creates or absorbs new root words.

Roots and Word Shape

Roots in Common can have one, two or three syllables. If a root contains a heavy syllable, it is likely to be a monosyllabic root. A bisyllabic root may consist of two heavy syllables, but Common seems to have a preference for bisyllabic roots to consist of one heavy and one light syllable. A trisyllabic root can have at most one heavy syllable and Common prefers these to be composed of three light syllables.

If Common is much more tolerant of two heavy syllables in a bisyllabic root or one heavy syllable in a trisyllabic root if the the syllable boundary goes through a pair of geminate consonants, or is the last syllable.

These rules are more like strong preferences than hard and fast rules. There are numerous examples of words that break the rules, even coming from Old Common. But we see some consequences to these preferences:

  • Roots that break the rules, such as 'ixfin', 'shin' are likely to render in casual speech and in Low Common forms with a geminate syllable boundary, so what people will actually say in non-careful speech is 'ixxin', or otherwise to be reduced in some way to get it to a pattern that obeys the rules.
  • Since roots that break these root rules don't break the general word formation rules of Common, they resemble words that are assembled from smaller parts, and Common speakers may be tempted to analyse them that way, which can encourage back formations. An example is the -az in words like 'eonaz' and a 'opilaz', that Davidson actually wanted to give the appearance of historic origin from some kind of derivation but which are, in fact, roots since the suffix isn't productive. However, it has become productive in non-standard speech, creating words like 'xulaz', 'lifetime'.
  • When a root word is borrowed from another language, there is an extremely strong tendency for it to be borrowed in a way that follows these rules, at least in regular speech if not always in writing.

Aside from that, there is a strong tendency in Common for function words to be light monosyllables in their base forms, but this is far from universal. The ubiquitous dummy term 'yn', or the copular verb 'an', for example, are heavy. It should be noted, however, that in colloquial speech it is extremely common for these words to reduce and attach to a preceding word as ''n'. This is also seen in the tendency to drop final consonants in such function words in casual speech, so ejó' instead of ejók for 'with', for example.

These rules around roots and word shape are more observations after the fact about the way linguists of Common think the language works, they were not part of its design, as can be seen from a number of instances where the rules were violated by Davidson himself. These ideas are essentially conjecture designed to understand the tendencies we see in the way Common has been developing and the way in which it is used.


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