Syllables and their beginnings have a special role in the mental lexicon

Yue Sun, David Poeppel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The beginnings of words are, in some informal sense, special. This intuition is widely shared, for example, when playing word games. Less apparent is whether the intuition is substantiated empirically and what the underlying organizational principle(s) might be. Here, we answer this seemingly simple question in a quantitatively clear way. Based on arguments about the interplay between lexical storage and speech processing, we examine whether the distribution of information among different speech sounds of words is governed by a critical computational unit for online speech perception and production: syllables. By analyzing lexical databases of twelve languages, we demonstrate that there is a compelling asymmetry between syllable beginnings (onsets) versus ends (codas) in their involvement in distinguishing words stored in the lexicon. In particular, we show that the functional advantage of syllable onset reflects an asymmetrical distribution of lexical informativeness within the syllable unit but not an effect of a global decay of informativeness from the beginning to the end of a word. The converging finding across languages from a range of typological families supports the conjecture that the syllable unit, while being a critical primitive for both speech perception and production, is also a key organizational constraint for lexical storage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2215710120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number36
StatePublished - 2023


  • functional load
  • lexicon
  • phonology
  • speech communication
  • syllable

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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