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I've thought about using phonemic tones and permitting lots of clusters as ways of keeping my words short, but I don't want the syllables to be so heavy that every compound becomes a tongue-twister.

How should I go about making a happy medium between a phonology that generates only very heavy single syllable words vs. a phonology that is so simple that compounds must each comprise 6 or more syllables?

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If you want fewer syllables per word, you'll want a larger number of possible syllables. (For a metaphor, think about how many letters vs how many kana vs how many kanji you need to represent a particular Japanese word. The more possible glyphs/syllables you have, the fewer of them you need to convey the same amount of information.)

Some good ways to do this:

  • Allow lots of different coda consonants.
  • Have lots of different vowels.
  • Allow clusters of two consonants in onsets or codas, instead of just one.

For example, if you start out allowing only CV syllables, and then you decide to add long vowels, that doubles the number of possible syllables. If you allow CVn instead of just CV, that doubles it again. If you allow sC instead of just C, that's another doubling…

This is why English has over ten times as many common syllables as Japanese (Oh's corpus analysis gives 6,949 vs 643 in the 20k most frequent words), and thus why English words consist of fewer syllables than Japanese ones. We have a whole lot of vowels, many possible codas, and very elaborate clusters in both onsets and codas (consider "strengths"). Japanese only allows two possible coda consonants (N and Q) and the only valid onset cluster is Cj.

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  • why only mention coda consonants? Lots of distinct consonants will increase the number of syllables regardless (although having ones allowed in both onset and coda will do so fastest)
    – Tristan
    May 2, 2023 at 10:14
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    An example is some dialects of Inuktitut. A syllable is (C)V(/p t k q/) (ignoring sandhi in the final consonant). With 15 consonants, 3 vowels that can be long or short for 6 total, and the 4 consonants allowed in the coda, that's 360 potential single syllable words. Depending on the accents and such, English has upwards of 300,000 potential distinct one-syllable words. May 2, 2023 at 16:32
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    @Tristan Mostly because coda consonants are almost always (always?) more restricted than onset consonants. Increasing the number of onset consonants, when there are already a lot of them, has less of an effect than increasing the number of coda consonants, when there aren't many. But of course you're right, more distinct consonants also gives more syllables.
    – Draconis
    May 2, 2023 at 16:35

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