Phonotactics be damned!

Originally published Jul 14, 2008

Suppose you want to write a computer program to look for unregistered domain names. You could devise a simple algorithm to produce all possible combinations of four letters, five letters, six letters, etc. But that would give you a whole mess of unpronounceable domains, like So, you might want to strategize a little. You could think about how English syllables are structured, and the possible ways to begin and end a syllable. The letters “lsdh” do not make a possible syllable ending, for example.

That’s phonotactics–the study of sound sequences that do and do not occur in a given language. Some non-occurring sound sequences are simply unpronounceable and are not found in any language. Others are pronounceable but just don’t fit the idiosyncratic preferences of a particular language.

Lately The Name Inspector has noticed a bunch of names used in English-speaking contexts that don’t toe the line of normal English phonotactics. He suspects this is a new strategy for creating short names that are available as .com domains.

It’s really common for names to mess with orthography. That strategy is typical of Web 2.0 names (FlickrDiggZooomr, etc.) and has been with us for a long time (Cheez Whiz). But phonology has been pretty sacred until now. While all the following names are pronounceable, they start with sound sequences that don’t occur syllable-initially in English, except in some borrowed words.

Zlio. This website allows you to instantly create an online affiliate store. It was in the news a while back because it got banned from In English, the sequence zl- only occurs in the word zloty, the Polish currency unit.

Vlingo. This is a voice-to-text application for mobile devices. We English speakers see vl-at the beginning of a word only in the name Vladimir and in a tiny handful of obscure borrowed words.

Jwaala. An online banking tool. This name is based on a Sanskrit-derived word for ‘fire’. English has plenty of words in which j- is followed by the vowel -u- (e.g. juvenile), but none in which it’s followed by the related consonant -w-.

Srixon. The name of this golf ball manufacturer has a beginning that English speakers only find in the place name Sri Lanka.

How much farther can the phonological sensibilities of English speakers be pushed? As names become increasingly scarce, let’s wait and see.

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