Daily Archives: March 14, 2013

A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 1: The basic bits

Today: the fifteenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Syllables 1: The basic bits

Of course, we don’t normally say phonemes in isolation. We speak them in streams. And when we do, there’s a certain rhythm to them. Oh, most of the time it’s not an especially evident rhythm; it just bumps and bops along with little enough in the way of a prominent pattern that we don’t pay it much heed. But if we’re singing – or rapping or reciting metered verse – we not only notice it but make pointed use of it. And it can affect our word choices even when we’re not thinking about it.

So what is the minimal unit of rhythm in speech? This is one you almost certainly know at least a little about. The syllable.

OK, so now tell me: what is a syllable?

Well, what do you need in order to have a syllable?

The one thing you definitely must have is a nucleus – a peak of sonority and emphasis. This is usually a vowel, either a single vowel sound or a diphthong or triphthong. But it’s not always a vowel! If you were paying attention in “Lovely, lyrical liquids,” you know that /r/ and /l/ can also sometimes make up syllables by themselves – and they can be the nucleus, or peak, or a syllable with other parts. Say murder. Odds are you had /r/ as the peaks of both syllables. Say bottled. The second syllable has no vowel sound! (The e may be written, but it’s not said, so there is no actual vowel there.) Nasals can also serve the turn. Say button – the way you usually say it, not the careful way. Your second syllable is most likely just [n], syllabic.

A rule of thumb: If it’s singable, it can be the nucleus of a syllable.

There can be consonants before and/or after the nucleus. The ones at the start, if there are any, are the onset; the ones at the end, if there are any, are the coda. The nucleus and coda together are the rime (normal people spell this rhyme, but linguists go with the more nonstandard spelling, because they can – and to make it clear they mean the technical term).

So. Identify the onset, nucleus, and coda in the following words: bad, bird, bra, alp, scalp, eye, strengths.

How did you do? Let’s go over them:

b/a/d – Should be easy enough.

b/ir/d – Remember, when we talk about vowels, we mean the sounds, not the letters! Here the ir represents a syllabic /r/ for most North American speakers and a mid-central vowel (without [r]) for the millions around the world who “drop their r’s.”

br/a – No coda!

a/lp – No onset!

sc/a/lp – You’ll notice that we can put /s/ before most other consonants in the onset, but not after them, and we can put liquids after most other consonants in the onset, but not before them. Remember that these rules are specific to English! Other languages have other rules. Some can use almost terrifying clusters of consonants; others can use very few or only one, and some don’t allow any codas.

eye – There is no onset or coda; this is just a diphthong, [aɪ]. The fact that we spell it with two “vowels” around one “consonant” is just to mess with your head – though it does sorta look like two eyes around a nose, doesn’t it?

str/e/ngths – I included this one just because we can really stack them up in the onset and coda in English, as long as they’re in the right order.

Next: Breaking words


Visual: Six letters but a lot of little appendages sticking up and down – only one letter (e) without an ascender or descender. A mix of rounds and lines and one little dot.

In the mouth: When I was a kid, I thought this word was pronounced with a “hard” g, like give and gimp. But no, that doesn’t gibe; it has the voiced tongue-tip affricate that makes me think of biting little grains between my front teeth. Not that the teeth are involved in this sound; it’s just that the jaw is in that position. After that start, this word gets the tongue and lips working together before a final crisp tap of the tongue again. The vowels are mid-high and front.

Etymology: This word is said to come from Old French gibelet, which seems to have been a game stew; compare modern French gibelotte, which is a rabbit stew. Where does gibelet come from? No one is sure. It’s just one of those odd bits that appear from somewherever.

Collocations: It doesn’t go with ’n bits; that’s Kibbles. And not Green Giant, either – that’s niblets. No, you’ll find it with gravy and broth and, in plural, with chicken and turkey and sometimes other birds. (You don’t hear of it with larger critters. Why not? Because their innards don’t get included in little paper bags when you buy their meat.) And you’ll often see it near remove and discard – because that, according to many recipes, is what you do with giblets.

Overtones: This word has a variety of echoes, louder and softer. Aside from Kibbles (which may, I suppose, have giblets in them) and niblets (corn) and assorted bibelots (odd little items – giblets may be bird bibelots), you will likely get gibbet, a place where executed criminals were hung for public display and decay – the ostentatious discarding of the offal of society – and perhaps gobbet (a little mouthful) and maybe jib (related to gibbet) and glib and nibble (nibble gingerly at a giblet? If you feel obliged) and perhaps even Gibran, though there’s no profit in that one. The /bl/ might make you think of blood or of humble and umbles and maybe shambles (originally the name of the butchers’ street in old York).

Semantics: Giblets are innards, those bits of the bird you probably discard before roasting (though some people use them in gravy). The first use of this term in English, however, in the 1300s, was to refer to “an unessential appendage” (per Oxford), which to my mind makes the gibelet derivation odd. After that, in the 1400s, “garbage, entrails.” And then by the 1500s it’s those bits of the goose (or other bird) that you toss before cooking – including the feet, though those are not usually part of the giblets now.

Where to find it: You will find this word in conjunction with recipes for cooking whole birds. Also occasionally in literary prose in some cute reference to a person’s guts – perhaps “Dana was a cute bird, but if she kept on with these guys she’d end with a knife in her giblets.” It occurs to me that in reference to a human it almost sounds more suitable to small severable appendages found on only half of the species, but that’s not really concordant with the standard sense.