Daily Archives: March 17, 2013

A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 2: Breaking words

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

Syllables 2: Breaking words

OK, the words I talked about in “Syllables 1: The basic bits” are all one syllable, so they’re not that hard. When we get to more than one syllable, now, that’s where things get interesting. Try this word – a very appropriate one: breaking. It’s made of break plus ing. But how do you say it?

Slow it down. Now sing it on two notes. Now put a space between those notes, just a slight gap. Now speed it up, keeping the gap.

If you’re now singing brea, king, brea, king, it probably sounds quite normal and feels easy enough to do. If you’re now singing break, ing, break, ing, it more likely sounds unnatural and feels more difficult to do.

But why would the [k] go and attach itself to the suffix when it belongs to the root word? Because it’s just easier to do it that way. Consonants tend to prefer onsets over codas, given the chance. Oh, there are many things that can keep a consonant on the end of a syllable rather than migrating to the beginning of the next one. I won’t be so tedious as to make a long list of them here; much better if you just explore syllables yourself and see how they really break, and try to sort out why they break where they do. But be aware that there are many places where what you may have always thought was the syllable break actually isn’t.

“But we hyphenate it between break and ing!” Yes, we do. In English, we don’t always put hyphens at the actual syllable boundaries. We also take into consideration the parts the word is made of (morphemes – I’ll get to those) and the relation between the spelling and the pronunciation. Breaking is made of break and ing, and even though we actually put the /k/ at the start of the second syllable we still think of it as being at the end of the first one. But also, we don’t know how brea- should be pronounced until we see the next letter: Brea…thing? Brea…ding? Brea…king? So we hyphenate it as break-ing, because those are the constituent parts and because if you see brea- at the end of one line it may be a surprise to see king on the next.

We run into another problem in English because of how we think about vowels. English has tended to have “long” vowels in open syllables – syllables without codas – and more notably has a strong tendency to have “short” vowels only in closed syllables – syllables with codas. A word such as break shows that we can have a “long” vowel in a closed syllable (but usually it will be indicated with multiple written vowels, often with a “silent e” after the final consonant, showing us that the final consonant was originally the onset of another syllable). But whereas we can have open/closed pairs with “long” vowels – bray/break, be/beat, buy/bite, bow/boat, boo/boot, cue/cute – just try to find an open match for bit, bet, or book (bat has bah, though open syllables with [æ] are uncommon; hut has huh, but most places you hear that vowel sound are unstressed; there are many words with [ɑ] in open syllables – it’s an exception).

So “short” vowels generally need to be in closed syllables. But! As already observed, consonants tend to shift from coda to onset when they can. Look at latter and later. In later, dividing it is easy; la-ter. But in latter? Don’t even bother thinking the syllable splits where we hyphenate it, lat-ter. There’s no long (or double) [t] in there – nothing like you hear in hot toddy or cat-tail. No, this is a case where we think of the /t/ as being at the end of one syllable even though it’s attracted to the start of the next syllable – since there’s no onset on the next syllable, and it’s in the middle of the word, there’s a natural tendency to shift.

So does that mean, then, that latter really divides la-tter? Well, some people say so. Some intro linguistics professors will tell you straight out that, for instance, Christmas breaks phonetically as Chri-stmas (as a rule we don’t say the t, so the [s] is naturally pulled to the onset because it can go before the [m]). But say it slowly and forcefully. Are you sure the [s] is all the way with the next syllable? When you say latter, does it seem as though the /t/ – which is usually said by North Americans not as a [t] but as an alveolar flap, making it identical or very similar to ladder (the [æ] may be slightly longer in ladder) – is as much with the first syllable as with the second? Some linguists think that’s not an unreasonable way of looking at it. They call this ambisyllabicity: it goes with both syllables. Not everyone agrees that it exists. But this is an important thing to know about linguistics: although it seems very scientific, with all its technical terms and structures and codifications and so on, in fact there’s lots of disagreement about all sorts of things, even basic issues such as phonemes. You learn things in one linguistics course and are told they’re wrong in the next. Eventually you get far enough that you can start making up your own mind and disagreeing too. See? Language is a sport not just for those who use it but for those who study it, too.

Next: The rhythm method


Bellicose professions lend themselves to boasting rants. Boxers, wrestlers, and other fighters are known for loudly heralding their prowess. “When my opponent steps into the ring, he’s sealing his own doom! I’m gonna demonstrate that I’m a demon in human form! I’ll ram him down and drum on his head! There will be no redeeming him!” And so on – a mordant montage. The same may be found in many more figuratively combative lines of work, such as stock trading and mergers and acquisitions. Tests are met with testosterone and attestations.

There are a few different words for this bellicose chest-beating, but the most sonorous is surely rodomontade. The very sound is like a flourish on a drum: roll in with ro and then three strokes, hard, softer, then sharp: do-mon-tade! It’s sure to awaken the dormant. It’s a word for someone who rode in mounted on his ego.

It tells such tales, too: its eleven characters can produce doom, demon, madder, dormant, ardent, mordant, moaned, tandem, odor, and several others, and but for the lack of a letter it could make matador and mastodon – a battle appropriately sized for this kind of braggadocio. You can see the eyes popping and the mouth gaping, o o o, and the bared teeth m n and drawn scimitar t…

Scimitar? Well, why not? There is a larger tale that this word tells. It is from a name, Rodomonte, the original bearer of which was a character in the epic poems Orlando innamorato by Boiardo and Orlando furioso by Ariosto, written in the late 1400s and early 1500s (respectively). Rodomonte was a Saracen king, a loud, boastful, arrogant man, given to supreme confidence in his skills and certain to assure his enemies that they would be slain and dismembered by him, the most illustrious of warriors.

Boiardo was, we are told, so happy with coming up with the name for this character that he asked for the church bells to be rung. The name Rodomonte is sonorous, certainly, but what else? In Boiardo’s dialect, it means ‘roll-mountain’ – one who rolls away the mountain. Of course, to anglophones generally it’s not semantically transparent. It might as well be Rhadames. Or perhaps some warrior from Rhodes. Which is why so often you will see this word spelled as rhodomontade. Also, perhaps, the rh makes the word seem extra hairy.

One more thing we should remember about this word: it refers to over-the-top boasting, but it does not automatically imply that the boasts are empty or that the boaster is a coward, a miles gloriosus to use the Roman term. The annoying fact is that in the poems Rodomonte actually is a highly skilled warrior who generally lives up to his press releases. He is only finally lain low near the end. Don’t you hate that – when someone declares loudly how good he is and actually turns out to be good?