Tag Archives: syllables

A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 3: The rhythm method

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

Syllables 3: The rhythm method

There’s even more fun we can have with syllables. For one thing, some people contend that, in some languages, syllables don’t exist or aren’t an appropriate way of analyzing words. For example, Salishan languages (Pacific coast of North America) can have long strings of apparently unsingable consonants. Mind you, the examples I have seen do have fricatives, which can allow some rhythm; say psspsspsspss to see what I mean. But I don’t know Salishan languages and won’t wade into that debate, and anyway, here and now we’re focusing on word tasting in English, even though the principles can be carried over to other languages (with adjustments for phonemes, rules, etc.).

But we do have some cases in English that can make a bit of havoc with a simple unitary view of syllables. Rhythm can be more complex. I mean that quite literally: say rhythm. How many syllables? Say all the rhythm in the world. Count ’em up! Six, seven, or eight syllables? You might say it as eight beats in four pairs, stressed-unstressed: all the rhyth-m in the wor-ld. But if you say rhythm is what the world’s about, you may well say seven beats: rhythm is what the world’s a-bout. Ask your English teacher and she’s likely to tell you that rhythm and world have one syllable each. But the mechanics of saying them – as long as you say the nucleus of world as a syllabic [r] rather than in the “r-dropping” way – cause a definite two-part movement. Can we have fractional syllables? Or extra-long syllables? There’s still plenty to be thought and said on this topic.

And while we’re on the subject of rhythm, there’s the question of stress. This, too, is something you almost certainly learned about in school (I don’t mean exam stress! I mean which syllable has the stress). Of course, as with just about everything to do with language that you learned about in school, there’s a heckuva lot more to it than what your teacher said. Now, with stress and rhythm, the really crazy stuff gets going when you start looking and phrases and sentences, and this book is about word tasting, so you’re off the hook for now. By and large, individual words have the stress patterns you probably think they have. Any word with more than one syllable will, at least when said by itself, have one or more stressed syllables. Syllables that are stressed can have primary stress (strongest) or secondary stress (stressed but not the strongest stress in that word); the syllables that don’t have primary or secondary stress are, well, unstressed.

So let’s just try a few words and identify where the stresses are in each of them:





badaboom, badabing






You may have noticed I set these out in a fairly sensible order. And, as an added treat, they exemplify some important terms for rhythm – terms you simply must know if you are to be serious about tasting words!

So let’s look at them. Bold underline is primary stress and bold is secondary stress.

pow-der – This is a trochee: two syllables, stress on the first. It’s the staple rhythm of English speech.

a-bout – This is an iamb: the reverse of a trochee. Shakespeare is generally said to have written in iambic pentameter, meaning five iambs per line, although not everyone agrees that that’s what he was doing.

coat-tail – This is a spondee: two stresses (also known as two long syllables). Generally the idea of a spondee is that the stresses are equal, and although I’ve put the second as secondary here, that’s a bit of a judgement call; they’re pretty much equal.

but-ter-cup – This is a dactyl, named from the Greek word for “finger.” A dactyl, strictly, has one long followed by two short, but the in common speech the shorts aren’t always equally short. I’ve put the hyphen between the t’s, but of course there’s only one /t/ here (and you probably say it as a tap), unlike in coattail. Which syllable does it go with? Well, now, you’ve read the bit on ambisyllabicity, right? So you decide.

ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing – These are anapests, the reverse of dactyls. I haven’t indicated the secondary stress because the first syllable isn’t always given that much more stress than the second.

re-min-der – This is an amphibrach: The stressed syllable is the middle of three.

There are also other permutations of three syllables, but these rhythms more often occur with more than one word. Still, for your reference, I’ll list them, using + for “stressed” and – for “unstressed”: –++: bacchius; ++–: antibacchius; +–+: cretic; +++: molossus. There are also cases of two unstressed (dibrach) and three unstressed (tribrach or choree), but those always only occur in the context of a sentence; words are social things, and when they’re on their own, they’re always stressed somehow.

Now to the longer words:

mar-ga-ri-ta – This is really two spondees, with the primary stress being on the second one, which is the penultimate (second last) syllable.

cal-cu-la-tor – This difference between this one and the one above (aside from one being something you drink and the other being something you can use to add up how much you spent on drinks) is just where the primary stress is.

for-mi-da-ble – This has the stress on the antepenultimate syllable (third last). But if you’re British, you may say this for-mi-da-ble, with a slight secondary stress on the last syllable. Either way, it involves a dactyl, though some might say that the British version has three unstressed in a four-beat foot (there’s a name for that, too, but I’ll spare you the terms for all the four-beat feet).

la-bo-ra-to-ry or lab’-ra-to-ry or la-bo-ra-t’ry – The last of the three pronunciations is the British style, and the penult gets swallowed and generally doesn’t make even a fractional syllable. The first is North American citation form, and the second is the way North Americans usually actually say it, dropping the /o/. So there are two common ways to say this word, and both of them involve dropping an /o/ before an /r/ – and, what’s more, not always even extending the /r/. Oh, and what kinds of metric feet are involved here? As math texts put it, this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Next: phonaesthetics.

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

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

Hyphe-nation? Hyphen-ation?

Several years ago I was working on a newsletter that had French and English versions. Our client contact spoke English but was a native Francophone. She complained that the hyphenation in the English was wrong.

Now, I was laying this newsletter out in InDesign, using its automatic hyphenation. It has a thorough hyphenation dictionary. I am a very, very fluent native Anglophone. I knew the hyphenation was right. But she was quite certain that it was not.

What did she think was wrong with it? Well, you see, it’s this: not everyone who speaks English realizes it, but we, like the French and speakers of many other languages, will as a habit say a consonant at the beginning of a syllable rather than at the end of the previous one if we can. For instance, we actually say the word breaking as [bɹe kɪŋ] (like “bray king”). Of course, there are some consonant pairs we won’t put together at the start of a syllable; we don’t say “da-mnation,” for example. Now, as it happens, in French, hyphenation occurs between syllables as they are actually said. By this rule, you would hyphenate at brea-king. That’s what she wanted

Does that look a little off? Would you say it should be break-ing? You’d be right.

In English, we have two different ways of hyphenating. In the British style, we aim to break at morpheme boundaries. What that means is that if a word is made up of a root and some prefixes and/or suffixes, you break at the boundary between the parts. So when you have break plus ing you break between them. And when you have hyphen plus ation you break it as hyphen-ation even though you actually say it like hyphe-nation.

We break those two words the same by the American system, but for a different reason. There is another very important fact in English that affects not just how we hyphenate words but how we read them and think of them generally. When you read a word, the quality of the vowel can be affected by the consonants, if any, that come after it – so we break at bus-ing rather than bu-sing – and the quality of a consonant can be affected by the vowels or consonants that come after it, so we will hyphenate Angli-cism rather than Anglic-ism because that c would look like a [k] sound. The American approach aims to make sure that when you read the first part of a word before the line break, you don’t have to rethink it once you see the second part. So it has to look as though it sounds like it actually does sound.

We just don’t write words exactly as they sound. English spelling is so perverse as to be almost ideographic at times. We have to recognize whole syllables or even whole morphemes, like break and breaking (as opposed to bread and breading, for instance – you only know what the vowel sound is when you see the letter after it). This results in some further traditions that couldn’t possibly make any sense from a strictly phonetic perspective.

Take a word like hotter. We actually say it with the /t/ at the beginning of the second syllable. But we have to think of the first syllable as ending with a consonant. If we spelled it as hoter, that would mean the syllables were ho ter, and that would make the o into a “long” o. So we write it with a double t to make it clear that the first syllable is a closed syllable, meaning its vowel is “short” – even though the syllable isn’t actually closed when you say it. It’s how you think you’re saying it that matters. Welcome to the wonderful world of phonemics!

But we also don’t break it as hott-er. As everyone learns in elementary school, we split it between the double letters: hot-ter. Never mind that there is no second [t] sound; that extra t isn’t part of the first syllable. But it’s not that we always break up consonant letters when the second one is unspoken: it’s dumb-er and smack-ing, not dum-ber (which could read as though you say the [b]) and smac-king.

There’s actually a little more to all this even than what I’ve already said. A favourite “gotcha!” in intro linguistics courses is to ask students where the syllable break is in Christmas. Now, we know right away that we don’t actually say a [t] in there. But we also know it’s a compound with a clearly identifiable first part, Christ, and we know that we would never start a syllable with [stm], so not only would we always hyphenate it as Christ-mas, it just makes sense that we must actually be breaking the syllable right before the [m]. Otherwise the i might stand for a different sound, as it would in an open syllable.

But nope! Gotcha, says the professor: the real break is [krɪ sməs] – that is, “Chri-s’mas.”

Except… Try this. Shout “Clover!” emphasizing each syllable, as though to a person hard of hearing and some distance away or in a noisy club. You hear what you do: “Clo! Ver!” OK, now try “Christmas!”

Is it “Chris! Mas!” or is it “Chri! Smas!”? Or is it more like “Chri! ss, Mas!”? Your results may vary, but for at least some people the [s] will fall squarely in the middle, a phenomenon called ambisyllabicity – something not all linguists agree exists. Try some other words such as breaking and dumber and hotter and see where you put the consonant in the middle. The natural tendency is for it to attach to the following syllable, but we think of it as part of the previous syllable, and it affects how we pronounce the word too, so it may not entirely let go of the previous syllable.

In English, we just don’t read one letter at a time. We just can’t! Consider the effect of breaking according to when we actually start saying the next syllable, separating vowels or consonants from the consonants that affect them:









and so on.

How did I resolve the issue with the newsletter? I just turned off hyphenation, which made the right edge of the text more ragged (don’t do it if you have full-justified text, especially in narrow columns) but quite readable and not susceptible to imposition of inappropriate hyphenation standards.