What Is A Syllable, And How Do You Count Syllables In English?

These building blocks of sound are a deceptively simple concept.
What is a syllable represented by a group of children sitting around a table, writing in notebooks.

There are a number of different ways to slice up a language. You can break down a sentence into phrases, words, sounds and letters. In addition, there’s a category slightly harder to define: syllables. These, too, are like atoms of language, but they’re not as easily defined in the sense of where one syllable ends and the other begins. Here, we’ve assembled a quick guide to what a syllable is, as well as how to count them. Whether you’re working on poetry in iambic pentameter or just trying to understand a language, syllables will come in handy.

What Is A Syllable?

A syllable is a basic unit of sound that a word can be broken down into. While there are many one-syllable words, a syllable doesn’t necessarily have any meaning. The two syllables of “autumn” for example — “au” and “tumn” — have no particular relevance to the larger word. Some of the earliest systems of writing were syllabaries, meaning each symbol stood in for a syllable. Written languages like Japanese and Cherokee still use syllabaries today.

A syllable has three basic parts, two of which are optional.

  • Onset — usually a consonant or consonant cluster (though it can also be vowel, like in the word “usual”), this is the first sound in the syllable. In English, it’s optional, though in some languages there is always an onset.
    • par — the “p” is the onset.
    • cancel — the letter “c” is the onset in both syllables, though it makes a different sound in each one.
    • shrank — the “shr” is the onset.
    • ear — there is no onset.
  • Nucleus — the only mandatory part of a syllable in English, the nucleus is almost always a vowel. There are some cases, though, where a consonant sound creates the nucleus.
    • tan — the “a” is the nucleus.
    • pawn — the “aw” is the nucleus.
    • I — the letter “I” is the nucleus.
    • bottle — the “o” is the nucleus of the first syllable, but the “l” sound is the nucleus of the second.
  • Coda — as you might guess, this is the consonant or consonant cluster that comes at the end of the syllable. In English, the coda is also optional. A syllable with a coda is called a closed syllable, and a syllable without one is an open syllable.
    • hat — the “t” is the coda.
    • clamp — the “mp” is the coda.
    • extra — the “x” is the coda of the first syllable, and the second syllable has no coda.

The nucleus and coda are sometimes combined into something called a “rhyme.” If you started to study phonology, you’d also learn that there are various models for breaking down a syllable, but this simple version is probably all you need for language learning.

How To Count Syllables

There’s an exercise taught to young students that is meant to help them count the number of syllables in a word. Hold the top of your hand to the bottom of your chin, and count how many times your mouth opens. Try it now with “room” (one), “locker” (two) and “prestidigitation” (six). While a bit simple, it’s a system that works.

In written English, it can be a bit more difficult to count the syllables. Because English has so many influences — it’s a Germanic language with words borrowed from French, Latin, Arabic and many other languages — there is no systematic way of spelling words. The word “squirreled” can have 10 letters but only one syllable, but “Ohio” can have four letters and three syllables.

Another method of counting syllables that some people recommend is counting the vowels. Again, that’s not necessarily the best method with written English. “Pain,” “care” and “beau” all have multiple vowels but only one syllable. There are also rare words like “prism” and “dirndl” that have only one vowel, but are pronounced with two syllables (there is a schwa not represented in the written word). So these methods will work in a lot of cases, but counting syllables will always be easier when you’re dealing with spoken words rather than written ones.

Other languages can be somewhat easier to separate into syllables. The Hawaiian language, for example, does not have any codas, meaning a syllable only has one or two possible parts, and so it’s easier to identify where each syllable begins and ends. Each language has its own pronunciation rules and quirks, so you’ll need to pay attention when you’re learning.

When Do Syllables Matter?

When you’re learning a new language, syllables might not be the first thing that you think of. There are a few cases where you do need to think about the syllables of a word.

The first has to do with where the stress is placed in a word. In Spanish, for example, there are clear rules for which syllable receives the stress. Being able to break a word down into syllables quickly is necessary to figuring out all the stresses. Similarly in tonal languages, you also need to be able to distinguish the syllables, because the tones are placed on separate syllables.

On the more artistic side of things, syllables are very important to poetry and music. For two lines to rhyme correctly, they generally have to have the same number of syllables. There are also poetic forms that mandate a specific number of syllables. Shakespearean sonnets, for example, have 10 syllables in each line, and the stress on those syllables is also important to make the poem flow correctly. Japanese haiku also pays close attention to the number of syllables that are used, though technically the focus there is more on moras, which are a unit of sound that can be smaller than a syllable. (Without going into too much detail, syllables with a short vowel have one mora while syllables with a long vowel have two syllables.) Syllables make up the rhythm of language, so even in non-poetic writing, authors may take them into consideration.

In general, your pronunciation in a new language is going to rely on your understanding of syllables and how they come together to form words and sentences. If you’re struggling with a word, just take the time to break it down, locate where the stress is and go one syllable at a time.

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