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:

En-
glish

sy-
llable

mi-
ddle

ho-
pping

assi-
stant

ma-
king

ma-
sking

regre-
ttable

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.

One response to “Hyphe-nation? Hyphen-ation?

  1. Apparently Merriam-Webster hyphenates “antiquity” as “an-tiq-ui-ty”. Yuck. I decided to avoid breaking the word rather than break it in such an awkward place.

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