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

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