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

3 responses to “A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 2: Breaking words

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 1: The basic bits | Sesquiotica

  2. As a choral director, I wish music publishers would break up lyric syllables phonetically rather than linguistically, to make it clear(er) to novice singers – or even people who just haven’t thought about it very much – that that’s how they’re meant to be sung.

  3. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 3: The rhythm method | Sesquiotica

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