The notion of the syllable intuitively seems to be a very simple one. In order to determine how many syllables a word has, we often simply pronounce it and see how many beats there are. If we pay closer attention as to why we come up with a certain number of syllables for a given word, we probably also realise that it must have something to do with how many times we open and close our mouths.
But when we try to think about how exactly we go about distinguishing between different syllables, it becomes increasingly more difficult to say why. The longer we think about this, we probably begin to realise that most syllables tend to have a vowel in them, but for some syllables this doesn’t seem to be true, either, such as e.g. the second syllable in the the word bottle (/bɒtɫ̩/). Especially in cases like this, when we try to pronounce each syllable separately or try to put strong – possibly contrastive – emphasis on the word, we would most likely create two different ‘artefacts’ that are simply not there when we pronounce the whole word: we would probably assign the /t/ twice, once to the end of the first syllable, and once to the beginning of the second, thus treating it as ambisyllabic. And because /tɫ̩/ somehow doesn’t seem to be a complete syllable, either, we may even be tempted to insert an epenthetic /ə/, thus yielding the two syllables /bɒt/ and /təɫ/. Of course in this example you might be tempted to say that at least the ambisyllabicity is actually there in the written word, but this is really just an artefact of the written encoding of the word, a fact that we often tend to forget because of the predominance of the written word in our education.
Another classic and often-cited difficult example is extra. Should we split this into /ɛk.stɹə/, /ɛks.tɹə/ or even /ɛkst.ɹə/? If you come from a language background that is essentially Western European, this may already present a big problem for you, but just think about how much more difficult this might be for you if you came from an Arabic or East Asian language background, where syllables may have a rather different structure that contains fewer combinations of consonants. A Korean learner of English at an earlier level, for example, may well be tempted to tell you that there are actually four, rather than two syllables, yielding [ɛk.sɨ.tɨ.ɾa]. In order to shed some more light on this difficult and still unsolved problem, it should help if we first look at the roles vowels and consonants play from a phonological point of view.
If we want to investigate the functions of vowels and consonants in speech, we first need to think about at which ‘positions’ they can occur in in the speech chain and how the two classes of sounds can be combined with one another. If you think about the patterns in all the languages you know and what kind of patterns they exhibit, you will probably soon realise that no language is composed simply of either vowels or consonants, but that there has to be some kind of alternation between them. In this alternation, vowels tend to play the central role and consonants or semi-vowels/approximants fulfil something of a ‘bridging’ function to ‘smooth’ the transitions between the vowels. Most systems for characterising syllables therefore assume that the vowel – or at least something that has some kind of vocalic ‘function’ – has to form the centre of any syllable. This ‘vocalic’ element is usually referred to as the core or rhyme and a consonant or group of consonants (cluster) preceding the rhyme is called the onset. The rhyme itself can either consist of a single peak1 or a peak followed by a closing consonantal element called a coda. In diagrams, such as the following, the syllable is often indicated by a lowercase Greek letter sigma (σ).
Syllables that have no coda are referred to as open and conversely those that do have one as closed ones.
The makeup of syllables follows different rules for different languages, but many adhere to the principle of maximal onset – minimal coda, which means that the coda is usually kept as short as possible, whereas the onset may be somewhat longer. The permissible structures for the combination of phonemes in syllables are governed according to phonotactic rules. The phonotactic rules for English allow onsets with a maximum ‘consonant’ cluster of three elements and codas with a maximum of four elements, although the longer a final cluster becomes, the more of a tendency for elision, i.e. the ‘dropping’ of certain elements, becomes apparent, especially in connected speech, which we’ll investigate soon. Our definition of potential consonants in onsets here also includes a glottal stop at the beginning of syllables that appear to have no consonant before them simply because we wouldn’t use one in writing. The following table gives some examples of the possible phoneme constellations, where the column headed by a 0 indicates the position of the vowel phoneme, columns labelled with increasing numbers prefixed by a minus symbol prevocalic positions with increasing distance from the vocalic peak and increasing numbers prefixed by a plus symbol reflect increasing distance to the right of the vowel.
As you can see, many consonants and semi-vowels can appear in multiple positions before or after the vowel, although of course the patterns do follow certain rules. One notable exception to this flexibility is manifested in the phonemes /h/ & /ŋ/, where the former can only occur in initial position and the latter only in final (or at least pre-final for some accents) position.
The preceding sections are mainly meant to ‘sensitise’ you towards the concept of the syllable, rather than giving you a concrete definition of it, which may – as yet – be impossible to do. Various scholars have tried to define it from both a phonetic (chest pulses, opening and closing of the vocal tract, sonority) and phonological (metrical structure) point of view, but so far, noone has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory definition. This, however, does not mean that the syllable itself is not a useful concept for the explanation of certain linguistic phenomena, but we just need to be careful when applying it in our analysis, always bearing in mind the context of the language to be analysed, etc.
Couper-Kuhlen, E. (1985). An Introduction to English Prosody. Tübingen: Niemeyer, also London: Arnold.
Hyman, L. (1975). Phonology: Theory and Analysis. New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston.
Knowles, G. (1987). Patterns of Spoken English: an Introduction to English Phonetics. London: Longman.
Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology: a Practical Course (4th ed.). Cambridge: CUP.