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Definition: syllable from Good Word Guide

A syllable is a unit of a word that contains a vowel sound or something that resembles a vowel sound. The words by, tune, and through have one syllable; the words doctor, table, and open have two syllables; the word secretary has three syllables if the a is not sounded and four syllables if the a is sounded.


Summary Article: SYLLABLE from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences

A syllable is a sound unit produced by a single impulse from the voice. It must include a core, or nucleus. The core is an uninterrupted phonetic segment, such as “ah” and “oh,” formed by a vowel, diphthong, or syllabic consonant. The core may appear alone or be preceded, followed, or surrounded by one or more consonants, such as in “part” and “coat.” A syllable has a central peak (nucleus) of sonority in vowels in the form of a monophthong, diphthong, or triphthong; single consonants appear and consonant clusters form around that peak. Sometimes single consonants, such as certain fricatives or the sonorants [l] or [r], can constitute a nucleus.

A syllable may consist of an onset (one or more prevocalic consonants) and a rime. The rime consists of a nucleus (the core) and may include a coda (one or more postvocalic consonants). While onsets and codas are optional, rimes are obligatory. For example, the one-syllable English word cup is a consonant-vowel-consonant syllable (CVC): the onset is [k], the nucleus is [ʌ], the coda is [p], and the rime is [ʌp]. By definition, across languages, every syllable requires a nucleus. Onsets are common to most languages, and some languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic, require all syllables to have onsets. In languages such as Sedang, Klamath, and Totonac, a CVC syllable such as cup is possible, but a VC syllable such as up is not. Phonotactic rules may determine which sounds are allowed or disallowed in each part of the syllable.

There are two common ways of classifying syllables – heavy/light and open/closed. There is some overlap between these dichotomies: heavy (CVV, CVVC, CVCC, CVC), light (CV, CVC), open (V, CV, CCV), and closed (VC, CVC, CVCC). Syllables having long vowels in the rime are considered heavy, while short vowels followed by a consonant (coda) are considered light. An open syllable has no final consonant, and a closed syllable always ends with a consonant coda. All languages allow open syllables.

Some languages treat heavy syllables such as CVV (with a long vowel or diphthong) and CVC as light. The difference between heavy and light usually is determined by the stress position. In languages such as Latin and Arabic, heavy syllables tend to be stressed. These languages count a syllable as heavy or light on the basis of the following information: a long vowel in the nucleus, a diphthong in the nucleus, or one or more consonants in the coda. In most Germanic languages, lax vowels can only occur in closed syllables, while tense vowels can occur in open syllables.

In languages such as Japanese, heavy syllables usually consist of two moras (weighting units based on CV syllable structure), while light syllables consist of one mora. Japanese allows only /n/ as a coda and allows no consonant clusters. In stress-based languages such as English, some syllables in words or sentences are produced with more vocal stress than others and become accented syllables. This stress pattern exhibits multiple heavy syllables, which may include consonant clusters of up to three (e.g., strawberry, spring) or even four consonants (e.g., sixths).

Suprasegmental features pertain to the syllable, not to a specific sound alone, and, as the name implies, are superimposed on segmental variations. Suprasegmental features such as stress and intonation are variations of frequency, amplitude, and duration in the implementation of segments. Thus, suprasegemental variations affect the entire speech sound and even extend across speech sounds to words and sentences. As an example of durational variation, syllable length can count as a suprasegmental feature. For instance, most Germanic languages have long vowels with short consonants only, but, in languages such as Finnish and Japanese, long consonants can appear in the same syllable as long vowels and short consonants with short vowels.

Syllabification refers to the separation of a word into syllables. In phonology, the maximal onset principle, or CV rule, often determines underlying syllable division. This principle assigns intervocalic consonants “maximally” to the onsets of syllables in order to establish clear syllable boundaries and in conformity with universal and language-specific conditions. For example, the English word diploma can be divided into dip-lo-ma or di-plo-ma. However, the only division that conforms to the maximal onset principle is di-plo-ma.

A second key principle in phonology entails a hierarchy representing the sonority of classes of sounds, the sonority hierarchy. It ranks classes of sounds as follows:

least sonority = voiceless obstruents < voiced obstruents < nasals < glides < vowels = greatest sonority.

The distribution of segments within syllables can be explained by sonority sequencing under this hierarchy. The vowel is the most sonorous element in a syllable and the voiceless obstruent is the least. Sonority sequencing requires the sonority of consonants surrounding the vowel to decrease to the left and to the right of the vowel (i.e., the more sonorous a segment, the closer to the nucleus of the syllable). For example, in English, the syllables clan and malt are possible; in each case, the sonority of the consonant sequence decreases in each direction from the vowel. In contrast, the syllables matl and lkon are impossible. In matl, the sonority in the sequence tl increases; in lkon, the sonority of the sequence lk decreases.

In some languages, consonants can be ambisyllabic, in which case a consonant belongs to two syllables, forming a syllable with both the preceding and the following vowel (e.g., appetite, hammer).

Miwako Hisagi
© Cambridge University Press 2011

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