A syllable (Greek: συλλαβή) is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. For example, the word water is composed of two syllables: wa and ter. A syllable is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically, consonants).
Syllablic writing began several hundred years before the first letters. The earliest recorded syllables are on tablets written around 2800 BC in the Sumerian city of Ur. This shift from pictograms to syllables has been called 'the most important advance in the history of writing'.
A word that consists of a single syllable (like English cat) is called a monosyllable (such a word is monosyllabic), while a word consisting of two syllables (like monkey) is called a disyllable (such a word is disyllabic). A word consisting of three syllables (such as indigent) is called a trisyllable (the adjective form is trisyllabic). A word consisting of more than three syllables (such as intelligence) is called a polysyllable (and could be described as polysyllabic), although this term is often used to describe words of two syllables or more.
The general structure of a syllable consists of the following segments:
In some theories of phonology, these syllable structures are displayed as tree diagrams (similar to the trees found in some types of syntax). Not all phonologists agree that syllables have internal structure; in fact, some phonologists doubt the existence of the syllable as a theoretical entity. See  for discussion of this point.
The syllable nucleus is typically a sonorant, usually making a vowel sound, in the form of a monophthong, diphthong, or triphthong, but sometimes sonorant consonants like [l] or [r]. The syllable onset is the sound or sounds occurring before the nucleus, and the syllable coda (literally 'tail') is the sound or sounds that follow the nucleus. The term rime covers the nucleus plus coda. In the one-syllable English word cat, the nucleus is a, the onset c, the coda t, and the rime at. This syllable can be abstracted as a consonant-vowel-consonant syllable, abbreviated CVC.
Generally, every syllable requires a nucleus. Onsets are extremely common, and some languages require all syllables to have an onset. (That is, a CVC syllable like cat is possible, but a VC syllable such as at is not.) A coda-less syllable of the form V, CV, CCV, etc. is called an open syllable, while a syllable that has a coda (VC, CVC, CVCC, etc.) is called a closed syllable (or checked syllable). All languages allow open syllables, but some, such as Hawaiian, do not have closed syllables.
A heavy syllable is one with a branching rime or a branching nucleus – this is a metaphor, based on the nucleus or coda having lines that branch in a tree diagram. In some languages, heavy syllables include both VV (branching nucleus) and VC (branching rhyme) syllables, contrasted with V, which is a light syllable. In other languages, only VV syllables (ones with a long vowel or diphthong) are heavy, while both VC and V syllables are light. The difference between heavy and light frequently determines which syllables receive stress—this is the case in Latin and Arabic, for example. In moraic theory, heavy syllables are said to have two moras, while light syllables are said to have one. Japanese is generally described this way.
In other languages, including English, a consonant may be analyzed as acting simultaneously as the coda of one syllable and the onset of the following syllable, a phenomenon known as ambisyllabicity. Examples occurring in Received Pronunciation include words such as arrow [ˈærəʊ], error [ˈerə], mirror [ˈmɪrə], borrow [ˈbɒrəʊ], burrow [ˈbʌrəʊ], which can't be divided into separately pronounceable syllables: neither [æ] nor [ær] is a possible independent syllable, and likewise with the other short vowels [e ɪ ɒ ʌ].
Syllables and suprasegmentals
The domain of suprasegmental features is the syllable and not a specific sound, that is to say, they affect all the segments of a syllable:
Sometimes syllable length is also counted as a suprasegmental feature; for example, in most Germanic languages, long vowels may only exist with short consonants and vice versa. However, syllables can be analyzed as compositions of long and short phonemes, as in Finnish and Japanese, where consonant gemination and vowel length are independent.
Syllables and phonotactic constraints
Phonotactic rules determine which sounds are allowed or disallowed in each part of the syllable. English allows very complicated syllables; syllables may begin with up to three consonants (as in string or splash), and occasionally end with as many as four (as in prompts). Many other languages are much more restricted; Japanese, for example, only allows /n/ and a chroneme in a coda, and has no consonant clusters at all, as the onset is composed of at most one consonant.
There are languages that forbid empty onsets, such as Hebrew and Arabic (the names transliterated as "Israel", "Abraham", "Omar", "Ali" and "Abdullah", among many others, actually begin with semiconsonantic glides or with glottal or pharyngeal consonants). Phonotactics is the micro-level study of the structure of syllables that aims to explore how well-formed the syllables of a language are. A macro-level study of the syllables that aims to examine the constraints on the combinatory possibilities of syllables, their positions of occurrence and possible order in the word is called Syllabotactics.
Syllabification is the separation of a word into syllables, whether spoken or written. In most languages, the actually spoken syllables are the basis of syllabification in writing too. However, due to the very weak correspondence between sounds and letters in the spelling of modern English, for example, written syllabification in English has to be based mostly on etymological i.e. morphological instead of phonetic principles. English "written" syllables therefore do not correspond to the actually spoken syllables of the living language.
(Syllabification may also mean the process of a consonant becoming a syllable nucleus.)
Many English speakers have a strong feeling that a single consonant after a stressed short vowel belongs with the previous syllable, /'CVC.V/, as in competitive /kəm.ˈpɛt.ɨ.tɪv/ and better /ˈbɛt.ər/. This is at odds with the universal tendency for /CV.CV/ syllabification, and so the concept of ambisyllabicity was developed, with the idea that these consonants are shared between the preceding and following syllables. However, Wells (2002) argues that this is not a useful analysis, and that English syllabification is simply /'CVC.V/.
Syllables and stress
In each case the syllable is considered to have two moras.
Syllables and vowel tenseness
In most Germanic languages, lax vowels can only occur in closed syllables. Therefore, these vowels are also called checked vowels, as opposed to the tense vowels that are called free vowels because they can occur in open syllables.
The notion of syllable is challenged by languages that allow long strings of consonants without any intervening vowel or sonorant. Languages of the Northwest coast of North America, including Salishan and Wakashan languages, are famous for this. For instance, these Nuxalk (Bella Coola) words contain only obstruents:
In Bagemihl's survey of previous analyses, he finds that the word [ʦ’ktskʷʦ’] would have been parsed into 0, 2, 3, 5, or 6 syllables depending which analysis is used. One analysis would consider all vowel and consonants segments as syllable nuclei, another would consider only a small subset as nuclei candidates, and another would simply deny the existence of syllables completely.
This type of phenomenon has also been reported in Berber languages (such as Indlawn Tashlhiyt Berber) and Mon-Khmer languages (such as Semai, Temiar, Kammu). Even in English there are a few utterances that have no vowels; for example, shh (meaning "be quiet") and psst (a sound used to attract attention).
Indlawn Tashlhiyt Berber:
References and recommended reading
Published - November 2008
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