A syllable is a group of one or more sounds. The essential part of a syllable is a vowel sound (V) which may be preceded and/or followed by a consonant (C – the capital ‘C’ represents a single consonant) or a cluster of consonants (CC or CCC). Some syllables consist of just one vowel sound (V) as in “I” and “eye” [ɑi], and owe” [o], some have diphthongs at the core “wait” [weɪt].

In English, the possibilities include a vowel preceded by one consonant (CV) as in “bee” [bi], by two consonants (CCV) as in “spy” [spɑɪ], or by three consonants (CCCV) as in “spry” [sprai]. The vowel of the syllable may also be followed by one consonant (VC) as in “at” [æt], by two consonants (VCC) as in “its” [ɪts], by three consonants (CVCCC) as in “text” [tɛkst], or by four consonants (CVCCCC) as in “texts” [tɛksts].

Developing good intuition about syllables is essential for mastering English.  How they are stressed can change the meaning of a word or sentence, the vowel core of a syllable can change to a different sound when it is unstressed than when it is stressed.

While some languages, like Japanese, have a small number of syllables. Analysis of English shows has over 18,000 different syllables. It is not possible to memorize them, but there are rules about how the sounds can combine. 

Syllable Structure

Every language has syllables and with a few exceptions, they have either a vowel or a sonorant (syllabic consonant) at the core, as was mentioned above.  Different languages can have different rules for the exact structure of a syllable, but I am going to focus on English, though, as throughout this book, I am going to bring in examples from other languages to illustrate points.

I am going to refer to three fundamental parts of a syllable, the onset, nucleus, and coda.

The onset is the start of the syllable leading up to the most pronounced part of the vowel sound. In English, the onset can be up to three consonants, or it can be null (not there).  The coda is the part after the vowel sound and it can be up to four consonants, or null (not there).  If there are one or more consonants in the coda, then it is called a closed syllable; if there are no consonants, then it is called an open syllable.

So, “cat” /kɑt/ is an closed syllable, and “key” /ki:/ is open.

Taken together, the vowel sound and the coda are called the rhyme (or rime).  That’s because it is the part of the syllable used for rhyming, It allows “bat” and “at” to rhyme in the following fragment from a poem by the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

Twinkle twinkle little bAT

How I wonder what you’re AT

The syllable has the qualities of stress, tone, and accent.  In English, stressing different syllables in a word can change the meaning of a word.  English uses tone, but not on a syllable level, on a sentence or word level. The practical consequence of it that syllables do vary their tone.

In Mandarin Chinese, a variation of the tone can change the meaning of the word. Tones can be neutral, low and rising, high and falling, high, and a falling and then rising tone.  Cantonese and Thai have even more tones than Mandarin Chinese, and there is a Mixteco variant that has 16 tones.