I'm totally confused about syllables in English

Paul M   Tuesday, April 27, 2004, 07:14 GMT
Hi all

Ok, today's question is.. do you (as a native English speaker) make distinction between syllables when you speak a word? You know.. like.. first syllable, then second one and so on.
How do you know where one syllable starts and ends?

What I mean by that is...
do you make conscious, unconscious, physical or psychological effort to give a distinction between syllables in a word when you speak them?
If so, that means you know how many syllables there are in a word and you know what they are, right?
Then how did you manage to make such syllabic divisions in a word when the English alphabetical spelling doesn't tell you how to do that.

For example, when you say the two syllable word 'playing' /pleI.Ing/ ,
Do you first say, /pleI/ then /Ing/ so it's aurally different from one syllable word /pleIng/ (I know the word doesn't exist in English..)?

*please note that I used a dot (.) to indicate syllabic division


For the word 'better'
should /bet. er/ sound different from /be. ter/ (if the accent difference is disregarded)?

If they sound different, is it because you gave a small pause or glottal stop between the two syllables? If not how did you differenciate the two examples above?

Ok, here is a background of why I'm asking such questions..

I always believed that syllables are the order of consisting sounds when a word is spoken because I do consciously speak by syllables when I speak my native language (Korean) which incidentally spelled in syllables.

There is only one letter for one syllable where one letter can be consisted of multiple phonemic symbols.

So there is no chance of confusing where the inter-vocalic consonent should go (to the left syllable or to the right) as I do in English.. and I can't even begin to fathom how on earth can one syllable have upto 9 or 10 letters in it as they do in English. (ie. scrunched)

The word scrunched would sound like it has 5 syllables for a Korean because, in Korean, you can't have a consonent only sound (like 's' in scrunched).In other words, we actually have a vowel for every syllable we pronounce, and yes even the "s" only sound. So a Korean would pronounce the word "scrunched" as below

/s. k. run. ch. d/

5 syllables, not one..
Hence...I'm stumped because I can't figure out where the syllables start and ends in English and whether I should give any kind of indication (ie: a small pause maybe?) in between 2 syllables due to the problem I described above.

Sure I can check it with my dictionary, but am I not supposed to "know" it naturally? Sometime, I get confused how many syllables there are in one word.

In Korean, if one syllable consists of one onset, one nucleus and one coda (not obligatory), it's represented as one letter consisting 3 phonemes with onset on top, the nucleus in the middle and the coda at the bottom (not always though).

For example, the word cook would be represented as

(in English)


(in Korean)

and that's one syllabic letter with 3 phonemic symbols in it.

And also there is physical and psychological stop (almost like glottal stop) between the syllables when you say them, so I must say Korean is very syllable oriented language..and sort of syllable timed when you are reading also.

I'm sorry if I'm not explaining it right, I tried my best to be as specific as possible.

Can someone please help me.... T_t
Jim   Tuesday, April 27, 2004, 07:44 GMT
I'd love to help but it's not such an easy question to answer even for us. I think for most of use it's just an unconsious thing. We just know where to start and where to end a syllable.

But this bit of info might be of use. I once read that you can have clusters of consonants at the begining or at the end of a syllable. The final clusters can be up to four long whereas the maximum for an intitial one is three. Also all of the tripple-consonant initial clusters start with [st], [sp] or [sk].

Hey, could you explain exactly where the Korean vowels fit into the IPA chart? Specifically: what's the difference between the one that looks like an upside-down "T" and the one that looks like a "T" rotated 90 degrees anticlockwise?

Jim   Tuesday, April 27, 2004, 07:46 GMT
Also perhaps [-] would be a better syllable break because Antimoon's alphabet already uses [.] for something else.
Paul M   Tuesday, April 27, 2004, 08:16 GMT
Thanks Jim

Well I'll try to explain but I'm not sure I'm the right person for that :)
Ok.. upside-down "T".
It's somewhere in between o as in "hot" and o: as in "call". So it's safe to say it sounds very much like o as in "call" but only shorter because we don't really have long vowels.

"T" rotated 90 degrees anticlockwise
ok.. anticlockwise, right?
That sounds very similar to /a:/ as in "bar" but in short vowel version.
So I suppose you can say it sounds like /a/ as in five but without the /I/ element of the diphthong.

Hope that helps :)
Jacob   Wednesday, April 28, 2004, 02:11 GMT
Most of us, I think ARE consciously aware of, and 'counting' syllables as we speak (I even hear a mental voice when I'm reading, and I'm sensitive to syllables). It's how we know if poetry feels right or wrong -- are there enough syllables and stresses.

What we're counting, though, is vowel sounds, which is [mostly] unambiguous. (We're helped a lot by the characteristic stressed/unstressed alternation).

There's a little ambiguity, however, about which syllable a consonant belongs too; that's a matter of spelling and orthography and NOT anything you'd ever have to worry about unless you're in the business of typesetting and need to know where to put the hyphens.

For instance, we all agree that 'catastrophe' has four syllable corresponding to the four vowel sounds.

Whether those should be broken orthographically as
or cat-a-stro-phe
or cat-as-troph-e
is probably spelled out in a rule book somewhere, but it's not generally useful to know.
Jim   Wednesday, April 28, 2004, 02:44 GMT
Yeah, my mistake, not anticlockwise but clockwise. The anticlockwise one isn't too hard to tell from the upsidedown one but it's the clockwise one that's confusing me. Is it similar to /o/?
Jim   Wednesday, April 28, 2004, 04:11 GMT
And how about the one that looks like "H" is it anything like /@/, is it more of an /e/ or is it somewhere in between?

I'd agree with Jacob that counting syllables usually doesn't present such a problem but it's the deciding where one ends and the next begins that is a bit hazy.

For example, "extra" is pronounced [ekstr..] so is it [e-kstr..], [ek-str..], [eks-tr..], [ekst-r..] or [ekstr-..]? Well, you never have four consonants in an initial cluster so it can't be [e-kstr..] nor do you have [r] in a final cluster unless it's right after the vowel so it can't be [ekstr-..] either. But we're still left with three possiblities: [ek-str..], [eks-tr..] and [ekst-r..].

Which one is it? They're all valid as the following cluster example show.

"peck" = [pek]
"strap" = [str@p]
"sex" = [seks]
"trap" = [tr@p]
"next" = [nekst]
"rap" = [r@p]

The dictionary says [ek-str..] but can't we do better that that?

Jill   Wednesday, April 28, 2004, 04:46 GMT
It's crazy to see these people making a language.

I don't see "w" making "v" sound.
Jim   Wednesday, April 28, 2004, 08:15 GMT
Other Jim,

Are you having fun pretending to be me?


Generally, count the vowels (long, short and dipthong) to give the number of syllables because at the centre of each syllable is a vowel. This gets tricky because you have to count the "le", "al", "en", etc. in "little", "metal", "often", etc. as vowels where phonetically they're consonants.

"playing" = [plei-iN] ... two syllables
"better" = [bet-..(r)] according to

I'll try to figure things out a bit better over the next seven days but in the maen time there's some idiot faking me so please ignore anything written in my name before Thursday next week.
Paul M   Thursday, April 29, 2004, 01:22 GMT
umm.. so.. who's the real Jim and who's the fake one.. -_- I can't figure out..
anyways.. thanks Jim ^_^

umm if.. you meant "T" rotated 90 degrees clockwise,
then..it sounds like ^ as in cut /c^t/ but not quiet the same. It's also close to o as in hot /hot/. You could say we don't use the /o/ sound, hence it's hard for us to pin point the sound..

In speech, I don't differenciate two sounds /@/ or /e/ when I speak Korean and just say something in between even though we have possibly corresponding 2 symbols ( /H/ and /-||/) for writing.

The thing is.. it's safe to say that /H/ in Korean can cover both /e/ and /@/ and its exact sound is somewhere in between.. and I dare say it's safe to say /e/ for every occasion to avoid confusion..

As you well know, at the end of day no Korean sound would perfectly match English sound in terms of their scope unfortunetly.
In other words, 2 or 3 English sounds can sound all the same to a Korean and vice versa..
Chilli   Thursday, April 29, 2004, 10:56 GMT
I don't count them consciously. If I read something that should be rhythmic and it isn't, I notice it in the same way that when you're singing a song and the words don't fit properly - it's not like you counted in your head (one-and-two-and-three-and-wait-a-minute-this-isn't-right) but it stands out instantly.