Dr. Johanna Rubba
English Department (Linguistics)
Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
Last updated 9/28/00
Copyright © 2000 Johanna Rubba

Syllable Structure in English

Contents of this page:
Syllables and their parts - Liquids and nasals as syllable nuclei - Summary of the elements of a phonological system


Syllables and their parts

Words can be cut up into units called syllables. Humans seem to need syllables as a way of segmenting the stream of speech and giving it a rhythm of strong and weak beats, as we hear in music. Syllables don't serve any meaning-signalling function in language; they exist only to make speech easier for the brain to process. A word contains at least one syllable.

Most speakers of English have no trouble dividing a word up into its component syllables. Sometimes how a particular word is divided might vary from one individual to another, but a division is always easy and always possible. Here are some words divided into their component syllables (a period is used to mark the end of a syllable):

tomato = to.ma.to
window = win.dow
supercalifragilisticexpialidocious:  su.per.ca.li.fra.gi.lis.ti.cex.pi.a.li.do.cious (some people might put some of the periods in different places in this word).

Syllables have internal structure: they can be divided into parts. The parts are onset and rhyme; within the rhyme we find the nucleus and coda. Not all syllables have all parts; the smallest possible syllable contains a nucleus only. A syllable may or may not have an onset and a coda.

Onset: the beginning sounds of the syllable; the ones preceding the nucleus. These are always consonants in English. The nucleus is  a vowel in most cases, although the consonants [ r ], [ l ], [ m ], [ n ], and the velar nasal (the 'ng' sound) can also be the nucleus of a syllable. In the following words, the onset is in bold; the rest underlined.

read
flop
strap

If a word contains more than one syllable, each syllable will have the usual syllable parts:

win.dow
to.ma.to
pre.pos.te.rous
fun.da.men.tal

Rhyme (or rime): the rest of the syllable, after the onset (the underlined portions of the words above). The rhyme can also be divided up:

Rhyme = nucleus + coda

The nucleus, as the term suggests, is the core or essential part of a syllable. A nucleus must be present in order for a syllable to be present. Syllable nuclei are most often highly 'sonorant' or resonant sounds, that can be relatively loud and carry a clear pitch level. In English and most other languages, most syllable nuclei are vowels. In English, in certain cases, the liquids [ l r ] and nasals [ m n ] and the velar nasal usually spelled 'ng' can also be syllable nuclei.
 

The syllable structure analysis of the words 'read', 'flop',  'strap' and 'window' are as follows (IPA symbols are used to show the sounds in the word/syllable):

read = one syllable
Onset = [ r ]
Rhyme = [ id ]      (within the rhyme:)
     Nucleus = [ i ]
     Coda   = [ d ]

flop = one syllable
Onset = [ f l ]
Rhyme  = [ a p ]
    Nucleus  =  [ a ]
    Coda  =  [ p ]

window = 2 syllables

First syllable:  [wIn]
Onset  = [ w ]
Rhyme  = [ I n ]
    Nucleus = [ I ]
    Coda  = [ n ]

Second syllable: [ d o ]
Onset = [ d ]
Rhyme = [ o ]
    Nucleus = [ o ]
(This syllable has no coda)

Linguists often use tree diagrams to illustrate syllable structure. 'Flop', for example, would look like this (the word appears in IPA symbols, not English spelling). 's' = 'syllable'; 'O' = 'onset'; 'R' = 'rhyme'; 'N' = 'nucleus'; 'C' = 'coda'.  (The tree may not come out well-aligned on your screen, because your computer may show this page in a different font). The syllable node at the top of the tree branches into Onset and Rhyme; the Onset node branches because it contains two consonants, [ f ] and [ l ]. The Rhyme node branches because this syllable has both a nucleus and a coda.

           s
        /     \
      O     R
      / \    /  \
     |   |   N C
     |   |    |    |
  [ f   l    a  p ]


Liquids and nasals as syllable nuclei

The English liquids [ r  l ] and the nasals [ m  n ] can be the nuclei of syllables under certain conditions. [ r ] can be a nucleus as easily as a vowel, in any position: the words 'bird', 'word', 'her', 'fur', the first syllable of 'perceive' and 'surname' and the final syllables of 'mother', 'actor' (in casual pronunciation) all have [ r ] as the nucleus; in other words, there is no vowel in the pronunciation of these syllables, even though they have one in the spelling.

[ l ] and the nasals [ m n ] become syllable nuclei when they follow an alveolar consonant in the last syllable of a word. This happens in the relaxed or casual rather than very formal articulation of the word. Compare casual vs. formal pronunciations of 'button', 'bottle', 'bottom'.

When one of these sounds is a syllable nucleus, this is shown in transcription by putting a very short vertical line under the IPA symbol
[ r  l  m  n ].
  '   '   '    '

(If the vertical lines don't line up under the symbols on your screen, it is due to webpage transfer complications.)

A word with a syllabic [ r ] as nucleus is 'bird':

 


Summary of the elements of a phonological system

The phonological system of a language includes various units plus patterns which are used to combine theunits into larger units. The units of a phonological system are:

The patterns or rule systems of a phonological system include: