Poetic Fundamentals: Syllables
So far, we’ve looked at the basics of writing: grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and voice. Understanding these concepts is essential for any writer be you a novelist, biographer, historian, or poet. Today, however, we’re going to take our first plunge into the basics of poetry, and this is only the beginning! In the next few articles, we’ll take a look at concepts like syllables, rhyming and phonetics, and meter, and in doing so, I hope many of your questions will be answered, but moreover, I’m hoping you’re understanding of how to craft a poem will increase dramatically. Let’s start climbing that diving-board ladder, shall we?
What’s a Syllable?
Explaining syllables to someone who isn’t familiar with the concept can be tricky. After all, syllables usually have more to do with spoken language than written. It’s like defining the term inch without using the word itself in the definition. Not so simple, right? In poetry, syllable count can be very important, especially when you’re writing haikus, tankas, and other forms which require a specific number of syllables in each line. So to clear it up for you, in the English language, a syllable is a unit of speech sounds usually formed with a vowel sound and an optional consonant sound before or after it. Confused yet? Let’s break it down a little further.
English vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and occasionally y, and consonants are every other letter. Similar in necessity as verbs are to sentences, vowels are necessary to words, which means, that if a word has no vowel, it isn’t considered a complete word. Take the word harvest, for example. Harvest contains two vowels – a and e – each of which makes its own unique sound. So if the syllables of a word are usually counted by the number of vowel sounds in a word, how many syllables are in the word harvest? If you answered, “Two,” then you are correct! Har-vest is how the syllables can be broken up in writing to help define the two syllables present; notice how each vowel sound has consonant sounds both before and after them? Let’s look at a few other examples.
Dog – A pretty easy start, right? Dog has one vowel, one vowel sound, and only one syllable.
Jackson – Two vowels this time (a and o), two vowel sounds, so two syllables: Jack-son.
Always – Again, two vowels (both a’s), two vowel sounds, and also two syllables: Al-ways. In this example, though, we see how consonant sounds aren’t present in before/after every vowel sound.
The English language gets a little sneaky sometimes, though. For example, by the rules I’ve detailed above, how many syllables are present in the word voice? I see three vowels, but are each of them making their own sound? Many writers who don’t speak English as their first language get hung up here. Voice is a word with one syllable: it wouldn’t make any sense to break it up to vo-ice, right? This is why it’s important to recognize vowel sounds. Words like voice, sound, boat, and teal all employ a phonetic tool called a diphthong (pronounced “DIP-thong”) which is a special sound made by combining two vowel sounds into one. Some controversy exists as to exactly how many diphthong sounds exist in the English language, but regardless of which school of thought you buy into, there are between eight and twelve diphthong combinations, and recognizing them is important if you consider syllabic poetry a worthy pursuit.
Let’s look at one more example. Knowing what I’ve taught you about syllables and diphthongs, how many syllables are in the statement below?
Fred Flintstone finds feathers fascinating.
Fred Flint-stone finds fea-thers fa-scin-a-ting.
Was your answer ten, as well? Then very well done! If you didn’t come up with the same answer, remember: be patient. Syllables are much more complicated than they appear! My English teacher used to tell me to clap out the word: clapping with each “section” of the word we hear is sometimes easier than trying to write them out (sometimes it’s more fun, too). Also remember, that if you ever need help, I’m always happy to be of service.
Samuel Blake ǀ @herheart_oncraft
Her Heart Poetry’s ON CRAFT area will be evolving over the coming months. Samuel’s goal is to both educate and inspire readers and writers of all calibres. ON CRAFT articles will be published to teach about a different facet of creative writing.