Are you Sir-n?
Consonants that are their own syllables
The Definition of Syllable
The most simple definition of a syllable is that it contains just one vowel sound. You can’t count the vowel letters to get the number of syllables because English spelling is crazy. If you have trouble identifying syllables when you look at a word, remember to listen to the word. Pronounce the word slowly and tap your finger when you hear a “beat” like in music. Listen for vowel sounds. I still do this, I think I have to do it to count the number of syllables in a word!
“meanie” looks like it has four vowels, but how many vowels do you hear?
There are only two vowel sounds and even though the spelling is different, they are the same vowel sound /i/ as in “he.”
mea-nie = /'mini/
I couldn’t divide “meanie” as me-an-i-e because you don’t hear the “e” and “a” as two parts/sounds and don’t hear “i” and “e” as two parts/sounds. In this word, “ea” = /i/ and “ie” = /i/.
Consonants can be combined with vowels in a syllable, like the “m” grouped together with “mea” and the “n” grouped with the “nie” as mea-nie. It could also be grouped as mean-ie. It doesn’t matter which group/syllable the consonants go in because you can have more than one consonant in a syllable.
Learn the Rule
A vowel sound can be a syllable on its own, “idea” = i-de-a = /ɑ͜ɪ'diə/
Consonants can’t be syllables on their own. I could never divide “idea” into syllables as i-d-e-a. That would mean you’d pronounce each sound individually. We don’t speak in individual sounds, we speak in syllables.
Break the Rule
Consonants CAN create their own syllables. Consonants that create their own syllables are called “syllabics.”
The consonants /m, n, ŋ, l/ can be used as a syllable without a vowel when they follow a consonant made in the same position (the tongue is in the same place in the mouth) and they are in the unstressed syllable of the word.
The most common syllabics are made with the /n/, the syllabic-N.
When your tongue tip is placed on the alveolar ridge (behind your top teeth) for the final consonant sound /t/ or /d/, hold it in that position as you make the /n/ or /l/ after it. Don’t release the airflow by lowering your tongue for the /t/ or /d/ then put it back up to touch the alveolar ridge to make the /n/ or /l/. Once your tongue tip goes to the alveolar ridge for /t/ or /d/, hold it there, then make sound for the /n/ or /l/ so it has it’s own beat, it’s own syllable.
“certain” is divided into syllables as: cer-tain. It sounds like SIR-n: /'sɝn̩ /. The syllabic-N uses a special mark (diacritic) in the IPA representation of the sound, it’s a tiny straight line under the “n.” It got moved when I pasted /'sɝn̩ / but this is what it should look like:
Words that have /d/ as the final sound in the syllable before the syllabic N.
Words that have /t/ as the final sound in the syllable before the syllabic N.
A common question I’m asked is, “Have I been pronouncing these words wrong with the /t/ and /d/ sounds this whole time?” Nope. It’s not wrong pronunciation to pronounce all of the sounds. Pronouncing every /t/ and /d/ will sound “too correct” to American listeners and stand out as different but the words will always be understood.
You’ve been hearing the syllabic-N all around you all the time but may not have noticed. It’s a feature of pronunciation that makes the tongue move less and makes the movement between sounds more simple and easy. It may feel weird to you at first, but try it and pay attention to people’s reaction - there won’t be any reaction because they are used to hearing words this way and will just understand your meaning and continue with the conversation.
Thanks for reading Adastra Speech - Thinking About Speaking! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.