Song of Syllables

Understanding syllables might actually come in handy when you’re forced to study STUFF LIKE THIS.

I’m a language person for one reason and one reason alone, and that is because I am not a math person. It has taken nearly twenty-six years for me to accept this fact, but I finally feel like I have buried that horse in the ground.

I’m not dumb or incompetent. I just can’t do math.

I understand the argument from our mathematician friends that math is simply an alternate form of language, one represented with a particular system of symbols that happens to be numbers instead of letters like spoken and written language, but if this is indeed the case and the “math is not real” argument that I attempted to philosophically argue to my parents when failing geometry in 11th grade doesn’t really hold up, then this is a language I have learned to abandon except when needing to calculate tips in restaurants and in the nail salon.

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KON suh nuns…

I can make the same argument about music, a science I always tied to math, particularly after being placed in a grueling music theory class in my younger years. I love music as much as the next guy, but I was not gifted with such musical talent. I could play the piano when I was young with some decency, but I could not and cannot identify musical notes and associate them with their assigned letter. Fortunately, this skill-lacking hasn’t hurt me too badly. I can still stop and sing R. Kelly’s Ignition Remix at the drop of a hat, and I don’t think I’m making anyone’s ears bleed by doing so.

Similarly, I’m dreadful at keeping a steady beat, and I don’t know if this is due to my lack of musical ability or my neuroticism, but either way, I’d make a terrible drummer. I overthink the song and when the beat is supposed to arrive so much so that I miss my cue. I get anxiety about missing the beat so much that I miss it 100% of the time. Interestingly enough, this problem of not hearing/recognizing beats becomes problematic for me in the realm of language.

I don’t believe I was ever formerly taught what a syllable is or how it is supposed to sound or its proper function. The subject came up several times in my linguistic classes in college, as well as several poetry classes and studying for my teacher exams. But I could never comprehend what a syllable is and how it is counted. I understand that it has something to do with how many “beats” are in a word, but how does one actually define a syllable, why is it it important to me, and why should I care?

Assonance-another fun thing that requires you to understand syllables.

Well, according to a 2014 article published in The Guardian by Josephine Livingston, entitled “Do syllables exist?”,  I might not have missed the syllable boat after all because there might not even be a syllable boat (no one wants to be on that boat). As Livingston explains, within the genius minds of the linguistic/phonological/scientific communities where such matters hold their weight in gold, almost no one can define what a syllable actually is.

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Counting syllables: a requirement of nearly all my Shakespeare classes.

One of the main problems I encountered when trying to comprehend a syllable is the constant questioning of how to pronounce a word in order to achieve the correct number of syllables. My name was easy enough: Co/Co- two beats, two syllables. But what about words like “pecan”, a word infamous in my part of the world for being pronounced “peekin.” Even when I began to encounter this at a young age, I was stumped by the inconsistencies in the English language. I’m counting the beats in the word, but you’re getting a different number. According to Livingstone, it becomes a confusing mess.

Are words containing what linguists call high front vowels followed by /l/ (eg: meal, seal, real) two syllables or one? What about words with/r/, like hire, fire, hour? In words containing unstressed high vowels (where your tongue sits near the roof of your mouth) followed by another vowel without an intervening consonant, eg; mediate, heavier, neolithic, do the vowels form a dipthong (two vowels gliding together) made of one syllable or two?

The variation in syllable-counting between people isn’t always randomly dispersed: people pay attention to different things when they analyse words… If pressed to explain how exactly they would define the syllable, most people talk about pulses, or beats, in speech. This means that the syllable is an element of how we pronounce words, rather than the underlying structure of words themselves… So, phonetics needs to explain why we are able to agree most of the time on syllable-counts, but also to account for our disagreements….

-Josephine Livingstone, “Do syllables exist?”

So if the syllable itself is just one element of the pronunciation of a word and people pronounce words at irregular beats and irregular volumes most of the time, maybe I was right to be confused all along. I was aware of the differences in beats, the differences in sounds, the differences in counts. I understood that the pronunciation could be potentially altered, splintering what I thought was the correct amount of beats into a million tiny, sharp, wooden spikes of doubt. What I just didn’t know was that maybe this was an acceptable response to this issue the whole time.

Maybe I’m not so bad at math after all.

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To read Josephine Livingstone’s article  in The Guardian, click here: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jun/25/english-do-syllables-exist-linguists

 

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2 thoughts on “Song of Syllables

  1. You are in good company with Saussure, as well, whose concept “arbitrariness of the sign” entails the cognitive imposition of silences or breaks within what are actually, from a material perspective, unbroken columns air. This is why the syllables of a foreign language only gradually emerge as phonemic awareness develops; at first, all we hear is pure flow.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for explaining this through the filter of Saussure. I think I was all too aware of the breaks in the columns of air from a young age, and my early English grades suffered as a result of this inability to count the silences. But it’s relieving to understand the science behind it (or the lack thereof, depending on the critic). I should have just argued then I was Saussurean.

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