Syllable (definition)

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A syllable is a unit of speech composed of at least a vowel. This vowel may or not be surrounded by one or more consonants. The vowel is referred to as the nucleus of the syllable; the consonantal material preceding the nucleus is known as the onset while the consonantal material following the nucleus is known as the coda. In addition, the nucleus and the coda together form the rhyme. Hence for instance, in the monosyllabic word cat [kæt], the vowel [æ] is the nucleus of the syllable, [k] is the onset, [t] is the coda and [æt] is the rhyme. A syllable without a coda is understood to be an open syllable, while closed syllables have codas.

Syllables can be stressed or unstressed depending on their location in a word and the patterns of a language. More often than not, unstressed syllables manifest reduced or centralized vowels like schwa ([ə]); such reduction can result in the neutralization of vowel contrasts made obvious in stressed positions. See the page on stress for more detail.

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  • Crystal, D. (2008) Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. 6th Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Matthews, P. H. (1997) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.