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A syllable is a unit of sound, or more specifically speech, which is composed of a central peak of sonority -usually a vowel - and a cluster of consonants around this central peak.

Syllables do not appear to serve any meaning or signaling function within language; they exist only to simplify speech processing within the brain. In a way, syllables equate the flow of speech with music; imbuing t with a rhythm of strong and weak beats.

A word would contain at least one syllable, for example "an" would be a syllable, but "anterior" would contain 4 syllables: an/te/ri/or (the "/" is used to signify the various syllables).

Syllable Structure

Syllables possess an internal structure and can be subdivided into parts. These parts are the onset and rhyme. The rhyme itself can be subdivided into the nucleus and coda. However, not all syllables contain all parts. The smallest possible syllable would contain only a nucleus. In addition, a syllable may or may not have an onset and a coda.

  • The Onset: the beginning sounds of the syllable, or the sounds that precede 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 nasal ng sound can also form the nucleus of a syllable.

In the following words, the onset is in bold; the rest plain text.


Should a word contain more than one syllable, then each syllable will possess the syllable parts:


  • Rhyme (or rime): the rest of the syllable after the onset. The rhyme can also be subdivided into the nucleus and the coda.

The nucleus 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, however, in certain cases, the liquid l and r, as well as the nasal m and n and ng can also form syllable nuclei.

if you were to analyse the English word "limit", you would find the following:

  • 2 Syllabels - li and mit
  • For "li", l is the Onset and i the Rhyme and Nucleus
  • For "mit", m is the Onset and it the Rhyme. Within the Rhyme, i is the Nucleus and t, the Coda.

Kinds of Syllables

  • Heavy - Syllables with a branching rhyme. All syllables that possess a branching nucleus, or long vowels are considered to be heavy.
  • Light - Has a non-branching rhyme, or short vowel.
  • Closed - Ends with a consonant coda.
  • Open - Has no final consonant.