What Is a Syllable?

First published in World Haiku Review 3:2, December 2003 (online). Originally written in September of 1994. It seems relevant to mention that I studied linguistics and some speech pathology in college, and my Masters thesis focused on linguistics.       +       +


The following poems have appeared in one of the two North American publications that promote the 5-7-5 syllable structure for haiku in English:


tired old work horse

     stands thirsty and sweating in

          summer’s sizzling heat


              A splash of orange

Tints surrounding clouds and hills

           Air charged with dust


Take a moment to count the syllables of both poems. Considering just the number of syllables, at first glance these may seem to be traditional 5-7-5 haiku. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that the two verses appeared in David Priebe’s Haiku Headlines, which consistently offers a higher percentage of
5-7-5 poems than even Geppo, the publication of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society that is fundamentally dedicated to the seventeen-syllable haiku form in English. (“Teikei” literally means having a fixed form, and “yuki teikei” means “having a season word and traditional syllable count.”)

        But the truth is, these two poems are not 5-7-5, falling short by one syllable each—due, it would seem, to miscounted words. It is likely that their authors intended these poems as 5-7-5 (indicated in the first poem, for example, by the unnatural use of the preposition “in” at the end of the second line), but because they fall short, the apparent incorrect counting of syllables points up a misunderstanding of what a syllable is.

        The majority of literary haiku published in English today are not 5-7-5 (even in Geppo). In the second edition of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology (Touchstone, 1986), 88.2 percent of the poems are not 5-7-5. And in Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment (Tuttle, 1993), an even greater 96.5 percent of the poems are not 5-7-5. A similar dominance of non-5-7-5 poems prevails in most of the leading English-language haiku journals. Which is all to say that, among published literary haiku today (and in recent decades), 5-7-5 haiku are vastly in the minority. But if the counting of syllables is important to conscientious “traditional” haiku poets, those poets should have a clear understanding of basic phonetics, and know how to identify syllables and count them correctly.

        Most English words are not a problem—they both look and sound like a specific number of syllables. The problem words in the preceding poems are “tired” and “charged.” They had to have been counted (incorrectly) as two syllables for the poems to scan as 5-7-5 (which was probably each poet’s intent). These words may look like two syllables, but a syllable is not defined by appearance or spelling—and this misconception needs correction. Rather, a syllable is properly understood as a unit of sound. This notion is easily confirmed without wading into linguistics textbooks, although, for those interested, such books are worth a look. But a book as handy as Webster’s New World Dictionary (second college edition) defines a syllable as “a word or part of a word pronounced with a single, uninterrupted sounding of the voice.” It is further defined as a “unit of pronunciation, consisting of a single sound of great sonority (usually a vowel) and generally one or more sounds of lesser sonority (usually consonants).” A key part of this definition is “uninterrupted.” Without exploring the sciences of linguistics or phonetics too deeply [although you can get a taste at the Wikipedia article on syllables, and at LinguaLinks], suffice it to say that consonants (spoken, not written) essentially interrupt the pronunciation of vowels. Vowels are a class of speech sounds generated by air passing continuously through the pharynx and open mouth without audible friction. Consonants, on the other hand, are mostly created in the mouth by blocking and releasing or directing air flow (voiced or unvoiced) by a variety of fricative or glottal means, and to varying degrees. With a correct understanding of the sounds that occur in words such as “charged,” the correct counting of syllables is more easily achieved.

        For written words, Webster’s New World Dictionary defines a syllable as “any of the parts into which a written word is divided in approximate representation of its spoken syllables” (emphasis added). Similarly, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary identifies a syllable as “a unit of spoken language that is next bigger than a speech sound and consists of one or more vowel sounds alone or of a syllabic consonant alone or of either with one or more consonant sounds preceding or following.” Again, the emphasis is on sound. To properly count syllables for poems intended to fit a specific external form (such as 5-7-5 for so-called “traditional” haiku), the poet must count the syllables as they are spoken. To do otherwise is to misunderstand syllables and is a sign of poetic amateurism. If the reader expects the 5-7-5 form, such a miscounting of syllables on the poet’s part can create confusion or distrust, and decreases the poet’s credibility among educated or well-read readers. Nearly every issue of Haiku Headlines and Geppo contains poems that look like they were intended to be 5-7-5, yet are not because of miscounted syllables, so the problem persists. Fortunately, this misunderstanding is easily corrected.

        A recent example of this problem happened at a Saturday-night renku party at the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society’s annual haiku retreat at Asilomar conference center near Monterey, California. I was asked to write (in seventeen syllables) the starting verse for a half-renku (omote awase) that the group wrote. My hokku, inspired by raccoons outside our meeting room:


new log on the fire—

the window streaked with paw prints

from staring raccoons


One poet (a native English speaker, no less) thought that my poem had too many syllables, believing that “streaked” amounted to two. But when syllables are understood as a spoken unit of measure, “streaked” is properly counted as just one syllable. A similar word that may be miscounted is “stacked.” As with “streaked,” it looks like two syllables. But the sound is not “stack-ked,” but “stact.” The spelling of a word is distinct from the sound of the word (or homonyms wouldn’t exist). These separate matters should not be confused when one is counting syllables for poetry. And indeed, the problem extends beyond haiku to any metrical poetry calling for a specific syllable count. Understanding the nature of syllables and scansion is fundamental to writing any kind of formal poetry. Professional poets do not make these errors.

        Other problem words for some haiku poets—in addition to many words ending in -ed—include “fire” (sometimes thought of as two syllables, pronounced in some places as “figh-yer”—although such a pronunciation is nonstandard), “evening” (which may be thought of as “e-ven-ing” when it is really “eve-ning”—when one means the time of day), and “every” (sometimes thought of as “eh-va-ry” when the standard English pronunciation is “ev-ry”).

        These problem words suggest another factor that confuses the counting of syllables: regional dialect. Certain words may indeed be pronounced with more or fewer syllables in certain parts of the English-speaking world. So if the number of syllables in a haiku is important, how is a poet to handle words that may be said in two or more ways? One alternative might be to honor the regional pronunciation in a deliberately regional poem. But to seek the greatest universality (one of haiku’s hallmarks), a better alternative might be to consult a reliable collegiate-level dictionary such as the two already cited. Every respectable dictionary not only lists the words, but also divides them into distinct syllables, either separated by a raised dot or indicated by accent marks. These divisions also show where words may be hyphenated at the end of a line of text. If in doubt about the number of syllables in a word, it’s easy to look it up. These divisions are based on comprehensive phonetic studies and common practice, and reliable dictionaries usually include an introductory or concluding essay on phonetics and the division of syllables that can give readers more information. The correct counting of syllables is easily done, and is in fact essential for the conscientious development of “traditional” English-language haiku written in the 5-7-5 pattern.

        For an overview of the function and variety of phonics in English-language haiku, a good source of information is Michael Seger’s essay, “Sound in Haiku,” in A Haiku Path, the 1994 retrospective book about the Haiku Society of America. For a broader approach to the many aspects of poetry for the casual reader, college textbooks such as Laurence Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense make for worthwhile reading. This textbook has been through many editions—and the latest edition may have a different title—but my edition (the fourth) has an excellent chapter on “Rhythm and Meter.” Anyone interested in formal poetry should learn the basics of scansion (necessary for writing haiku in a strict 5-7-5 pattern), and this book is a good place to start, offering many accessible longer poems for study. More technical books are also available on phonetics and linguistics.

        My point here is not to promote the “traditional” 5-7-5 form. Instead, by showing the difficulty some people have in understanding what a syllable is, my intent is to highlight one of the reasons why aiming for a strict 5-7-5-syllable form is problematic and inappropriate for English-language haiku. Other reasons include language and punctuation differences between Japanese and English, and the fact that the “thought content” in seventeen English syllables is typically greater than in seventeen Japanese sound symbols. These and other reasons have been written about at greater length commonly enough that only those who are new to haiku are likely to be surprised by this assertion. Keiko Imaoka’s influential essay, “Forms in English Haiku,” first published in Woodnotes #29 (Summer 1996), cogently presents differences between English and Japanese syllabics and word order requirements, showing how the 5-7-5 pattern fits Japanese well enough, but fits very poorly for haiku in English.

        My personal preference is to write haiku using organic form—writing as organically as possible, seeking out the ideal internal form of expression in words that best fits the individual moment of experience and insight. In effect, this can mean “reinventing” the form for every poem you write. This can sometimes mean letting the form happen on its own, like letting water find its natural flow, but the form that results is not merely accidental. A more conscientious and disciplined poet makes active choices affecting the content and effect of the poem, and that’s how the form changes to whatever it needs to be. You simply allow the content—what needs to be said to capture the image-moment in the haiku—shape your wording, syntax, and line breaks. Or, as the architect Louis Sullivan famously said, “form follows function.” This dictum guided the organic architecture of Sullivan’s student, Frank Lloyd Wright. (Denise Levertov has written at some length about organic form in poetry, and her essays build on the concepts of “inscape” and “instress” developed by Gerard Manley Hopkins.) Listening to what needs to be said, and applying other haiku strategies, such as seasonal reference, objectivity, and creating the two-part juxtapostional structure takes more discipline than merely counting syllables.

       I present these remarks here not in favor of the 5-7-5 pattern, but as a call to greater conscientiousness, understanding, and professionalism among “traditional” haiku poets who choose to count their syllables to fit a prescribed syllable count. I suspect that the problem applies to languages other than English, too. Misunderstanding what a syllable is suggests an amateurism that mainstream and academic poets and critics seem correct in holding against English-language haiku. If poets writing to 5-7-5 syllables can at least avoid the amateurism of miscounting syllables, then perhaps haiku will gain greater respect as poetry and literature.

Comments or questions? Please contact Michael Dylan Welch.