Last week’s column on mastering pronunciation has prompted Mr Lawrence, a regular reader and critic of this column, to raise this query, “…I wonder how far the general reader will be able to understand the terms ‘syllable’ and ‘stress’. I would suggest that the column continue with the same topic dealing with oft-mispronounced words...” Another reader who is an English teacher in Chennai has asked, “Why is it difficult for adult learners to master English pronunciation?”
JD O’Connor’s book Better English Pronunciation addresses the second query. O’Connor states, “It is well known that a child of ten years old or less can learn any language perfectly, if it is brought up surrounded by that language, no matter where it was born or who its parents were”. He also raises the question, “Why can’t grown-up people pick up the characteristic sound of a foreign language as a child can?” and says that “the answer to this is that our native language won’t let us”. The impact of mother tongue or one’s first language on non-native speakers of English is so strong that old habits of mispronouncing words are very difficult to break. What is important is to speak intelligibly and communicate effectively.
What is a syllable? A syllable is a unit of spoken language consisting of an unbroken or uninterrupted sound. It may have one or more letters. For example, the word ‘school’ is a six-letter word but it is monosyllabic. A syllable is made up of a single vowel sound (as in the pronunciation of oh) or a combination of vowel and consonant(s) as in go, low, how, now, and not. Learners should know the difference between a vowel and a vowel sound.
In the English language, there are five vowel letters: a, e, i, o, and u but there are twenty vowel sounds: 12 pure vowel sounds and 8 diphthongs. A vowel letter can represent different vowel sounds. For example, the vowel letter ‘a’ in the words ‘man’ and ‘make’ have different vowel sounds. A word containing just a single syllable is called a monosyllabic word. Here are examples of monosyllabic words:
2 letter words: so, do, be, no
3 letter words: buy, die, shy, lie, ray, day, may, see, say, egg
4 letter words: date, late, gate, they, know, door, pole, path
5 letter words: steel, sweep, wrong, snake, month, knees
6 letter words: cheeks, school, tongue, rhythm
A word containing two syllables is called a disyllabic word. Here are examples of disyllabic words:
5 letter words: Wo-men, is-sue, wa-ter, Pa-ris, co-bra
6 letter words: wis-dom, Lon-don, in-sist, ef-fect, po-lice
7 letter words: char-mer, con-flict, re-joice, pa-tient, mea-sure
8 letter words: prob-lems, bree-ding, mar-riage, gui-dance
9 letter words: judge-ment, them-selves, moun-tains
A word containing more than three syllables is called a polysyllabic word. Here are examples:
ca-te-go-ry (4 syllables)
po-ly-syl-la-bic (5 syllables)
in-de-fa-ti-ga-ble (6 syllables)
au-to-bi-o-gra-phi-cal (7 syllables)
Next week, we shall discuss about the word ‘stress’.