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Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 4 Share This Page
Syllables
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In this article we move on to syllables. The concept of syllables becomes especially important while writing metered poetry. A meter of a poetry is the number of lines in each line of the poem. All the lines of a metered poetry generally have the same meter.

We speak little chunks of sound called syllables. In my column 'Poetry Tool-kit' I gave a very technical definition of syllables and left it at that, but judging from the crux of the mails I got I realized that though many people understood what a syllable meant they ran into difficulties while breaking a word into syllables. So this column mainly deals with syllables, their use, recognition, significance and forms or types.

A syllable is a sound. Generally a sound ends with a vowel. Consider 'ta', 'ru', 'di', 'po', 'fe'. The only exception to this is the letter 'y', which also acts similar to a vowel when forming a sound. 'dy' is still a single sound. For the purpose of this column, whenever I say vowel, I include 'y' as one of the acting vowels for the purposes of this column. 

There are two methods I like, of breaking a word into syllables. Here, I am going to discuss both of them in some detail. Before venturing in writing form poetry, it becomes extremely important to understand syllables completely, so I hope you will pay extra attention to this week's column. If you any doubts, don't hesitate to mail them to me or post them on the forum. 

Now pick any word. Pick a long word, so that we have a few syllables to play around with. Lets say IndiaNest. 

Method 1
Say the word aloud and break it into individual sounds in the way you say it. This is an intuitive way of doing it and everyone may not get it at first try. Carefully and slowly say it out aloud. Halt at end sound and write it down if you want or count them on your fingers if you prefer. Here is how I say it.

In | dia | nest 

Which makes it a three syllable word.

Method2
This method takes a little more time, but it is much easier once you get the hang of it.
Here I would like to introduce the concept of vowel islands. A vowel island is a string of alphabets ending with a vowel. If there are more than one vowel occurring consecutively, it comes under the same island. Now break the word into vowel islands. 

In our word IndiaNest the first vowel island would be I the second would be dia and the third ne ' I | ndia | ne 

Again coming to 3 syllables.

The string of consonants at the end is called a consonant island. We don't count consonant islands while counting syllables as they depend on a vowel island to complete their sound. 

Note here that if a vowel is silent or unpronounced in a word we don't count as an island. For example, take the word lane. Though technically speaking it has two vowel islands, since the last 'e' is unpronounced it is discarded, so lane remains a single syllable word. Similarly, Jane, tame, fame and so on. This generally occurs only when there is an 'e' at the end.

Lets consider a few more examples

Enjoyment
Method 1

En | joy | ment  ' 3 syllables

Method 2
E | njoy | me ' vowel islands
Nt -' consonant island

3 syllables

Euphoria

Method 1 ' eu | pho | ria ' 3 syllables
Method 2 ' eu | pho | ria ' 3 syllables

Try out a few words in whichever method you prefer and check your answers with the dictionary. Though there are online resources available to help you find the number of syllables in a word, it is much easier if you know it yourself. Over time it becomes as intuitive as the spelling of the word itself and your poetic flow will not interrupted by constant verification.

Now let me introduce the concept of open and closed syllable here.

Listen to this word 'do'. Say it aloud. Do you hear a vowel or consonant sound at the end? This is a open syllable because there is no consonant closing the syllable at the end of the word. Think of our vowel islands. Each of them is a open syllable. Of course 'y' is not a vowel here. That was only for the purpose of identifying h syllables.

Now listen to the word 'dot'. It is a closed syllable, as there is a consonant binding the syllable as the end.

Now listen ot the word 'lane' do you hear a vowel sound or a consonant sound? You hear a consonant sound making you think it is a closed syllable but look at the written word, the 'e' at the end says it is an open syllable.

It can be a little confusing in the beginning but with time it gets easy.

Syllables can stressed or unstressed. Also known as strong or weak syllables, I prefer to think of them as harsh and soft syllables.

In a stressed syllable, that syllable is spoken strongly and most often than not louder than the second syllable. Re-TURN, WAG-on, NUM-ber, PIC-ture and so on. Close your ryes and say them aloud, you will be able to judge the strong syllables. Strong syllables are generally closed syllables, though just being a closed syllable doesn't make them strong ones. It all lies in the way it is pronounced.

Now look at the re part of re-TURN. It is a weal syllable, meaning it is unstressed when spoken and spoken with a soft or neutral sound. In a strong syllable the vowel is strong, and in a weak syllable the vowel is weak and neutral, i.e., the schwa sound

Iambic meter poetry is a form of poetry in which the strong and weak syllables alternate making the word sound kind of sing-song when read aloud. May poets like Shelley, Keats and Shakespeare used a lot of iambic meter in their poetry.

The following part taken from Shelley's Ode to The West Wind is an example of an iambic poetry. It is a terza rima written in iambic pentameter

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odors plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!

I hope I have made the concept of syllables clear enough. If you have any doubts, post me a comment.

Till next week, have a great creatively fulfilling week. 

Image (c) Gettyimages.com     

Smitha Chakravarthula
April 11, 2004
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Solitude and other poems by Rajender Krishan
 


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