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As far as I knew*, all English syllables have a vowel sound and all of them are spelled accordingly, except for "thm" as in rhythm and algorithm. Are there any others? And are there any etymological reasons why this / they exist(s)?

* See JSBang's answer.

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’n’ [ ](127.0.0.1) –  F'x May 5 '11 at 20:28
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@F'x Can you give an example? –  Matthew Read May 5 '11 at 21:04
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@HaL I wouldn't count that as a valid part of English, personally. –  Matthew Read May 5 '11 at 21:05
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@Jack I know ... I hate the Scrabble dictionary :P –  Matthew Read May 5 '11 at 21:16
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@Matthew - We've eschewed the Scrabble dictionary. A tip: Don't try to play with the OED. –  Neil Fein May 6 '11 at 6:35
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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Occasionally -sm does the same thing: chasm, schism, etc. As I pronounce them, these are all two-syllable words.

Having said that, I would question your premise that "all English syllables have a vowel sound". There are in fact a great many English syllables which don't have any vowel sound at all, but rather have a syllabic consonant:

button

tanner

pickle

The second syllable of all of these words, though spelled with a vowel, is typically pronounced with no vowel sound at all between the medial consonant and the final consonant. Instead, the final consonant is elongated into a syllable of its own. In pickle, for example, there is no vowel, not even a schwa, between the [k] and the [l]. As soon as the [k] is released the lateral contact on the [l] begins, and the [l] sound is drawn out for the full length of an unstressed syllable. In my dialect, at least, all words ending with an unstressed syllable containing [n], [r], or [l] are pronounced this way.

Different dialects handle this differently, however. In British English, for example, tanner often has a final shwa and no [r] sound at all, and the handling of unstressed final [n] as in button varies quite a bit even within North America.

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To avoid confusing international visitors to the site, it's probably worth adding "in US English" (or some suitable similar qualifier) to "is typically pronounced with no vowel sound" - to me button has a schwa, and tanner doesn't even have a final consonant :-) –  psmears May 5 '11 at 21:01
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Hmm, in my dialect pickle is the only one. Strange ... I really thought this didn't happen! –  Matthew Read May 5 '11 at 21:02
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@psmears: Why in the OALD it says the opposite of what you say? I mean, the BrE pronunciation there is [ˈbʌtn] and not [ˈbʌtən]... –  Alenanno May 5 '11 at 23:37
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@psmears: I've actually studied (informally) how various dictionary treat syllabic consonants in their pronunciation guides and there is great variety. Some indicate a schwa, some indicate nothing at all, and a few put a dot below the syllabic consonant. Some dictionaries are not even self-consistent. –  hippietrail May 6 '11 at 1:31
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@psmears, @Alenanno: for me, button is actually [ˈbʌʔn], and I believe that the glottalization of the t and the syllabic n are complementary features. That is, people who pronounce the t as [ʔ] usually also make the [n] syllabic, which people who keep the t as [t] will have a schwa. However, I kept discussion of glottalization out of the main answer to avoid confusing things too much. –  JSBձոգչ May 6 '11 at 12:07
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How about those containing a y?

For example:

  • party
  • many
  • patchy
  • syzygy
  • xylophone

They have a vowel sound, but are not "spelled accordingly"

There are also some obscure words like axolotl and dirndl. From wikipedia there is also crwth and cwm.

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"y" is sometimes a vowel; at minimum, anyways, there's something there to indicate a vowel sound. Good point about axolotl etc. though. –  Matthew Read May 6 '11 at 13:56
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