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We were making up Haiku, and there was some disagreement about the number of syllables in "fire." Now granted Haiku isn't technically about syllables (see on), so technically it was a meaningless discussion.

However, I still do not know how many syllables are in "fire."

I understand an r-colored vowel might be at play.

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Approximatelly 1.5 –  Job Jul 29 '11 at 22:48
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If more than one syllable means you can hyphenate the word, then "fire" has only one. We cannot have "fi-" at the end of one line and "re" at the beginning of the next. –  GEdgar Jul 30 '11 at 1:46
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Thanks for the interesting question. It has made me realize I pronounce fire with two syllables (/faɪɚ/) as a stand-alone word and with one syllable (/faɪɹ/) as a prefix (e.g., firehouse, firebreak, fire tower, and so on). –  Peter Shor Nov 12 '11 at 13:54

3 Answers 3

I know nothing about Haiku, but I can tell you some general things to think about in terms of the syllable in general.

Unfortunately, the syllable is one of those concepts that is difficult to define precisely and uncontroversially in terms of its details, depsite it being one of the few phonological phenomena that your "average" speaker has a good degree of intiution about. What we can say is that speech appears to be organised into "syllables" which are defined by some combination of the following:

  • a syllable generally corresponds to a peak in sonority;
  • a syllable generally corresponds to a unit that speakers intuitively make use of in metalinguistic activities (e.g. singing or clapping one note per syllable);
  • a syllable is an organisational unit: it generally corresponds to a vowel at its nucleus, wth which consonants at the "edges" of the same syllable are associated in some way (e.g. changes in duration can occur across the syllable as a whole unit), and in a given language you can find a relatively small number of patterns that all syllables conform to.

When considering the above factors, there are a few cases where ambiguity arises. For example, in the word "strengths", there is a peak of sonority on the "s", and it's unusual for such a complex cluster to occur, suggesting that the final "s" may constitute its own syllable. But on the other hand, few if any speakers would make two claps/taps to accompany the word "strengths", or sing it on two notes.

The word "fire" is another example where there is ambiguity, and probably speaker-to-speaker variation. On the one hand, we may conclude that it is composed of 2 syllables: one with a diphthong followed by one with a single schwa vowel. Or we may conclude that it comprises a single syllable with a triphthong ("single vowel" with three targets). One motivating argument for it being a single syllable might be the existence of alternative pronunciatons in which a single diphthong is present; a motivating argument for two syllables would be where speakers mark the word with two claps/notes, or pronounce a distinct yod ("y" sound) between the diphthong and schwa.

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I don't think I disagree with a single word here. But in the end (as I think OP already knows), it's largely a matter of choice and circumstance. The basic concept of a syllable is simply too basic to be analytically useful once you get beyond The cat sat on the mat. –  FumbleFingers Jul 29 '11 at 22:24
    
@FumbleFingers : in principle I actually don't think that's true. For example, deciding on whether "fire" is being pronounced as 'one or two syllables' could in principle be decided, I think, on the basis of precise durational data and other phonetic cues (knowing in advance some information about the speaker's pronunciation). In practice, though, I agree to a large extent partly because of unavailability of such information. –  Neil Coffey Jul 29 '11 at 23:49
    
In retrospect I think you're right about the continuing relevance of syllables (in principle, at least). I was quite surprised after doing a bit of googling to find that the term seems to still be considered significant (if not central) to linguistics as a formal science. But it must get a bit awkward with diphthongs/triphthongs, and "words" like Psst and Sh even in English. And I wouldn't want to think about those "clicky" North African languages! :) –  FumbleFingers Jul 30 '11 at 14:06
    
Sure the syllable is still a valid concept and there is empirical evidence for it. Various applications including speech synthesis/recognition or providing a good description of the sound system of a given language would be very difficult without a good model of the syllable. Dippthongs/triphthongs aren't per se any more of a problem than, say, consonant clusters sharing a given syllable position. "Psst" etc don't pose more of a problem than "strengths". And as far as I'm aware, to the model of the syllable, clicks are essentially consonants and don't invalidate the notion of syllable per se. –  Neil Coffey Jul 31 '11 at 5:07
    
Here's an interesting page about "longest one-syllable words in English" that I came across when looking into "strengths". –  FumbleFingers Jul 31 '11 at 13:23

It's nothing to do with whether the letter "r" is enunciated. It's just a matter of the vowel sound, which I personally would say is a triphthong, though others might argue they don't accept that term at all, and simply call it a diphthong

For the purposes of poetry, singing, etc., it's largely a matter of choice and circumstance whether you say these sounds are one or two (or even more) syllables (and, maybe, say/sing them as such).

I do like this question though, because it's extended my knowledge to recognise that choir, for example, is in fact a quadthong (which after following up on @kitukwfyer's comment, I find is more often called a tetraphthong).

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This is irrelevant, but wouldn't "tetraphthong" make more sense...? –  kitukwfyer Jul 29 '11 at 22:58
    
@kitukwfyer: Not only does it make more sense, I now find there are 5300 Google hits for "tetraphthong", as against only 115 for "quadthong". I will amend the answer... –  FumbleFingers Aug 9 '11 at 12:52
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It would be a ‘quadphthong’, anyway, as the Greek root for sound in this case is ‘phthong’, not ‘thong’ –  nohat Aug 9 '11 at 15:14
    
@nohat: Couldn't agree more. Since you've put your head over the parapet here though, I must say I would greatly value your opinion on whether it's truly valid to call choir a tetraphthong. Disregarding the validity of the word itself, I mean. Just insofar as we accept that there is such a thing as a one-syllable "diphthong" containing two vowel sounds. –  FumbleFingers Aug 9 '11 at 15:35
    
@Fu "choir" would be at most a triphthong /kwɑɪɚ/ (US) or /kwɑɪə/, though many would argue those are two syllables (a diphthong and a monophthong). –  nohat Aug 10 '11 at 7:17

Fire has one syllable, but you are free "to play" with the words in poetry. It depends on what you want emphasized in the poem.

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