How many syllables does “cry” have?

I started out to make a program which finds out the number of syllables in a word, which is when I realized that I couldn't decide how many syllables cry consists of.

According to Wikipedia,

A unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word; e.g., there are two syllables in water and three in inferno

According to the above definition, cry does have 2 vowel sounds, so the number of syllables should be 2.

Technically, it should be 1, since there is a 'y' and no vowel.

I want to know what the community thinks about it.

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Is this question a deja vu? I feel to see it 5 minutes ago. – Elberich Schneider Apr 23 '12 at 21:42
Where do you think the vowels are, one before and after the 'r', or both after the 'r', or if a single one where? – Mitch Apr 23 '12 at 22:01
Problem/discussion relating to that definition: how many syllables are there in "ssssssh!"? How many syllables are there in "strengths"? – Neil Coffey Apr 23 '12 at 23:43
According to Roy Orbison, "crying" has 5 syllables. – JeffSahol Apr 24 '12 at 1:17
It won't be easy to write a program to count the syllablesb in words because some words are pronounced differently according to meaning. For example tear, to rip, has one syllable. But tear, a drop of water from the eye, had two. – Hugo Apr 24 '12 at 9:07

It depends on who's saying it, and what idiolect they're speaking. Some people sometimes put an epenthetic shwa between /k/ and /r/ in /krai/ to break up the cluster, and/or make the /r/ syllabic, and and/or split the diphthong /ai/ into two pieces. And other times, they don't. It's not standard, sorry. It can vary from one to (in extreme cases, like the Johnnie Ray song) four or more.

Don't start with English writing, or you'll never get anywhere. Syllables are units of aural perception, not of writing; if you're still thinking of cry as containing a "Y", I'm afraid you're gonna hafta learn a whole lotta phonetics.

Start, if you must, with standard phonemic representations like the ones in Kenyon and Knott.

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Do you know that In other languages deaf-mutes (not offensive) can syllabling, too. – Elberich Schneider Apr 23 '12 at 22:04
In sign languages "syllable" has a completely different meaning, since it can't be a unit of aural perception. Whether it's a true analog of aural syllable depends on how it's used, and I suspect there's a lot of discussion, not to say argument, about that. – John Lawler Apr 23 '12 at 22:07
It should probably be noted that the conventional answer is "one", and if you give a different answer on a test, you'll be marked wrong. – Peter Shor Apr 24 '12 at 13:06
Yes, for educational purposes, the answer is one. Probably any teacher who puts this on an exam is not trying to cause metaphysical sociophonetic distress; they probably just think it's a simple question with the answer in The Book. – John Lawler Apr 24 '12 at 13:16
@PeterShor - That's what I'd expect. I can't guarantee there aren't some dialects that somehow stretch it out to two, but it would be a neat trick with a three-letter word. – T.E.D. Apr 24 '12 at 13:17

According to Wikipedia,

A unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word; e.g., there are two syllables in water and three in inferno

According to the above definition, cry does have 2 vowel sounds, so the number of syllables should be 2.

No, according to the above definition, cry has one syllable. It has one vowel sound (the "long i," formed by the y), which is "surrounded by" the consonants cr on one side, and no consonants on the other.

Note the use of the dot character to show syllables; note that cry is monosyllabic:

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Here is the case of 'sometimes y'. The 'y' here is the spelling that tells you the vowel sound.

In standard English it is a diphthong /ai/, a vowel followed by a glide/semi-vowel, which sounds like (and is counted as) a single vowel sound, the center of a single syllable.

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Remember: syllables are nothing to do with spelling.

If you want a simple, everyday rule of thumb to "how many syllables in this utterance?", then you can generally equate this with "how many beats the utterance would be clapped to". So from that simple perspective, "cry" would be one syllable.

From a theoretical perspective, things are obviously a little more complicated. You can see a syllable from two main angles:

• a structural angle, in which you look at what clusters/combinations of sounds can generally occur in a given language and then derive that language's underlying syllable structure from those combinations;
• a phonetic (or at least, broader phonological) angle, in which a syllable corresponds to a peak in "sonority" or "vowelness" (or some such notion).

But:

• even from a theoretical perspective, even intuitive notions such as "how many beats" an utterance has or "which parts of the utterance would be aligned with strong beats when it is put to song" can also constitute evidence.

Usually, even from this more detailed theoretical perspective, the word "cry" would still regarded as having one syllable. The diphthong /ai/ then forms the nucleus of the syllable, and the cluster /kr/ the onset.

Why? Why not say that in /krai/, there are 'two vowels', a /a/ and a /i/, and hence two syllables? Well, a mixture of evidence such as the fact that the /ai/ appears to be 'pronounced as a glide' (as clearly opposed to, say, in "Aïda"), the fact that speakers would clap it to one beat, the fact that in the process of 'changing one word into another' in English, there clearly seems to be a common case where /ai/ can be substituted as a unit for another vowel (e.g. "creed" ~ "cried", "hide" ~ "hid"), and intuitively speakers wouldn't see this as 'more of a change' than, say, the change from "hide" to "how'd". Or put another way: if you change /ai/ to /au/, intuitively to a speaker, it doesn't feel like you've 'only changed one of two vowel sounds', but rather it feels like you've simply 'changed the vowel').

There are more problematic cases, however. For example, processes of phonetic assimilation can make what we might intuitively think of as 2 syllables in practice be merged phonetically into a single syllable. Certain consonants, notably /s/, can also correspond to peaks in sonority-- there's even an argument that at some level, a /s/ after a complex cluster (e.g. "strengths", "widths") actually corresponds to a separate syllable, so that e.g. "widths" would consist of 2 syllables.

The number of syllables in "cry" is usually less controversial, though.

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Another "problematic case" might be fire, which is considered to have one syllable, but sounds like it rhymes with dryer, which has two. – J.R. Apr 24 '12 at 0:55
Just to clarify, you are offering "Aïda" as three syllable example, right? Eg wikipedia says "pronounced /aˈiːda/". – jwpat7 Apr 24 '12 at 2:55
@jwpat7 - yes, three syllables in total. – Neil Coffey Apr 24 '12 at 6:02
@J.R.- I'm not sure this is so problematic: for most speakers, it's probably 2 syllables as you say; historically, it was possibly more common to pronounce it as one syllable. – Neil Coffey Apr 24 '12 at 6:02
@NeilCoffey: "it's probably 2 syllables as you say" :^) – that's precisely what I meant by "problematic." I may say it with two syllables, but my dictionary insists there's only one. – J.R. Apr 24 '12 at 21:43