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Does the word 'hour' have 1 or 2 syllables?

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It has to have two: see my doggerel below for why. –  tchrist Aug 31 '12 at 16:45
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@tchrist: not in all varieties of English. –  Mitch Aug 31 '12 at 16:51
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See also: How many syllables in the word fire? For me: two syllables in hour by itself, two syllables total in hourly. –  Peter Shor Aug 31 '12 at 17:13
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About one and a half; diphthongs are hard. :-) –  Monica Cellio Aug 31 '12 at 18:25
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Much as I hate to say something completely useless, the only correct answer is "it depends how you pronounce it". –  user16269 Aug 31 '12 at 18:39
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6 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

From what I understand, hour, fire, hire, layer, rhythm, etc., are all examples of words which are not easily classifiable. But, according to this linguist,

Hour and fire are generally considered to be monosyllabic words containing a triphthong.

Wikipedia further confirms this in a couple of its articles.

Triphthong (WP):

English in British Received Pronunciation (monosyllabic triphthongs with R are optionally distinguished from sequences with disyllabic realizations)

[aʊ̯ə̯] as in hour (compare with disyllabic "plougher" [aʊ̯.ə])

(British) Received Pronunciation:

RP also possesses the triphthongs /aɪə/ as in ire, /aʊə/ as in hour, /əʊə/ as in lower, /eɪə/ as in layer and /ɔɪə/ as in loyal. There are different possible realisations of these items: in slow, careful speech they may be pronounced as a two-syllable triphthong with three distinct vowel qualities in succession, or as a monosyllabic triphthong. In more casual speech the middle vowel may be considerably reduced, by a process known as smoothing, and in an extreme form of this process the triphthong may even be reduced to a single vowel, though this is rare, and almost never found in the case of /ɔɪə/[47] . In such a case the difference between /aʊə/, /aɪə/, and /ɑː/ may be neutralised with all three units realised as [ɑː] or [äː].

All that said, I suspect that the most accurate answer ultimately depends on how you pronounce it yourself. Nice question :)

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Are you saying that some people in the U.K. pronounce layer differently from both lair and player? –  Peter Shor Aug 31 '12 at 17:25
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Just because you have three vowels in a row does not mean you have a triphthong. Somehow the UK people count /ə/ as a glide, but it isn’t. Words like wow, yow, why, and yay are actual triphthongs, because you have a glide to either side of the principal/syllabic vowel. –  tchrist Aug 31 '12 at 17:51
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@PeterShor In BrE (always depending on dialect and region), layer/player have two syllables with ay as a diphthong; and lair is a monosyllabic diphthong. [IPA is difficult on an iPad, sorry] –  Andrew Leach Aug 31 '12 at 17:59
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Not that everything I learned in school was true, but I remember being taught that most dictionaries – at least print dictionaries – broke words into syllables, and this was one of those things that dictionaries were useful for.

So, one could always count the number of •'s, and add one, and get the number of syllables in a word:

enter image description here

One dictionary's own definition of syllable mentions there are three in inferno, and two in water; as could be expected, the entries for those words show them being broken up that way. By the same token, the word word has one:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

However, this method for counting syllables creates a few anomalies, whereby some one- and two-syllable words are pronounced very much alike (in other words, hearing the two words would lead someone to think they have the same number of syllables, but the dictionary would indicate otherwise):

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

(The oddest of all might be hire and higher, which I would pronounce as true heterographs, but the dictionary would break into one and two syllables, respectively.)

I found it interesting that the word syllabification was defined as the division of words into syllables, either in speech or in writing. That "either in speech or in writing" part made me wonder if one could accurately say that the word hour has one syllable in writing, and two in speech – that is, if hour was pronounced as rhyming with tower or power, and not as a heterograph with are, as some drawlers might be inclined to do.

In the end, I sup•pose it all de•pends on how you de•fine syl•la•ble, and how you de•cide to come up with an of•fi•cial an•swer in ca•ses where the ex•act num•ber of syl•la•bles is not im•me•di•ate•ly ev•i•dent or ap•par•ent.

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+1 - The examples 'fire' and 'dryer' are useful, in particular. –  Bravo Sep 1 '12 at 16:06
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It seems like dictionaries are using an orthographic syllabification, which is largely based on spelling and etymology rather than phonology. (For example, double consonant letters like in inner get split, and the dictionary syllabification avoids splitting up -tion even though under Wells's analysis the /ʃ/ should go with the preceding syllable.) Here fire is a unitary morpheme and dryer contains a morpheme boundary; hence the distinction given, despite there being no difference in pronunciation (at least in many AmE speakers). –  Mechanical snail Dec 12 '12 at 5:00
    
The dots show how to hyphenate, not how to pronounce the words. In some cases, syllables can't be separated with a hyphen (e.g., because they are too short to stand alone). –  Bradd Szonye Oct 3 '13 at 20:38
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@Bradd - True. Usually there is a strong correspondence between hyphenation marks and syllable counts, but there are some notable exceptions. I don't believe there's any schism in how we regard this matter. –  J.R. Oct 3 '13 at 21:43
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IPA isn't that difficult to decipher, is it?

hour /ou(ə)r/ (one syllable)

hour /aʊər, ˈaʊər/ (one or two syllables, one being preferred)

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But doesn't /ou(ə)r/ mean /our/ (one syllable) or /ouər/ (two syllables), since English does not have an /ouə/ triphthong (well ... I guess some dialects might, but I don't think the Oxford English dictionaries count /ouə/ as a triphthong in AmE). –  Peter Shor Aug 31 '12 at 17:18
    
@PeterShor According to the Virtual Linguist, hour is "generally considered to be monosyllabic word containing a triphthong." Then again, I always think of the commercial ditty "Hour after hour, pucker power." –  Gnawme Aug 31 '12 at 18:20
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The Virtual Linguist speaks BrE. I was objecting to your decoding of the non-IPA pronunciation symbols used by the online Oxford Dictionaries for AmE. They don't always indicate syllables in their phonetic encoding; see catalyst, which is definitely three syllables, even though they only indicate two, and different, which can be either two or three. –  Peter Shor Aug 31 '12 at 18:48
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It can’t be a triphthong. They are somehow defining a triphthong as nothing other than three vowels sounds in a row, syllables notwithstanding. That isn’t right! A diphthong is a main syllabic vowel with a glide, either /w/ or /j/, attached to it on one side or the other. A triphthong has a non-syllabic glide on both sides of it. Schwa is not a glide: it creates a new syllable because it is in hiatus. Words like yay and wow are triphthongs, but words like Maya, power, and cayenne are not triphthongs. It has to all be in one syllable, and those vowels are not. –  tchrist Aug 31 '12 at 22:45
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@tchrist John Wells would agree with you. I'm of two minds (if not two syllables) about it, since I pronounce it with 1 syllable, but have the aformentioned "Hour after hour" ditty in my head. –  Gnawme Aug 31 '12 at 23:24
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I would pronounce this with two syllables:

Ow - Err

Ymmv

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People who are born to power
Lack the time to spare an hour
Smelling rose or other flower,
Be it sweet or be it sour.

Since those lines of trochaic tetrameter all rhyme with each other on the last foot, hour needs must contain two syllables. The stanza is 8/8/8/8 by syllables, with rhyme scheme AAAA.

Here is a different illustration of the same thing:

Tapered candles need no power,
‭    ‭    flicker though they may.
They will burn for just an hour,
‭    ‭    turning night to day.

That one has an 8/5/8/5 syllable pattern and an ABAB rhyme scheme. Unless power and hour rhyme, and are each two syllables, that doesn’t work.

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Are you serious here? They also rhyme as if power, hour, flower and sour are all just one syllable. And if power and flower are two syllables, and hour and sour are one syllable, then you get an ABAB rhyme scheme. –  Peter Shor Aug 31 '12 at 17:15
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Counter-example: O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy pow’r / Dost hold time’s fickle glass his sickle hour, among many other examples. If both power and hour are the same length, there should be no need to shorten power to pow'r. –  choster Aug 31 '12 at 17:17
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@PeterShor Yes, I’m serious: all lines have 8 syllables, and it is AAAA rhyme, not ABAB rhyme. Don’t let spelling confuse matters, because I could rearrange lines so that dissimilar spellings align, and it will still rhyme. Any child in the Midwest will tell you that hour and power rhyme. –  tchrist Aug 31 '12 at 17:54
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@choster puts his finger on it. English poets have always felt free to treat these words as either monosyllabic or disyllabic according to metrical exigencies. Shakespeare, for instance, in WT: of six uses in verse, two are monosyllabic, two disyllabic, and two ambiguous. –  StoneyB Sep 1 '12 at 13:16
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@BarrieEngland Why do we have to assume that? –  user18036 Sep 1 '12 at 21:26
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As long as "ou" is a diphthong, this word has one syllable.

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More descriptive than helpful. If there's only one (dipthong) vowel, of course there's only one syllable. But is that always true? What about our? –  TimLymington Aug 31 '12 at 16:26
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How can you make my doggerel scan if our has just one syllable? –  tchrist Aug 31 '12 at 16:42
    
@tchrist First, there's no reason for your doggerel to scan. How can your doggerel be proof? Second, it's easy to make your doggerel scan with "our" having just one syllable. Just pronounce "sour" as a one-syllable word, and you get an ABAB. Or pronounce all four final words as one-syllable words, and you get an AAAA again. All possiblities are valid. Just listen to the last stanza here (3:30). –  user18036 Sep 1 '12 at 14:20
    
Not true. For me, yes, "ou" is a diphthong, but the /r/ is syllabic. –  Mechanical snail Dec 12 '12 at 5:00
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protected by RegDwigнt Feb 18 '13 at 20:42

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