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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    @F'x Can you give an example? May 5, 2011 at 21:04
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    @HaL I wouldn't count that as a valid part of English, personally. May 5, 2011 at 21:05
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    @Jack I know ... I hate the Scrabble dictionary :P May 5, 2011 at 21:16
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    @Matthew: rock ’n’ roll
    – F'x
    May 5, 2011 at 21:36
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    @Matthew - We've eschewed the Scrabble dictionary. A tip: Don't try to play with the OED. May 6, 2011 at 6:35

3 Answers 3


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 (in most US English dialects, as discussed below), but rather have a syllabic consonant:




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, 2011 at 21:01
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    Hmm, in my dialect pickle is the only one. Strange ... I really thought this didn't happen! May 5, 2011 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, 2011 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. May 6, 2011 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. May 6, 2011 at 12:07

I don’t know of any satisfying answer aside from JSBձոգչ’s -sm as in chasm. But, here are some probably unsatisfying ones with resononants that are (possibly) syllabic but don't have any written vowel letters corresponding to their syllable.

Words with an ambiguous number of syllables

This depends a lot on your accent, but for many people at least some of the following words are disyllabic, with the second syllable composed only of syllabic “l”: snarl, oil, owl, pearl. (For me, the first two seem a lot like they have two syllables, while the last two seem more like monosyllables or at most sesquisyllables.)

Likewise, with possibly syllabic “r”, we have choir, coir, hour.

But speakers’ intuitions about these words vary wildly: see "Why the extra syllable in words like these ending in -r and -l?" and "How many syllables are in the word 'hour'?", as well as the paper "Sesquisyllables of English: The structure of vowel-liquid syllables" by Lisa M. Lavoie and Abigail C. Cohn).

Relatively well-established loanwords that use non-English spelling conventions

syllabic “l”: dirndl (from a Germanic language), axolotl and various other loanwords from Nahuatl with -tl, as going mentioned


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. May 6, 2011 at 13:56
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    No. There are at least two English vowels (using the definition broadened to relate to symbols) rarely taught to schoolkids, y as in these examples, and w in the lexicalised cwm, cwrth. Sep 28, 2020 at 13:44

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