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I’m an American (in upper Midwest) teaching my child about one-syllable words ending in Silent E, such as kite, which makes gives first vowel a long vowel sound. You might know these as VCe syllables (aka, vowel-consonant-E).

The curriculum I’m using is including words that, in my dialect, are pronounced as if they had two syllables. For example fire, which I pronounce as FIE-er.

The curriculum has a brief note mentioning that words like this may sound like they have two syllables, but the learner should be taught to treat them like other single, VCe syllables.

This explanation is unsatisfying. I assume the reasoning has something to do with how the pronunciation changed over time or changed when used in my Midwest US dialect.

Can anyone explain this issue in more detail?

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  • This is question is about pronunciation rather than grammar. However, what you say is true of most other versions. That is, there is a phonetic difference between the words you cite and 'fire'. In 'standard British English, the 'i' is somewhere between 'ice' and 'fire'. The 'er' sound is faintly there. There is an explanation for this, which has to do with the shape of the mouth and tongue as they move through the word. The same is true, for example, with 'file', except that this sounds faintly as if it were 'mial'. [continued]
    – Tuffy
    Jan 8, 2022 at 21:01
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    The curriculum seems to be standardised across a State or country. It will have been chosen to represent a majority pronunciation. English pronunciation is massively variable and books cannot reasonably be produced for enclaves that have idiosyncratic pronunciation. It does not particularly matter whether you say "fy-er" or "faa" - it is the function of the "e" that is at stake. Merriam Webster has audio pronunciation: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fire
    – Greybeard
    Jan 8, 2022 at 21:33
  • I don't think that the title describes this question well. Many one-syllable words ending in "re" don't have this issue (e.g., "store") and some words not ending in "re" do (e.g., "liar"). Jan 8, 2022 at 22:31
  • @MarcInManhattan Point taken. I’m also thinking that I should rewrite my question so it isn’t as broad. I’m not even sure what I’m asking! :-)
    – EJ Mak
    Jan 8, 2022 at 22:42
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    This isn't specific to your midwestern dialect. There are lots of words like this in many dialects of English: fire rhymes with higher, file rhymes with trial, hour rhymes with power, foul rhymes with towel, foil rhymes with loyal. And yet the first of each of these pairs is generally considered to have one syllable and the second two. Why? Basically, everybody seems to be fooled because of the spelling. You're right; the textbooks are wrong. Jan 8, 2022 at 23:56

1 Answer 1

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Syllables are largely unnecessary to describe the ...i_e spelling pattern

The textbook is correct in stating that the spelling pattern found in fire, wire, tire can be equated to the spelling pattern found in bite, kite, site: in both sets of words, we can view the "...i_e" pattern (with a single consonant letter in between) as a spelling of the diphthong /aɪ/ (pedagogically called the "long i" sound, due to its spelling typically involving the letter I).

Bringing syllables into it may not be wise. There is much disagreement about both the theoretical and actual nature of syllables; while in most cases people agree about the number of syllables in a word, there are some cases where they don't (disagreement may even be found between speakers of "the same" dialect, not just between speakers of different dialects).

I'd guess describing this as a spelling pattern that applies to "one-syllable words" is intended to exclude one of the following categories of words:

  • words like image, where there is another vowel letter in between the I and E, which never follow the ...i_e pronunciation rule (except by coincidence)

  • words like infinite and feminine, where the final syllable is unstressed, which sometimes do and sometimes don't follow the rule

  • words like mineral or literature where there is an "...i_e..." sequence in the middle of a word, rather than at the end: these generally don't follow the rule (unless the word happens to be a compound)

But given that there are in fact words of more than one syllable that use the "...i_e" = /aɪ/ pattern (such as inspire, divide, organize) I think it may not be useful to instruct students that it especially applies to one-syllable words. Rather, it seems more to the point to state that it is a spelling pattern for the ends of words, when a word ends in the letter I + a single consonant letter + a silent E letter. (The fairly small number of exceptions to the single-consonant-letter pattern, such as title, idle, trifle, blithe, tithe, are not truly irregular, but may not be worth accounting for in a simple statement of the rule, since the different consonant groups that can appear before silent E follow different patterns (as with bridge, prince, wince, singe) and there are some words with truly exceptional "short i" such as triple).

Speakers who use two syllables in fire add the second syllable automatically

For speakers who pronounce fire with two syllables, the second syllable is either a syllabic /r/ sound or a schwa /ə/ followed by the consonant /r/ (or just a schwa /ə/ in "non-rhotic" accents like typical southern British accents).

The use of this syllabic pronunciation instead of a non-syllabic /r/ sound is pretty much predictable based on the sounds that are in the word: generally, speakers who use /aɪər/ in a word like fire will also use it in other words like hire, pyre, dire, and there won't be any particular words where they do use single-syllable /aɪr/ as a distinct pronunciation.

This means that (at least for speakers who have an /r/ sound in these words) we can view the schwa as something that's automatically inserted to break up the sequence /aɪr/. A linguistic term for the insertion of a vowel is "epenthesis", so we can call it an "epenthetic vowel".

Epenthetic vowels like this can be potentially found in a number of contexts in English before either /r/ or /l/: after a vowel that is a phonetic diphthong (such as in hour, wild, owl, oil) or in the consonant cluster /rl/ (as in world, Carl, snarl).

These epenthetic vowels are of linguistic interest, but since it doesn't make a difference to the meaning of a word whether they are included or omitted, you'll only need to explain them if your child is actually puzzled by the fact that they often have no explicit representation in the spelling of words. But if your child is confused by fire being included in the same set as the other words, it seems fine to set aside -ire words as a separate pattern. I wouldn't say you need to insist against the evidence of your ears that fire has one syllable; rather, the point is that it can be sounded out as an /f/ sound followed by the "long i" sound followed by the /r/ sound, and the /r/ sound may create a second syllable after the "long i" sound.

Prior questions on this site about this topic:

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    When teaching children to correctly spell words they may already have in their vocabulary, such as kite, bite, made, nose, and also to recognize the word when they see it on the page, teachers want to provide a rule that has the widest application, though it may have exceptions. The hope is that the exceptions don't surface until they're old enough to consult EL&U.
    – Zan700
    Jan 9, 2022 at 13:51

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