So, How Do We Count Syllables?

A Response To Harmony Kent's Story, "Dear Vocal Judges/Fellow Poets"

By Vocal Curation TeamPublished 11 months ago 3 min read

In her story, Dear Vocal Judges/Fellow Poets, Creator Harmony Kent asks questions that we have been wrestling with ever since we launched Vocal. In reality, the very halls of linguistics have echoed with these same questions and attempts to quantify and measure all parts of the English language for a very long time. As often as we can, we like to defer to the experts on these issues, though even they, the keepers of the language, have conflicting views, and so do we.

What's the bottom line on syllables in haiku?

Simply put, when it comes to haiku, 5/7/5 is Matsuo Basho's established form and so it is ours.

The most difficult part of counting the syllables in your haiku are when we come across diphthongs and triphthongs.

As you read the Wikipedia entries for diphthongs and triphthongs, if your eyes don't glaze over halfway through, you may realize that there is far more to some seemingly simple words than initially appears. Let's take fire as an example. Is it one syllable or two? Based on where you live, how you pronounce it is vastly different. Sure, a lot of the established rhetoric says it's one syllable, but there are wonderfully convincing arguments from intelligent people that say it should be counted as two. Some people pronounced it fahr, while others figh-err and still others fyar. How do you say it? Just like Harmony Kent and so many others, we consult the internet, use syllable calculators, but even those vary because they are created by humans with different understandings of the English language.

There's an English professor on staff here who was musing the other day how in many colleges it is no longer customary to teach or even grade grammar. A major question in higher education these days is: what is proper grammar and why is it important? Local dialects have their own grammar and their own interpretation of the English language. All of us communicate in our local dialects. Who are professors to correct their students' grammar, the sounds and words they grew up with, tell their parents they love them with, speak to their friends with? Do their parents and friends not understand what they are saying because their grammar isn't in line with the academic understanding of grammar? Of course not. So, why grade them on it? Let everyone exist as they want to. Isn't that the goal of a healthy society? And yet, contests, sports, and Challenges need rules, structure, and walls. Otherwise, chaos ensues.

English is nuanced and subtle just as much as it is rigid and rule-based. Its deviations from the rule are as plentiful as the various dialects it produces. Yes, we want your haiku to be in 5/7/5. But there are also famous haiku out there that do not adhere to this classic structure. That's art, folks. If you want to write a great haiku that purposely does not adhere to the 5/7/5 structure, please think about entering it into any of our upcoming poetry Challenges. We have no doubt it will sing on its own and be recognized for its intentional variations.

Our goal with all Challenges is to award the best stories and poems with the top prizes. This is a difficult task, one we take extremely seriously, and one that requires understanding on the part of our Creators that art is subjective, and that good art is even more difficult to judge than bad art, even with a prompt that has hard and fast rules. If you find yourself writing a diphthong or a triphthong or any other syllabic manipulation in your haiku, go for it! Take confidence in knowing that we have multiple people reading each poem, each with their own advanced, yet personal understanding of the English language, each weighing every one of the syllables in the poem. Only when there is a broad consensus on its quality and adherence to the rules (and a good, long conversation about the nature of art and judgment) do we declare a winner.

Does that answer your question? Perhaps not. But please take comfort in knowing that we do our utmost to reward the best work, adhering to our rules as we define them, with the top prizes. How do we define best? Well, that's a conversation for a different post...


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Comments (17)

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  • Brent Tharp2 months ago

    Quite a few words were forced to die for such a milquetoast response. A much better and for more terse article would have fit on the screen with no need to scroll. And it would have gone something like this: Many people, even experts, disagree on the syllable counts for various words, especially diphthongs and triphthongs. A relevant example is "fire," which can be considered either one or two syllables depending on dialect and style. Intent, when it can be discerned, also comes into play, but such actions run the risk of misinterpretation at times. We've decided to take the approach that if diphthongs or triphthongs are used in a piece, we will assume the writer intended the syllable count to conform with the 5/7/5 rule of haiku. So long as the syllable count can be "interpreted" as 5/7/5, it will be considered conforming. We've chosen to judge entries on the quality of the writing, not on differing interpretations of how to determine the syllables in varisyllabic words. Alternatively (more strictly but less of a pain in the ass), the article could have specified a single source and definitional entry (1, 2, 3, etc.) that all writers should use to determine the syllable count. As it is, the article literally says, "People disagree; so do we; we'll let you know." In terms of writing to communicate, I'd give this about a 3 out of 10. (And seriously, not teaching or grading grammar in school? No wonder the written word is losing its power and miscommunication is the norm.).

  • Thavien Yliaster8 months ago

    Wow, you guys really deleted all of my comments, even not leaving a "This comment has been deleted" box on where it initially was. Shocker. Leave one comment that gets reported 18 times with a 3 day investigation that spans for more than a month and I'm still left questioning "Did You even read it, or any of the comments I left?"

  • Susan Macdonald9 months ago

    I ave a question. If a haiku is limited to 17 syllables, then it's obvious it Won't be 600 words. I was told my "story" foe the Haiku Challenge is too short to be considered because it's fewer than 600 words. A, it ain't a story; it's a poem, or an attempt at one. B, I cannot limit myself to seventeen syllables and expand to 600 words simultaneously. I don't think Robert Frost could manage thT.

  • Lemons & Rice10 months ago

    I tried several times to write haiku believing i can do so, but for the life of me, it is so hard!!! this article has been a fun and informative read, time to fly off and try again!!

  • Andrei Z.11 months ago

    I came across this useful method on the web. The "Chin Method": 1. Put your hand under your chin. 2. Say the word. 3. How many times does your chin touch your hand? This is the number of syllables. It works really well. According to it, 'fire' has one syllable, 'turtle' has two syllables. While there are quite a bunch of syllable counters online, they indeed can show different results for certain words. The "chin method" seems to be cohesive and impartial:) Or so I thought... Now I stumbled upon 'liar', 'prior'... And then we have 'lyre'. The majority of syllable counters I tried distinguished 'lyre' and 'liar' as having one and two syllables accordingly. My conclusion is: avoid these tricky words, haha

  • Hannah Logan11 months ago

    To be clear... in the South if ya gotta "FAR" ya better pull the alarm... but, "FI-yuh" flies are delightful and nothin' to be worried about at'all.

  • This article and insight is really helpful.

  • Harmony Kent11 months ago

    Thank you, Vocal Curation Team, for this response. I’m reassured to know that if my count is different by a syllable it won’t be disqualified on that basis alone. I have consulted many dictionaries as well as online syllable counters, and now understand better why even they cannot always agree. English can be so frustrating yet fascinating! Since toddlerhood, I’ve loved words and wordplay. I never had cause to ask this question until last year when a blogger, who ran a weekly Haiku challenge for ‘fun’, jumped up and down on my head for not being what she called a ‘Haiku purist’ (I’d neglected to use a season word). Since then, I’ve been much more nervous and less spontaneous. And these Vocal competitions then raised the question of how we might measure the syllables the same way. Thank you for your emphasis on artistic expression as well as the counting. I love all that Vocal stands for, and your line ‘… sing on its own and be recognized for its intentional variations’ sings to my writer’s heart. 🙂

  • Nailah Robinson11 months ago

    ummm according to the Britannica "fire" can be one or two syllables. I always thought it was two, and I'm an English teacher who does a whole lesson on Haikus. I guess it really is according to the dialect, but that really makes it difficult when it comes to these contests. How are people to have a hope to win?

  • Rebekah Conard11 months ago

    It's sort of fascinating how complex this issue becomes stemming from the linguistic differences between languages. In English we think in terms of syllables partially because certain combinations of letters don't always make the same sounds. In Japanese, I've recently learned, you're not dealing with "syllables", you're dealing with morae (singular: mora). (I'm not at all a linguist so this is all news to me.) The sounds that make up the Japanese language are pretty much always equal in length or easily "doubled". But even Japan, writers have been known to make exceptions to the 5-7-5 structure. The main Wikipedia article on Haiku lists one classic example that it 6-7-5.

  • Ash Taylor11 months ago

    I had this trouble with "familiar" in my haiku, Home. Because in my Australian dialect, it's pronounced with 3 syllables, but I know others who pronounce it with 4. In that situation, how does the author go about addressing it so the judges understand their intent? I opted to just include a note explaining the regional variation, but not everyone may think to do that because they might not even realise there are other pronunciations with different syllable counts. And even if they do add a post-script note, would it even matter?

  • Kathryn Labosh11 months ago

    I went nuts over fire and consulted two different dictionaries. They both seemed to have it as one syllable. Dialects do make it crazy depending on whether you break on the vowel or on the consonant. So I went with fire being one. My sister who is a poet said that in Japanese it is not even syllables that are counted but syllables are the closest we can get to the idea.

  • Heather Hubler11 months ago

    While this is a topic that needed addressed, I kinda feel like you didn't really answer your own question from the title. I'm taking this to mean it's up to the creator to decide (within reason)?

  • Gina C.11 months ago

    Thank you for this post! I happened to be debating m use of “fire”, which I count as two syllables. I feel assured knowing it will be accepted either way :)

  • test11 months ago

    Interesting! I used a “haiku calculator” I found online that counts syllables in each line you copy and paste. I was surprised to see certain words counted the way they were. To me, fire is “figh-err” and two syllables.

  • Alexis Dean Jr.11 months ago

    Thank you for continuing to encourage artists to keep going! 💪🏾

  • Judey Kalchik 11 months ago

    Thanks for addressing this, I think it will settle quite a few questions. I'm going to share it with my Facebook group for Vocal creators.

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