How Japanese and English Syllables Differ

First published in A Hundred Gourds 4:3, June 2015. Since then, I’ve added the paragraph presenting Maxianne Berger’s progression of one-syllable words in French, the paragraph that starts with “The overwhelming tendency,” the Gilbert quotation, a couple of sentences in the last paragraph, and have made a few other minor revisions. First written in February and April of 2014. See the new postscript at the end. See also “What Is a Syllable?” and The Discipline of Haiku.       +       +

A central characteristic of haiku in Japanese is “go-shichi-go,” the pattern or rhythm of 5-7-5. This pattern has been described in Japanese haiku as being composed of “syllables.” As a result, haiku in English is widely taught as also following a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables. However, it’s an error to believe that English-language haiku should have the same number of “syllables” as Japanese, or even count syllables at all, because what the Japanese count is significantly different from what we count—quite simply, 100 yen is not the same as 100 dollars. As Haruo Shirane emphasizes in introducing Kōji Kawamoto’s
The Poetics of Japanese Verse (Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2000), “the term syllable is an inaccurate way of describing the actual metrical units of Japanese poetry” (viii). Because of how Japanese and English syllables differ, and because of other language differences, counting 5-7-5 syllables is an urban myth for haiku in English. Furthermore, the promotion of this myth has been to the detriment of targets such as the season word, equivalents to the cutting word, and objective sensory imagery, which are actually more important in any language than merely counting syllables, yet are almost never taught.
        A chief difference between syllables in English and Japanese is how short all syllables are in Japanese, and how variable they can be in English. Consider, for example, the name “Jo” (the feminine name, omitting the silent “e” used in the masculine name). All Japanese syllables are essentially like this word—very short, with the mouth staying in just a single position for the duration of the sound (whether counted for the sake of haiku or not). Even when a Japanese word has multiple syllables, each one is very short. Two common words in English that are like Japanese words in this respect are “area” and “radio”—short words with lots of syllables. But of course we have longer syllables with consonant clusters, as in “strengths,” which Japanese never has. In fact, when Japanese borrows words from English and other languages, it often adds syllables to them, as demonstrated by the Japanese pronunciation of “Christmas” as “kurisumasu”—taking the word from two syllables to five.
        Now consider the following progression, in which the initial “Jo” sound has additional sounds added to it in English, all while still keeping the word to just one syllable:

                joys (voiced “s” sound)
                Joyce (unvoiced “s” sound)

In contrast to “Jo,” notice how the mouth moves when you say “joy.” In saying the word slowly, you can feel your mouth move from the “o” of “Joe” to the long “e” ending sound of “joy.” You begin the word by pursing your lips roundly as if to kiss, and then widen your mouth broadly into a smile to make the end of the “oy” sound. The sound moves from “oh” to “ee” in becoming “joy,” yet this is still considered to be just one syllable (likewise, the word “fire” is just one syllable even though the mouth may move from “fie” to “er” in saying it, and “hour” is just one syllable too, though the mouth may move from “ow” to “er”—and these words are indeed technically just one syllable, despite beliefs to the contrary, for the same reason that “joy” is one syllable).
        Then, when you add the “s” to make “joys,” you add an extra ending to the word, a voiced “s” sound (actually a “z” sound). Yet still the word is just one syllable. It’s the same, too, when you add an unvoiced “s” sound to make the name “Joyce.” But English doesn’t stop there. You can add a “t” sound at the end of “Joyce” to make “joist.” Yet still the word is one syllable.
        We are already far removed from the single mouth position that makes up practically every single Japanese syllable, yet we can do still more in English. We can add an “s” at the end to make “joists”—yet the word is still just one syllable. It would be a stretch to add a possessive to this plural, but we might even write “joists’s.” This usage is nonstandard, but some people may treat the possessive plural that way. As such, the addition of yet another letter (if not an additional sound) demonstrates in the extreme how malleable English-language syllables can be compared with Japanese. Whether that’s still just one syllable might be murky, but I believe linguists would say that it is.
        In an email message to me on 27 April 2015, Maxianne Berger shared the following progression in French, much like my “jo” to “joists” progression in English (the meaning in English of each French word is provided after each word, together with the pronunciation, and yes, the last word here is still one syllable):

                à (to, pronounced /a/)
                oie (goose, pronounced /wa/)
                quoi (what, /kwa/)
                croix (cross, /krwa/)
                croire (believe, /krwar/)
                croître (grow, /krwatr/)

I’m sure similar progressions exist in other languages also, suggesting the inapplicability of the 5-7-5 Japanese rhythm to those languages as well.
        The progression of English words illustrates how variable English syllables are, making seventeen-syllable haiku not only longer in sound duration but also capable of packing in a lot more information than Japanese haiku. As Patricia Donegan notes in Haiku: Asian Arts & Crafts for Creative Kids (Boston: Tuttle, 2003), “In Japanese, seventeen syllables makes about six words, but seventeen syllables in English usually makes about twelve words or more. . . . So, in English, seventeen syllables, in most cases, would be too long for haiku” (9). As Gary Snyder said in a 2007 interview about haiku with Udo Wenzel, “I don’t think counting 5,7,5 syllables is necessary or desirable. To reflect the natural world, and the season, is to reflect what is.” 
In Timothy Green’s interview with Richard Gilbert in the Japanese Forms issue of Rattle magazine (#47, 21:1, Spring 2015), Gilbert emphasizes that “Japanese 5-7-5 has nothing to do with syllables, in any way. Linguistically, these languages, English and Japanese, do not meet at all on the level of the syllable; they meet on the level of the metrical phrase” (78). The point is that, by using a 5-7-5 syllable count in English, one is violating the Japanese form rather than preserving it, not even taking into consideration the way mere syllable-counting routinely overshadows or even entirely obscures other targets for haiku poetry (which is an even more serious problem). For this reason, the vast majority of poets writing literary haiku in English do not follow a 5-7-5 syllable count, but instead have explored a number of alternatives, which include the following, among others:

  1. One breath (whether in one line or three, or other variations).
  2. Short-long-short (usually in three lines).
  3. Other symmetrical syllable patterns (shorter than 5-7-5).
  4. A two-three-two beat pattern (counting accented syllables).
  5. Organic form (not to be confused with so-called “free” form).
In practice, these alternative approaches come much closer to the traditional form in Japanese than does 5-7-5, and are employed in concert with other vital targets. One may still write successful 5-7-5-syllable haiku in English, provided that one also hits those other targets, but if one does so, each resulting poem remains significantly longer than traditional haiku in Japanese. Most of these alternatives, by the way, presume a three-line form for haiku in English, and even that is a Western adaptation, because haiku are written in a single vertical line in Japanese.
        A point to make about the “short-long-short” approach to English-language haiku is that that too is not as simple as it might seem. Compare the following two nonsense poems:

                through stressed strengths                      audio gaga
                radio ion                                                   stretched through stressed wrench
                screeched borscht twelfths                      pitiful solo

The first one is short-long-short in terms of syllables, but visually it
’s long-short-long. And the second one, in terms of syllables, is the opposite. Its syllables count as long-short-long—but visually it’s short-long-short. So even the seemingly simple goal of writing in a “short-long-short” pattern (which is part of haiku’s “rhythm” in Japanese) can be problematic in English. This is one of the reasons I aim at organic form for my own haiku, letting the content, sounds, and poetic effects guide the form—a form that must, in effect, be reinvented with each new poem. Organic form is like the musical term tempo giusto, or playing at the “just right” speed. You have to feel what’s right, and there’s no metronome for it. With haiku too, form follows function.
        Something else to know is that our use of vowels and consonants differs greatly from Japanese usage, too, as can be seen when comparing English to romaji, not the kanji, hiragana, and katakana writing systems used in Japanese. For more information about this, see “The differences between English and Japanese.” English has words such as “catchphrase,” with six consonants in a row, or “queueing,” with five vowels in a row, which Japanese never comes close to. Rather, in Japanese, every consonant is pronounced with a vowel sound, except when the letter “n” appears at the end of a word, in which case that letter is counted as a separate sound (which is never the case in English). For example, the Japanese would count the word “sign” as having three sounds (sigh-ya-n), whereas it’s just one syllable in English (this example comes from Kōji Kawamoto’s The Poetics of Japanese Verse, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 2000). “Scarf” is also one syllable in English, but counts as four sounds in Japanese (su-ka-a-fu) (this example from Abigail Friedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2006). Likewise, “haiku” is two syllables in English, but counts as three sounds in Japanese (ha-i-ku)—a fact that Harold G. Henderson pointed out as early as 1934 with his book on haiku, A Bamboo Broom (New York: Houghton Mifflin).
        While the sounds counted in Japanese are tallied independently of their orthography (whether in Japanese characters or their romaji representations), English is a very complicated language to spell, leading even native English speakers to misunderstand syllables, such as thinking that a word such as “stacked” is two syllables when it reality it is just one, even though it may look like two syllables (see my essay, “What Is a Syllable?”). As already mentioned, misunderstandings also lead some people to believe that words such as “hour” and “fire” might be two syllables each, when they’re not—a fact easily confirmed by looking for a raised dot between syllables in most dictionaries, online and off.
        There are many additional reasons why 5-7-5 is an urban myth for haiku in English. For example, Japanese words nearly always tend to have more syllables per word than their English counterparts (compare “hototogisu” to “cuckoo”), thus making Japanese haiku use up their syllables more quickly with less content or information than is possible if you write 5-7-5 syllables in English. Consequently, haiku in English with as many as seventeen syllables often come across to the Japanese as long and wordy (indeed, one sometimes has to entirely lop off one of the three lines in a seventeen-syllable haiku in English to make the content fit go-shichi-go when translating into Japanese). The irony is that it’s often the Japanese themselves who unwittingly promote 5-7-5 syllables for haiku in English, because of hasty or inaccurate assumptions, or through failing to realize the linguistic differences between the two languages.
        The overwhelming tendency of Japanese words to be longer than their English counterparts, on average, is slightly counterbalanced by the fact that Japanese never uses articles, whereas English does. However, articles are not particularly common and appear at a general frequency in English-language haiku that is still much below the frequency by which Japanese words typically use more sounds than their English equivalents. Furthermore, articles in English are routinely omitted from the poem’s deliberately fragmented first or last line. Some people have asserted that articles should be omitted from haiku in English, but this is ill-advised. They should not be removed entirely, lest that create instances of unnatural English that Paul O. Williams called “Tontoism.” So yes, haiku in English do have articles that Japanese omits, but Japanese haiku often employ kireji or cutting words, essentially meaningless words used only in haiku that function as a sort of spoken punctuation. In Japanese haiku, cutting words use up one or two sounds that English has no spoken equivalent to. Instead, we indicate the cut between the poem’s two parts with punctuation, or trust readers to understand the grammatical shift when punctuation is omitted. The net result is that English haiku should aim to be closer to 15 or 16 Japanese sounds, not 17, making 5-7-5 even more of an urban myth in English. This is on top of the common linguistic observation that about 10 to 14 syllables is equivalent to the 17 sounds in Japanese, so the number of syllables in English should be further reduced from the range 10 to 14 when one deducts the cutting word from the Japanese count. Thus, 5–7–5 = –7, not haiku.
        Japanese haiku poets also talk of “composing” haiku rather than “writing” them. The distinction emphasizes the value of rhythm and music in haiku as a brief lyrical poem. The rhythm of go-shichi-go is very important in Japanese haiku, and it’s easy for them to assume that this particular rhythm should be equally important in other languages. However, the use of syllables is fundamentally different in each language. What’s being counted is not the same in English and Japanese. The rhythm of go-shichi-go simply cannot be applied automatically to English—again, 100 yen is not equal to 100 dollars. That rhythm is not inherent in English, at least in terms of syllables, so it is incumbent upon those of us who write in English to be mindful of rhythm and sound in other ways.
        These reasons should, I hope, be ample evidence for poets—and teachers—to no longer aim at 5-7-5 syllables as a target for haiku in English. For decades this trivialization of haiku has led to the belief in popular culture that anything in 5-7-5 syllables is a “haiku,” usually leading to joke haiku and other pseudo-haiku that mainstream publishers make money from in foisting this perpetuated misunderstanding on a gullible public—a public made gullible by teachers and misinformed curriculum guides. But for haiku in English, 5-7-5 is an urban myth, and it’s been at the expense of more important targets. And if these reasons were not enough, it’s also worth noting that even in Japanese haiku the 5-7-5 pattern is not followed stringently by everyone, from Bashō’s day down to today. A significant number of haiku by the Japanese masters depart from this pattern, and a significant number of more recent master haiku poets such as Sant
ōka, Hōsai, and Seisensui (among many others) have paid no attention to the pattern at all. While the majority of Japanese haiku poets do follow go-shichi-go, if some of their leading poets pay little or no attention to 5-7-5 even though they have good reason to follow that pattern in Japanese, why would haiku poets writing in English follow an excessive pattern based on a misunderstanding? Quite simply, and for all time, the urban myth of 5-7-5 needs to be done away with for English-language haiku.


As I’ve explored here and elsewhere, it’s not always clear, even to native English speakers, what a syllable is. Yes, some words are problematic, and I’ve found in workshops that many people miscount or misunderstand how many syllables particular words have. The fact that this problem doesn’t occur in Japanese is another reason why it’s unnecessary and problematic to count 5-7-5 syllables for haiku in English, where the problem does occur. So how many syllables do muddy words like “fire,” “mystery,” and “interest” have? One solution is the idea that it’s up to the poet how many syllables a word has. So if a poet is writing haiku syllabically, and wants to think that “fire” is two syllables, then that’s his or her choice, regardless of what dictionaries and linguists might say about it being just one syllable. Or so the argument goes. As a reader, one can guess that this is the poet’s choice, but one can never know from the poem, short of asking the poet. This means that the reader may be uncertain as to whether the poem is 5-7-5 or not, for example, so letting the writer “decide” doesn’t necessarily solve any problems (never mind that the reader is spinning wheels in thinking about form rather than feeling the content). A further problem with this approach is that it’s essentially lazy, and too often excuses the author’s ignorance. It’s also self-serving (serving the author) instead of serving the reader. I believe that a key duty of the haiku poet is to think of the reader, to prevent misreading, and to learn when and how to control ambiguity. An extension of this reader-advocacy is for haiku writers to educate themselves about syllables and to count them correctly and consistently.
        It’s generous to the author to “let the author decide,” and it’s appealing to be generous, but to me it seems patently illogical for a word to have one syllable in one poem but magically have two syllables in another. And while such a stance is generous to the author, it’s ungenerous to the reader. With no standardized definition of a syllable, the value of a syllable becomes poetically meaningless. Furthermore, allowing this approach to syllables in English contradicts how syllables in Japanese (or rather, the sounds they count) are clearly and uniformly understood, although there might be extremely rare exceptions. While notes can be bent in jazz, and people bend rules in poetry all the time, bending the understanding of a syllable for haiku is neither jazz nor a bending of a rule. Rather, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding.
        As just mentioned, one issue with letting authors decide how many syllables they want a word to have in their haiku is the logical conclusion such thinking could produce. The author could decide that “syllable” is five syllables or that “dog” is two. In fairness, that’s unlikely to happen, as such decisions are probably going to be limited to problematic words. But two other problems still remain. The first is that one author might think “stacked” is two syllables and another will think (correctly) that it’s one. Never mind that thinking about this diverts readers away from the meaning or emotional effect of the poem to think about its scaffolding, but when that happens, the two choices are still at odds with each other for the reader, so what is gained by letting the writer “decide”? The second problem is that the writer might “decide” a word is two syllables in one case and one syllable in another case, just to get it to fit. That makes the notion of what a syllable is utterly meaningless. If one is writing syllabically, one had better understand what a syllable is. A craftsman needs to know his or her tools.
        A further problem with letting the author decide is an effect this stance has on readers. To me, it’s absurd to assume the author might have meant certain muddy words to be two syllables rather than one, say. We also can’t know whether the author is thinking of the word being said in a particular dialect where the word sounds like it might be two syllables (even if it still isn’t, technically). If the reader encounters a poem in which the author assumes that “fire” (for example) is two syllables, and this belief is what makes the poem fit a 5-7-5 structure, the reader has no certain way of knowing from the poem itself whether 5-7-5 was intended. For all the reader knows, the poet might have known perfectly well that “fire” is one syllable, and could have been glad to avoid 5-7-5. Thus, it might have been pure accident that a misreading of “fire” as two syllables happens to make the poem 5-7-5. The reader typically cannot know intent, so it seems to me that it’s the author’s responsibility to write with a standard understanding of syllables—if the poem is written to fit a 5-7-5 form or some other syllabic pattern.
        Ultimately, if we do allow the writer to decide how many syllables a word has, and a poem comes out to a particular syllable count as a result (whether 5-7-5 or whatever), what is gained? Some trivial satisfaction that, oh, they got the count “right”? That’s a pat on the head for schoolchildren, not professional poetics. I would argue that nothing is materially gained in each haiku itself, whether the poem is a particular syllable count or not, because the success of the poem, in English, lies in its images, experience, meaning, and emotional effect—none of which has anything to do with syllables. Rhythm and lyricism might have something to do with syllables, but one can write an effective and lyrical rhythm in any syllable count, and 5-7-5 does not have any magical superiority to it.
        In light of all these thoughts, I recommend to all haiku writers who choose to write syllabically that they look up words that might be uncertain to them and look for the raised dot that typically indicates syllable breaks in words. They won’t find one in “fire.” And I recommend to all teachers that they stop teaching haiku as 5-7-5, and pay attention to all the real targets for haiku that are routinely obscured.

—23, 24 June, 31 July 2016