Syllabic writing began several hundred years before the first letters. The earliest recorded syllables are on tablets written around 2800 BC in the Sumerian city of Ur. This shift from pictograms to syllables has been called "the most important advance in the history of writing".

A word that consists of a single syllable (like English dog) is called a monosyllable (and is said to be monosyllabic). Similar terms include disyllable (and disyllabic; also bisyllable and bisyllabic) for a word of two syllables; trisyllable (and trisyllabic) for a word of three syllables; and polysyllable (and polysyllabic), which may refer either to a word of more than three syllables or to any word of more than one syllable.

Syllable is an Anglo-Norman variation of Old French sillabe, from Latin syllaba, from Koine Greek MEANS "what is taken together", referring to letters that are taken together to make a single sound The nucleus is usually the vowel in the middle of a syllable. The onset is the sound or sounds occurring before the nucleus, and the coda (literally 'tail') is the sound or sounds that follow the nucleus. They are sometimes collectively known as the shell. The term rime covers the nucleus plus coda. In the one-syllable English word cat, the nucleus is a (the sound that can be shouted or sung on its own), the onset c, the coda t, and the rime at. This syllable can be abstracted as a consonant-vowel-consonant syllable, abbreviated CVC. Languages vary greatly in the restrictions on the sounds making up the onset, nucleus and coda of a syllable, according to what is termed a language's phonotactics.

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