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Why is it spelled...?

Why is rhythm spelled the way it is, and why does it have two syllables but only one vowel letter?

Rhythm comes from Greek. Thus the <rh>, which is the Latin (and later the English) transliteration of the Greek letter rho. The <y> represents the Greek letter upsilon, or u psilon, which in Greek meant "simple <u>" and looked like a <u>. But the Romans transliterated it with a <v> with a tail — that is, a <y>.

The phonetic respelling of rhythm is [|rith·schwam], so although there is only one vowel letter in it, there are two vowel sounds, the [i] in the first syllable and the schwa [schwa] in the second. Actually, the <m> in rhythm spells what is called a syllabic consonant. Each syllable must contain a single peak of sound, which is usually a vowel sound spelled with a vowel letter, but syllabic consonants can form that peak without any vowel letter, especially at the end of a word. Dictionaries often show a schwa in such cases, as in [|rith·schwam], bitter [|bit·schwar], but syllabic consonants can be, and often are, pronounced with no discernible vowel sound, just the sound of the consonant, even if there is a vowel letter before or after the consonant — for instance, gentle [|jen·tl], button [|but·n], riddle (|rid·l], bottle [|bot·l] or [|bot·schwal].

Remembering the statement, "Rhythm is an unusual six-letter word" can help rein in your spelling when you find yourself with seven or eight letters battling for a place. And if you can remember the <rh> from rho, the <y> from the Greek upsilon, and the fact that it has only six letters, the <thm> will pretty much take care of itself.

If rhythm gives you trouble, you are not alone. The OED cites the following earlier spellings: rhithme, rithme, rythme, rhythme, rithm, rythm, rhithm. And in a tally of attempts at spelling rhythms by college remedial spelling students, ten spelled it correctly while 64 misspelled it, in 24 different ways.

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