In Japanese poetry like haiku or tanka, the form is based on the number of 'on' units per segment.

I know that most people who use the format in English usually use syllables, though I've never thought that was very elegant. I've thought about using morae, slightly different from English syllables, but then I get people getting confused because they're used to identifying the formats with the number of syllables.

Is using syllables the generally accepted 'proper' way to write English haiku or tanka?

  • I'm fairly certain that syllables are the generally accepted method of writing haiku in English, as they're relatively the same thing as Mora.
    – Kyle Li
    Feb 10 '17 at 3:32
  • Updated your title to reflect the actual question. Feb 13 '17 at 16:17

I don't think morae are a useful concept to understand Modern English phonology.

For example, while a diphtong such as [aʊ̯] in loud /laʊ̯d/ may be thought of as two morae, you almost always speak it as one continually changing diphthong (/laʊ̯d/), with the /ʊ̯/ as a non-syllabic glide, not as two distinct vowels (/laʊd/). (Similarly for long vowels: boot /buːt/, not bo-ot /buut/.)

In other words, what people hear (in English) are syllables, therefore using syllables to build a rhythm will result in a more natural speech.


Now, I'm utter bullocks at poetry, but I am learning Japanese. So allow me to (try and help by) describing how Japanese syllables work, and what Onji are meant to describe.

In Japanese words are spoken in a vary per-syllable fashion, with grammar sometimes being the only thing used to define the bounds between words/sentences. Along with this, Japanese words can be composed of syllables that have been prolonged to take up roughly two normal syllables worth of time.

Example, Tokyo(ときょ) is really written Toukyou(とうきょう), with the 'u's representing a prolonging of each syllable. Thus the word takes up four On rather then two, as Japanese speakers will take into account the proportional length of each syllable, not just how many there are.

Secondly, Japanese syllables usually go consonant, vowel, unless it's a lone vowel or a lone 'n' sound. However, words like Nippon(にっぽん) can copy the consonant sound of a syllable and put it at the end of the one behind it, thus prolonging it and adding another On to the word.

To-u-kyo-u takes up four On by prolonging each syllable's vowel sound. Ni-p-po-n takes up four On by having consonants cap each syllable, thus prolonging them.

Se-n-pa-i like the other two, takes up four On despite being two English syllables, as 'ai' is pronounced as one but would have it's pronunciation drawn out.

So ya, basically, I'd use English syllables. Haiku are uniquely Japanese in how they work, as Japanese has a focus on the length of each syllable in a way that English simply doesn't.

Hope this helps, or at least was informative! :)

Edit: This is a bad, yet still proper 5-7-5 Haiku written in Japanese. Notice how it doesn't read like one in English:

先生が、 新しいなら、 いい俳句。

Sensei ga, atarashī nara, ī haiku.

(With master, when it's new, it's a good Haiku.)


I believe if you're writing a haiku in a particular language, you stick to the smallest unit of sound heard when the language is spoken. In Japanese, this is the ooni; in English, this is the syllable.

  • Thanks; that's a good insight that's not language-specific. Apr 3 '17 at 13:46

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