Mora (linguistics)

Mora (linguistics)

Mora (plural moras or morae) is a unit in phonology that determines syllable weight, which in some languages determines stress or timing. As with many technical linguistic terms, the definition of a mora varies. Perhaps the most succinct working definition was provided by the American linguist James D. McCawley in 1968: a mora is “Something of which a long syllable consists of two and a short syllable consists of one.” The term comes from the Latin word for “linger, delay”, which was also used to translate the Greek word chronos (time) in its metrical sense.

A syllable containing one mora is said to be monomoraic; a syllable with two moras is said to be bimoraic. Also, in rarer cases, a syllable with three moras is said to be trimoraic.



In general, moras are formed as follows:

  1. A syllable onset (the first consonant or consonants of the syllable) does not represent any mora.
  2. The syllable nucleus represents one mora in the case of a short vowel, and two moras in the case of a long vowel or diphthong. Consonants serving as syllable nuclei also represent one mora if short and two if long. (Slovak is an example of a language that has both long and short consonantal nuclei.)
  3. In some languages (for example, Japanese), the coda represents one mora, and in others (for example, Irish) it does not. In English, the codas of stressed syllables represent a mora (thus, the word cat is bimoraic), but for unstressed syllables it is not clear whether the codas do so (the second syllable of the word rabbit might be monomoraic).
  4. In some languages, a syllable with a long vowel or diphthong in the nucleus and one or more consonants in the coda is said to be trimoraic (see pluti).

In general, monomoraic syllables are said to be light syllables, bimoraic syllables are said to be heavy syllables, and trimoraic syllables (in languages that have them) are said to be superheavy syllables. Most linguists believe that no language uses syllables containing four or more moras.



In India, the mora was an acknowledged phenomenon well over two millennia ago in ancient Indian linguistics schools studying the dominant scholarly and religious lingua franca of Sanskrit. The mora was first expressed in India as the mātrā.[citation needed]

For example, the short vowel "a" (pronounced like a schwa) is assigned a value of one mātrā, the long vowel "ā" is assigned a value of two mātrās, and the complex vowel "ai" (which is composed of three simple short vowels, namely "a"+"a"+"i", or one long and one short vowel, namely "ā"+"i") is assigned a value of three mātrās.[citation needed]

Sanskrit prosody and metrics have a deep history of taking into account moraic weight, as it were, rather than straight syllables, divided into "laghu" (लघु, "light") and "guru" (गुरु, "heavy") feet based on how many moras can be isolated in each word.[citation needed]

Thus, for example, the word "kartṛi", meaning "agent" or "doer", does not contain, contrary to intuitive English prosodic principles, simply two syllabic units, but contains rather, in order, a "guru"/"heavy" foot and a "laghu"/"light" foot. The reason is that the conjoined consonants 'rt' render the normally light 'ka' syllable heavy.

Ancient Greek

In Ancient Greek, short vowels have one mora, and long vowels and diphthongs have two morae. Thus long ē (eta: η) can be understood as a sequence of two short vowels: ee.[1]

Ancient Greek pitch accent is placed on only one mora in a word. An acute (έ, ή) represents high pitch on the only mora of a short vowel or the last mora of a long vowel (é, eé). A circumflex (ῆ) represents high pitch on the first mora of a long vowel (ée).


Japanese is a language famous for its moraic qualities. Most dialects, including the standard, use moras (in Japanese, haku (拍) or mōra (モーラ)) rather than syllables as the basis of the sound system.

For example, haiku in modern Japanese do not follow the pattern 5 syllables/7 syllables/5 syllables, as commonly believed, but rather the pattern 5 moras/7 moras/5 moras.

As one example, the Japanese syllable-final n is moraic, as is the first part of a geminate consonant. For example, the word Nippon (one of the pronunciations of 日本, the name for "Japan" in Japanese) has four moras (ni-p-po-n); each of the four characters used in the hiragana spelling にっぽん represents one of the four moras.

Thus, in Japanese, the words Tōkyō (to-o-kyo-o とうきょう), Ōsaka (o-o-sa-ka おおさか), and Nagasaki (na-ga-sa-ki ながさき) all have four moras, even though they have two, three, and four syllables, respectively.


Gilbertese, an Austronesian language spoken mainly in Kiribati is a trimoraic language.[2] The typical foot in Gilbertese contains three moras. These trimoraic constituents are units of stress in Gilbertese. These “ternary metrical constituents of the sort found in Gilbertese are quite rare cross-linguistically, and as far as we know, Gilbertese is the only language in the world reported to have a ternary constraint on prosodic word size.”


In Ganda, a short vowel constitutes one mora while a long vowel constitutes two moras. A simple consonant has no moras, and a doubled or prenasalised consonant has one. No syllable may contain more than three moras. The tone system in Ganda is based on moras.


In Hawaiian, both syllables and moras are important. Stress falls on the penultimate mora, though in words long enough to have two stresses, only the final stress is predictable. However, although a diphthong, such as oi, consists of two moras, stress may fall only on the first, a restriction not found with other vowel sequences such as io. That is, there is a distinction between oi, a bimoraic syllable, and io, which is two syllables.

See also


  1. ^ The Inflectional Accent in Indo-European. Paul Kiparsky. Language. Vol. 49, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 794–849. Linguistic Society of America.
  2. ^ Juliette Blevins and Sheldon P. Harrison."Trimoraic Feet in Gilbertese". Oceanic Linguistics, vol. 38, Nr 2, December 1999.


  • Clark, John; Collin Yallop, and Janet Fletcher (2007). Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology (3rd edition ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 1405130830. 

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