AbstractLanguage modelling and machine translation tasks mostly use subword or character inputs, but syllables are seldom used. Syllables provide shorter sequences than characters, require less-specialised extracting rules than morphemes, and their segmentation is not impacted by the corpus size. In this study, we first explore the potential of syllables for open-vocabulary language modelling in 21 languages. We use rule-based syllabification methods for six languages and address the rest with hyphenation, which works as a syllabification proxy. With a comparable perplexity, we show that syllables outperform characters and other subwords. Moreover, we study the importance of syllables on neural machine translation for a non-related and low-resource language-pair (Spanish–Shipibo-Konibo). In pairwise and multilingual systems, syllables outperform unsupervised subwords, and further morphological segmentation methods, when translating into a highly synthetic language with a transparent orthography (Shipibo-Konibo). Finally, we perform some human evaluation, and discuss limitations and opportunities.