English Meter

Textkit is a learning community- introduce yourself here. Use the Open Board to introduce yourself, chat about off-topic issues and get to know each other.
vir litterarum
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 722
Joined: Sat Sep 24, 2005 4:04 am
Location: Chicago, IL

English Meter

Post by vir litterarum » Wed Feb 24, 2010 10:59 am

I was just wondering whether anyone could explain to me why poets who compose in the English language, with a few exceptions, refuse to use meters based on syllable-length. I am aware that even poems written in Old English like Beowulf utilized a stress-based metrical scheme, but Latin poetry was originally stress-based too, e.g. the Saturnian meter, but then became length-based through the influence of Greek. Is there some essential difference between the languages of which I am not aware that would prevent this from occurring in English? The transition to length-based meters attained universal predominance in Latin poetry; why can it not even gain a foothold in English verse?

Damoetas
Textkit Fan
Posts: 231
Joined: Thu Mar 12, 2009 6:31 pm
Location: Chicago

Re: English Meter

Post by Damoetas » Wed Feb 24, 2010 2:41 pm

Perhaps someone else can give a more detailed answer, but I think the essence of it is really very simple: English vowels don't have quantity apart from stress. Even though the earlier Latin meters were stress-based, their language at least had the phonemic structure that would make either metrical scheme possible. (Also, I think there is some scholarly controversy about what the Saturnian meter really was; it might not be as clear-cut as you say.) But anyway, leaving that aside, the main reason has to do with the phonology of English. Stress in English is a bundle of several phonetic features: 1) higher pitch, 2) greater force and loudness, and 3) length. Vowels that are not stressed are reduced to schwa (or something similar -- I'm oversimplifying). What we call "long" and "short" vowels in English (e.g. a as in "late" vs. a as in "cat") are really separate vowel phonemes, distinguished not by length but by quality. (Although they do have a historical connection, which is where the terminology comes from.) So anyway, since vowel length in English is almost entirely a subset of stress, it seems that stress is really the only metrical scheme possible.

For samples of what modern languages with contrastive vowel length sound like, you can listen to recordings of Finnish or (to a lesser extent) Serbo-Croat (and there are other languages as well, I'm just not thinking of them right now). Or check out the Latin read by the Finnish speakers at Nuntii Latini -- I think their pronunciation of vowel length is probably very accurate.

EDIT: PS: I haven't read much about Old English, to see if it's vowel quantity system was similar to Greek and Latin. If it was, it has completely changed somewhere in the intervening centuries -- perhaps someone else knows exactly when. (post-Norman conquest?)

EDIT: PPS: One other factor that determines vowel length in English is whether or not the following consonant is voiced. Vowels are pronounced longer before voiced consonants (b, d, g, z, v, nasals) than voiceless ones (p, t, k, s, f, etc). So, for instance, the "short a" in "bag" is actually longer than the "long a" in "bake." You can check it out by recording yourself (or some other unsuspecting person) saying the words, and then looking at the wave form on a sound editing program.
Dic mihi, Damoeta, 'cuium pecus' anne Latinum?

vir litterarum
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 722
Joined: Sat Sep 24, 2005 4:04 am
Location: Chicago, IL

Re: English Meter

Post by vir litterarum » Wed Feb 24, 2010 6:08 pm

Even though the earlier Latin meters were stress-based, their language at least had the phonemic structure that would make either metrical scheme possible. (
So are you arguing that the stress accent of Latin is qualitatively different from that of English? I disagree that English accent affects syllable length; I think it takes the same amount of time to pronounce an accented and unaccented short or long syllable, unless one artificially emphasizes the accent by prolonging the length of pronunciation. I would definitely agree that the distinctions between a long and short syllable may be more complex in English than in Latin, but I still think they exist: it still takes longer to pronounce "breed than bred", and two consecutive consonants still increase the length of time it takes to pronounce a syllable with a short vowel.
So, for instance, the "short a" in "bag" is actually longer than the "long a" in "bake."
You're right, but both are still in a simplified system "long." If, for example, in either Latin or Greek, you compare the length of time it takes to pronounce a syllable that is only long by position and one that is both long by position and nature, e.g. the -is in "canis rabidus" and the first -is in "puellis bellis", the latter is going to take slightly longer to pronounce, but both, because the system has been simplified, are just considered long.

Essorant
Textkit Fan
Posts: 282
Joined: Wed Jan 10, 2007 6:35 pm
Location: Regina, SK; Canada
Contact:

Re: English Meter

Post by Essorant » Wed Feb 24, 2010 10:28 pm

it still takes longer to pronounce "breed than bred"
I think you are incorrect about this. Vowel length is dependant on phonetic enviroment in Modern English. Therefore any/every vowel in an enviroment that makes a vowel long is long and any in an enviroment that makes it short is short. Vowel sounds at the end of a word are generally long: claw, glow, see, sigh, etc. Add a d and they all become a little less long: clawed, glowed, seed, side. Add a t and they all become short: clot, gloat, seat, sight.

I think the answer to the question is that syllable-length just doesn't "stick out" enough in English to have importance, at least not anymore. Try writing some poetic verse that uses syllable-length instead and see if anyone notices. They probably won't. But they surely notice the stresses of a poem with iambic meter, when it is well done. That is because stresses "stick out" enough in English to make a great difference.

vir litterarum
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 722
Joined: Sat Sep 24, 2005 4:04 am
Location: Chicago, IL

Re: English Meter

Post by vir litterarum » Thu Feb 25, 2010 12:48 am

I think the answer to the question is that syllable-length just doesn't "stick out" enough in English to have importance, at least not anymore.


I still don't see what would have made syllable-length any more prominent in Latin than it is English when both have a stress accent. I agree that phonetic environment does affect a syllable's length, but those are the types of small differences that inevitably must exist in a system that only distinguishes between long and short quantities: not every long and short is equal, but, when a poem is recited orally, the poet can account for such minuscule differences while performing.

I think the only reason that syllable-length does not seem to "stick out" in English is because of our current paradigm: if we were paying attention primarily to syllable length and not accent, then this would become the most prominent determinant of prosody just as it did for the Romans, who were able to switch from accentual to syllabic poetry. It just seems to me to be a matter of perspective.

The only famous poet of whom I know who based his prosody on syllable-length was Robert Bridges, who used dactylic hexameter for his translation of the sixth book of the Aeneid.

annis
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 3399
Joined: Fri Jan 03, 2003 4:55 pm
Location: Madison, WI, USA
Contact:

Re: English Meter

Post by annis » Thu Feb 25, 2010 1:19 am

vir litterarum wrote:why can it not even gain a foothold in English verse?
It's not contrastive in English, whereas in Greek and Latin vowel length could be the sole difference between two otherwise identical words. Without training, a native English speaker will have no reason to attend to vowel length. To speak Latin correctly even in prose required attention to that detail. Why would one develop a system of verse that requires people to attend to contrasts they won't even consider a contrast without training?
William S. Annis — http://www.aoidoi.org/http://www.scholiastae.org/
τίς πατέρ' αἰνήσει εἰ μὴ κακοδαίμονες υἱοί;

User avatar
Jeff Tirey
Administrator
Posts: 896
Joined: Wed Aug 14, 2002 6:58 pm
Location: Strongsville, Ohio

Re: English Meter

Post by Jeff Tirey » Thu Feb 25, 2010 2:09 am

Hi Will - it's good to see you!

Jeff
Textkit Founder

Damoetas
Textkit Fan
Posts: 231
Joined: Thu Mar 12, 2009 6:31 pm
Location: Chicago

Re: English Meter

Post by Damoetas » Thu Feb 25, 2010 8:59 pm

vir litterarum wrote:So are you arguing that the stress accent of Latin is qualitatively different from that of English?
Just expand a little bit more on what others have already said:

It's not so much that the stress accent of Latin was qualitatively different from that of English (although it may have been). The main point is that vowel length in Latin was fundamentally different from what we call length in English. In Latin, a long vowel was always pronounced twice as long as the corresponding short vowel, regardless of the position in the word or whether it was stressed or not. That was the only difference in the sound of the two vowels.

As you can see, the relationship between the "long" and "short" vowels in English is nothing like this. It is simply a historical accident that we even use the terms "long" and "short" for something that is a fundamentally different phenomenon. The example that you mentioned, "breed" and "bred," does not involve long and short versions of the same vowel. They are two different vowels (which just happen to be spelled the same). As described phonetically, "breed" contains a "high unrounded front vowel," whereas "bred" contains a "mid unrounded front vowel with lax articulation" -- i.e., not only is the front part of tongue lower in the mouth, but there is also slightly less tension in the throat muscles; you can see this x-ray videos of people pronouncing sounds. The same holds true for other vowels that we call long and short versions of each other, but they are really not. In fact, most English vowels do come in pairs of "tense" and "lax," but often these don't match up with what we call long and short. E.g. "oo" as in "boot" and "u" as in "put" (at least in American English; the pairs are different in other varieties of English). In all these cases, the actual period of time that it takes to articulate the vowel is completely incidental to the distinction in sound; length, as I mentioned before, correlates almost entirely with 1) stress, and 2) whether the following consonant is voiced or voiceless.

The upshot of all this is, in Latin, vowel length (and likewise syllable length) must have had much much greater acoustic prominence than did stress. Whatever Latin stress sounded like, it must have been comparatively weak in the classical period; and that is why it was natural for them to base their meters on quantity instead of stress. Since the phonology of English is completely different in all respects, quantity-based meters simply don't work for us.
Dic mihi, Damoeta, 'cuium pecus' anne Latinum?

modus.irrealis
Textkit Zealot
Posts: 1093
Joined: Mon Apr 10, 2006 6:08 am
Location: Toronto

Re: English Meter

Post by modus.irrealis » Thu Feb 25, 2010 11:57 pm

Damoetas wrote:It's not so much that the stress accent of Latin was qualitatively different from that of English (although it may have been). The main point is that vowel length in Latin was fundamentally different from what we call length in English. In Latin, a long vowel was always pronounced twice as long as the corresponding short vowel, regardless of the position in the word or whether it was stressed or not. That was the only difference in the sound of the two vowels.
It doesn't effect your point but there are many (Allen in Vox Latina e.g.) who reconstruct differences in quality between the long and short versions of all vowels but a, with the short vowels being more open and the long vowels more close.

Another difference that may or may not be connected is that English does not have geminate consonants (except across morpheme boundaries). It seems to me that languages where quantitative verse is well-established do, and I can't find any counterexamples. This might be related to the issue of syllables that are long by position (which I can't imagine comes down to actual length -- how can et take longer to say than stre?). Since both have to do with syllabification, they might be related, and I do know that I have as much problems with double consonants as I do quantitative verse.

Damoetas
Textkit Fan
Posts: 231
Joined: Thu Mar 12, 2009 6:31 pm
Location: Chicago

Re: English Meter

Post by Damoetas » Sat Feb 27, 2010 10:12 pm

modus.irrealis wrote:It doesn't effect your point but there are many (Allen in Vox Latina e.g.) who reconstruct differences in quality between the long and short versions of all vowels but a, with the short vowels being more open and the long vowels more close.
Yes, I was oversimplifying a bit, in order to keep from obscuring the main point....
modus.irrealis wrote:Another difference that may or may not be connected is that English does not have geminate consonants (except across morpheme boundaries). It seems to me that languages where quantitative verse is well-established do, and I can't find any counterexamples. This might be related to the issue of syllables that are long by position (which I can't imagine comes down to actual length -- how can et take longer to say than stre?). Since both have to do with syllabification, they might be related, and I do know that I have as much problems with double consonants as I do quantitative verse.
I think you're right about this: geminate consonants do contribute a lot to the overall rhythm of a language.... It reminds me of the time I met a Finnish guy named Jukka Pekka; and the way he pronounced his name, without even any effort to be rhythmical, it automatically sounded like two trochees! The syllables with the double-k's were literally twice as long as the other syllables.
Dic mihi, Damoeta, 'cuium pecus' anne Latinum?

Post Reply