Friday, July 09, 2004

Triangulating Language

Jonathan Mayhew leads me to Mark Liberman's guide to accentual-syllabic verse in general and iambic pentameter in paricular in Language Log. Here’s a sample of said analysis:
In English iambic pentameter, on the other
hand, the basic constraints seem to be
that both strong and weak positions in the meter
should correspond to single syllables,
and that "weak" positions in the meter should not
coincide with stress peaks (that is, syllables
that are naturally more prominent than
those around them). The "strong" positions are relatively
unconstrained. The result is verse in which
the natural rhythm of linguistic performance,
while metrically constrained, need not evoke
the regular alternation of the metrical
form very strongly.
Although I think this is right, I find it somewhat difficult to comprehend. Mark is not without company. Most who write about versification, for some reason, make things seem too technical. Not to trumpet Timothy Steele again in this blog, but his analysis in “all the fun’s in how you say a thing” keeps it simple.

I’ll try to be even more simple with this basic statement, which for me is the dirty secret of scansion: you cannot have three consecutive unstressed or stressed syllables in English. That’s it. One of those three syllables will be more stressed or unstressed than the others, even if ever so slightly so. It’s geographical.

Any paragraph can be scanned in loose iambic (I broke Mr. Liberman’s paragraph into lines that I would argue scan (remember elision) a very loose iambic pentameter, except the last dimeter line.) The foremost problem with pentameter is not ending a line with a word that carries your meter over a beat or two. The next issue is the amount of anapestic or trochaic substitutions you use in the lines themselves. Mr. Steele would say the fewer the better. Sometimes I agree with him. The last issue is natural rhythm and that’s just soul. Otherwise, pentameter is really a dance in the park.


Geof Huth said...


I'm sure it's impossible to have more than two unstressed syllables in a row. And I admit that the stress of a certain syllable in a particular word can change given its context in a sentence. And we can usually identify at least two levels of stressed syllables (as recognized in most dictionary pronunciations). (My old teacher, Hayden Carruth claimed to be able to distinguish between five levels of stress!)

But I think three stressed syllables of equal weight are possible. For instance, if, to be dramatic, we ran across a line like

Lost! Lost! Lost!

I'd say that the three syllables are stressed equally.

(All of this occurred to me because I often used to try to accumulate multiple stressed syllables in a row--tho these were not always equal in weight.)


Greg said...

Geof, I'd guess I'd have two ways to disagree with that. The first I think is more reasonable. And that's I doubt all three would be stressed the same in regular speech. I would believe that the last "Lost" would be stressed more than the previous two. And I'd go even further and say that there would be a rising of the stress from the first to the last. (Or maybe the sense of despair would actually bring about a lessening of stress--either way.)

But if they were the same, then the other way to disagree is to suggest that there are caesuras between each word.

Geof Huth said...


Unconvincing to my ear. I can say the three identical syllables with identical stress. My point here, which I left out, is that I can see no way to have three or more stressed syllables in a natural sentence. But "Lost! Lost! Lost!" is not a natural sentence. So I give you that.

I will also give you that people could give each subsequent syllable greater stress, but I find this unlikely and less natural than an even stress throughout. All I'm arguing is that it's possible to speak three equally stressed syllables consecutively in a modestly unnatural setting (tho little less unnatural than the verbal environment of most poetry).

The idea that you could see two caesurae in that line doesn't modify the number of consecutive stresses in any way. I assume you consider that the caesurae serve as unstressed syllables, but I don't see how a brief pause can be the equivalent of an actual sound. By this argument, a pure iambic pentameter line is impossible (save at the end of a poem), since the end-line pause would be considered an unaccented syllable, thus making the last iambic foot an amphibrach.

But enough of this. This is a small matter, and I have no need to try to argue you out of your point of view.


Wendy Beth Hyman said...

Antony refers to himself as a "plain blunt man" in Julius Caesar (III.ii.209). That's three stressed syllables to this English professor. What think'st thou?

Greg said...

"But, as you know me all, a plain, blunt man"

Especially in its context, you can hear (and see) 'blunt' is being stessed less than the words surrounding it.

It's a matter of degree, of course, and certainly debatable. But, for me, it's obvious.

Also, in this case, the vowel sounds are giving it away.

Wendy Beth Hyman said...

I respectfully disagree. At the risk of being (even more) pedantic, you've added an extraneous comma to make your case. That comma is not in the folio (the only authoritative source for the text). Antony is a person who pulls off a rhopolic in the opening line of his funeral oration; there's no reason to think that Shakespeare didn't give him those three (deeply ironic) stresses--e.g. he is anything but a plain blunt man. Notice how evacuated of stress the rest of the line is, too: Shax is saving his metrical ammunition for the end of the line.

Greg said...

oops, that's what you get when you go copying from a google search.

so we'll have to agree to disagree.

although, i would add that the bard knew his iambic pentameter when he saw it.