or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Yesterday I threw around some words regarding metrical feet, and I thought maybe you'd want to know a little more about them. Obviously, if you have a degree in English literature (which I almost did), then you're going to have learned all this stuff already, and you can move along. But really, it's very interesting.

In English, vowel length more or less corresponds to stresses in multisyllabic words: a short vowel is probably going to fall in an unstressed syllable, a long vowel in a stressed syllable. This isn't absolutely true: there are lots of words with no long vowels, and so we just impose a stress pattern on them, sometimes multiple patterns on the same word, such as "desert", which can be "duh-ZERT" or "DEH-zurt", depending on whether it's a verb or a noun. Either way, two short vowels.

There are some words that have all syllables equally stressed: "mother", for instance, is generally pronounced (in my part of the world, anyway) as two unstressed, short-vowel syllables. There are also some words that reverse the usual order of things: words ending in a long "-e" sound, such as "money", "fantasy", "reverie", or "charcuterie", for instance, are generally stressed one or two syllables before the last, with that long terminal vowel being unstressed. I can think of only one word in the language ("grandee") that has its stress on the terminal long "-e", though I didn't do an exhaustive search and there may be others. This is English we're talking about, after all, and there are very few hard and fast rules.

But most usually, a word is going to be patterned so that the stresses occur in the long syllables: "deliberation", for instance, has four unstressed syllables and one stressed, and that stressed syllable is the fourth, which consists entirely of a long "-a-".

All clear? Okay. A moment's thought will demonstrate that there are four possible disyllablic or two-syllable metrical feet: short-short, short-long, long-short, and long-long. These are, in order, the dibrach, the iamb, the trochee, and the spondee. Another moment's thought will suggest that, since English loves to overlay stress patterns on its words, the iamb and the trochee are by far the most common two-syllable patterns, because there is generally some sort of stress in all words of more than one syllable. "Mother" would be a dibrach, unless you hammer on the first syllable in teenaged exasperation: "MUH-ther!" I can't think of a naturally occurring spondee in English, but the final thing you need to know about metrical feet is that they don't necessarily correspond to word divisions: it's possible to have one foot overlapping two words, or one long word consisting of two metrical feet (or one foot and part of another), as in "metaphysical", which consists of a trochee and a dactyl.

More on this tomorrow, if I feel like it, when I might talk about, heaven help us, the trisyllables. In the meantime, the etymologies of the disyllables, because that's the sort of thing I do.

"Dibrach" is pretty obviously from "di-", "two", and "-brach", which is...well, what is it? Here's a hint: the brachial artery is the one that feeds the upper arm. Clearer? No? Well, "brachus", Greek for "upper arm", also meant "short", because the upper arm-bone (the humerus) is shorter than the lower ones (the radius and ulna). So "-brach" means "short", and a dibrach is a two-short-vowel metrical foot.

"Iamb" is just "iamb". It doesn't mean anything except what it means. (It's short for "iambus".) It might be--probably is--related to Latin "jacere", "to throw", because this metrical foot was much used in satirical poetry, which threw its little barbed words at its targets.

"Trochee" is from Greek "trechein", "to run", because of the similarity to a loping gait: HARD-soft HARD-soft.

"Spondee" comes from Greek "sponde", "libation", because of its use in drinking songs.

"Trochee" is the only metrical foot, alas, that names its own stress pattern; all four of the disyllabic foot names, in fact, are trochees.


Blogger Frank said...

"Obviously, if you have a degree in English literature (which I almost did), then you're going to have learned all this stuff already, and you can move along."

I'm always slightly ashamed to admit this, but I've NEVER really gotten scansion. I just seem to have this block, despite having had it taught and explained several times. I'm a baaaaaaaad English major.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008 9:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mention that in English there are few fast and hard rules. Something that I've noticed, and haven't yet found an exception for, is that vowels that precede geminated consonants are never long. Killer. Mettle. Batter. Disyllabic. Stress.

Know of an historical reason for this, or any exceptions of a word that has been in English for some time that contradicts this observation?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008 1:40:00 PM  

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