Meter and Stuff

The language of literature is not the same thing as that of ordinary speech. The two have been confounded by modern scholars for far too long.

Students of Latin and Greek know about the rule that a long syllable is equal to two short ones in versification. Here are some parallels from round the world:

When Luganda poems and songs are accompanied on the drums, a single drumbeat is assigned to a light syllable and two drum beats are assigned to a heavy syllable.
Light syllables are valued as one mora and heavy syllables as two morae similarly in Tongan verse and Kinyarwanda pastoral poetry.
Among the various Arabic meters, the kamil and the wafir alone allow two shorts to respond with a single long.
In Hausa Islamic verse, this equivalence occurs in metrical locations in which it is not found in the corresponding Arabic meters.
In traditional Hindi meters, the equivalence of a heavy syllable to two light syllables is a basic feature.
In Literary Persian verse, the two light syllables may technically be replaced by a heavy syllable more or less anywhere except at the beginning of a line, though this responsion in Persian is in practice subject to additional constraints. There are places in the metrical line where it is allowed but extremely unlikely to occur, and others (such as in the constituents of the phrasal rhyme at the end of a verse) where it is particularly common.
In Urdu verse, two shorts are substituted for a long, but likewise subject to severe positional restriction. Substitution does not occur under the metrical ictus, or in precaesural position.
Two light syllables respond with one heavy syllable also in the praise poems of the Bahima.
In Latin scenic verse, as in Tamil verse, and in Lithuanian quantitative hexameter verse patterned on that of Latin, the equivalence of two shorts to one long interacts with stress over the domain of the prosodic word, and probably also with morpheme structure.

Even allowing for the widespread borrowing of quantitative verse systems the cumulative evidence for this prosodic equivalence substantiates it as a natural phenomenon of rhythm in language.

But it does not follow that the specific properties of verse are in every respect a transparent outgrowth of speech rhythm. Hindi and Urdu are, at a certain register of speech, essentially the same language and the prosody of speech rhythm is basically the same in the two (apart from the different frequency of wordshape distributions, due to borrowing from different sources in the literary register.) Yet Hindi and Urdu verse have very different ways of dividing a metrical line, and obey very different habits in the equivalence of two shorts to a single long, resulting in a different rhythmic "feel" in the poetry of the two languages. (You can substitute a long for two shorts under metrical ictus in Hindi, but not in Urdu.) Hindi meters are basically moraic (like the meters of Classical Sanskrit and other Indic languages), and Urdu meters are positional (roughly like in Persian). To the "Urdu ear" unaccustomed to literary Hindi verse-lines, the verses are bizarrely long with an alarmingly erratic syllable pattern. The Urdu listener must get the "feel" of it, learn to hear all over again. Of course there really is nothing about Urdu that prevents one from writing poetry in it using Hindi meters, or the reverse, and a few Urdu poets have experimented with them to great success. The difference between Hindi and Urdu versifications demonstrates the degree to which extralinguistic factors may determine what seems and does not seem like metrical language in a given speech community. The difference between the two is not due to any essential difference of language. It is, to put it crudely, a cultural difference.

Versification can tell you a great deal about the rhythm of a language. If English were a dead language, one could deduce a lot — and mostly accurately — about real speech rhythm by studying its verse. But one must not make mechanistic assumptions about the "character of a language" from versification habits. There are other factors involved. The preference for iambic pentameter in English is not, as has often been claimed, anything to do with its congeniality to the language. It has to do with the longstanding interaction between English and French verse, resulting in various approximations/adaptations in the former of the latter's decasyllabic line. There is also an element of sheer historical accident. Had a few events gone differently, the default English meter might have ended up being a six-beat (rather than five-beat) iambic line in imitation of the Alexandrine. True enough, six-beat lines do tend to sound uncomfortably long to Modern English speakers. Pope thought little of such a line "that, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along." But that is only because Pope, like many in his day and ever since, was so used to the shorter five-beat line that its aptness of length seemed only natural to him.

Versification is like clothing. It's obvious why humans wear it, and that certain environments or types of weather lead us to opt for one type over the other. If you knew how much, or how little, clothing someone was wearing and what fabric it was made of you could make a very good guess about what kind of place they were living in, and what the weather was like. You might be able to tell a lot about the economic situation of a person and even of the society they live in based on clothing. But you'd be an idiot to think there wasn't more to it than that. That isn't why women might cover their chests, or legs, more than men in a given society. And it isn't why Haredi Jews in Florida continue to dress like people in 19th century Eastern Poland.

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