Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Syllabic Ambiguities

Syllabic Ambiguities

Consider the following words: fire, choir, steel, and steal. How many syllables do they have?

The syllabic poet counts syllables. In most cases in the English language this is easy to do. For example, the previous sentence does not contain any ambiguities and is easy to count.

But there are some words, words that usually contain what are called “dipthongs” or more colloquially, “glides”, that can, under different circumstances be counted as either one or two syllables.

Sometimes it is a matter of the local dialect. In some English dialects the word “fire” sounds almost like “far”; in fact I think in those dialects a poet might rhyme “fire” with “tar” or “car”. In other English dialects “fire” has two distinct syllables “fy-er”.

Another aspect that effects how we count these syllabic ambiguities is how they are spelled. Consider the following pairs of words:

Higher and hire
Liar and fire
Steel and steal

The first two, “higher” and “hire” are, in most English dialects, the same sound. But I think the tendency would be to count “higher” as two syllables and to count “hire” as one syllable, based on how they are spelled. The same applies to the two words “liar” and “fire”; the tendency, I think, would be to count “liar” as two syllables and “fire” as one because of their spelling, even though they rhyme perfectly. “Steel” and “steal” are homonyms, but they are spelled differently and this difference might result in a different syllable count. Again, this can depend on the English dialect. In some dialects “steel” sounds like two distinct syllables (stee-uhl), while in others it sounds like one.

To show how this might impinge on syllabic composition consider the following sentence:

There was a fire in the steel mill.

If “fire” and “steel” are each one syllable then it is an eight syllable line. If “fire” and “steel” are counted as two syllables each then the line is a ten syllable line. And, of course, there are two options for a nine-syllable line. How does one go about counting these inbetween words?

There are several approaches the syllabic poet can take. One is to see how the line works with other lines in the poem. For example, if “There was a fire in the steel mill” was a line from a standard sonnet, then I think I would read it as a ten syllable line, giving “fire” and “steel” two counts each. For example:

Grandfather rushed into the room and said,
“There was a fire in the steel mill,
They told that me your best friend Steve is dead” -
I couldn’t move, I was perfectly still.

Here is a possible opening quatrain for a sonnet, ten syllables per line. In this case I would give a full ten count to line 2 in order to maintain the syllabic contours. Here’s another example:

Grandfather came into the room,
“There was a fire in the steel mill,”
Smoke filled the sky creating gloom,
For a few moments all was still.

Here we have a series of eight syllable lines, so my tendency would be to count line 2 as an eight syllable line, in accordance with the overall design of the poem. In a syllabic form such as an Etheree, my tendency would be to count a line such as line 2 in accordance with its placement in the syllabic structure of the poem. An eight syllable line would be line 8 in an Etheree, while a ten syllable line would be the tenth and last line of the poem. In a Cinquain the line we are using as an example could be the fourth line, which is eight syllables, and if it appeared in a Cinquain that is how I would count it. On the other hand, if this line appeared as the last line of a Tetractys, which is a ten syllable line, then I would count it as ten.

Another approach to determining the count for these ambiguous syllables is to sing or chant the line in question. Use a very simple melody or chant, one that gives each syllable a single beat. Observe when you chant the poem if the word is pronounced in one or two beats; that’s your answer as to how the syllable should be counted in that particular poem, particularly if you are the one creating the poem because that is how you are hearing it.

I have listened to popular music and paid special attention to these ambiguities. It is interesting to observe how a word like “fire” (a word which seems to come up often in popular song) will sometimes occupy a single beat and sometimes two distinct beats. Similarly, in syllabic poetry these kinds of words can be used for either one or two counts, depending on the context. From this perspective becoming aware of how these words exist in a kind of inbetween world, a world where they can be counted as either one or two, offers the syllabic poet a flexible tool, one that the syllabic poet can use in shaping lines to the specific counts of syllabic forms.


Dan Gurney said...

I like this flexible approach to diphthongs. Like you, I've noticed that they sometimes get one beat, sometimes two depending on the context.

I also am pleased to have words that refuse classification as one or two syllable words. It seems right, somehow, to have maverick words like these.

Jim714 said...

Thanks Dan. An added element is that our language is always changing. In Shakespeare's time most words that ended in 'ed' pronounced it as a discernible syllabled, like 'walk-ed', for two distinct syllables. Today a word like 'walked' is pronounced 'walkd' and is one syllable. An interestin part of this for me is that spelling doesn't always keep pace with pronounciation.

As English imports more and more words that also impacts how syllables are discerned. As it has been said, everything is constantly changing.