A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 3: The rhythm method

Today: the seventeenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Syllables 3: The rhythm method

There’s even more fun we can have with syllables. For one thing, some people contend that, in some languages, syllables don’t exist or aren’t an appropriate way of analyzing words. For example, Salishan languages (Pacific coast of North America) can have long strings of apparently unsingable consonants. Mind you, the examples I have seen do have fricatives, which can allow some rhythm; say psspsspsspss to see what I mean. But I don’t know Salishan languages and won’t wade into that debate, and anyway, here and now we’re focusing on word tasting in English, even though the principles can be carried over to other languages (with adjustments for phonemes, rules, etc.).

But we do have some cases in English that can make a bit of havoc with a simple unitary view of syllables. Rhythm can be more complex. I mean that quite literally: say rhythm. How many syllables? Say all the rhythm in the world. Count ’em up! Six, seven, or eight syllables? You might say it as eight beats in four pairs, stressed-unstressed: all the rhyth-m in the wor-ld. But if you say rhythm is what the world’s about, you may well say seven beats: rhythm is what the world’s a-bout. Ask your English teacher and she’s likely to tell you that rhythm and world have one syllable each. But the mechanics of saying them – as long as you say the nucleus of world as a syllabic [r] rather than in the “r-dropping” way – cause a definite two-part movement. Can we have fractional syllables? Or extra-long syllables? There’s still plenty to be thought and said on this topic.

And while we’re on the subject of rhythm, there’s the question of stress. This, too, is something you almost certainly learned about in school (I don’t mean exam stress! I mean which syllable has the stress). Of course, as with just about everything to do with language that you learned about in school, there’s a heckuva lot more to it than what your teacher said. Now, with stress and rhythm, the really crazy stuff gets going when you start looking and phrases and sentences, and this book is about word tasting, so you’re off the hook for now. By and large, individual words have the stress patterns you probably think they have. Any word with more than one syllable will, at least when said by itself, have one or more stressed syllables. Syllables that are stressed can have primary stress (strongest) or secondary stress (stressed but not the strongest stress in that word); the syllables that don’t have primary or secondary stress are, well, unstressed.

So let’s just try a few words and identify where the stresses are in each of them:

powder

about

coattail

buttercup

badaboom, badabing

reminder

margarita

calculator

formidable

laboratory

You may have noticed I set these out in a fairly sensible order. And, as an added treat, they exemplify some important terms for rhythm – terms you simply must know if you are to be serious about tasting words!

So let’s look at them. Bold underline is primary stress and bold is secondary stress.

pow-der – This is a trochee: two syllables, stress on the first. It’s the staple rhythm of English speech.

a-bout – This is an iamb: the reverse of a trochee. Shakespeare is generally said to have written in iambic pentameter, meaning five iambs per line, although not everyone agrees that that’s what he was doing.

coat-tail – This is a spondee: two stresses (also known as two long syllables). Generally the idea of a spondee is that the stresses are equal, and although I’ve put the second as secondary here, that’s a bit of a judgement call; they’re pretty much equal.

but-ter-cup – This is a dactyl, named from the Greek word for “finger.” A dactyl, strictly, has one long followed by two short, but the in common speech the shorts aren’t always equally short. I’ve put the hyphen between the t’s, but of course there’s only one /t/ here (and you probably say it as a tap), unlike in coattail. Which syllable does it go with? Well, now, you’ve read the bit on ambisyllabicity, right? So you decide.

ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing – These are anapests, the reverse of dactyls. I haven’t indicated the secondary stress because the first syllable isn’t always given that much more stress than the second.

re-min-der – This is an amphibrach: The stressed syllable is the middle of three.

There are also other permutations of three syllables, but these rhythms more often occur with more than one word. Still, for your reference, I’ll list them, using + for “stressed” and – for “unstressed”: –++: bacchius; ++–: antibacchius; +–+: cretic; +++: molossus. There are also cases of two unstressed (dibrach) and three unstressed (tribrach or choree), but those always only occur in the context of a sentence; words are social things, and when they’re on their own, they’re always stressed somehow.

Now to the longer words:

mar-ga-ri-ta – This is really two spondees, with the primary stress being on the second one, which is the penultimate (second last) syllable.

cal-cu-la-tor – This difference between this one and the one above (aside from one being something you drink and the other being something you can use to add up how much you spent on drinks) is just where the primary stress is.

for-mi-da-ble – This has the stress on the antepenultimate syllable (third last). But if you’re British, you may say this for-mi-da-ble, with a slight secondary stress on the last syllable. Either way, it involves a dactyl, though some might say that the British version has three unstressed in a four-beat foot (there’s a name for that, too, but I’ll spare you the terms for all the four-beat feet).

la-bo-ra-to-ry or lab’-ra-to-ry or la-bo-ra-t’ry – The last of the three pronunciations is the British style, and the penult gets swallowed and generally doesn’t make even a fractional syllable. The first is North American citation form, and the second is the way North Americans usually actually say it, dropping the /o/. So there are two common ways to say this word, and both of them involve dropping an /o/ before an /r/ – and, what’s more, not always even extending the /r/. Oh, and what kinds of metric feet are involved here? As math texts put it, this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Next: phonaesthetics.

6 responses to “A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 3: The rhythm method

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 2: Breaking words | Sesquiotica

  2. Aha! This may explain why people have trouble with my unusual name (Marie-Lynn): “Marie” is an iamb, not a trochee (the “staple of English speech”). People tend to call me MARy-Lynn, which is NOT my name, and I’m constantly biting my tongue about it. Even when I gently correct them, I’ve heard people say, “That’s what I said — MARy-Lynn!” At which point I usually give up. MaRIE-Lynn seems harder for them to say. My francophone relatives, though, when pronouncing “Marie-Lynn” in French, have no such problem.

  3. “Shakespeare is generally said to have written in iambic pentameter, meaning five iambs per line, although not everyone agrees that that’s what he was doing.”

    This sounds interesting. Where can I go to learn more about this disagreement?

    • Some people hold that he was writing ten-syllable lines in the Old French and Latin model – i.e., it’s not the number of stressed syllables but the number of syllables overall that matters. I had a professor who was pretty big on that idea. It doesn’t really account for the five-stressed-syllable lines you get in King Lear, though, for instance (“Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill”; also note “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Howl!” – the last two beats have no off-beats… but the first foot is hardly an iamb either). I can’t remember who the primary proponents of this thesis are.

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