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The Language of Poetry

Practice Puzzle #3

In the first issue of Schwa Fire, we introduced a practice puzzle. This was the second practice puzzle question:


"What do iambic pentameter in English, the alexandrine in French, and the haiku in Japanese all have in common?"

Here is the answer:


The most obvious trait they have in common is that a language’s metrical tradition is related to the way it organizes units of sounds. But there’s another commonality: the specific differences between the sound systems of these languages make it unlikely that the metrical tradition of one could be wholly borrowed by another. Not without adaptation, that is.

While English does have syllables, the most important unit of organization in English speech and poetry is actually stress. Stress in English is very important: it lets us tell the difference between pairs of words like récord (noun) and recórd (verb).

Not surprisingly, English poetry exploits stress. You can see this in the various metrical feet in English that refer to the grouping of stressed (strong) and unstressed (weak) syllables: for example, an iamb consists of a weak-STRONG pair, while a trochee is a STRONG-weak pair, a dactyl is a STRONG-weak-weak sequence, and so on. And then the counting is achieved by counting feet, such as iambic pentameter (five iambs per line) or double dactyls (two dactyls per line). For example, here’s a line of iambic pentameter from Twelfth Night, with the stressed syllables in caps:

If MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE, play ON


But stress isn’t nearly as important in many other languages: for example, in French, stress doesn’t distinguish between pairs of words at all. Instead, French stress is consistently placed at the end of an utterance, whether that’s a word in isolation, a sentence fragment, or a whole clause (bonJOUR, but bonjour louISE or bonjour comment ça VA?). This means that it is impossible to have an iamb or a trochee in French, because your utterances are going to be lines but you’ll only have stress at the very last syllable.

Instead of counting feet, French poetry counts number of syllables per line. The most classical French meter is the alexandrine, which contains twelve syllables. This pattern gets used for works like sonnets where you’d expect iambic pentameter in English. (Shakespeare, for example, if translated in verse, would be translated using alexandrines.) By convention, the line is often split into two six-syllable parts, each of which ends in a stressed syllable, but you need to do that split using punctuation or syntax, because it’s not a property of the words themselves. Here’s an excerpt from a sonnet by de Rensard, where all the breaks but the last one have commas, and then a translation using iambic pentameter:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,

Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,

Direz chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:

“Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.”


When you are very old, spinning or skeining wool

At evening by the fire, pale in the candles flame,

You will recite my poems in wonder, and exclaim,

Thus Ronsard honored me when I was beautiful.


You can have alexandrines in English, since it is definitely possible to count the number of syllables per line, but they don’t tend to sound as natural to English speakers as the French ones do to French speakers, not as natural as another very English type of poem does: the limerick. It relies entirely on stressed syllables for its structure, and takes a very loose approach to feet or number of syllables: what makes a limerick a limerick is a stressed syllable pattern of 33223, matching the rhyme scheme AABBA. For example, here are some opening lines of classic limericks with their stress marked and number of syllables indicated.


1. there ONCE was a MAN from nanTUCKet (9 syllables)

2. a TUtor who TOOted the FLUTE (8 syllables)

3. a WONderful BIRD is the PELican (10 syllables)


Three stressed syllables? Sure. Constant number of syllables overall? Not so much. But they’re all still recognizably limericks. (I can’t find the origins of the first two opening lines, but the pelican one was by Dixon Lanier Merritt.)

Incidentally, Old English and many other Germanic languages actually had a metrical system known as accentual verse that was based entirely on stress without any kind of organization into feet. The current, stressed-foot-based system is a hybrid of this old system with some French/Latin influences, but you can still see the accentual meter in many nursery rhymes. For example, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” has two stressed syllables per line, but their positions and the overall number of syllables vary widely:

BAA, baa, black SHEEP, (4 syllables)

HAVE you any WOOL? (5 syllables)

YES sir, YES sir, (4 syllables)

THREE bags FULL; (3 syllables)

ONE for the MASter, (5 syllables)

And ONE for the DAME, (5 syllables)

And ONE for the LITtle boy (7 syllables)

Who LIVES down the LANE. (5 syllables)


What about Japanese? I’ve been talking about Japanese poetry as if it’s measured by syllables like French is, but that isn’t strictly true: instead it’s measured by slightly smaller units known as morae. Light or short syllables (such as /sa/) have just a single short vowel and are considered one mora, while heavy or long syllables (such as /saa/, /sai/, or /san/) have a long vowel or diphthong, or end in a consonant, and are considered two morae. Although people writing Anglicized haiku (5-7-5) or tanka (5-7-5-7-7) tend to count the number of syllables, these numbers really refer to the number of morae (which, by the way, is on in Japanese).

Conveniently, Japanese orthography is very good at indicating the number of morae: each character in katakana or hiragana corresponds to a mora. For example, the Japanese name for “Japan,” 日本, can be pronounced Nihon (hiragana: にほん), in which case it has two syllables and three morae (ni-ho-n), or Nippon (hiragana: にっぽん), in which case it has two syllables and four morae (ni-p-po-n). Here’s a famous haiku by Matsuo Bashô as an example:

古池や蛙飛び込む水の音original (mostly kanji)

ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと(transliterated in hiragana)

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto (transliterated in romaji)

old pond - a frog jumps in - sound of water (one of several English translations)


English doesn’t really have a conception of morae or of syllables as heavy or light. The closest we can get is that stressed syllables often have longer vowel length and greater prominence in a word, both of which are somewhat similar to the “heaviness” of a two-mora syllable. Similarly, Japanese doesn’t really have a conception of syllables: it’s really all about morae. (Japanese does have pitch accent as a means of distinguishing between words, though, which can be thought of as fairly similar to English stress.) However, Japanese isn’t the only language for which the mora is an important concept. We can also find them much closer to home, in the metrical traditions of Latin and ancient Greek.

All this means that you can take a classical writer in any of these languages—let’s take Shakespeare—and understand why he didn’t write in another form: the affordances of the language’s prosody make it unlikely. English prosody gives us stressed and unstressed syllables to organize, not morae to count, while Japanese prosody gives us morae but doesn’t organize them into strong or weak syllables—or, indeed, any type of syllable at all.

That’s not to say that you can’t approximate a poetic form in another language, but it remains that: an approximation. You have to “translate” one into another, which requires translating the language-specific phonological patterns: we can pretend that English syllables are equivalent to Japanese morae, or, I suppose, pretend that Japanese morae or pitch accent can be organized into heavy and light syllables and thus feet. But no matter how close the forms come, they will never be exactly the same.

How much not the same? I asked a Japanese friend to proofread this article in order to catch any embarrassing typos in the Japanese portions. She reported that it was typo-free, but that she'd never realized that English "haiku" involved counting syllables: she'd always just assumed that they were short poems of no particular length constraint, since they couldn't possibly involve morae. By now, there's a recognizable genre of "English haiku" that does involve counting syllables, but my friend's surprise shows that treating morae and syllables as equivalent isn't an obvious decision.