I get a lot of hits from people wondering what the heck prosody is. Well, here’s the answer!
Prosody is the study of poetic and linguistic techniques and patterns.
As I’m an English graduate, I know most about poetic prosody, the sum total of which follows.
Before we go on, if anyone is unsure about the correct pronunciation, I had a famous (in England at least) singer record this handy guide.
If you’re more interested in who Prosody is – i.e. what my website is, who I am – you can learn more about me in the about page.
Poetic prosody is concerned with the meter and rhythm of poetry – how the line runs and scans. It’s sometimes easy to forget that poetry is meant to be heard; it has an aural tradition that stresses the importance of… well… stresses, really.
What’s a stress?
When we speak or read aloud, we naturally emphasise certain syllables. The word emphasise, for example, has the first syllable stressed – em-pha-sise; the rest is unstressed.
The way these stresses and unstresses combine creates rhythm, which isn’t the same as meter. Rhythm is the rising and falling sound that all speech naturally possesses. In fact, if you read that last sentence out, it’ll be clearer. Go on, try it.
Rhythm is the rising and falling sound that all speech naturally possesses.
Do you hear the way you stress certain parts and leave others unstressed? Well, that’s how poetic rhythm works! There’s even a special system for denoting it using / and U, but I can’t mimic it online so I won’t.
From meter you
So if rhythm is the up and down sound, what’s meter? This is the poem’s beat, and is a bit more complicated than rhythm, but let’s try to boil it down anyway.
In most English poetry, lines are divided into feet, which are groups of syllables. As we’ve seen with rhythm, syllables can be stressed or unstressed, and combinations of these create feet.
- Stress-unstress is one foot, called a trochee. Keyboard is a trochee.
- Unstress-stress is one foot, called an iamb. Sustain is an iamb.
There are more, but these are the two most common in poetry and the English language.
Lines are divided into feet, and the way these feet combine makes meter.
Remember how I said unstress-stress is called an iamb? Well, if you have five iambs in a line, that’s called iambic pentameter:
- Iamb is the type of foot;
- Pent is the number of feet: five;
- Meter lets us know this is about the measure or beat of the line.
Iambic pentameter is very common in all aspects of writing, not just poetry. William Shakespeare was particularly fond of iambic pentameter for his big speeches; it’s said to mimic the natural beat of our speech, although I’m not sure its other poetic devices are especially common in everyday chat!
- RHYTHM is the up-and-down sound that speech and poetry possesses.
- FEET are combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables.
- METER is the length of a line expressed in feet.
- PROSODY is the study of these and more poetic techniques!
I realise this isn’t exactly University-level stuff here, but as a basic introduction to prosody it serves its purpose. If you have any suggestions, corrections or other comments, do leave a comment by clicking here. I’d love to hear your feedback!
Useful prosody-related links: