On feet and meter

Apr 8, 2011 by

No, this is not a post about units of measuring distance! In linguistic terminology, a “foot” refers to syllabic (or prosodic, or metric) unit. Metric feet combine to create a “meter”, a sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables.

The notion of meter is most familiar from poetry, where it refers to the form of a poetic line. For instance, iambic pentameter refers to a poetic meter where a line consists of five repeats of a sequence (“foot”) of unstressed syllable followed by a stessed syllable. This meter was particularly common in classical English poetry (Shakespeare, Milton, Keats) and can be illustrated by the following line from a poem by Keats (stressed syllables are shown in boldface):

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

or with a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow

Another example of a poetic meter is iambic tetrameter, which is characterized by four iambic feet (sequences of unstressed then stressed syllables) per line. This is the most common meter in classical Russian poetry up to 1850s, while in English poetry we find it combined with iambic trimeter (3 iambic feet per line) to form the ballad meter. The iambic tetrameter (3 iambic feet per line) is the meter in Roald Dahl’s “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”:

This famous wicked little tale

Should never have been put on sale

The iambic organization of a metric foot (i.e., an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) can be contrasted with the trochaic pattern, very common in nursery rhymes:

Mary had a little lamb

Twinkle, twinkle little star

Jack and Jill went up the hill

London Bridge is broken down

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper…

Simple Simon met a pieman…

Betty Botter bought some butter…

Hickup, hickup, go away!..

Other more complex poetic meters may involve a longer foot; for example, anapestic tetrameter involves four repeats of a sequence of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable:

Oh-oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light

But the prosodic meter is important not only for poetry. For example, studies show that children prefer the trochaic pattern. As mentioned above, many English nursery rhymes have the trochaic pattern. Furthermore, children simplify long, complicated words to fit the trochaic pattern: thus, banana becomes [nǽnə], potato becomes [téjtə] and macaroni becomes [róni]. In each case, a word of more than two syllables is shorted to have only two syllables, and which syllables are deleted is determined by the desire for a trochaic pattern: stressed-unstressed.

Similarly, the trochaic pattern is the preferred one for hypocoristics (short names). Hence, the first syllable of a short name acquires stress even if the corresponding syllable of the full name is not stressed, as in Patty from Patricia. This is true in other languages as well, as with the Russian short names Misha and Kolja (from Mikhail and Nikolaj, respectively) and with the Hebrew short names Bibi, Kobi and Kheli (from Benjamin, Yakov and Rachel, respectively). Interestingly, the trochaic pattern of short names in Hebrew goes against the predominant word-final stress pattern in the language.

Finally, let me note that the notion of a metric foot is necessary to describe the phenomenon of the so-called expletive insertion in English, as in Phila-fuckin-delphia and fan-bloody-tastic! — here, the expletive is inserted in front of a trochaic foot.

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