Sunday, September 21, 2008

Syllable Counting

As youngsters we are all taught to count syllables. In middle school we learn to classify these syllables as stressed or unstressed. We then learn that poets make it their business to make patterns with stressed and unstressed syllables.

Yes. Vaguely and ambiguously accurate.

The fact is, that English usage has far more than two stress levels. Even a simple phrase that is pronounced without passion, such as "by the light of the moon," has at least three. The two "the's" and the "of" are pretty well unstressed. "Light" and "moon" are stressed. But the word "by" is neither. It is somewhere in between. If you try to make it match the level of "light" and "moon," the phrase will actually lose some of its sense and even more of its flow.

Stresses come in way more than "on" or "off" positions.

Even worse for the teachers of grade school English, syllables also come in many shapes and varieties.

How many syllables in the word "power"? Or "higher"? Or "sour"? Or "soil"?

Well, first we must mention that in New Jersey they will hardly fill up a whole syllable. But in the rest of the English speaking world they each seem to overflow that syllable. But they don't quite make it to two.

Why are we so slow to admit that English is chock full of half syllables? I don't often hear "power" pronounced with a full two syllables, but it almost always has more than one! And the louder one speaks the closer to two syllables it becomes.

Living in southern Indiana we get a little of that southern twang. We often put a mini-schwa on the ends of words. These can hardly be called syllables, but they can hardly be ignored either.

Recently a woman told me that her name is Ann, and it came out something like "A-yuh-nuh." But that final schwa was much less than a full syllable, yet it was much more than non-existent. In her own mouth Ann had a two-and-one-half syllable name.

Half syllables will not solve our scansion problems. They will only create more quandries. Yet they are the fact of English.

None of this is to say that teachers should not teach about syllables or that they should quit mentioning that some syllables are stressed more than others. But when they do, I wish that they would admit that in both cases there are way more than two options.

Before they teach the sounds of English or the mechanics of poetry, they should take some time to listen to how the language really sounds, not just how it looks in their teaching manual.

1 comment:

John W. May said...

That was very helpful ... thanks.