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Review of  Language and Meter

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Language and Meter
Book Author: Dieter Gunkel Olav Hackstein
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.3344

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This book is not, as the title might suggest, about poetic metre in the languages of the world generally, but specifically about metre in ancient Indo-European languages. It is the product of a 2013 Munich conference on “Language and Metre in Diachrony and Synchrony”. After the editorial introduction it contains fifteen chapters, written variously in German, English, and French. I list them here under the languages they principally deal with.


Paul Kiparsky argues that a poetic metre is not a surface phenomenon but a system by which varying surface patterns derive from a fixed underlying template which is “typically … not consciously accessed”. Consequently metres “cannot be acquired and borrowed in a casual way like words”, and the widely-held view that similarities between poetic metre in different Indo-European languages stem from a common Proto-Indo-European origin is necessarily true. Kiparsky draws on this principle in offering an account of the origin of the Greek hexameter, an issue which has been seen as mysterious.

Eva Tichy asks whether the Homeric epics were originally sung or spoken. She concludes that the answer differs for different parts of the texts; the metre of the older stratum derived, like early Indic poetry, from Proto-Indo-European oral lyric, but the evolution happened independently in the two cases, and earlier in the Greek than the Indic case.

Claire Le Feuvre argues that the constraints of metre were capable of affecting the syntax of Greek in general. Something like this is uncontroversial for the morphology of fixed formulae, for instance in the Iliad a phrase meaning “broad sea” appears in the accusative as ‘eurea ponton’ rather than the expected ‘euryn ponton’, because the metre requires a dactyl rather than a spondee. Le Feuvre looks at ‘kamnō’, originally an intransitive verb glossed by Liddell & Scott as “to work oneself weary, be weary”. In Homer and some other epic poetry (but not in other kinds of writing) the 3sg and 3pl aorist forms ‘kame, kamon’ (each comprising two light syllables) were used transitively, meaning something like “make with effort”, though this does not happen with tenses of the verb which retain the -mn- cluster and hence a heavy first syllable. In Byzantine and modern Greek the transitive use becomes standard (the word appears in the modern language as ‘kanō’, the ordinary word for “do, make”). Le Feuvre explains this as a consequence of the epic metre requiring a word with light syllables in the relevant contexts. (Although Le Feuvre does not mention it, to complete her argument one should add that the usual Ancient Greek word for “make”, ‘poieō’, has a heavy root in all tenses.)

Alan Nussbaum discusses how a change in the spoken language, which could have turned lines that scanned as hexameters into lines that failed to scan, was reconciled with metrical requirements.

Joshua Katz discusses the opening words of the Iliad, ‘Mēnin aeide, theā’, “Sing of the wrath, oh goddess”, in which the word for “goddess” contrasts with general Ancient Greek usage, where ‘theos’ was used as either masculine or feminine. Katz, citing some parallel instances, claims that the vowel /ā/ is an “ideophone … which represents the idea of the sacred in its very sound”.

Martin West discusses lines of Homer which violate the usual metrical constraints. They could result from scribal errors, but West sees this as not a main source of discrepancies. Sometimes they are known to result from language change: the phoneme /w/ had dropped out of the language between Mycenaean and Homeric periods, but (particularly in formulaic passages) lines tended to scan as if /w/ were still present. However, the Odyssey author in particular (West believes that the two “Homeric” epics were brought to their final form by different individuals) “must be convicted of occasional bad versification”.


Vincent Matzloff examines two inscriptions in Italic languages from the middle of the first millennium B.C., one in Old Latin and the other in South Picene, which he uses to argue that early Italic metre depended on the number of stresses in a line (rather than number of syllables, stressed or unstressed) – which is interesting since Classical Latin poetry, whether because of phonetic properties of the language or because of Greek influence, made no use of stress. Likewise, Angelo Mercado looks at how a Proto-Indo-European metric system based on syllable quantity (the difference between heavy and light syllables) was replaced in Italic languages by one based on word stress.

Emmanuel Dupraz examines the Iguvine Tables, a set of texts in Umbrian of the third to first centuries B.C. which specify a range of ritual sacrifices. Dupraz argues that although the language is prose rather than poetry, grammatical and semantic parallelism between successive sentences is so striking that it should be categorized as ‘Kunstprosa’, “artistic prose”.


Martin Joachim Kümmel begins by urging that whether metre is based on syllabic quantity, on stress, or on numbers of syllables will normally correlate with phonetic properties of ordinary speech in the relevant language. This leads to a question why the metre of the Old Avestan Gāthās depends exclusively on syllable-counting, ignoring quantity and stress, and casts doubt on a common origin for Vedic and Greek metres.

Dieter Gunkel and Kevin Ryan argue that in two metres commonly used in the Rig-Veda, both based on eight-syllable lines, a complete definition of metrical constraints requires pairs of lines to be treated as larger units.


Michaël Peyrot examines differences between the metrical traditions of the closely-related languages Tocharian A and Tocharian B. It is agreed that in many respects Tocharian B influenced Tocharian A after their separation, for instance loanwords and orthographic conventions were borrowed in that direction. Peyrot asks whether features of Tocharian A metrics which differ from those of Tocharian B reflect a tradition independent of the latter. He concludes that no, the differences represent elaboration by A poets of a tradition taken over wholly from B. Melanie Malzahn studies Tocharian B metrics, in order to distinguish archaisms from innovative features deriving from idiomatic speech, more fully than has been done before.

Germanic and Celtic

Rosemarie Lühr discusses the metre of Germanic ‘Stabreim’, the German term for alliterative verse such as (to quote English examples) “Beowulf” or “Piers Ploughman”. She notes that Eduard Sievers’s 1893 analysis, which divides lines into four “limbs” each containing a single main stress, has in some scholars’ eyes been superseded by an analysis due to Andreas Heusler (1925) in terms of musical rhythm. Lühr defends Sievers, saying that Heusler’s analysis makes the system so complex that poets could not have learned to use it. She accepts that the Old High German alliterative verse of the “Hildebrandslied” departs in some respects from the strict rules of (other) Germanic ‘Stabreim’, but claims that it embodies principles of its own which are “no less artistic”.

Lastly, Paul Widmer discusses relationships between ‘dróttkvætt’ (“court poetry”), the main metre used in North Germanic skaldic poetry, and poetic metre in Celtic languages. He notes that scholarly study of the latter has tended to limit itself to looking at the Irish tradition; Widmer redresses this by bringing in the Brythonic Celtic languages, such as Welsh. (Welsh certainly merits consideration in a book on “language and metre”; according to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Welsh ‘cynghanedd’, which involves both alliteration and rhyme, is “the most sophisticated system of poetic sound-patterning practised in any poetry in the world” – though its present-day level of sophistication evolved only in the modern period.) Widmer sees the metrical traditions of both Insular Celtic and North Germanic languages as having emerged through contact within the British Isles between inherited native structures and early-mediaeval Latin-derived models.


As is often so with conference proceedings, the contributions here are rather unequal in weight. By far the most significant, to my mind – both deeper, and of wider interest to linguists generally, than other chapters – is Paul Kiparsky’s contribution. (This is also by a large margin longer than all other chapters except Alan Nussbaum’s, which is about the same length.) Kiparsky’s central aim is to explain how the hexameter characteristic of Homer and other Greek epic poetry came about, but in doing this he ranges widely over metrical phenomena in other early Indo-European languages and indeed non-Indo-European languages, such as the Finnish Kalevala. Kiparsky’s theory is abstract, and I am not knowledgeable enough to judge whether it is ultimately compelling; but Kiparsky makes an impressive case, and anyone interested in metre cross-linguistically (and many other linguists too) will want to read the chapter in order to reach their own conclusions. Thus many people will seek this book out for the Kiparsky chapter alone.

I was particularly struck by Kiparsky’s approving quotation of an idea of Ulrich v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1898: 148; 1902: 886), according to which most or all Greek metres (or perhaps poetic metres in general – the scope of Wilamowitz’s claim is not entirely clear to me) descend from an abstract primordial four-syllable metre, which became complicated in response to word inflexion and quantity and stress differences among syllables. This interested me as a Sinologist, because the early Chinese poetry of the Shi Jing (“Book of Odes”, 10th–7th centuries B.C.), in a language without inflexion, where the concept of syllable quantity has no application, and whose “telegraphic” grammar means that wholly unstressed syllables are infrequent, is predominantly in a metre matching Wilamowitz’s primordial pattern: lines of four syllables, often grouped into eight-syllable couplets. This is probably a coincidence, but it is an intriguing one.

By comparison with the Kiparsky chapter, some other contributions seem rather slight, prompting the reflection that in an area which has been studied so intensively over so many centuries, most low-hanging research fruit must have been gathered long ago. Gunkel and Ryan themselves point out that pairing of Rig-Veda lines into couplets on syntactic and semantic grounds is generally recognized. Their demonstration that statistics of phonological features such as hiatus reinforce the same groupings is worth having, but perhaps not a major advance.

If Claire Le Feuvre is correct to claim that the requirements of poetic metre triggered a change in the syntax of everyday spoken Greek, that would be interesting – we do not usually think of poetry as having such power. But she does not suggest that there are examples other than the one she discusses; and if that case is a one-off, how convincing is her claim that poetry caused it? A verb changing from intransitive to transitive, with modification of its meaning, is the sort of thing that often happens in the history of a language, and we do not usually look for a cause more specific than speakers’ inventiveness. That does not explain why the new usage occurred in epic poetry in particular; but any innovation has to begin somewhere, and should we be surprised if it was a poet who first found himself wanting to adapt a word to stand for “make with effort”?

A particularly lightweight contribution, in my view, is Dupraz’s discussion of the Iguvine Tables. Rather than grouping the chapters by theme as I did in my Summary section, the book prints them in alphabetic order of author; the result is that Dupraz’s chapter comes first, and might give someone who examines the book casually a misleading impression of its overall content. Again as a Sinologist, I found myself thinking that if the parallelism in these Umbrian inscriptions requires us to categorize them as ‘Kunstprosa’, then much Classical Chinese prose would have to be classified the same way; yet in the Chinese case parallelism seems to be motivated by a feeling that it is a hallmark of sound argument, rather than by a desire to create “artworks” (though in any case “art” is not a concept with clear boundaries). I do not say that Dupraz is wrong, but (unless I have missed something) I do not see what he has added to our understanding of the material he discusses. Other contributions are more substantial than this.

The standard of book production, as usual with this publisher, is superb. I noticed only a tiny handful of (trivial) misprints, and the typography and binding are handsome. I was particularly impressed to notice that on two or three pages of the Nussbaum chapter, a handful of words are printed in red or green (for reasons which are not clear to me). I would not be optimistic about persuading a British academic publisher to go to such an expense, whatever the intellectual justification might be.


Heusler, A. 1925. Deutsche Versgeschichte mit Einschluß des altenglischen und altnordischen Stabreimverses, vol. 1. De Gruyter (Berlin).

Sievers, E. 1893. Altgermanische Metrik. Niemeyer (Halle an der Saale).

v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. 1898. Review of Kenyon, The Poems of Bakchylides. Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, 160th year, vol. 1, pp. 125–60.

v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. 1902. Choriambischer Dimeter. Sitzungsberichte der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, vol. 34, pp. 864–96.
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in 1965, and studied Linguistics and Computer Science as a graduate student at Yale University before teaching at the universities of Oxford, LSE, Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex. After retiring from his Computing chair at Sussex he spent some years as a research fellow in Linguistics at the University of South Africa. Sampson's most recent book is ''The Linguistics Delusion'' (Equinox, 2017). He is currently working on a translation of the Chinese ''Book of Odes''.

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