Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Contrasting Combinations of the Tri-syllabic Thingummies

                     Let’s go back to prosody and metrical feet. Tri-syllables in particular; I’ve been thinking about those recently. Tri-syllables are what they say on the tin. They’re just three syllables tied together – tri like tripod or tricycle – three things. 


If you’ve got three things – syllables in this case – and if you can do something more with them, then there’s something going on. In English, as in many more other languages, you can put a stress on one, two or all three of those syllables, or you can put no stress at all on any or all of them. Stress in combination. Syllables are the building blocks of words, just as proteins are the building blocks of life and bricks are the building blocks of houses. 


Syllables are the little bits of that go to make up words. Some words are single syllables – monosyllables. Cat and Dog are monosyllables.  Some words are bi-syllables, words like Mother and Father.  You can split them into two parts – Mo-ther or Fa-ther. You can hear the two bits when you say the words. And the stress is how you say the word. 

Take a word like ‘strawberry’. That’s a tri-syllabic word. Straw – ber- ry. And if you pronounce it properly, you say STRAW–ber–ry. The stress is on the first syllable. Stress the first syllable and just let the other two fall out of your mouth. If you say straw-BERRY then it’s possible that you might need to consider evening classes. 

Strawberries and Culture

In this stressed and unstressed business, the stressed syllables are called macrons and the unstressed ones are called breves (if you really want to get picky, it’s to do with the long and short vowel sounds, but I’m a Lancastrian and we have flat and round vowels to play with too, together with all that rhotic business, and my southern brethren muck about with clipped and unclipped vowels too). ‘Strawberry’ starts with a macron and ends with a couple of breves. 

It’s what we call a dactyl. A dactyl gets its fancy Greek name from ‘finger’ – look at any one of your fingers and you’ll see, from the knuckle to the fingernail, a long bone and two shorter ones. It’s why pterodactyls are called pterodactyls – ptero is Greek for winged and dactyl, as I’ve said, means ‘finger’.  

Look at the Dactyls on this Ptero-doo-dah

 A macron and two breves, a stressed syllable and a couple of unstressed ones, a long bone and two shorter ones. But what happens if you move where the stress falls inside a foot? Let’s move it along the line. What do you get if you have a breve, a macron and a breve? You get an amphibrach. That sounds even a bit more weird than a dactyl. It’s Greek (of course) and it means ‘short on both sides’. Which it is. 

You know amphibrachs better than you think. It’s the metrical foot used in limericks. ‘There once was’. That’s an amphibrach. Syllables can be whole words too, not just bits of words. They can be bits of words, but remember what we said about building blocks. They are put together to make bigger things. Let’s nip back to limericks. 

There once was a man from Nantucket’. 
There are three amphibrachs right away. The best way I know to hear this is to read it aloud and clap your hands together on the stresses. Try it yourself. 
‘There once was / a man from / Nan tuck et’. 
Got it?   
Quiet Clap Quiet. Breve Macron Breve. Unstressed, Stressed, Unstressed.
Am- phi -brach. 

Right, let’s move the stress to the end of the metrical foot. That will give us the pattern of unstressed, unstressed, stressed syllables. This one is called an ‘anapaest’. Sorry for this, but it’s more Greek. It means ‘struck back’ and in essence it’s a backward dactyl, it’s a dactyl that has been reversed, a dactyl that has been struck back. 

Backward Ptero-flying-things

Anapaests are not really all that common. They are used, but they are mainly used for effect, switching the metre of a line to add emphasis or to break the rhythm of a poetic line. Fine. That’s dactyls, amphibrachs and anapaests. You can jiggle the syllables around and come up with other combinations. 

Obviously, there are tri-syllables that are completely stressed, (woh, steady syllables, have a minute). All three parts have equal importance; you get this in names quite a lot. Great North Road. Great White Hope. All the stresses are given the same importance. Want a name? It’s called a molossus

Its polar opposite has no stressed syllables at all (whu, sorted fellah), and that’s called a tribrach, which is something so unstressed that its very existence is questioned. 
Tribrach cool wi’ dat, mon. Tribrach fine.

One Cool Tribrach

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