Antimetricality

The short title for a linguistics talk tomorrow at the Stanford Humanities Center: a team of scholars, Paul Kiparsky (Linguistics), Scott Borgeson (Linguistics), Arto Anttila (Linguistics), and Ryan Heuser (English) will present “The Rise and Fall of Antimetricality”.

A notable example of how the Stanford department nourishes combining the methods and results of theoretical linguistics with those of the social sciences and those of the humanities.

The abstract (in which I have boldfaced what I consider to be a crucial cross-disciplinary passage, combining computational tools, the metrical grids of phonological theory, and ttual analysis in poetics):

“Should we not, Monsieur, carefully avoid Alexandrines in prose?” So asks the Self-Taught Man in Sartre’s Nausea, pointing to the traditional view that, rhythmically, prose is prose by avoiding meter. Indeed, for Saintsbury in A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912), the “great law” of prose is that “every syllable shall, as in poetry, … be capable of entering into rhythmical transactions with its neighbours, but that these transactions shall always stop short … of admitting the recurrent combinations proper to metre.” This paper traces such rhythmical tensions between prose and verse across English-language literary history. We apply to a large corpus of prose and verse a set of new computational tools, which measure the extent to which the phonological features of written text can be mapped onto a metrical grid. Our goal is to test Saintsbury’s “great law,” along with a sharpened form of it which, drawing on Jakobson, we call the Relativized Anti-Metricality Hypothesis: namely, that meter is inscribed as a negative presence in the rhythms of literary prose of a given period to the extent that metrical verse is then the dominant literary form. On such a view, prose actively avoids metricality during the dominance of verse between the sixteenth century and the nineteenth (e.g. Browne, Addison); during this period, then, prose can be called “anti-metrical.” Then, in the nineteenth century, as the dominance of verse is eclipsed by the rise of the novel, literary prose starts to flirt with meter (e.g. Dickens, Ruskin), thus explicitly opposing its former mandate and becoming, instead, “anti-anti-metrical.” Finally, as metrical verse collapses in the twentieth century and metricality as a rhythmic posture fades from literary view, prose abandons all relationship to meter, whether positive or negative, to become instead “a-metrical.”

You can read a draft of the complete paper here.

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