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While reading about Hungarian poetry, I came across the claim that:

pure syllabic/quantitative metre is very rare = Hungarian, Greco-Roman ‘időmértékes’ metre

I don't know what "pure syllabic/quantitative metre" means - I found a good source about it, but far too technical for me to understand - but it sounds like Hungarian poetry has something in common with ancient Greco-Roman poetry and not many other languages/styles, which is interesting. I also tried looking up "időmértékes", but only found some pages in Hungarian, which don't tell me much since machine translation seems very bad at Hungarian-to-English.

What is the standard meter (if any) of Hungarian poetry? Is there a special metrical style in this language?

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    The Hungarian phrase időmértékes verselés translates to "quantitative versification". The word időmértékes = idő + mérték + es, where idő = time, mérték = measurement, and es is an adjective-forming suffix. The whole phrase is more self-explanatory in Hungarian than in English, I think. Quantitative verse is based on long vs. short syllables (in terms of actual duration) rather than on stressed vs. unstressed syllables. For example the Hungarian word kovács (= smith) is a trochee in stress versification, since (like every word in Hungarian) it is stressed on the first syllable; but it's an
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 12, 2019 at 6:28
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    iamb in quantitative versification, since the o is short but the á is long, as shown by the accent mark. English verse is based on stress meter. I knew that classical Greek and Latin verse used quantitative meter. I didn't know that about Hungarian. poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/quantitative-meter
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 12, 2019 at 6:28
  • @user14111 Great info, thank you. (I now remember that ancient Greco-Latin poetry used long/short syllables instead of stressed/unstressed, and it makes a little more sense.) It's especially interesting that in Hungarian the stress is always on the first syllable - this explains why a stressed/unstressed metrical system wouldn't work. Would you like to turn these comments into an answer? I'd probably ultimately accept it.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 12, 2019 at 13:01
  • Sorry, trying to write an answer would be too much work and time. I don't have any references, and I'm not an expert on this stuff (either prosody or the Hungarian language), so I just spouted off what I knew from the top of my head. You can use the hints I gave you to write your own answer.
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 12, 2019 at 13:32
  • By the way I'm not sure fixed stress means that stress meter wouldn't work. There other languages with fixed stress, e.g. Czech (first syllable), Finnish (I don't know but I'm guessing it's like Hungarian in that respect), Polish (penultimate syllable). Do they all use quantitative meter? I don't know. Like I said, I didn't even know that about Hungarian. (I learned a little Hungarian when I spent a year there.)
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 12, 2019 at 13:35

1 Answer 1

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I have no Hungarian, but here's a gesture toward an answer. Quantitative meters depend on the patterning of short and long syllables. They are thus different from accentual-syllabic meters, which depend on the patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables. Accentual-syllabic prosody has been discussed on this forum in a few answers; the last linked one goes into some detail about how meter works in English poetry. To native English speakers, having stress patterns vary over speech or a line of poetry seems so natural, that it's hard to wrap our minds around the fact that other languages have a different measure of rhythm, one that counts syllable length rather than accent.

I can't possibly come up with a better illustration of the distinction between stress and length than the one given by @user14111 in the comments to this question, so Imma shamelessly steal it and put it right here:

the Hungarian word kovács (= smith) is a trochee in stress versification, since (like every word in Hungarian) it is stressed on the first syllable; but it's an iamb in quantitative versification, since the o is short but the á is long, as shown by the accent mark.

Let's unpack this by looking at three different meanings of accent and two of length. Sorry, these things are complicated.

First, accent.

  • A distinctive way of talking, where speech patterns reveal the speaker's geographic or class origins: a Southern accent, an Indian accent, a Cockney accent.
  • A diacritic, which is how user14111 uses the term when he speaks of the accent mark over the á. In English, we tend to say "accent mark" rather than simply "accent", but the latter isn't uncommon. For example, a teacher of French might say to English-speaking students that because sûr and sur are different words, as are ou and , it's a spelling error to leave off the accents.
  • A verbal stress, marked by speaking the stressed or accented syllable somewhat louder and/or longer than the syllables surrounding it: in the word trepidation, the accent falls on the -da, the penultimate syllable. This third is the relevant meaning of accent when it comes to accentual-syllabic prosody.

Next, syllable length.

  • The first meaning is simply a matter of timing: for how long one maintains a vowel. English speakers can readily hear and maintain a distinction between long and short syllables in this sense, e.g., between a short 'u' (as in foot) and a long 'oo' (as in boot). But how long one holds a syllable doesn't actually matter for accentual-syllabic versification. I put my feet in boots that fit is a regular iambic line in English despite the fact that two of the accents are on short syllables and two on long ones. Syllable length in this sense simply doesn't matter for versification in English.
  • Oddly enough, length in that first sense isn't fully determinative for versification in quantitative poetry either. It's a second meaning of length that matters for quantitative meters. Here, length is an abstract measure of a syllable. A syllable is given one of two possible weights, and is described as long or short depending on that weight. Sometimes, as in Prosodic Weight: Categories and Continua by Kevin Ryan (which you cite in your question), these categories are called heavy and light. These terms are more accurate, but in my experience less commonly used, than long or short for designating syllable weight in quantitative meters. Where in English, metrical feet like iambs and trochees are defined by the patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables, in languages that use quantitative meters, such feet are defined by the patterning of weighted (heavy or long) and unweighted (light or short) syllables.

So the critical question is, what are long and short syllables in the context of quantitative meters? The answer is: those syllable weights are conventionally determined by certain well-specified rules that are related to, but not exclusively determined by, whether the vowel within the syllable is temporally short or long. To take an example: in Sanskrit, a syllable that has a temporally short vowel is by default metrically short too. But in certain cases, it is considered metrically long. One such case is when the vowel precedes a consonant cluster. Let's assume for the moment that kit and kilt are Sanskrit words. In both, the i is a temporally short vowel. Kit would be a metrically short syllable as well. But kilt would be considered a metrically long syllable, because -t is a single consonant whereas -lt is a consonant cluster.

This disconnect between temporal and metrical length might seem confusing, but think of it as a metrical equivalent to grammatical gender. There is no natural or logical reason that a leg (la jambe) is treated as feminine and an arm (le bras) as masculine. It's just a convention of the French language. Likewise, there's no natural or logical reason that of two syllables with the same i vowel, one would be considered metrically short, the other metrically long. It's just a convention of Sanskrit prosody.

The point is, when we speak of syllable length with quantitative meters, we mean syllable weight as defined by metrical rules. Those rules are related to, but not coextensive with, vowel length. They are specified with regard to the interaction of vowels and consonants. And of course of vowels with vowels: diphthongs, like consonant clusters, are considered metrically long in Sanskrit, and I'd guess in other languages that use quantitative meters as well.

And those metrical rules are language-specific. Spanish, too, uses accentual-syllabic prosody, in that both the stresses and the syllable counts matter; but trying to apply the rules of English prosody to Spanish poetry, or vice-versa, would be ludicrous. So while Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and (I gather) Hungarian all use quantitative prosody, without actually knowing Hungarian, I can't answer this question, as I've just proved at excessive, er, length. Hence, as I said earlier, I'm merely gesturing / gesticulating / hand-waving. But in order not to be entirely useless, here is a translation of bits and pieces from the Hungarian Wikipedia page on Időmértékes verselés:

Temporal poetry in literature is a form of poetry based on the alternation of short and long syllables. ... Hungarian is one of the few modern languages that is by its very nature suitable for temporal verse (since Hungarian already distinguishes between long and short vowels). So temporal verse has been written by many poets from János Sylvester to Berzsenyi to Radnóti. ... In Hungarian literature, time-observing poetry appears in the 16th century (through János Sylvester), but it was only at the turn of the 19th century that generally accepted rules were formed, as a result of the debate of the so-called classical Triad (Dávid Baróti Szabó, József Rájnis, Miklós Révai)—the prosodic debate.

Alas, aside from these generalities, the specifics of the discussion are lost on me. Let us hope for an actually qualified person to provide a real answer soon.

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    This makes a lot of sense. I don't speak Hungarian either, but I know two important facts about the language: (1) every word has the stress on the first syllable and (2) acute accents over letters indicate that a vowel sound is elongated (and these can occur in any syllable). So it makes sense that length would be more important than stress for Hungarian metre.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 7:30
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    Re your Sanskrit example: to be precise, a syllable with a short vowel is metrically long when it precedes a consonant cluster — so rather than "fit" and "flit", a correct example would be "fit" (metrically short) and "filt" (metrically long). Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 21:52
  • Thanks for fixing the Sanskrit example. And it's not entirely an arbitrary convention—if you take the example of the short i vowel being metrically short vs long in (say) widow and window, we might have just syllabified the latter as win+dow and called the first syllable metrically long because it ends with a consonant; in Sanskrit because of the way it's written (orthography) (abugida), we syllabify it as wi+ndow and say that the first syllable is metrically long because it precedes a consonant cluster. :-) Anyway I don't know anything about the conventions in Hungarian either. :-) Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 2:26
  • Since I do write Devanagari, I know what you mean about abugida and orthography, but I still don't understand what about the convention is not arbitrary. It's still a hrasva vowel, not deergha. How would that change if the orthography/syllable division were more like English? The fact that it's considered metrically long even though it's temporally short would be a convention, not an objective measure of its temporality.
    – verbose
    Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 5:14

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