Great playwrights and poets are drummers – they craft the written word so that the rhythm and the cadence of their dialogue when spoken are a drumbeat, and combine with the meaning of the language to create emotion. Shakespeare, for example, used syllables as his drumbeats (as did many other playwrights and poets). Analyzing linguistic structure isn’t a common application for a math tool (and for a very good reason), but can Maple tell us more about Shakespeare’s favourite drumbeat?
We need to find some way of programmatically counting the number of syllables in a word. In an irregular language like English, this is a hit-and-miss affair. Maple’s SyllableLength command, for example, tallies the number of vowel-consonant changes in a word to calculate the number of syllables (but increases the count by one if the word ends in a “y”.) While this is a good start, for many words it’s merely an approximation. Conscious and serious, for example, have the same number of vowel-constant changes, but a different number of syllables when spoken.
I chose to modify the basic premise of SyllableLength with several empirical adjustments that give a more accurate tally of the number of syllables in a word. This simply involves increasing or decreasing the calculated number of vowel-consonant changes if a word contains a particular letter structure. For example, terrible has two vowel-consonant changes, but we increase this count by one (to calculate the number of syllables) because it ends in ble.
Although we can implement a number of these workarounds, this (admittedly very clumsy) approach is never going to account for the full irregularity of the English language, and we have to accept the results in that light. The attached worksheet contains the chosen approach, and I’d appreciate feedback on more accurate ways of programmatically counting the number of syllables in a word.
So, let’s start by examining the monologue in Act 3 Scene 1 of Henry V. Here’s the number of syllables per line as computed by the attached worksheet.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;”
“Or close the wall up with our English dead”
“In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man”
“As modest stillness and humility”
“But when the blast of war blows in our ears,”
“Then imitate the action of the tiger”
So it looks like Shakespeare used ten beats, or syllables, per line, but placed an extra syllable in the final quoted line. In fact, he often wrote monologues in a style called iambic pentameter, in which each line consists of five syllable-pairs (the first syllable in each pair being unstressed and the second stressed)
In much the same way that the darkening of a cinema is a visual cue that implies that a movie is about to begin, Shakespeare used iambic pentameter as an audio cue to signify emotionally resonant or particularly important dialogue, occasionally varying the number of syllables (or the number of polysyllabic words) per line to create a sense of discord, or a quickening or slowing of pace.
You might want to check out the following video – it’s Kenneth Brannagh’s version of the full speech in his 1989 film adaptation of Henry V.
Here’s another example from Romeo and Juliet (Act 3 Scene 5), together with the syllable counts given by Maple.
“Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day”
“It was the nightingale, and not the lark”
“That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear”
“Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree”
“Believe me, love, it was the nightingale”
Again, Shakespeare shifts between 10 and 11 syllables per line to indicate emotionally resonant and poetic dialogue.
Shakespeare did not write entirely in verse with a defined metric structure. He also wrote in free prose with no defined syllable structure, sometimes to indicate that the speaker was vulgar or mentally unbalanced, or in short question-answer dialogue.
Given the limitations of a purely programmatic approach, we’re never going to fully deconstruct the beauty of Shakespeare’s language. Maple can, however, offer a small insight into how he controlled the rhythm and pace of his dialogue.
Download the attachment: Shakespeare.mw