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What Is Prosody?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Prosody in language is the rhythm of the speech, the stress placed on syllables, and the overall tonal properties of the speech. This element of language gets used in many different ways. Linguists may look at prosody or prose meter in order to determine how emotion affects language, how tone relates to language acquisition, or how to explain a language to a beginner.

Experts have identified various aspects of speech or speech conditions that can have a substantial effect on prosody. For example, the speaker’s emotional state is a usual influence on this speech property. It’s also important to consider whether the speaker is making a statement, asking a question, or performing other rhetorical tasks that may influence the prose meter that’s delivered.

In poetry, prosody is the poetic meter of the verse. The use of this element in poetry is directly related to the use of prosody in non-poetic language, in that both deal with the rhythm and cadence of the language. In poetry, prosodic protocol is more formal or strictly recognized, simply because traditional poetry, as it has been practiced for centuries, has relied on strict rhythm and meter as some of its essential artistic elements.

Though today’s poetry is relatively free of strict metrics and rules, older, more classical forms of poetry, often called traditional verse, almost always complied with certain prosodic rules. Lines of poetry included elements called feet that used specific stress and tone. This influenced the stressing of specific syllables, which is a key part of prosody in poetry as well as song.

Along with feet and meters, the prosody of poetry also includes an element called caesurae, or “breaks” – this element may still be used in modern poetry quite a bit. The simple idea of pausing after a specific syllable is also common to both poetry and general rhetoric. That makes caesurae items that may still apply to many instances of modern speech, though the average speaker might not identify them as such.

In the evolution of poetry as an art form, most literary experts would agree that the end of the 20th century saw poetry pass from being largely an art form based on strict prosodic rules to something based more on emotional appeal. The idea of “free verse” replaced traditional verse to a great extent, reflecting a prioritizing of emotional power, passion, or conceptual appeal over the elaborate prosody of the classic poem. This change has reduced the use of formal prosodic elements in some of the literary arts, but the idea of stress and tone in language still plays a vital role in both poetic and non-poetic speech.

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