Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 14

A NOTE ON SOUND FEATURES IN PROSE

In relation to the sound features of prose, you should read pp. 132-3 and 215-7 of Leech and Short's Style in Fiction.

We have dealt with the sound features of poetry earlier in the semester. Although the sound features of prose are of lesser significance than those of poetry, they are sometimes considered in the analysis of prose, as alliteration, metre and rhyme do occasionally appear in prose. However, a rather different approach to that used for the analysis of poetry is usually adopted in the analysis of rhythm and other sound features in prose.1 For example, prose rhythm, according to Leech and Short, can be analysed by looking at the punctuation marks in a given prose passage, as these are written indicators of intonational units in the passage. In effect, Leech and Short's method of analysing the rhythm of a prose passage, as seen on pp. 215-6 of their book, involves the deriving, solely for the purpose of analysis, of grapho-metric units out of the orthographic units found in the passage. But I would like to add here that in addition to orthographic units, one should also consider grammatical units in a given prose passage, as the potential intonation units of the passage may be derived by the significant divisions of clauses and clause constituents, which are not always indicated by punctuation marks. One may further add that the words used in a particular prose passage -- eg. whether they are monosyllabic, polysyllabic etc. -- may also contribute to the rhythm of the passage.

Another consideration which may be of significance in the analysis of the sound features of prose, is the use of unconventional spelling in a fictional work to represent the style or dialect of the speech of certain characters (see, for example, Joseph's speech in Wuthering Heights [passage (d) of your fourth tutorial handout]). The use of italics, underlining, and capital letters, may also represent the emphasis that the writer, narrator or character puts on certain words. The spelling of words is considered by Leech and Short as part of graphology (which is not to be confused with Halliday's grapho-metre, which refers to the division of written [usually poetic] language into the lines and stanzas on the page). We may note here that the word orthography, as it is understood in ordinary language, may also be used to refer to spelling, as it refers not only to the use of punctuation marks in writing, but also, and perhaps more frequently, to the way individual words are spelled.2 The author's resort to orthographic (or graphological) means in order to depict the phonological characteristics of speech may be of interest in stylistic analysis.

We end our discussion on prose rhythms here with a word of caution. Rhythm in prose is usually less regular, and hence less important than in poetry, and unless it is significantly foregrounded, or one is specifically asked to analyse it in a given passage, it is usually advisable not to concentrate too much on it in one's analysis of prose.


1. It must be mentioned here however, that while many of us would not use classical metrics for the analysis of prose, there are some traditional literary scholars who pay serious attention to it in the general analysis of prose rhythm. This tendency can be seen, for example in George Saintsbury's A History of English Prose Rhythm (London: Macmillan, 1912); in Norton W Tempest's The Rhythm of English Prose (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1930); and in pp. 49-69 of Marjorie Boulton's The Anatomy of Prose (London: Routledge, 1954). But the use of iambic, trochaic and other feet for the analysis of prose leads to many complications. Some of these complications arise from the same problems faced in the analysis of poetry, such as whether we should consider only two relevant degrees of stress or more, or whether we should use classical metrics in our analysis or other approaches to metre. There are also other problems which result in even more serious complications. For example, a metrical analysis of prose rhythm may result in an unnecessarily complicated metrical equipment. In addition to feet of two and three syllables, feet of four or five syllables may be encountered, and this complication arises even if we agree that there are only two relevant degrees of stress in the analysis of prose rhythm. As a result, one must resort to such unwieldy S terms as amphibrach (x / x), anti-bacchic (x / /), antispast (x / / x), ionic a majore (/ / x x), and ionic a minore (x x / /) amongst a number of others. Theoretically, the fact that grapho-metric lines do not exist in prose should also pose a problem with regard to foot divisions, as each foot in the classical approach need not begin with a stressed syllable, and it is thus difficult to locate the beginning of each foot, unless one views it in conjunction with the line. However, the traditional approach to prose rhythm appears to ignore these problems, as foot divisions are apparently placed on an arbitrary basis, with each foot having between one to four words (see the analyses given on pp. 58-64 of Boulton's book). Back

2. It is clear that Leech and Short use the term graphology in the way that Halliday would use the term orthography when they refer to the sentence as working at both syntactic and graphological levels (p. 217). Back


Text to Analyse

an extract from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn
 

Notes for the next workshop.

Notes for the previous workshop.


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Last revised: 17 May 2017
Ismail S. Talib 1996-2017.