Spanish rhythm


Attending BAAP last week, I was very pleased to find there was a whole session devoted to rhythm, which I have written about before (here). One of the general conclusions was that the perception of rhythm in a language depends on the native language of the perceiver. English has a relatively complex syllable structure, while French and Spanish have far fewer consonant clusters, so that their vowel onsets are closer together. The syllable durations of French and Spanish, measured in milliseconds, are therefore shorter and more similar that those of English syllables.

Poetry, as the most rhythmical form of lanuage, may be able to help. English verse lines are measured in stresses, and one of the papers at BAAP measured the rhythm of the most regular form: the limerick. This is either a verse of five lines, with three stresses in each of the first two, and the last, and two stressed in the third and fourth lines; or it is a verse of four lines, each of four stresses, the final one of the first, second and final lines being silent, and an internal rhyme in the third line. The rhythm of a limerick can easily be tapped out as it is being read, and the silent stress is obvious.

French verse is measured in syllables: an Alexandrine has 12 syllables, with a caesura after the sixth (in a classical poem). Any line that does not have 12 syllables is not an Alexandrine. Each line can therefore be tapped out with twelve beats.

Spanish verse seems to be a hybrid: a Spanish Alexandrine has 14 syllables. There is no necessary caesura, but a condition of its being a true Alexandrine is that the thirteenth syllable be stressed. Here are eight lines from a poem by Antonio Machado to illustrate this:

Adoro la hermosura, y en la moderna estética
corté las viejas rosas del huerto de Ronsard;
mas no amo los afeites de la actual cosmética,
ni soy un ave de esas del nuevo gay-trinar.

Desdeño las romanzas de los tenores huecos
y el coro de los grillos que cantan a la luna.
A distinguir me paro las voces de los ecos,
y escucho solamente, entre las voces, una.

In each case (allowing for synalepha), the thirteenth syllable is stressed. The only places where there is no synalepha are in the third line between ‘no’ and ‘amo’, and in the last line, between ‘solamente’ and ‘entre’. This makes a total of between 13 and 15 syllables for the individual lines.

If Spanish is syllable-timed, how do we achieve equal lengths for these lines?


  1. Hi Graham –
    I’ve read somewhere that Portuguese rhythm differs between European and Brazilian in that one is stress-timed and the other syllable-timed (can’t recall which way round!)
    Could a similar difference be nascent in Spanish? Could this account for the hybrid findings?

    Martin Ball

  2. Portuguese is traditionally said to be the only Romance language that is stress-timed, but whether that is based on any sort of proper evidence, or simply an impressionistic view given by anglophone speakers, I don’t know. I can imagine that Brazilian and European Portuguese would have different rhythms, but where they might fall on a scale between stress- and syllable-timing, I don’t know. And I don’t know anything about Portuguese verse metrics either. That’s three “I don’t knows”. Perhaps somebody reading this DOES know?!?

  3. nice blog .. thanks for this post

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  4. I came across your interesting post while looking for information on the fourteen-syllable alexandrine (“alejandrino,” as opposed to the “alejandrino francés” ‘French alexandrine,’ which has twelve syllables) for a translation class I’m taking. I can explain why the individual lines in the first stanza you quote appear to have 13 or 15 syllables. In fact, they do have 13 or 15 grammatical syllables, but they have 14 syllables for the purposes of syllabic meter.

    All the lines in the second stanza have 14 syllables: each is stressed on the thirteenth syllable (or, as we say in Hispanic poetry studies, the next-to-last syllable), which is followed by an additional syllable. This line is called a “verso llano” because it ends with a a proparoxytone (“palabra llana”), the norm for a word in Spanish. In Spanish syllabic meter, if a line ends with an oxytone (“palabra aguda”) or a proparoxytone (“palabra esdrújula”), however, a calculation must be made so the meter will “fit.”

    Consequently, the odd lines in the first stanza have 15 grammatical syllables but we subtract a syllable from each because it is a “verso esdrújulo” and has an extra syllable for purposes of the meter. We do the opposite in the even lines: we add a syllable to each line because it is a “verso agudo.”

    This is explained in number 2 in this very basic introduction to Spanish versification:

  5. Catharine -I think that’s what I was saying, isn’t it? So long as the thirteenth syllable in the line is stressed, and allowance has to be made for synalaepha, it doesn’t matter how many more come after it (including none): the line remains an Alexandrine. The greatest number of syllables that I can come up with is three: in a word such as “dígamelo”, which is ‘sobresdrújula’. So long as “dí-” is the thirteenth syllable, we have an Alexandrine. The same principle applies to lines of other lengths, the octosyllable being a common metre, in which the seventh syllable is the crucial one.

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