Sunday, December 30, 2012

counting syllables

Everybody knows that a haiku is a poem consisting of three lines, the first five line syllables, the second seven, the third five again.

But what is a syllable? Presumably, when setting up a scheme in which the poet counts pieces, each piece is intended to be equivalent. Otherwise, why do it? It’s always puzzled me that in English “wound” has one syllable, the same number as “it”; “strength” has one syllable, while “into,” which, it seems to me, takes less time to say, has two.

The Japanese, who invented haiku, have notions about syllables that I don’t think quite correspond to what we English speakers think.

According to Harold G. Henderson in his An Introduction to Haiku:
If anyone wishes to do ‘syllable-counting’ he should remember that Japanese count in “ji-on,” which corrrespond only roughly to English syllables. Most ji-on are either vowels or short syllables ending in a vowel; but the ‘n’ that in English would conclude a syllable (as in ‘ban’) is also a ji-on, as is the first of any doubled consonant. E.g. ‘teppatsu’ (te-p-pa-tsu) and ‘Onjo’ (O-n-jo-o) both have four ji-on.

This helps explain why translators often say that haiku in Japanese are very short, in experience shorter even than the seventeen syllables we English speakers think awfully clipped.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

Haiku. After all those centuries of practice I wonder if the Japanese have a lot of good twitter writers.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

As a kid Japanese was one of the languages I really wanted to learn.

Unfortunately the ambition crashed against the amount of work required - and the social anxiety.

Still, I like to play with languages even if I'm not really learning them.