Friday, 7 May 2010

classical elision

In his comment on Wednesday’s blog (5 May) John Cowan raised the question of hiatus avoidance in Latin, quoting the example
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lūmen ademptum
which, as he says, has to be scanned as
monstr’ ’or|rend’, in|form’, in|gens, cui | lūmen a|demptum
to form a regular hexameter (six feet, namely four spondees, a dactyl, and a spondee; caesura in the third foot).
Another example: the third line of the Aeneid is
lītora,| mult(um) il|l(e) et ter|rīs iac|tātus et | altō
with two elisions as shown.

I am one of that dying breed: people who spent many hours as a teenager having to compose Latin and Greek verse. By the time I was sixteen I knew the rules of elision and hiatus avoidance, and would apply them in my weekly task of putting English poetry into Latin hexameters (or sometimes elegiac couplets) and into Greek iambic pentameters. This is a skill I can say I have since lost.

Looking now at my copy of Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer, I am surprised to see that the whole matter is disposed of in a single paragraph.
(At my school we called it neither Synaloepha nor Ecthlipsis, just elision. This is where the use of the term “elision” in English phonetics comes from.)
The reason that a vowel plus m was subject to elision was that the spelling m here did not stand for any actual nasal consonant but just for nasalization of the vowel. So monstrum was pronounced mõ:strũ: (and ends up in Italian as mostro). The nasalized vowel, like any other vowel, would be in hiatus if immediately followed by another vowel and would normally be elided in this context.
In Latin, elision is not usually shown in writing (except sometimes in inscriptions, where you can get things like scriptust = scriptum est). This is different from the convention for classical Greek, in which elision is regularly shown by removal of the letters standing for deleted vowels, in modern texts with an added apostrophe to show the loss. Only short vowels could be elided in Greek.
Here’s what it says in my Sidgwick and Morice, An Introduction to Greek Verse Composition.


  1. I can't say that I've ever understood poëtry, neither in theory nor practice. Unfortunately.

    So I'm more ashamed that I didn't know Latin had nasalisation.

  2. I wonder whether Wilfred Owen was aware the rules and consciously ignoring them when he wrote

    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    presumably intending the first line to be an iambic pentameter.

  3. David: Surely Owen knew them, but I doubt he was ignoring them. The rest of the poem is iambic pentameter all right, but there's no way "Pro patria mori" can be seen as anything but anapaestic dimeter (acatalectic with a feminine ending, technically). Scanned with the elisions, "The old Lie; Dulc' et Decor' est" is correspondingly an anapaestic trimeter line with a missing syllable at the caesura.

    I didn't have to compose Latin, still less Greek, verse. But I did learn English versification pretty well; on the principle of not letting my schooling interfere overmuch with my education, I learned it from Joseph Malof's Manual of English Meters, which I see is available from Amazon, but only at the terrifying price of US$47.50.

    Malof's Manual is the only book on English meters I know of that gives as much attention to the hymn meters (Common Measure, Short Measure, Long Measure, Poulter's Measure) as to foot-verse. Indeed, he argues that the measures are basically stress-verse, the modern equivalent to Old English alliterative verse, and are the fundamental meters of English verse — limericks, for example, are basically a Poulter's Measure couplet with mostly triple rhythms.

    Foot-verse, per contra, is a Romance import, like so much in English; but it takes on its specially English form based on stress rather than quantity due to the influence of the underlying native meters. This is especially true in dramatic verse: many of Shakespeare's lines are in tension between iambic pentameter with one promotion and Long Measure (four-stress) lines with extrametrical slacks: "to bé or nót to be, thát is the quéstion."

  4. By the 13th century, spelling pronunciation of Latin had restored the final /m/ and elision is blocked:
    Dies Irae dies illa
    solvet saeclum in favilla...