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Currently in the process of playing with Limericks and the meter they use usually requires a meter of long followed by two short syllables or vice versa.

My question, how do you differentiate? Is it by ear? I'm a native speaker but my experience with poetry and meters is very lacking.

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Aren't all syllables the same length, one syllable? – JeffSahol Sep 24 '11 at 0:16
Sorry, couldn't resist. But "TheIrishGuy" asking for help with a limerick? I am from NC and don't ask for help dropping my g's. – JeffSahol Sep 24 '11 at 0:26
Don't be shy, @JeffSahol. We can help with that, too. – onomatomaniak Sep 24 '11 at 6:03
up vote 6 down vote accepted

It would be better expressed as "Stressed" vs. "Unstressed". Take the classic limerick starter, "There once was a man from Nantucket". When you speak the line, the emphasis naturally falls onto certain syllables:

there ONCE was a MAN from nanTUCKet

which looks like

da DA da da DA da da DA da

which is a nice repeating pattern. If you try to substitute Timbuktu for Nantucket, the pattern of the emphasis is destroyed:

there ONCE was a MAN from TIMbukTU

da DA da da DA da DA da DA

As a native speaker, you should have no trouble determining that "Nantucket" fits the stress pattern called for in the standard limerick form, and "Timbuktu" does not.

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Ok, so by ear. I got it. Appears to be something with experience I should get it. Thanks. – TheIrishGuy Sep 24 '11 at 0:25
+1 for nice choice of Timbuktu to reverse the stress pattern of Nantucket – FumbleFingers Sep 24 '11 at 0:30
+1 for NOT finishing the Nantucket limerick – JeffSahol Sep 24 '11 at 0:52

There is indeed something known as long vs. short syllables. It is a borrowing from Latin and Greek poetry. Any syllable with a long vowel, any syllable with a dipthong, any syllable with a short vowel followed by more than one consonant, is a "long syllable" - as in, it literally takes longer to pronounce. These are also known as "heavy syllables" as opposed to "light syllables." The Latin form terms were "longum" and "brevis."

For instance, "am" is a short syllable. "Arm" is a long one. "Aim" is a long syllable. And the first syllable of "Amy" is a long syllable. This is not the same thing as stressed vs. unstressed syllables though I think it is natural for the two phenomena to interact.

However I've never heard that a limerick pays attention to long and short syllables, only to stressed and unstressed. If it is true that a limerick is supposed to be written with attention to long and short syllables, I would be interested in who says so and why.

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These are the rules for syllable length in the Latin language, and have nothing to do with English. – Peter Shor Jul 4 '14 at 23:43

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