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Since English is a stress-timed language, why have poets chosen to write in iambic pentameter? Doesn't the language already have a natural rhythm without resorting to meter? And isn't that natural rhythm already quite close to iambic pentameter?

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    This question doesn't really make sense. Poets chose to write in Iambic pentameter because they wanted to. Why did they want to? Well, you need to ask a historian but I imagine the traditions derived from Latin and Greek were factors. Languages with word stress patterns do, of course, have their own rhythm, but it's inevitably irregular and in the mind of classically influenced poet an irregular and naturally occurring meter is probably insufficient. That's why they tend to work English's natural stress pattern into a precise meter, such as iambic. – Sandwichmeister Nov 24 '16 at 19:53
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    First, is there any evidence that most English poets write in iambic pentameter? I haven't seen any. Second, is there any evidence that most English poets strive to write in iambic pentameter? Ditto. Third, is there any actual evidence about the normal rhythmic structure of normal spoken English? I haven't seen anything presented here about any of these topics. Hence this is all uninformed speculation. – John Lawler Nov 24 '16 at 21:20
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    I wasn't finished with writing my comment before I deleted it. Mostly due to typing on my cell phone, having no access to my computer at the moment. Let me try rephrasing: Asking a question on ELU is like walking into someone's home in the woods. They pull out a gun and ask you why you're trespassing. – ktm5124 Nov 24 '16 at 21:33
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    @ktm5124 Everybody here has completely different educational and linguistic backgrounds; many if not most are non-native speakers. We get silly questions and silly answers of all varieties. That's why facts are important and handwaving is discouraged. I don't think it has to do with American rural stereotypes at all, if that's what you meant by hillbilly; it's more like walking into the market outside the Delhi train station. – John Lawler Nov 24 '16 at 21:33
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    It is the hostile attitude of some people towards questions, even interesting ones such as this one, that has given EL&U its terrible reputation on SE. I wish people were more welcoming, and I wish they just moved on if they didn't like the question for some reason. Unreasonable demands in comments are part of this bad attitude. I personally think it is a very interesting question. – Cerberus Nov 24 '16 at 22:18
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(Note: It's actually a matter of some debate whether there really exist "syllable-timed" and "stress-timed" languages; but I think this question is answerable within its premise that there do, and that English is "stress-timed" — in fact, I think the answer is fairly similar whether or not that's the case — so I'll give it a shot.)

Unstressed syllables aren't silent; if the interval between two stresses is the same no matter how many unstressed syllables come between them, then stresses with more syllables between them will force those syllables to be said faster, which results in a faster rhythm.

So having roughly the same pattern of unstressed syllables throughout a sentence will result in a regular cadence:

  • Liz Anne drank mixed drinks. (five stressed syllables, ´´´´´)
  • Sally Mae had drunk a vodka tonic. (five trochees, ´˘´˘´˘´˘´˘)
  • Amanda Jean had drunk a rum and coke. (five iambs, ˘´˘´˘´˘´˘´)
  • Jessica Coleman was trying out something with grenadine. (five dactyls, ´˘˘´˘˘´˘˘´˘˘´˘˘)
  • Alexandra was trying out something with peppermint schnapps. (five anapests, ˘˘´˘˘´˘˘´˘˘´˘˘´)

(Incidentally, note that not all of the cadences work equally well; personally I think the iambs and anapests work best, though that's probably subjective.)

By contrast, a more haphazard arrangement of unstressed syllables will have no such cadence:

  • Liz Anne was drinking something with vodka. (´´˘´˘´˘˘´˘)
  • Jessica Coleman drank mixed drinks. (´˘˘´˘˘´´´)

Of course, a regular cadence is not absolutely necessary to poetry. And iambic pentameter is far from the only possible regular cadence in English. (Common meter, for example, uses alternating lines of four and three feet; and limericks use anapests.) But it's a pleasant rhythm, and — as you imply — it falls within the normal range of natural English rhythms. (And of course, once a meter becomes common, it takes on a life of its own; later poets used it in part because they were in the same tradition of earlier poetry that had used it.)

  • Very good ruakh. both scholarly and clear, it got my upvote. However I found myself fitting "Jess -I-ca Cole-man drank mix -e-ed dri-i-inks into 3:4 waltz time without even thinking about it. I wonder if asking a question about the relationship between cadence, poetic metre and musical time signatures would be worthwhile? – BoldBen Nov 26 '16 at 6:03

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