© Scott Keyser 2019
WordWayvTM is a new way of representing the natural rhythms of the written and spoken word in English. The purpose of this blog is to introduce the concept of rhythmic writing and establish my IP/copyright in WordWayvTM.
Everything is energy.
The air you breathe, the water you drink, the ground you walk on, the chair you’re sitting on, the shoes you’re in. That chair may feel solid to you, but in reality it’s a universe of electrons whizzing around nuclei so fast that it feels solid. But if you could peer into one of those plastic, leather or wood molecules in your chair, you’d see largely empty space.
There is no such thing as matter.
Isaac Newton posited the theory of stable, unchanging ‘building blocks’ of matter, that create unending chain reactions of cause and effect. But quantum mechanics and sub-atomic physics tell us he was wrong. There’s only energy.
And energy — eg radiation (the electro-magnetic spectrum, including visible and ultra-violet light), sound, wind, electricity, water — has two properties: it consists of particles and it travels in waves.
In terms of particles, think photons (light), air molecules (sound, wind), electrons (electricity), water molecules (water).
If everything is energy and energy comprises particles and moves in waves, it follows that language shares the same properties. It, too, must consist of particles and move in waves.
The particles are the individual letters and words (interestingly, grammarians refer to monosyllabic words like prepositions, pronouns, articles and conjunctions as ‘particles’). They make up the words we speak and write.
And when they combine in sentences or stanzas, they move in waves. That’s rhythmic writing.
Rhythmic writing…as spoken words
We hear rhythmic writing most easily in speech, in the rise and fall of stressed and unstressed syllables. (A syllable is a unit of sound within a word.) A stressed syllable is one we emphasise, and an unstressed syllable is one we don’t.
Take the words continue, discuss, reduce, betray, catholic and perform. Here are the stressed syllables CAPITALISED:
This tendency of English to vary the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is known as ‘accentuation’, ie when we speak, we give our words a particular weight, push, emphasis or accent. It’s why English is known as a ‘stress-timed’ language. This gives it its familiar rise and fall, its unmistakable rhythm.
But not all languages are the same. In the Chinese languages and in Thai, for example, all the words are of one syllable (‘monosyllabic’) and variety in speech is achieved by varying pitch, ie the speaker’s voice goes up or down in timbre.
Here are two sentences, with the stressed syllables capitalised:
EVery TIME we TALK, we STRING toGETHer a SERies of STRESSED and UNstressed SYLLables withOUT even THINKing aBOUT it. THIS gives our LANGuage its RHYthm.
Do you see how the particles — the smaller words, like we, a, of, and, even, our, its — are typically unstressed? The stress falls on the words, and the parts of the words, that carry the most meaning. So sound and stress collaborate to convey meaning.
When you say those two sentences out loud, you can hear how the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables makes the sound rise and fall, like a wave. This is the wave-like rhythm of our spoken language.
The same goes for our written language. Speech and writing are intimately connected: humans spoke (and sang) before they wrote; speech gave birth to writing. And the most obvious type of rhythmic writing is poetry.
Rhythmic writing in poetry
The following satirical ditty — written in the 18thcentury by Samuel Johnson — uses a simple, regular pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables:
I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.
Here are the stressed syllables capitalised:
I PUT my HAT upON my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I MET anOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his HAND.
(If you’re unsure, try saying it out loud. But this time, stress the lower case, unstressed syllables; it sounds absurd and unnatural.)
When we learn ‘prosody’ (the study of poetic meter and versification) at school, we’re taught that ditties like this are in ‘iambic trimeter’ and ‘tetrameter’, that lines 1 and 3 have four ‘metrical feet’, while lines 2 and 4 have three.
How off-putting is that lingo? The technical jargon of prosody makes it sound complicated, difficult and dull. But it’s profoundly simple, because we naturally use these rhythms; they’re in our DNA.
So, we can hear the rise and fall of this poem’s basic rhythm — especially when we say it out loud or hear someone else reciting it. But what if we could see it, graphically, as a picture?
Now we can, using WordWayvTM, my wave/particle theory of rhythmic writing.
WordWayvTM to map rhythmic writing
First, let’s map the stressed and unstressed syllables in the above poem, using graph paper, so the syllables are evenly spaced. As you can see in the image below, each syllable on each line gets its own mini-box, with a dot placed above the stressed syllables and a dot beneath the unstressed ones, reflecting the capitalised syllables in the version of the poem above.
Next, if we join the dots on each line, we see the wave shape, the rise and fall, of the iambic rhythm emerging:
Of course, representing it like this doesn’t do justice to the fluidity of the poetry; the graphic style is linear and angular. Nonetheless, the regularity of the rhythm/wave is clear to see: lines 1 and 3 and 2 and 4 are rhythmically identical.
When we turn it into a WordWayvTM, though, we get something more fluid:
You can see (I hope!) that the stressed syllables sit in the crest of the wave, and the unstressed ones in the trough or dip. The particles (the individual words) constitute the wave; the wave unites the particles. And the rhythm — or flow — gives it energy.
This poetic meter or rhythm is technically known as ‘iambic trimeter/tetrameter’, but I prefer to call it the ‘3- and 4-crested wave’. I’m sure most school children would prefer that, too!
Rhythmic writing, bastardised
Now, let’s see what happens to the rhythm when we effectively bastardise it by changing a few words:
I put my fedora upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I encountered another man
Whose hat was in his suitcase.
And now with the stressed syllables capitalised:
I PUT my feDORa upon my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I enCOUNTered aNOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his SUITcase.
The loss of rhythm is clear to the ear, but how about to the eye? When we join the dots and show it graphically, how does it look?
The extra syllables in the words fedora and encountered have spoilt the rhythm of lines 1 and 3; they now sound almost ridiculous. And losing the alliteration of the ‘h’ of hat and hand in line 4, the loss of the rhyme of Strand with hand, and with the poem ending on the falling note of the unstressed syllable case — all of this has destroyed the rhythm.
It’s arrhythmic. And now we can both hear and see it.
More rhythmic writing to come
In my next blog, I’ll use WordWayvTM to examine more complex poetry and prose, and show you how establishing rhythm in any form of writing gives it clarity, conciseness and power.
Till then, “Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words…”
I invite you to join me, The Writing Guy, in learning more about the rhythm of the English language. Visit the Write for Results website and the Write for Results Facebook page today.