Pegs, Cords, and Ghuls: Meter of Classical Arabic Poetry
Tri-College (Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges). Department of Linguistics
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There are many reasons to read poetry, filled with heroics and folly, sweeping metaphors and engaging rhymes. It can reveal much about a shared cultural history and the depths of the human soul; for linguists, it also provides insights into the nature of language itself. As a particular subset of a language, poetry is one case study for understanding the use of a language and the underlying rules that govern it. This paper explores the metrical system of classical Arabic poetry and its theoretical representations. The prevailing classification is from the 8th century C.E., based on the work of the scholar al-Khaliil, and I evaluate modern attempts to situate the meters within a more universal theory. I analyze the meter of two early Arabic poems, and observe the descriptive accuracy of al-Khaliil’s system, and then provide an analysis of the major alternative accounts. By incorporating linguistic concepts such as binarity and prosodic constraints, the newer models improve on the general accessibility of their theories with greater explanatory potential. The use of this analysis to identify and account for the four most commonly used meters, for example, highlights the significance of these models over al-Khaliil’s basic enumerations. The study is situated within a discussion of cultural history and the modern application of these meters, and a reflection on the oral nature of these poems. The opportunities created for easier cross-linguistic comparisons are crucial for a broader understanding of poetry, enhanced by Arabic’s complex levels of metrical patterns, and with conclusions that can inform wider linguistic study.