old Norse verse forms

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[[from [ju'i lobypli|ju'i lobypli]] number 10: November-December 1989]

Skaldic Poetry and Lojban, by Athelstan Berfoetskald

English speakers may be unaware of the wealth of possible forms of poetry that exist in the world's literature. Most English poetry is dominated by a single form, 'end-rhyme', in which the final word of each line rhymes with one or more other lines; the exact lines in a stanza which are paired or grouped in rhyme differ according to the specific form, giving us such end-rhyme forms as doggerel, limericks, and sonnets. End-rhyme is often elaborated by requiring particular matching stress patterns in each rhyming pair or group of lines. End-rhyme has proven less interesting for modern poets, who abandon rhyme, stress pattern, or both to achieve a density or abstractness of expression unconstrained by form.

There are many other possible forms, including forms that ignore rhyme and which count only stressed syllables (Germanic long-line, the form of "Beowulf", is an example). In languages that do not have stress as a distinguishing characteristic of tone, the syllable count in each line is important. Japanese 'haiku' is probably the most well-known of these forms; it requires no rhyme or meter; instead it has exactly three lines with 17 syllables in a 5/7/5 pattern, with the added requirement that it demonstrate a particular 'balance' in harmony/disharmony of subject, sound, and meter.

Of poetry's many forms, English end-rhyme does not seem especially suited for Lojban. This is but a guess, based on the limited number of gismu that rhyme and the lujvo architecture that limits the variety of ideas that will end in matching sounds. Many other poetic forms may be more apropos to Lojban's sound and word structures. In this article, I shall concentrate on the Norse alliterative poetry of the skalds, and in particular the 'drottkvaet', or 'court metre'.

First some definitions:

The common unit of skaldic poetry is the strophe, or stanza, which consists of four 'lines', or eight 'half-lines'. Unlike much of English poetry, these lines are usually not grammatically intact sentences or phrases--sentence structure is independent of line structure. In fact, such poetry often has several independent 'sentence' thoughts going at once, with the harmony of sound helping the listener piece the structures together.

Each line consists of two half-lines. There is an odd half-line with exactly six syllables, three of which are accented. Each odd half-line is followed by an even half-line, also with exactly six syllables, three accented. Unlike English end-rhyme forms, all alliteration and rhyme takes place in the accented syllables, or beats. I will for this discussion use the most common stress pattern, 'trochaic'. That is, each beat is followed by an unstressed syllable.

Two syllables 'alliterate' if their initial soulnds are alike: the words "fight", "far" and "phantasm" alliterate. Any two syllables that begin with vowels also alliterate. In each line of skaldic poetry, exactly two beats in the odd half-line and the first beat in the even half-line alliterate.

A 'full rhyme' is one that shares the same vowel and final consonant sounds in one syllable: "rat"/"cat", "rut"/"cut" and "rough"/"cuff" are full rhymes. A 'half rhyme' differs from a full rhyme in that the vowel sound must be different: "rat"/"cut", "rut"/"cat" and "rough"/"cough" are half rhymes. In each line of skaldic poetry, a half rhyme appears in exactly two of the three beats in the odd half-line, including the third beat. In the even half-line, a full rhyme appears in exactly two beats, also including the third, but the pattern need not be the same as in the odd half-line.

This is an unfamiliar (and complicated) form to many, so I include here an English language example of a skaldic strophe. (It's not really SUPPOSED to have great meaning in it - this is only an example.) Please note that the last syllables of each half-line are unstressed and so neither rhyme nor alliterate. The alliterations appear in UPPER case. Vowel alliterations are marked with a period.

Sing with me a Song of

Soaring birds and words that

tell of Hawks; the Hall of

Heaven flows with prose of

.owls and .airborne furless

.awful bats with hats on.

Night and day are Not the

Nicest times for rhymes' sound.

Strophes were informally composed and recited singly or in pairs, but more formal occasions demanded the 'long lay', or "drapa" form. This consists of twenty or more strophes, partitioned into three or more parts by a chorus of one, two or four lines which ended a strophe or stood alone.

Skaldic poetry often used a figurative metaphor known as a "kenning", whose canonical English form is 'x of the y'. For example, "steed of the waves" is a kenning for 'ship', and "whales' road" stands for 'ocean'. In some drapas, kennings are all-pervasive and no thing is directly named.

I think that Lojban is well suited phonologically and grammatically to the use of skaldic form. Lojban gismu are trochair in meter, and Lojban's penultimate word-stress system is conducive to the regular patterns required. The large number of independently elidable cmavo words allows one to alter the rhythm of the utterance to suit the form. Moreover, the morphology allows us to vary the length and form of a lujvo, allowing the poet to choose the word form that best suits the meter without changing the meaning.

We have the ability in Lojban to mark a word as figurative in its use, and so we may use kennings at will, but we also have the option of redefining the grammar for the poem to treat all two word metaphors as kennings, and may thus accommodate the all-kenning form as well.

I shall attempt such poetry in the near future as my schedule permits, but I put it forth to all aspiring Lojban poets to explore this and other alliterative poetry forms. In addition to formal skaldic poetry, there may be other patterns, more or less structured, that will project the full color of Lojban's expressive nature. A new language calls for new ideas, and for the re-examination of old ones.

Michael Helsem on Lojban Poetry Forms

... Lojban poetry. I am eager to see Athelstan's proposal, being a

skaldic aficionado myself (albeit non-Norskophone), but I have grave

doubts already. (I do admire the grandeur of its absurdity --akin to

one of the projects to write uantitative verse in English!) Lojban is

a non-inflected language with numerous non-elidable function words (at

least in its grammatically correct form), whereas such rigorous modes of

versification as Dro"ttkvaett (or haiku for that matter) require either a

language that is inherently terse (i.e. inflected), or else a polyvalent

grammar like the anarchical tradition of English poetry gives access to

(--my English skaldic verse must seem totally twisted to anyone who

doesn't know those conventions). (Or a tradition of broken utterance,

which is haiku's, as any literal rendering will show.) Athelstan is absolutely correct in perceiving Lojban's consonantal richness as the

salient poetic character. But that applies only to its core vocabulary.

Include all the function words as they naturally occur, and Lojban has a

greater resemblance to a pizzicato language like Hawaiian or Japanese,

than to the surflike pounding of Germanic lines in Alliterative-

Accentual. Another thing: it takes many near-synonyms to be able to

say what you want and have it alliterate. I don't foresee this ever

being true of Lojban unless it swamps its carefully-distinguishable

word-hoard with a ton of redundant mports...

I imagine Lojban poetry will eventually create brand new forms out of

its own vast uniqueness which is hardly perceptible yet to those who

think in English (or other natural language) first. I've got a few

noodly intimations I'm reluctant to pontificate upon before I can

substantiate them with practical excellence, but I can say right now

that the "abstract ideas of modern poetry" find a greatly expanded range

in this language with few concrete noun-distinctions (names of birds,

flowers, and feelings), but capable of phrases such as "mu'e laxyzva" --

"The achievement of balance-presence" (which may mean just "poise", or

imply a whole world of Taoist philosophy). --so naturally and yet so


I guess a lot of people still identify "poetry" with rhyme+meter,

although almost no poets even attempt them anymore outside of popular

music. For Lojban to be shoehorned into existing English poetic forms

is not quite the contortionist feat that skaldic verse would be, but my

ear-lier point still applies. In addition, Lojban has few natural

rhymes, and hardly any 'good' ones at all. 'Love' (prami) rhymes only

with 'computer' (skami) and 'acid' (slami), while 'desire' (djica)

rhymes with 'differ' (frica) and --too closely --'deceive' (tcica), for

example. Compare fire/desire or Schmerz/Herz et al... This is not as

bad as Esperanto, which rhymes Vulva and Gunpowder; still, artificial

languages seem uniformly unfortunate in this respect. More

sophisticated devices, like slant-rhyme, assonance, and particularly the

combination of an initial and a medial consonance (muzga zgana; lujvo

jvinu), I suggest, are well worth trying in an irregular way. But, to

use Pound's nomenclature, Lojban excels in aptness for meaning-subtlety

(Logopoeia) rather than phonic luxuriance (Melapoeia) or pictorial

descriptiveness (Phanopoeia).

Lojban is an athletic language; it stretches your mind with challenging

concept-divergences and novel connections. Making lujvo will probably

be its first and most popular word game always; just as Crosswords

exploit the hodgepodge of English megavocabulary, lujvo involve the very

quiddity of Lojban. I predict that it will eventually become a

much-used source of return-borrowings for many natural languages,

somewhat as classical Greek has continued to provide new loans for

scientific usage.

One last thing. I think there might be a definite limerick potential.

Anapests seem to come easier than iambs; and what rhymes exist, have a

quality that reminds me of a triple rhyme in English --as can be found

in the dustier corners of a rhyming dictionary: mentor-centaur, gurgle-

burgle, muscular-crepuscular. This is a Special Effect, like fireworks,

not the constant recurrence of a mild harmony (like rhyme in Italian or


Athelstan responds with two notes:

1. Germanic languages were not as terse as they are now, precisely

because they were more highly inflected. Latin and Greek were very

highly inflected, and they are anything but terse.

2. There are usually several directions from which to approach a

concept: function, appearance, resemblance, effects, etc. Many gismu

are also expressible as conversions of other gismu. Combined with the

further tool of kenning description, Lojban promises as rich and diverse

a phonetic realm as is available in any language, past or present.

Bob adds some other points:

Lojban has more rhyme capability than Michael indicates. It is true

that there isn't much rhyming capability among gismu, but among lujvo

there should be considerably more rhymes. After all, all Lojban brivla

end in a vowel or diphthong, and there are only so many possible


It is true, though, that many of the rhyming syllables would be based on

sharing the same rafsi, leading to a lack of variety of pure rhyming

forms. But moving beyond pure rhyme, into Athelstan's half-rhyme and

alliterative schemes should allow Lojban to show great richness. After

all, Lojban has a much more restricted set of permitted word endings,

and a smaller set of phonemes, than does English. Since there are, at

least theoretically, more possible Lojban words than English words, this

suggests a higher density of rhymes and near-rhymes than English has.

Time will tell if this is a real feature of the language, and not a

false extrapolation.

Lojban has many non-elidable structure words, but it has many elidable

ones as well. It can even be said that Lojban's optional tense system

is an elidable form of inflection. "pu klama" can be said to be an

inflected form of "klama"; however, Lojban inflections are both optional

and completely regular. It is unclear why this would be a disadvantage

in poetry as compared with inflected languages, as Michael implies.

With regard to sound and rhythm, I cannot say whether Lojban is more

like Japanese than like German. However, since Lojban is a language

with stress-oriented pronunciation, one would suspect that rhythm, (as

opposed to rhyme) would follow the strong-stressed patterns of Germanic

lan-guages, as opposed to the syllabic rhythms that I believe are

typical of most oriental languages (as well as French). The consonant

clustering, is of course reminiscent of Slavic languages; perhaps we

should examine Slavic poetry forms to determine some additional

possibilities for Lo-jban.

I am not well-versed in poetry, but I am going to be getting a bit of

experience in devising Lojban forms: the Arabian Nights tales that I am

working on are scattered with embedded verse, as well as a frequently

alliterative and simply-rhyming prose. I'll be trying to capture the

Arabic richness of pattern in Lojban, just as Burton tried to capture it

into English. As an example, which helps belie Michael's perception of

a lack of synonyms, Burton's English translation of a vocative (near the

beginning of the first story) reads "O King of the time and Caliph of

the tide ..."; the "tide" here obviously means "season", as in


Lojban is fully capable of expressing this parallel metaphor of nearly

identical meanings with two totally unrelated expressions, just as

English does: "doi nolrai co turni be le temci be'o je catni be le

cabna" (O superlative-noble type-of [governor of the time-interval and

authority over the present]), and I even captured the alliteration

(which is highly valued in Arabic poetry and a feature that Burton tries

to em-ulate) at least as well as the English does. (I won't promise

such successful Arabic poeticity in the rest of my translation.)

In the final analysis, both Michael and Athelstan may be right. We have

to try new ideas and see what works for Lojban. If we can give rebirth

to old forms that have been lost to English, great. If people choose to

develop a new cultural form of poetry, this may even be evi-dence of a

new Sapir-Whorf effect of a type never consider by Jim Brown and others.