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The First Words Were of One Syllable

The first "words" must have been simple, short cries, probably accompanied by a gesture. For example, the "word" for a leopard might involve some gesture indicating the shape or stealth of the animal, accompanied by an onomatopoeic imitation of its growl. This we might call a "word" of one syllable. But it was quickly discovered that one could squish words together, making what we would call "compound words": when you did that, your words were big; they now had parts. Words (and their parts, which we call syllables) could be combined so that the combinations had a fascinating, memorable, and significant-seeming sound. This memorable and intriguing sound pattern might come about accidentally or be invented. It might be improved upon in multiple ways.

Poetry Used Schemes to Organize Itself

One way to make a spellbinding sound pattern would be to keep close to an original onomatopoeic sound or phrasing. Another might be to keep the number of words or syllables on a single breath of "song" the same in succeeding phrases. Another way might be to alternate or vary pitches in succeeding units of sound (to us, words or syllables), that is, to use rhythm. Another would be to alternate rhythms, either

  • in the duration of words' syllables, or
  • in the contrast of the the weak vs. strong pattern of their accents (in languages that had varying accents in words), or
  • in tonal languages, the pitch of successive tones.

Non-speech sounds used for entertainment gradually came to be thought of as music, whether or not accompanied by words. Words came gradually to be sung in a vocal line with this 'music'. The source of contentless sound might be the human voice (uttering nonsense like 'la, la, la'), or it might be the things that came to be called musical instruments.

Singers and musicians came to be expert specialists; they were sometimes the same person, singing and accompanying him- or herself on an instrument.

For hundreds of years music and sung words were, in effect, fused. Words were fitted to musical phrases and the whole probably composed together and sung in combination with musical instruments.

This led eventually to bardic music, and the first two poetic/musical forms of which we have record: the epic, and the little epic (epyllion). These gradually increased in sophistication until they became the national bardic epics and foundation poems of many of Earth's peoples, all the way to the epics of Homer.

With Writing, Poetry (that is, Lyrics) and Music Began to Separate

The work orally composed by a bard was, in Ancient Greece, eventually called a poem, a word meaning 'a thing made.' Bards began to be called poets (makers). Some time after Homer (flourished about 750 B.C.E.), music and sung words (lyrics) began to separate. It gradually became conceivable that a poem (lyric) might be composed to have no accompanying music; some or all of its words might simply be designed to be recited public, perhaps in tragedy. We have the name of the first poet who made verse not to be combined with music: Alkman the Spartan. Poetry and music then increasingly evolved on separate, if roughly parallel, paths. (Perhaps, though they developed writing, the Greeks invented no musical notation, or lost it in the disasters beginning with the Peloponnesian Wars that overcame their civilization; so, over time, the music for many songs became lost, and only the lyrics survived. Thus we have the lyrics of Homer's two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, but no indication of the music we know his mighty lines were sung to.) What had originally been lyrics, i.e., words sung to the music of a lyre, became what we now call poetry, meaning spoken (not sung) rhythmic words. A poet became a maker of spoken (or written) words in pattern, not (usually) of sung words.

(Writers of words for songs gradually became what we now call "songwriters" or "lyricists".)

Partly because of poetry's association with fascinating, mysteriously powerful words, poets became admired.

Writing Creates the Line of Verse

Till the widespread use of writing, most words and music had been created together in oral composition. When writing was invented, it became necessary to notate words and music. Song lyrics were then conventionally written (and later, printed) as horizontal lines of words that started at one margin (in Western languages, usually the left) and stopped short of the other (in Western languages, usually the right). Each line represented the usual length of the patterned words that the bard or poet spoke or sang on one breath. We could thus have called each line of written words a breath, but we didn't. In Latin (and, I think, some other languages) the usual word for this "breath-length" line of words (from their printed appearance) was verse. The word came from a Latin word meaning "turn"; at the end of each written line, the words turned down to the next line. In some languages, as in English, another word for the breath-length was used: instead of being called a "verse", it was called a line of verse.

Verses could be composed orally, as all verses originally had been in the preliterate world, or on paper: part of the joy of composition was to make them adhere to a regular, repeated rhythmic pattern. (These rhythmic patterns, when repeated a specific number of times per verse (line), were called metres.)

Until the 19th Century All Poetry Was Verse

Until the 19th century all poetry was understood to be verse; that is, composed of verses. To repeat, verses began as units of speech or singing that corresponded to the number of words (or syllables) that a singer or speaker could comfortably and articulately sing or speak on one breath. Words, in turn, were composed of smaller regular and uniform units of speech (called "feet"), each consisting of several syllables featuring regularly alternating internal rhythm.

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Last modified: 9:52 PM EDT 7/4/2001