Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Typological tendencies in verse and their cognitive grounding

Knowledge and culture subproject 4: "Poetry, rhythm, and meter" of Leiden University Centre for Linguistics

2013 - 2017
Johan Rooryck
NWO Horizon Grant NWO Horizon Grant

Subproject implementation

Every human society engages in verse. The concept encompasses a number of activities, such as song, poetry or chant. In its most widespread and prototypical form it involves some verbal material (i.e. words) which is set to a template. Examples of templates are the scheme of lines and rhymes of a sonnet, the tune to which the verses of "The House of the Rising Sun" are sung, the 12-bar blues form, or the structure of beats in counting rhymes such as " Eeny meeny miny moe". 

The broad goal of the project is twofold: (1) to describe structural tendencies in the cross-cultural variation of verse; (2) to ground these tendencies in human cognition. Some of the analysed recurrent patterns are the following: the end of metrical lines is less variable than the beginning (Fabb 2002); the second constituent of binary structures such as couplets tends to be shorter than the first one (Kiparsky 2006); songs with 4 lines containing 4 strong beats each are exceptionally common (Burling 1966). 

The project has developed in three main strands. First, the discovery of cross-cultural tendencies needs of extensive surveys in the metrical and ethnomusicological literature. We are currently developing a database where structural features of metrical templates can be encoded, and frequent or exceptional patterns can thereby be extracted. 

A second line of work concerns the formal analysis and quantification of the typological tendencies. For instance, the hypothesis that metrical lines are looser at the beginning and get stricter towards the end has often been brought up, but few have defined this relative strictness with precision. We have carried out quantitative analyses of this sort using digitalised corpora of sung and spoken verse in languages such as Dutch, Estonian or Sanskrit, and the aim is to extend it to a representative sample of traditions. 

The final component of the project attempts to provide a cognitive explanation for the typological tendencies. Perception and production experiments are being set up in order to test whether low-level cognitive mechanisms can account for these recurrent patterns. Two illustrations: (1) the observation that metrical constituents (beats, feet) are grouped and subgrouped into small, frequent structures relates to research on the Object Tracking System (Carey and Xu 2001); (2) the tendency towards final strictness matches findings within the Dynamic Attention Theory (Large and Jones 1999) and similar entrainment frameworks.

The cultural variation in singing might seem limitless, but this variation is nevertheless shaped by our human nature.


Burling, R. 1966. "The Metrics of Children’s Verse: a cross-linguistic study". American Anthropologist, 68(6):1418–1441. 

Carey, S. & Xu, F. 2001. "Infants’ knowledge of objects: beyond object files and object tracking". Cognition, (80):179–213. 

Fabb, N. 2002. Language and Literary Structure: The Linguistic Analysis of Form in Verse and Narrative. Cambridge University Press. 

Kiparsky, P. 2006. "A Modular Metrics for Folk Verse". In: Dresher, B.-E. & Friedberg, N. (eds.), Formal Approaches to Poetry. Recent Developments in Metrics, pp: 7–49. Mouton de Gruyter. 

Large, E.-W. & Jones, M.-R. 1999. "The Dynamics of Attending: How People Track Time-Varying Events". Psychological Review, 106(1):119–159. 

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