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Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations
University of Toronto
<draft 6.2, w of apparatus, May 2002>

, . 2
Josephus, Jewish Antiquities VII

1. Introduction

There is no meter in Biblical Hebrew (BH) poetry: one may safely conclude that

the poetry of the Hebrew Bible does not contain meter (Vance 2001: 496); one must

I would like to thank Nila Friedberg and Elan Dresher, convenors of the international conference held at
the University of Toronto, Formal Approaches to Poetry and Recent Developments in Generative Metrics
(8-10 Oct. 1999). They encouraged me to participate, and I gave a paper entitled, On the Biblical
Pentameter in Jonah 2 (10 Oct.), which is now completely revised here. I had followed this up with a
presentation in the Jewish Studies Colloquia, The Linguistic and Musical Reality behind the Tiberian
Hebrew Accents (2 Feb. 1999). Since then, I have been able to pursue this programme only now and then.
This past year, however, I was once again inspired to study generative metrics through editing Michael
Gettys forthcoming book on Old English metrics (Getty 2002).
I would also like to thank ...
who have kindly offered criticism on earlier drafts. I remain solely responsible for the opinions expressed.
Finally, I would like to thank my friend, Michael Rumack, who serves as cantor at the First
Narayever, downtown Toronto and to whom this paper is dedicated. It was Michael who first introduced
me to the haunting beauty of the biblical cantillation, and who made concrete the abstractions I had found
in dusty books.
My work is made possible by a generous donation from the nonprofit GRAMCORD Institute; and by the continued generosity of Albert (Dov) Friedberg.

David, being now free from wars and dangers, and enjoying profound peace from this time on,
composed songs and hymns to God [Psalms] in varied meterssome he made in trimeters, and others in
pentameters (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Books V-VIII, Loeb Classical Library).

reject meter as an element in the poetics of classical Hebrew poetry as it is found in the
Bible (p. 497). In fact, there is nothing vaguely prosodic about BH poetry whatsoever
assuming there even is poetry! There may still be one or two flat-earthers around, but
respectable scholars subscribe to the three-C consensus (or , concensus) of the early
1980s: Collins (1978), OConnor (1980) and Kugel (1981).3 BH poetry, according to
this consensus, can be definedif at allin terms of semantic and syntactic parallelism;
such parallelism is further constrained by the syntax.


This consensus position, I would argue, is bizarre on many counts, at least two

that are relevant to the no-phonology position. First, BH in its several ancient reading
traditions is inherently prosodic: by inherently prosodic I mean that its phonology
refers to several distinct prosodic domains: the organization of syllables into feet (F);
the phonological word or clitic group (); the combination of words into phonological
phrases (); pausal phonology at the right edges of the intonational phrase (I); and the
connection between the biblical verse and the phonological utterance (U) (Dresher 1994:
esp. 3; cf. Hayes 1989). BHs three sandhi rules in particular (spirantization, stress
retraction and external gemination) are sensitive to boundaries (Dresher 1994: 3.2).

Dion concludes, The flourishing of theses and monographs in Hebrew Poetics that took place in the
eighties seems to have come to an end, and no recent publication has seriously challenged the quasiconsensus on which the first edition of this Guide was based (Dion 1992: 1).
Pedersen and Richards similarly conclude, ... it is possible to discern an emerging scholarly
consensus that denies the existence of meter in classical Hebrew poetry. In sum, it seems appropriate to
delete meter as a category for understanding biblical Hebrew poetry (Pedersen, Richards 1992: 42).


Second, and perhaps more suggestive, the biblical text is not read but chanted. It

is the cantillation system that regulates BH prosodic phonology. There can be no doubt
that this cantillation should be understood as a fine-grained prosodic representation,
following Dresher (1994). What is interesting about prosody is it operates at the syntaxphonology interface: generally the prosodic representation is isomorphic with the syntax;
but it often deviates systematically from the syntax in satisfaction of phonological
constraints. The suggestion, then, is that OConnor-style syntactic constraints should be
reformulated as prosodic constraints.


Furthermore, there are two separate cantillation systems: one for prose; and one

for the so-called poetry (the three books of Truth: Job, Proverbs and Psalms4). The
poetic system is somewhat different: more constrained, yet with a finer grain and
sensitivity to word shape, than the prose cantillation. Both systems organize
phonological words into phrases by means of conjunctive and disjunctive accents, but the
prose system permits quite complex nesting of such phrases.


It only stands to reason, in this light, that the organizing principles of BH

prosodics have some relation to the organizing principles of BH poetry; that the inherent
music of the language is reflected in the chanting of poetry, and vice versa. It only stands
to reason that the several prosodic domains serve jointly to regulate metrical lines.5

The acronym formed by taking the books in this order, Job, Proverbs and Psalms, spells truth in


I advance this working hypothesis in the present, programmatic paper within the

framework of generative metrics, understood here as the intersection of linguistics

(phonology), literature (poetry) and music (theory of tonal music) (cf. Youmans 1989;
see further, e.g., Rice 2000; Fabb 1997: ch. 2). In this paper, I begin the task of
replacing syntactic constraints with the prosodic constraints independently motivated by
the phrase-structure grammar of BH cantillation: constraints on the branching of
prosodic constituents in prominent positions. I exploit the prosodic principle of headdependent asymmetry (HDA), specifically the visibility HDA (or HDA-V), as defined by
Dresher and van der Hulst (1998).


This paper has a tripartite organization. In 2 I establish the basic tetrametric

template from first principles. This basic metrical template can be expanded in limited
ways. I then show in 3 how the properties of the pentameter in Jonah 2 follow from the
principle of HDA-V. Finally, the maximal expansion to the hexameter (e.g.,
Lamentations 3) and heptameter (e.g., Job 3) is examined in 4 to determine which
constituent is in fact being counted. The intermediate prosodic domains of foot and
metron must carry the explanatory burden, as it turns out. There is a sharp contrast in the
behaviour and distribution of prosodic words of one, two or more than two feet. The
apparent gaps in metric lines fall out as a consequence of the HDA-V and the refined,
word-internal prosodic hierarchy. The conclusion in 5 sets forth a research programme
in BH generative metrics. There is no pretension here to an exhaustive treatment: the
goal here is to advance interesting claims at the expense of empirical coverage.

This is in keeping with the spirit of Kuryowiczs proposals (19xx, 19xx). For surveys of previous
studies, see the articles by Kuntz (1998, 1999) and Donald Vances dissertation (2001).

2. Tetrameter and the Metrical Template


The foundation of BH cantillation is the organization of prosodic words () into

phonological phrases (). Invoking the prosodic principles of HIERARCHY and

CONTINUOUS DICHOTOMY,6 we can define the BH metrical template as in (1).






The initial claim, then, is that no more, nor no less, than the structure in (1) may

count as a BH VERSE. The BH verse is equivalent to a prosodic utterance (U) which

dominates two METRICAL LINES, equivalent to two intonational phrases (I). The BH
verse, then, is essentially a couplet of intonation contours. Each BH metrical line
dominates two COLA, equivalent to two phonological phrases (). As a first
approximation, let us assume the terminal nodes (feet) are also prosodic words () as
in (2).

Selkirk (1984) refers to the principle of Rhythmic Alternation (1.2.1, p. 12). Hayes (1988), citing the
1980 dissertation by Piera, refers instead to the principle of Even Distribution; he states Pieras constraint
as follows.
Even Distribution
The cardinality of sister nodes in a metrical pattern must:
a. differ by at most one (marked case);
b. be equal (unmarked case).
(Hayes 1988: 242)



BH phonology is, furthermore, right-headed at every level. The implicit, global

iambic rhythm of (2) is made explicit in (3) (in which strong nodes (s) contrast with weak
nodes (w)).








The metrical tree in (3) is isomorphic with a poetic-accentual parsing presented

schematically in (4) (the Tiberian conjunctive accent (C) contrasts with four degrees of
disjunctive accent (0-3)).




The resulting 2+2 tetrametric couplet seems to be unmarked in some

fundamental sense, not only in BH and related Semitic languages, but universally. The
lines of this archetype have four feet, and from syntactic evidence appear to be divided
into two-foot cola. Lines are grouped by both rhyme and syntax into couplets, and the
couplets pair off into quatrains (Hayes 1988: 244).


A much beloved couplet in Genesis 1:27 is also a parade example of this basic

tetrameter. The couplet has been rendered into the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
in (5) and supplied with a morphological parse and translation.


create.PAST3MS ACC.3MS
In the image of God he created him;

This node may be promoted to a disjunctive D1 based on secondary principles that are distracting in the
present context; this and similar phenomena are ignored for the balance of this discussion.


male and female he created them.

create.PAST3MS ACC.3MP


This particular example highlights a characteristic BH asymmetry between freer

first cola and rigid second cola. Such asymmetry is cross-linguistically well attested:
e.g., the asymmetry of the ancient Sanskrit meters (Fabb 1997: ch. 3, esp. 3.3.2., pp. 6468; cf. 4.1.2., esp. p. 91). In all such cases, we contrast the free initial with the fixed
cadence. In (5) we see that the fixed cadences are strictly syllabic iambs; whereas, the
free initials permit words with more than two syllables. The line in (5a) is given a footsyllable parse in (6) to make the asymmetry clearer.



The asymmetry made explicit in (6) can be derived from the prosodic principle of

head-dependent asymmetry (HDA). As Dresher and van der Hulst observed, Tiberian
phonology is characterized by an HDA: specifically, a visibility HDA or HDA-V (1998:

I employ the New International Version (NIV) here for convenience. Its use does not imply any
judgement on its value as a translation.

2, pp. 328-335, esp. 2.1 Tiberian (Biblical) Hebrew, pp. 329-332). The metrical
horizon suggested in (5)-(6) is indicated in (7) by the dotted line cutting across the
representation. Assuming some sort of HDA-V, we need only ban branching on visible
nodes. This insight is employed in the next section to derive the properties of the BH



In addition to the asymmetrical syllable count in Genesis 1:27, it is also worth

noting in passing the alliterative aspect of this particular verse: bbzb (indicated by the
double underscoring in the transcription in (5)). This pattern has a certain Germanic ring
to it, reminiscent of one of the Beowulf patterns: AAAz (or AAzA, adjusting for the
directionality in headedness: Fabb 1997, 5.4.1-5.4.2, esp. pp. 121, 125).

3. Pentameter and Head-Dependent Asymmetry


Let us posit a Tiberian HDA-V, already implicit in (4), and let us assume that this

prosodic constraint is grounded in Universal Grammar (UG). This HDA-V-T, as it were,

is presented graphically in (8), and is assumed in the remainder of this discussion. With

our HDA-V-T spelled out, we need only one global constraint againt branching on visible




It follows from the constraint in (8), therefore, that the creation of a pentameter is

highly constrained. Consider how the constraint will apply to the second metrical line or
strong b-line of the BH couplet, as shown in (9). One and only one node is available for
the docking of the fifth prosodic word (the node is marked by the dagger ). Cf. (10)
for a constraint on feet and syllables.





Notice that the weaker a-line is subject to a weaker constraint, as shown in (12).

In fact, we can continue to posit further degrees of the relaxing HDA-V-T, as in (13).
The distribution of variation across a stanza cannot be random, therefore, but must follow
from this sliding scale of the HDA-V-T.

The Minimum Word Constraint required for Hebrew is a natural consequence of (10): a word must be
visibly branching; and therefore, must contain at least two moras ().





The famous Danklied (thanksgiving psalm) in Jonah 2, the centrepiece of the

biblical opusculum, is transcribed in Appendix A. This IPA transcription is

supplemented by a syllable count in Appendix B and a word count in Appendix C. Each
section of the appendices is supplied with detailed notes on the tables provided.


The psalm () in Jonah 2 consists of seven verses (N.B. renumbered vv. 1-7 for

the purposes of this paper). There are two stanzas () of three verses each, with an


additional verse for an introduction. The overall architecture is represented in (14).

(Notice that a triplet is found dominated by the strongest node of the psalm in v. 7.10)





The verses are all decametric and the lone triplet consists of three lines of fifteen

word-feet.11 The seven verses are all isometric 5+5, with the one exception of the
heterometric 6+4 verse in the weakest position in (14), viz. v. 2. Crucially, this 6+4
verse conforms to the only possibility for the heterometric verse in the system here (see
(12) above).

According to the poetic system, a triplet must be parsed as follows:




This asymmetric structure is comfirmed by at least two facts (pace Price 199x: xx). First, the
prose system lacks provision for a triplet; and in such cases the first line is given its own verse.



In this system, the only lines permitted are 3+2 (and 4+2 as just noted) and 2+3 at

the extreme. There is, however, no provision for 4+1 (v. 1a) or 1+4 (v. 5a) (see
Appendix C)of course, it still would not be a coincidence that these oddballs appear in
such weak positions. These apparent violations have an interesting property, though, that
admits of another scansion, consistent with an acceptable pentametric line. According to
the principle of continuous dichotomy, these 4s are egregious offenders. Contrast the
expected, balanced colon in (15b) with the offending 4+1 in v. 1a (15a). I claim,
however, that the scansion of such a line is actually that given in (15c)the result of reassociating a free prosodic word (as indicated by the broken arrow). The treatment of v.
5a follows mutatis mutandis (15d).




Second, my unpublished studies of major pause vs. minor pause confirm this asymmetry: major
pause is only found in lines 1 and 3; whereas, major pause does not occur in line 2 of the triplet.
note on note having to emend the text





The distribution of syllables and feet is not random either: head-dependent

asymmetry holds at all levels ex hypothesi. The detailed examination would be too much
of a digression at this point, but see the full notes to Appendix B for a preliminary
examination below the level of the phonological word.

4. Hexa- and Heptameter and Word-Internal Prosody


To summarize to this point, the tetrameter falls out from basic prosodic principles.

The BH pentameter requires further branching on one node; and this branching is
constrained by HDA. Crucially, the pentameter requires a trimetric colon. Whether
prosaic or poetic, the cantillation requires a nested phonological-phrase construction, as


illustrated in (16). (We know independently that the left-recursive (16a) is preferred to
the right-recursive (16b), according to the HDA.)





Expansions to hexameter and heptameter, therefore, demand no further machinery

than that already provided for: no leap of imagination is required. We simply provide
for a trimetric colon in strong positions. Distribution of types, (16a) vs. (16b), etc., is
predicted to follow straightforwardly from the visibility HDA-V-T. This paper does not
explore further the distribution of variation beyond the study of Jonah 2 undertaken for
3. Rather, we take up problems with the phonological word as the counted unit: more
than one word counted as one metrical position; and one word counted as more than one
metrical position.


We will take as representative of proclitic behaviour that of the negative particle

/laa/ [] not. Sometimes it counts as a beat, but sometimes it does not: often within
the same line. Consider the example offered in (17) that establishes a principled
distinction between counting and not counting.





| |

or like-stillborn hide.PASS.3MS not be.1S
Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child,




/ \
/ \

| | |

like-infants not see.PAST.3PL light
like an infant who never saw the light of day?

(Job 3:16)

The contrast in (17) follows from the basic Tiberian foot (F), which is essentially

bisyllabic. If we assume the principle of STRESS CLASH and the resulting refooting, we
derive the contrast: a full, independent word in (17a), vs. an incorporated proclitic in


The second and critical loose end is the ubiquity of gaps, lapses, failureswhat

have you, in the metrical line, especially in what would otherwise be good hexameters.
The solution to this problem has been identified by several scholars, rejected by as many,
but in any case is yet without a theoretical foundation. Robert Alter, e.g., draws attention
to a representative lapse (Genesis 4: 23-24; Alter 19xx: xx) that we can easily handle
with the system developed thus far. The relevant hexameter is given in (18).





for man kill.PAST.1S for-wound.1s
&-boy for-injury.1S
I have killed a man for wounding me, and a young man for injuring me

for seven-times he-avenge.PASSIVE.3MS Cain &-Lamech seventy &-seven
If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times. (NIV)


Since his working papers in the early 1980s, Dresher has been promoting the idea

of a LONG WORD in Tiberian Hebrew. Long words, in terms of understanding the

cantillation, force divisions in prominant phonological phrases that are otherwise
unwarranted: hence, the motivation for the theory of head-dependent asymmetry. The
long word, for our purposes, is a phonological word () that is visibly branching. In
effect, two prosodic feet are behaving as if (as if!) two phonological words. The analysis
is presented in (19) with the visibility horizon again indicated with the dotted line (cf. (9)







So, two feet sometimes behave as two phonological words, but we now claim that

this follows systematically from HDA-V-T. We also find, just to keep things interesting,


one phonological word behaving as two word-feet. In these cases we observe extremely
long words, long enough to encompass three feet or more (notice that in Jonah 2 all
phonological words were either one or two feet, and so the problem does not arise). To
remain faithful to the approach adopted, we must introduce one further prosodic domain
to organize feet into words. I borrow the term metron from Greek metrics for a prosodic
domain organizing metrical feet (cf. Fabb 1997: 2.5.1, pp. 49-50, and 3.3.1, 62-64). I
will call such a word an EXTRA LONG WORD, in keeping with Dreshers usage. The
three-way distinction is set out in (20) with maximal binary expansions.











We simply need, in light of (20), to revize our prosodic hierarchy to intercalate

the domain of metron (M). In this way we can unite diverse prosodic phenomena, and at
the same time account for BH meters: ironically, we count metra. It just so happens that
most of the time the BH words are limited to one, sometimes two feet (see n. B4 below).
An example is borrowed from Watson (1995: in this case Psalm 59:2), as presented in




Deliver me from my enemies, O God;



protect me from those who rise up against me. (NIV)

We thus come full-circle. What we were calling a couplet of two tetrametric

lines, e.g., becomes, on this view, one tetrametric verse (simply dividing by two).
Similarly, the decametric verses in Jonah 2 become pentametric verses. Hexametric
psalms are really trimeters. And thus we arrive where we began, at the epigramme from
Josephus: BH poetry is composed primarily in trimeters and pentameters.

5. Conclusion

This paper has outlined a programme for BH metrics based on three simple

prosodic principles, summarized in (22). The principles are combined with the
intermediate metrical units, the foot (F) and the metron (M), to account for the various
BH meters.





Principles (22a) and (22b) supply the basic metrical template as explained in 2.


More complicated patterns are then constrained by principle (22c); the asymmetrical
properties of the BH pentameter, as we saw in 3, can be explained by means of this
principle. The BH trimeter/hexameter and heptameter also fall out from first principles
(4). Again, this account relies crucially on a supplemental refinement in the timing unit,
dubbed here the metron, intercalated between the phonological word and foot. The
connections with classical meters remain to be explored.


The ultimate goal is to develop a principled and parameterized BH metrics to

support biblical exegesis as well as the more literary study of stylistics (or poetics in
structuralist perspective). There are ways that such a basic system might be
parameterized: e.g., degrees of visibility; counting of degenerate feet; etc. It remains an
empirical question. We should eventually be able to tell the difference between poets the
way students of English distinguish Milton from Shakespeare.12 But there should be no
doubt that head-dependent asymmetry (HDA) holds the key to understanding variation in
BH metrical patterns. Further, the cross-pollination in the studies of Tiberian cantillation
and BH generative metrics can only enrich and advance both specializations.

draft 6: May 2002


Add note from Fabb 1997: pp. ?


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Appendix A
IPA Transcription of Jonah 2
(Phonological-Phrase Boundaries (0-3))


() 3 ( )2
( )2 ()1
( )0

(=)2 _

( )3 ( )2
()2 ()1
(= )1
( )0
( )2
( )1
()2 ( )1
(=)1 ()0
( )3 ()2
()2 ()1
()2 ( )1
()3 ()2
( )2 ()1
( ) 2 ()1
( )3 ()2
( =)2 ()1
( )2 () 1
(=)1 ()0
()3 ()2
()2 ()1
()3 ( )2
( )2 ()1
() 1 ()0


For ease of reference, the verses have been renumbered 1-7. The grade of accent
corresponds to a regularized accentuation vs. the actual prose accentuation found in the
canonical text that has somewhat different demands.
Proclitics are marked =, while enclitics are marked in contrast. (See
further note B6 below.)
Whether or not the sister of a D0 receives a conjunctive or is secondarily
promoted to a disjunctive is a complex matter and not directly relevant to this study.


Appendix B
Syllable Count in Jonah 2
(with Morphological Boundaries and Accents)



(<>) () ()
(<>) (<>) (<>)


(<>) (<>)
() ()
(<>) (<><>)
(<>) (<>)
() () (<>)
(<><>) (<>)(<>)
() () (<>)

(<>) (<>)

(<>) (<>)
(<><>) (<>)
(<>) (<>) ()
(<>) () ()
() (<>) (<>)
(<><>) () ()
(<>) (<>) ()
(<>) (<>) (<><>)
(<><>) (<> X )


X = ()? cf. standard rendering []; eventually [] and even []

Extrametrical <> vs. metrical syllables are identified by two rules (cf. Halle
1997: (5)).
post-tonic syllables are extrametrical
(except those derived by stress retraction)
surface-short, open syllables ([CV] vs. [CV]) are extrametrical
(those syllables marked by Tiberian schwa)
The distribution of syllables per word is indicated in the following chart; mean,
median and mode all equal 3. The most common trisyllabic architecture is the
amphibrachic <>.
1 (5)
2 (19)
3 (37)
4 (9)
5 (5)


The prosodic foot (F) is limited to two metrical syllables. Primary stress is
assigned to the rightmost F; secondary stresses are assigned to remaining Fs.
The distribution of feet per word is indicated in the following chart (mean, median
and mode all equal 2F).
1F (64)
2F (11)
3F+ (0)

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx . . . xxxxx

A phonological word containing three F (or more) behaves as two words in the
scansion (see further the treatment in 4 above).
Typology of Clitics. I distinguish two basic types of clitics. The crucial
distinction is between proclitc vs. enclitic, as diagrammed below. I further distinguish
subtypes based on the use of the Tiberian hyphen (maqqef): the hyphen is employed
when the secondary stress does not fall on a surface-long vowel [V], depriving the word
of a musical trope (cf. [ ] (v. 1a) with stress retraction to the
surface-long syllable, contrasting with [] (v. 7a) where stress
retraction is not permitted).



Notice that a true lexical monosyllable can only appear independently in the
following trimetric construction (the two cases are double-underscored in vv. 3b and 4b
in the table). The two cases are found at the left margin (#) of the metrical b-line.

Another metrical oddball <> (with two full prosodic feet) is similarly
distributed: the weak member of a phonological phrase, at the left margin of the metrical
lines 2a and 2b.



While post-tonic extrametricality is quite common, it is not found in the strong
final positions in lines 1b, 4b and 7c. No doubt it is not a coincidence that the divine
name is the final word of the psalm.


Appendix C
Distribution of Beats per Line
(with Totals)














= 10


4! + 1
3 +2



+ 2
+ 3!
+ 2
+ 2
+ 2

= 6!
= 4!







= 10
= 10
= 10

= 10
= 10

= 15

= 75

The important obversation is the divisibility of 75 by 5. The global pattern must
be a pentameter. Only v.2 is heterometric. The final v.7 is the only triplet.
The problematic scansions are marked with the exclamation marks. Notice how
these are distributed to the weakest lines.

The most regular lines are 1b and 7c. This structure is paradigmatic.