Last updated on Mar. 3, 1998

Spanish versification: syllables

Spanish poetry is typically based on the number of syllables (sílabas) per line (verso), and not the number and type of "feet" per line as in English poetry. The basic rule for determining the number of syllables in a line is: Count up to and including the last stressed syllable and add one more. It doesn't matter if any other written syllables actually follow that last stressed one for the "official" syllable count. Here are some examples of lines of Spanish poetry. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 + 1 = 8 (eight syllables, NOT seven) la mañana de San Juan 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 + 1 = 8 (eight syllables) todas las aves del cielo 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 + 1 = 8 (eight syllables, NOT nine) Inés estaba la brándolo Other factors influencing the number of syllables Synalepha (la sinalefa) is the reduction to one syllable of two vowels across word boundaries. When one word ends in a vowel and the following word begins with a vowel (or h plus a vowel), the two vowels normally join into one syllable unless both vowels are stressed: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 + 1 = 8 va_a dar agua_a su caballo 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 + 1 = 8 la nave vuelve_hacia_allá Poetic license: Occasionally, a poet will use poetic license (licencia poética) and disregard the normal rules so he/she can come up with the appropriate number of syllables in a line ("It's my poem, so I'll decide whether or not to follow the rules"). Three examples of poetic license are dieresis, syneresis, and hiatus: Syneresis (la sinéresis) is the joining of two vowels within a word to form a single syllable instead of two syllables: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 + 1 = 11 Héroes sin redención y sin historia (The o and e of "Héroes" are merged into one syllable.) Dieresis (la diéresis) is the separating of two vowels within a word which would normally form one syllable, a diphthong. Remember that i and u are weak vowels in Spanish and normally form diphthongs when they come in contact with other vowels unless they bear a written accent or dieresis mark: 1 2 3 4 56 7 8 9 10 + 1 = 11 con su cantar süave no_aprendido (The u of "suave" is made into a separate syllable.) Hiatus (el hiato) is the separating of two vowels at word boundaries which would normally form one syllable because of synalepha: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 + 1 = 11 Una | ola tras otra bramadora ("Una" and "ola" are separated into four syllables instead of three: Una_ola.) Note that the safest way to determine the number of syllables in the lines (el cómputo silábico) of a Spanish poem is to pick lines where there is no chance for synalepha, dieresis, syneresis, or hiatus, and count the number of syllables in them. Lines with caesura: If a very long line is involved (14 syllables or more), it will normally be divided into two half-lines or hemistiches (hemistiquios), divided by a pause or break called a caesura (cesura). In this case, to determine the total number of syllables for a line, you must count the number of syllables for each hemistich and then add those two numbers together. 1 2 3 4 5 6+1=7 1 2 3 4 5 6+1=7 7 + 7 = 14 nunca_una sola vez, || jamás era_olvidada (14 syl. line) Most frequently used lines: In theory, there may be any number of syllables per line, as long as it's more than one. The most frequently occuring ones are lines of 6, 7, 8, 11, 14, and 16 syllables. Usually all the lines in a poem will have the same number of syllables; however, some poems may include lines of both 7 and 11 syllables.

Practice

Determine the number of syllables per line in the following selections. 1. From La mozuela de Bores, by el Marqués de Santillana: Señora, pastor seré si queredes; mandarme podedes, como a servidor. Number of syllables: _______ 2. ¡Oh dulces prendas por mi mal halladas, dulces y alegres cuando Dios quería! Juntas estáis en la memoria mía, y con ella en mi muerte conjuradas. Number of syllables: _______ (From Soneto X, by Garcilaso de la Vega) 3. From Noche serena, by Fray Luis de León: ¿Quién es el que esto mira, y precia la bajeza de la tierra, y no gime, y suspira por romper lo que encierra el alma, y de estos bienes la destierra? Number of syllables: _______ 4. From Romance de la mora Moraima, anonymous: Yo me era mora Moraima, morilla de un bel catar; cristiano vino a mi puerta, cuitada, por me engañar. Hablóme en algarabía como aquél que la bien sabe. Number of syllables: _______ 5. From El libro de buen amor, by Juan Ruiz, el Arcipreste de Hita: ¡Oh María luz del día sé mi guía toda vía. Number of syllables: _______ 6. From Los milagros de Nuestra Señora, by Gonzalo de Berceo: Dieron gracias a Dios de buena voluntad. a la santa Reína la madre de piedad, quien hizo tal milagro por su benignidad, por quien está más firme toda la cristiandad. Number of syllables: _______ 7. From El Cuervo y el Zorro, by Félix María de Samaniego: En la rama de un árbol, bien ufano y contento, con un queso en el pico, estaba el señor Cuervo. Number of syllables: _______ 8. From El libro de buen amor, by Juan Ruiz, el Arcipreste de Hita: Todos cuantos en su tiempo en esta tierra nacieron, en riqueza y cualidades tanto como él no crecieron; con los locos se hace loco, los cuerdos le enaltecieron, es manso más que un cordero, pelear nunca le vieron. Number of syllables: _______
Answers: 1: 6. 2: 11. 3: 7 and 11. 4: 8. 5: 4. 6: 14 (7+7). 7: 7. 8: 16 (8+8)

Gracias a Fred F. Jehle por permitir que usemos sus e-textos. Su antología: Antología de poesía española.
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