What is Prosody?

Examples of various historical prosodic systems scanning the first line of John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Prosody today means both the study of versification and the study of pronunciation. In literary studies, scholars often interchange the word prosody for versification or meter, though each of these terms have complicated and contested histories. Historically, “Prosody” was a subsection of Grammar, appearing at the end of the traditional grammar book after Orthometry, Etymology, and Syntax. Within the section “Prosody,” Versification appeared after Punctuation, Utterance, and Pronunciation (though these terms changed over time as well).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines prosody as such: 1. The theory and practice of versification; (in technical use) the branch of knowledge which deals with the forms of metrical composition, and formerly also with the pronunciation of words, esp. as this relates to versification; (more generally) the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry. As a count noun: a metrical form or scheme; †a treatise on metrical composition (obs.). Prosody was formerly regarded as a branch of grammar, and taken to include the study of phonology and phonetics.

It is this “formerly regarded” that interests us in the creation of the Princeton Prosody Archive. The Archive’s definition of “prosody” is necessarily capacious in order to allow for the fullest possible reimagining of the contours of poetic discourse.