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The metrical organization of Classical Sanskrit verse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 February 2007

Yale University


In generative metrics, a meter is taken to be an abstract periodic template with a set of constraints mapping linguistic material onto it. Such templates, constrained by periodicity and line length, are usually limited in number. The repertoire of Classical Sanskrit verse meters is characterized by three features which contradict each of the above properties – (a) templates constituted by arbitrary syllable sequences without any overtly discernible periodic repetition: APERIODICITY, (b) absolute faithfulness of linguistic material to a given metrical template: INVARIANCE, and (c) a vast number of templates, ranging between 600–700: RICH REPERTOIRE. In this paper, I claim that in spite of apparent incompatibility, Sanskrit meters are based on the same principles of temporal organization as other versification traditions, and can be accounted for without significant alterations to existing assumptions about metrical structure. I demonstrate that a majority of aperiodic meters are, in fact, surface instantiations of a small set of underlying quantity-based periodic templates and that aperiodicity emerges from the complex mappings of linguistic material to these templates. Further, I argue that the appearance of a rich repertoire is an effect of nomenclatural choices and poetic convention and not variation at the level of underlying structure.

Research Article
2007 Cambridge University Press

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I am grateful to Paul Kiparsky, Nigel Fabb, Francois Dell, Lev Blumenfeld, Aditi Lahiri, and Kristin Hanson for valuable input on and discussions about earlier versions of this paper. I thank Aditi Lahiri for inviting me to Konstanz for the summer of 2003 to work on this project. I also thank members of the audience at the Stanford Language and Poetic Form Workshop and the Berkeley Linguistics of the Language Arts Group, where this paper was presented. Special thanks to the Journal of Linguistics reviewers for their thoughtful comments and suggestions, and to my friends and acquaintances who gave their judgements about the metricality of unfamiliar metrical sequences and performance patterns for familiar and unfamiliar meters.