Maxent grammars for the metrics of Shakespeare and Milton

by Bruce Hayes (UCLA), Colin Wilson (Johns Hopkins University) and Anne Shisko (UCLA)

Preprint version.  Published version to appear in Language, Dec. 2012

This page permits downloading of the journal-submitted version as well as data files, and software used in the research.  Most data files are plain text in tab-delimited format; we suggest you open them with a spreadsheet program.


We propose a new approach to metrics based on maxent grammars, which employ weighted constraints and assign a well-formedness value to every metrically distinct line type. We claim two advantages for our approach. First, it offers an explicit account of metricality and metrical complexity, an account that has a principled mathematical basis and integrates information from all aspects of metrical scansion. Second, our approach permits statistical evaluation of proposed constraints. This makes it possible to determine when constraints are vacuous, their work being already done by simpler, independently needed constraints.

We begin by setting up a system built on earlier work that defines the set of possible constraints following principles of stress matching, bracket matching, and contextual salience. Our analyses of two data corpora- Shakespeare's Sonnets and Books VIII and IX of Milton's Paradise Lost-shows that the basic concepts of this system work well in describing the data. However, one well-known type of constraint, based on the principle of the stress maximum (Halle and Keyser 1966 et seq.), turns out to be vacuous; our testing indicates that the work of stress maximum constraints is better done by other constraints of the grammar.


Phonological coding of the verse lines



Violations of all 87 constraints in our set.

Justifying the stress transcriptions

To some extent, we can justify claims about how words were stressed in Shakespeare and Milton's speech by checking how the poets deployed them against the meter.  Quoting the paper, "examining all instances of how triumph is scanned in Milton, one discovers that this word almost certainly bore final stress for Milton when used as a verb, since in verbal use it consistently occurs in WS, not SW position."

This spreadsheet lists all the words in our Shakespeare and Milton corpora (combined), and gives the frequency with which their final syllable occurs in W or S position of the iambic pentameter.  The second worksheet lists the values for the ten most frequent monosyllables in S and W -- they emerge as theory tells us to expect; grammatical words like pronouns and prepositions strongly favor W position; content words like nouns and verbs strongly favor S.


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