Textsetting as Constraint Conflict

Bruce Hayes
Department of Linguistics, UCLA
July 2005

This paper is submitted to a volume edited by Jean-Louis Aroui, the proceedings volume of "Typology of Poetic Forms," a conference held in Paris April 2005.


Halle and Lerdahl (1993) lay out the problem of textsetting: when singers encounter a novel stanza for a song that they know, they have consistent intuitions about where the syllables of the stanza ought to be aligned in time when the new stanza is sung. In other words, people have productive textsetting ability. Halle and Lerdahl's work offers the first explicit proposal for modeling this ability. The present paper likewise proposes a formal model of textsetting, but using a different theoretical approach.

I argue that many well-formed textsettings represent the best possible resolution between conflicting metrical principles. These involve: (a) matching of stress to strong position; (b) avoidance of long lapses (sequences where no syllable is initiated); (c) avoidance of extreme syllable compression; and (d) alignment of phonological phrase boundaries with line boundaries. A good textsetting often must sacrifice perfect realization of one of these goals in order to satisfy another goal that takes higher priority. For instance, many lines place stressed syllables in weaker rhythmic positions, and stressless syllables in stronger positions, in order to avoid a long syllable lapse, thus sacrificing (a) to satisfy (b).

I formalize this approach under Optimality Theory (Prince and Smolensky 1993/2004). Using data from Hayes and Kaun (1996), in which native English speakers spontaneously set many lines of verse, I show that an approach based on constraint conflict offers considerable improvement in the accuracy with which native speakers' settings are predicted.


Illustrative sound files

These aren't performances or anything like that; they're just the lines chanted by the author in the indicated rhythm.   Purpose:  to make audible the intended rhythm if you have trouble reading it off the grids.

(1) raw grid (tapped)
(2) "What shall we do with a drunken sailor?"
(3) "Stick on his back a mustard plaster" (normal)
(4) "Stick on his back a mustard plaster" (impossible)
(5) "Put him in the guardroom till he gets sober" (HL preference)
(6) "Put him in the guardroom till he gets sober" (BH preference)
(14) "It was late in the night when the squire came home"
(15)a. "Our orders came on board, my boys"
(15)b. "Mother, mother, make my bed"
(15c-bb omitted; available on request)
(16) "I promised her I'd marry her" (wrong)
(17) "I promised her I'd marry her" (correct)
(18) "Enquiring for his a-lady, O" (wrong)
(19) "Enquiring for his a-lady, O" (correct)
(20) "I placed my back against the old garden gate" (wrong)
(21) "I placed my back against the old garden gate" (correct)
(22) "To court young maidens I was bent" (wrong)
(23) "To court young maidens I was bent" (correct)
Text: "Thése last wórds thús he spáke"
(25)a:  grid (repeated several times)
(25)b:  grid (repeated several times)


Data Used

346 lines of folk verse, with stress transcriptions made by Bruce Hayes and Abigail Kaun, and the most commonly-given textsetting from nine native speakers of English:

A longer version, from Hayes and Kaun (1996), containing 640 lines and transcriptions for syllable weight and phonological phrasing, can be obtained here.


Last updated July 13, 2005