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Remarks on English Pronunciation


Monosyllables and Dissyllables

I wonder why you find fault with the rhythm of “A vision whose God-delight embraces all.” “Vision” is really a monosyllable, and I don’t suppose the frequent poetic dissyllabification of it precludes the use of its original sound-length.
You use your intellect too much and with too much ingenuity where you should train your ear. Another line with the same scansion might very well make an extremely good rhythm; this one does not. Its rhythm is at once flat and jerky.How is “vision” a monosyllable? You might just as well say that “omnibus” is a monosyllable. At any rate I get no thrill, subtle or other, no surprise, no revelation.

27 September 1934


The Oxford dictionary seems to leave me no choice as regards the number of syllables in the word “vision”. I quote below some of the words explained as monosyllables in the same way as “Rhythm” and “Prism”, which are given as Rhy˘.thm (-dhm); Pri˘.sm (-zm).Fa˘.shion (-shn)Passion (pa˘.shn)Pri˘.son (-zn)Scission (si˘.shn)Trea.son ( e_zn)Vi˘.sion (-zhn)
Chambers’s Dictionary makes “vision” a dissyllable, whichis quite sensible, but the monosyllabic pronunciation of it deserves to be considered at least a legitimate variant when H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler—the name of Fowler is looked upon as a synonym for authority on the English language— give no other. I don’t think I am mistaken in interpreting their intention.1 Take “realm”, which they pronounce in brackets as “re˘lm”; now I see no difference as regards syllabification between their intention here and in the instances above.
You may not have a choice—but I have a choice, which is to pronounce and scan words like “vision” and “passion” and similar words as all the poets of the English language (those at least whom I know) have consistently pronounced and scanned them—as dissyllables. If you ask me to scan Shakespeare’s line
in the following way in order to please H. W. Fowler and F. G. FowlerI ˘n mai_|de˘n me _d|i ˘tatio_n | fan_|cy˘ free_,
I shall decline without thanks. Shakespeare wrote, if I remember right, “trea_so˘ ns, strategems and spoils”; Shelley, Tennyson, any poet of the English language, I believe, would do the same— though I have no books with me to give chapter and verse. I lived in both northern and southern England, but I never heard vision pronounced “vizhn”, it was always “vizhun”; “treason”,
of course, is pronounced “trez’n”, but that does not make it a monosyllable in scansion because there is in these words a very perceptible slurred vowel sound in pronunciation which I represent by the ’— in “poison” also. If “realm”, “helm” etc. are taken as monosyllables, that is quite reasonable, for there is no vowel between “l” and “m” and none is heard, slurred or otherwise in pronunciation. The words “rhythm” and “prism” are technically monosyllables, because they are so pronounced in French (i.e. that part of the word, for there is a mute e in French): but in fact most Englishmen take the help of a slurred vowel sound in pronouncing “rhythms” and it would be quite permissible to write in English as a blank verse line,
“The unheard rhythms that sustain the world”.
This is my conviction and not all the Fowlers in the world

1 In fact, the correspondent was mistaken. The six words he listed, as well as “rhythm” and “prism”, were marked in the third edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, eds., 1934) to be pronounced as dissyllables.—Ed.


will take it away from me. I only hope the future lexicographers will not fowl the language any more in that direction; otherwisewe shall have to write lines like this—
O vizhn! O pashn! O fashn! m’d’tashn! h’rr’p’lashn!
Why did the infern’l Etern’l und’take creash’n?
Or else, creat’ng, could he not have afford’d
Not to allow the Engl’sh tongue to be Oxford’d?
P.S. I remember a book (Hamer’s? someone else’s? I don’t remember) in which the contrast was drawn between the English and French languages, that the English tongue tended to throw all the weight on the first or earliest possible syllable and slurred the others, the French did the opposite—so that when an Englishman pretends to say “strawberries”, what he really says is “strawb’s”. That is the exaggeration of a truth—but all the same there is a limit!

27 September 1934


I should like to ask you a few questions suggested by your falling foul of the Fowlers. The poetic pronunciation of words cannot be accepted as a standard for current speech—can it? On your own showing, “treason” and “poison” which are monosyllables in prose or current speech are scanned as dissyllables in verse; Shelley makes “evening” three syllables and Harin has used even “realm” as a dissyllable, while the practice of taking “precious” and “conscious” to be three syllables is not even noticeable, I believe. All the same, current speech, if your favourite Chambers’s Dictionary as well as my dear Oxford Concise is to be believed, insists on “evening”, “precious” and “conscious” being dissyllabic and “realm” monosyllabic. I am mentioning this disparity between poetic and current usages not because I wish “meditation” to be robbed of its full length or “vision” to lose half its effect but because it seems to me that Shelley’s or Tennyson’s or any poet’s practice does not in itself prove anything definitely for English as it is spoken. And spoken English, very much more than written English, undergoes change; even the line you quote from Shakespeare was perhaps not scanned in his time as you would do it now, for “meditation”—as surely “passion” and “fashion” also and most probably “vision” as well—was often if not always given its full vowel-value and the fourth foot of the line in question might to an Elizabethan ear have been very naturally an anapaest:
In mai|den me|dita|ti˘on ˘ fa_n|cy free.
When, however, you say that your personal experience in England, both north and south, never recorded a monosyllabic “vision”, we are on more solid ground, but the Concise Oxford Dictionary is specially stated to be in its very title as “of Current English”: is all its claim to be set at nought?
It is after all a responsible compilation and, so far as my impression goes, not unesteemed. If its errors were so glaring as you think, would there not have been a general protest? Or is it that English has changed so much in “word of mouth” since your departure from England? This is not an ironical query—I am just wondering.
P.S. Your exclamatory-interrogatory elegiacs illustrating the predicament we should fall into if the Fowlers were allowed to spread their nets with impunity were very enjoyable. But I am afraid the tendency of the English language is towards contraction of vowel sounds, at least terminal ones; and perhaps the Oxford Dictionary has felt the need to monumentalise —clearly and authoritatively—the degree to which this tendency has, in some cases more definitely, in others less but still perceptibly enough, advanced? The vocalised “e” of the suffix“-ed” of the Spenserian days is now often mute; the trisyllabic suffix “-ation” of the “spacious times” has shrunk by one syllable, and “treason” and “poison” and “prison”, all having the same terminal sound if fully vowelised as “-ation”, are already monosyllables in speech—so, if “passion” and “fashion” which too have lost their Elizabethan characteristic like “meditation” should contract by a natural analogy, carrying all “ation”-suffixed words as well as “vision” and “scission” and the like with them, it would be quite as one might expect. And if current speech once fixes these contractions, they will not always keep outside the pale of poetry.
What do you think?
Where the devil have I admitted that “treason” and “poison” are monosyllables or that their use as dissyllables is a poetic licence? Will you please quote the words in which I have made that astounding and imbecile admission? I have said distinctly that they are dissyllables,—like risen, dozen, maiden, garden, laden, and a thousand others which nobody (at least before the world went mad) ever dreamed of taking as monosyllables. On my own showing, indeed! After I had even gone to the trouble of explaining at length about the slurred syllable “e” in these
words, for the full sound is not given, so that you cannot put it down as pronounced maid-en, you have to indicate the pronunciation asmaid’n. But for that to dub maiden amonosyllable andassert that Shakespeare, Shelley and every other poet who scans maiden as a dissyllable was a born fool who did not know the “current” pronunciation or was indulging in a constant poetic licence whenever he used the words garden, maiden, widen, sadden etc. is a long flight of imagination. I say that these words are dissyllables and the poets in so scanning them (not as an occasional licence but normally and every time) are much better authorities than any owl—or fowl—of a dictionary-maker in the universe. Of course the poets use licences in lengthening out words occasionally, but these are exceptions; to explain away their normal use of words as a perpetually repeated licence would be a wild wooden-headedness (5 syllables, please). That these words are dissyllables is proved farther by the fact that “saddened”, “maidenhood” cannot possibly be anything but respectively dissyllabic and trisyllabic, yet “saddened” could I suppose be correctly indicated in a dictionary as pronounced “saddnd”. A dictionary indication or a dictionary theory cannot destroy the living facts of the language.
I do not know why you speak of my “favourite” Chambers. Your attachment to Oxford is not balanced by any attachment of mine to Chambers or any other lexicographer. I am not inclined to swear by any particular dictionary as an immaculate virgin authority for pronunciation or a papal Infallible. It was you who quoted Chambers as differing from Oxford, not I. You seem indeed to think that the Fowlers are a sort of double-headed Pope to the British public in all linguistic matters and nobody could dare question their dictates or ukases—only I do so because I am antiquated and am living in India. I take leave to point out to you that this is not yet a universally admitted catholic dogma.
The Fowlers indeed seem to claim something of the kind, they make their enunciations with a haughty papal arrogance, condemning those who differ from them as outcasts and brushing them aside in a few words or without a mention. But it is not quite like that. What is current English? As far as pronunciation goes, every Englishman knows that for an immense number of words there is no such thing—Englishmen of equal education pronounce them in different ways, sometimes in more than two different ways. “Either” “neither” is a current pronunciation, so is “eether” “neether”. In some words the “th” is pronounced
variably as a soft “d” or a soft “t” or as “th”—and so on. If the Oxford pronunciation of “vision” and “meditation” is correct current English, then the confusion has much increased sincemy time, for then at least everybody pronounced “vizhun”, “meditashun”, as I do still and shall go on doing so. Or if the other existed, it must have been confined to uneducated people.
But you suggest that my pronunciation is antiquated, English has changed since then as since Shakespeare. But I must point out that you yourself quote Chambers for “vizhun” and following your example—not out of favouritism—I may quote him for “summation” = “summashun”—not “shn”. The latest edition of Chambers is dated 1931, and the editors have not thought themselves bound by the decisive change of the English language to change “shun” into “shn”. Has the decisive change taken place since 1931? Moreover in the recent dispute about the standard Broadcast pronunciation, the decisions of Bernard Shaw’s committee were furiously disputed—if Fowler and Oxford were “papal authorities” in England for current speech— it is current speech the Committee was trying to fix through the broadcasts—would it not have been sufficient simply to quote the Oxford in order to produce an awed and crushed silence?
So your P.S. has no solid ground to stand on since there is no “fixed” current speech and Fowler is not its Pope and there is no universal currency of his vizhn of things. Language is not bound by analogy and because “medita_ti˘on ˘ ” has become “meditashun” it does not follow that it must become “meditashn” and that “tation” is now a monosyllable contrary to all common sense and the privilege of the ear. It might just as well be argued that it will necessarily be clipped farther until the whole word becomes a monosyllable. Language is neither made nor developed in that way—if the English language were so to deprive itself of all beauty and by turning vision into vizn and then into vzn and all other words into similar horrors, I would hasten to abandon it for Sanskrit or French or Bengali—or even Swahili.
P.S. By the way, one point. Does the Oxford pronounce in cold blood and so many set words that vision, passion (and by logical extension treason, maiden, madden, garden etc.) are monosyllables? Or is it your inference from “realm” and “prism”? If the latter, I would only say, Beware of too rigidly logical inferences. If the former, I can only say that Oxford needs some gas from Hitler to save the English mind from its pedants. This is quite apart from the currency of vizhns.

29 September 1934


I am sincerely sorry for mistaking you on an important point. But before my argumentative wooden-headedness gives up the ghost under your sledge-hammer it is bursting to cry a Themistoclean “Strike, but hear”. Please try to understand my misunderstanding. What you wrote was: “‘Treason’, of course, is pronounced ‘trez’n’, but that does not make it a monosyllable in scansion because there is in these words a very perceptible slurred vowel sound in pronunciation which
I represent by the ’—in ‘poison’ also.” I think it must have been the word “scansion” which led me astray—as if you had meant that these words were non-monosyllabic in poetry only.
But am I really misjudging Chambers as well as the Fowlers when I draw the logical inference that, since a dictionary is no dictionary if it does not follow a coherent system and since these people absolutely omit to make any distinction between the indicated scansion of “prism”, “realm”, “rhythm” etc., and that of “treason” and “poison”, they definitely mean us to take all these words as monosyllables? If Chambers who writes “vizhun” but “trezn” and “poizn” just as he writes “relm” and “rithm”, intends us to understand that there is some difference between the scansions of the latter pairs he, in my opinion, completely de-dictionaries his work by so illogical an expectation. He and the Fowlers may not say in cold blood and so many set words that “treason” and “poison” are monosyllables but it is their design, in most freezing blood and more eloquently than words can express, that they fall into the same category as “realm” and “rhythm”. Else, what could have prevented them from inventing some such sign as your ’ to mark the dissimilarity? My sin was to have loved logic not wisely but too well where logicality had been obstreperously announced in flaring capitals on the title page and throughout the whole book by a fixed system of spelling and pronunciation.
My Othello-like extremity of love plunged me into abysmal errors, but oh the Iagoistic “motiveless malignity” of lexicographers!
It seemed to me impossible that even the reckless Fowler—reckless in the excess of his learning—should be so audacious as to announce that this large class of words accepted as dissyllables from the beginning of (English) time were really monosyllables.
After all the lexicographers do not set out to give the number of syllables in a word. Pronunciation is a different matter. “Realm” cannot be a dissyllable unless you violently make it so, because “l” is a liquid like “r” and you cannot make a dissyllable of words like “charm”, unless you Scotchify the English language and make it “char’r’r’m” or vulgarise it and make it “charrum” —and even “char’r’r’m” is after all a monosyllable. “Prism”, the “ism” in “Socialism”, “pessimism”, “rhythm” can be made dissyllabic, but by convention (convention has much to do with these things) the “ism”, “rhythm” are treated as a single syllable, because of the etymology. But there is absolutely no reason to bring in this convention with “treason”, “poison”, “garden” or “maiden” (coming from French trahison, poison and some O.E. equivalent of the German Garten, M¨adchen). The dictionaries give the same mark of pronunciation for “thm”, “sm” and the “den” (dn) of maiden and son (sn) of treason because they are practically the same. The French pronounce “rhythme” = “reethm” (I use the English sound indications) without anything to help them out in passing from “th” to “m”, but the English tongue can’t do that, there is a very perceptible quarter vowel sound or one-eighth vowel sound between “th” and “m”—if it were not so the plural “rhythms” would be unpronounceable. I remember in my French class at St. Paul’s our teacher (a Frenchman) insisted on our pronouncing ordre in the French way— in his mouth “orrdrr”; I was the only one who succeeded, the others all made it auder, orrder, audrer, or some such variation.
There is the same difference of habit with words like “rhythm”, and yet conventionally the French treatment is accepted so far as to impose rhythm as a monosyllable. Realm on the other hand is pronounced truly as a monosyllable without the help of any fraction of a vowel.

30 September 1934

Some Problems of Stress Accent

Why have you bucked at my “azu` re” as a line-ending? And why so late in the day? Twice before I have used the same inversion and it caused no alarm. Simple poetic licence, Sir. If Wordsworth could write
What awful p´erspective! while from our sight . . .
and leave no reverberation of “awful” in the reader’s mind,
and if Abercrombie boldly come out with
To smite the horny eyes of men
With the renown of our Heaven,
and our horny eyes remain unsmitten by his topsy-turvy
“Heaven”—why, then, Amal need not feel too shy to shift the accent of “azure” just because the poor chap happens to be an Indian. Not that an alternative line getting rid of that word is not possible—quite a fine one can be written with “obscure”. But how does this particular inversion shock you?
There is nothing un-English or unpoetic about it—so far as I can see, though of course such things should not be done often. What do you say?
I can swallow “pe/rspective” with some difficulty, but if anybody tried to justify by it a line like this (let us say in a poem to Miss Mayo):O i/nspecto/r, why su /ggesti/ve of drains?

I would buck. I disapprove totally of Abercrombie’s bold wriggle with Heaven, but even he surely never meant to put the accent on the second syllable and pronounce it “heve/ nn”. I absolutely refuse to pronounce “azure” as “azu/ re”. “Perspective” can just be managed by making it practically atonal or unaccented or evenly accented, which comes to the same thing. “Sapphire” can be managed at the end of a line, e.g. “stro/ ng sapphire”, because “phire” is long and the voice trails over it, but the “ure” of “azure” is more slurred into shortness than trailed out into length as if it were “azyoore”. In any case, even if the somersault is admitted the line won’t do.
P.S. It is not to the use of “azure” in place of an iambic in the last foot that I object but to your blessed accent on the last syllable. I will even, if you take that sign off, allow you to rhyme “a/ zure” with “pu/ re” and pass it off as an Abercrombiean acrobacy by way of fun. But not otherwise—the accent mark must go.

2 October 1936


In your sonnet Man the Enigma occurs the magnificent line:
His heart is a chaos and an empyrean.
But I am very much saddened by the fact that the rhythm of these words gets spoiled at the end by a mis-stressing in “empyrean”. “Empyrean” is stressed in the penultimate syllable, thus: “empyre/ an”. Your line puts the stress on the second syllable. It is in the adjective “empyreal” that the second syllable is stressed, but the noun is never stressed that way, so far as I know.
First of all let me deal with your charge against my “empy/ rean”. I find in the Chambers Dictionary the noun “empyrean” is given two alternative pronunciations, each with a different stress,— first, “empyre/an” and secondly,“empy/ rean”. Actually in the book the accent seems to fall on the consonant “r” instead of the vowel. That must be a mistake in printing; it is evident that it is meant to fall on the second vowel. If that is so, my variation is justified and needs no further defence. The adjective “empyreal” the dictionary gives as having the same alternative accentuation as the noun, that is to say, either “empyre/ al” with the accent on the long “e” or “empy/ real” with the accent on the second syllable, but the “e” although unaccented still keeps its long pronunciation. Then? But even if I had no justification from the dictionary and the noun “empy/ rean” were only an Aurobindonian freak and a wilful shifting of the accent, I would refuse to change it; for the rhythm here is an essential part of whatever beauty there is in the line.
P.S. Your view is supported by the small Oxford Dictionary which, I suppose, gives the present usage, Chambers being an older authority. But Chambers must represent a former usage and I am entitled to revive even a past or archaic form if I choose to do so.

4 August 1949

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