Aristotle's Poetics: Chapters 20-21

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Chapter 20

Language as a whole can be broken down into eight parts: the letter, the syllable, the conjunction, the article, the noun, the verb, the inflection, and the unified utterance.

                                                                    

1. A letter is an indivisible sound, but not any such sound; instead, only one from which composite sound naturally arises. These primary sounds are divided into vowels, semivowels, and mutes. A vowel is a letter with an audible sound without the application of the tongue or lips, a semivowel, one that has an audible sound with this aspiration. The letters are determined according to the way the mouth is shaped, the place of utterance, whether aspirated or unaspirated, whether long or short, and whether they are uttered with acute, grave or intermediate tones.

 

2. A syllable, then, is an insignificant sound made up of a mute and a letter with a sound (a vowel or semivowel). For example, gr without a is a syllable as is gra itself.

 

3. The conjunction can be either an insignificant sound that neither prevents nor causes formation of a significant sound, and which is not proper to place at the beginning of an utterance by itself: for example, men, êtoi, and de. Otherwise,

 

4. An article is an insignificant sound that marks the beginning or end of an utterance, one not suited to either the end or the middle.

 

5. A noun is a significant composite sound without tense, and in which no part is significant in itself. Even a noun composed of two parts, like the name Theodore (where dore means “gift”), the individual parts are not significant.

 

6. A verb is a significant composite sound with tense, no part of which is significant by itself, as with nouns. The nouns “man” or “white” lack tense, but “is walking” and “has walked” signify present and then past time.

 

7. Inflection is applicable to both nouns and verbs and indicates the “of” or “to” relationship or number. For example, in “man” versus “men” as with the difference between question and command: “Did he walk?” and “Walk!”

 

8. An utterance is a composite significant sound that has parts with significance on their own. Some utterances consist of nouns and verbs, but when an utterance lacks a verb it always has a part with significance in itself: “Cleon” in “Cleon is walking,” for example. A unified utterance is a unit either because what it signifies is itself a unit or because it is a combination of a few different parts. The Iliad is unified through combination, while the definition of man is unified in that it signifies one thing.

 

Chapter 21

Words exist as either simple words—words like (earth) that are not compounds of significant parts—or as double words. Double words are, by contrast, compounds which pair a significant and a nonsignificant part or of two significant, meaningful parts. Further, some words may be triple or quadruple words, as with many of the names in the poem Hermocaicoxanthus.

 

In addition, each word is either (1) an ordinary contemporary word, (2) a foreign word (3) a metaphor (4) an ornamental word (5) a coined word (6) lengthened (7) curtailed or (8) altered in some other way.

 

A contemporary word is one used by everyone in common speech in one region, while a foreign word suggests a word that is used by people in another region. A word, of course, can be both current and foreign, but not for the same group of people. For example the word sigynon (lance) is a current word in Cyprus but a foreign word for Aristotle.

 

Metaphor refers to the process where a name belonging to one thing is transferred to another, as when (a) the name of a genus is applied to one of its species or (b) the species to its genus or (c) the name of a species to another genus or (d) in a transfer based on proportion. “Here stands my ship” is an example of (a) in that to be at anchor is a form of standing still. “Truly ten thousand noble deeds hath Odysseus done” is an example of (b) in that ten thousand is a large number and is used in place of the generic many. Similarly, “Drawing off the life with bronze” and “cutting off with unwearied bronze” are both examples of (c) because “drawing off” and “cutting off” are substitutes for the genus “take away.” Finally, metaphor by analogy refers to a situation when within a group of four things, the second is related to the first as the fourth is related to the third, one may substitute the fourth for the second or the second for the fourth. For example, the wine cup functions for Dionysus as the shield does for Ares and thus a wine cup may through metaphor by analogy become Dionysus’s shield or vice versa. Further, because old age is to life what evening is to day, evening can be referred to as “the old age of the day” and old age can be referred to as “the sunset of life.” The last way that metaphor by analogy can function is by denying a special attribute; thus, one could refer to a shield not as the wine cup of Ares but as the “wineless” wine cup.

 

A coined word is a word invented by the poet, like ernygas (“sprouters”? for kerata (“horns”) and arêtêr (“supplicator”) for hierus (“priest”).

 

An expanded or lengthened word is a word in which a short vowel is lengthened or to which an extra syllable is added. Examples of lengthened words include: polêos for poleôs and Pêlêïadeô for Pêleidou; examples of shortened words include: krî (for krithe), (for dôma), and ops (for opsis) in mia ginetai amphoterôn ops. An altered word, finally, is one in which part of the usual form is kept and part is changed, as with dexiteron kata mazon for dexion.

 

Finally, nouns also exist as either masculine or feminine, with masculine ending in nu, rho, or sigma, or compounds of sigma (psi, ksi), and feminine ending in long vowels (eta, omega) or in alpha among short or long vowels. Masculine and feminine endings are equal in number.

 

Chapters 20-21, Analysis

Aristotle includes these chapters on grammar because it forms the foundation of the poet’s art. He divides language into eight parts: letter, syllable, connective particle, article, noun, verb, inflection, and unified utterance, then proceeds to define each element in various ways, continuing to break these elements down into smaller units. Much of Aristotle’s definition of these elements revolves around the way the mouth is shaped or the way the sounds of these types of language are produced. Another important concept that Aristotle uses to differentiate between types of language is “significance” or “meaningfulness,” classing basic elements of language like vowels, consonants, and letters as “insignificant” because they must be combined to form meaning. Larger units, like words themselves, are significant because they can stand alone. And still larger categories such as utterances are composed of parts that also have significance in themselves.

 

Aristotle also makes a distinction between simple words—words that cannot be broken down into other meaningful words—and double words, which can. Moreover, these words can be broken down into several different types: ordinary and contemporary, foreign, metaphoric, ornamental, coined, lengthened, curtailed, or altered. While describing metaphors, Aristotle uses the terms “species” and “genus” to indicate a category and something that belongs to that category, respectively, where species is a specific thing that belongs to a larger category of “genus.” Words can also be coined, invented by the poet to suit the more exact meaning he intends or altered.

 

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