A posteriori


Iambic (the noun is "iamb



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Iambic (the noun is "iamb" or "iambus"): a lightly stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed syllable.

Example: "The cúrfew tólls the knéll of párting dáy." (Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.")



Anapestic (the noun is "anapest") two light syllables followed by a stressed syllable: "The Assyrian came dówn like a wólf on the fóld." (Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib.")

Trochaic (the noun is "trochee") a stressed followed by a light syllable: "Thére they áre, my fífty men and wómen."

Dactylic (the noun is "dactyl"): a stressed syllable followed by two light syllables: "Éve, with her básket, was / Déep in the bélls and grass."

Iambs and anapests, since the strong stress is at the end, are called "rising meter"; trochees and dactyls, with the strong stress at the beginning with lower stress at the end, are called "falling meter." Additionally, if a line ends in a standard iamb, with a final stressed syllable, it is said to have a masculine ending. If a line ends in a lightly stressed syllable, it is said to be feminine. To hear the difference, read the following examples aloud and listen to the final stress:



Masculine Ending:

"'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

Feminine Ending:

"'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the housing,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mousing."

We name a metric line according to the number of "feet" in it. If a line has four feet, it is tetrameter. If a line has five feet, it is pentameter. Six feet, hexameter, and so on. English verse tends to be pentameter, French verse tetrameter, and Greek verse, hexameter. When scanning a line, we might, for instance, describe the line as "iambic pentameter" (having five feet, with each foot tending to be a light syllable followed by heavy syllable), or "trochaic tetrameter" (having four feet, with each foot tending to be a long syllable followed by a short syllable). Here is a complete list of the various verse structures:



  • Monometer: one foot

  • Dimeter: two feet

  • Trimeter: three feet

  • Tetrameter: four feet

  • Pentameter: five feet

  • Hexameter: six feet

  • Heptameter: seven feet

  • Octameter: eight feet

  • Nonameter: nine feet

See also quantitative meter.

METONYM: Any specific use or specific example of metonymy, or any symbol in which a specific physical object is used as a vague suggestive symbol for a more general idea. See metonymy below.

METONYMY: Using a vaguely suggestive, physical object to embody a more general idea. The term metonym also applies to the object itself used to suggest that more general idea. Some examples of metonymy are using the metonym crown in reference to royalty or the entire royal family, or stating "the pen is mightier than the sword" to suggest that the power of education and writing is more potent for changing the world than military force. One of my former students wrote in an argumentative essay, "If we cannot strike offenders in the heart, let us strike them in the wallet," implying by her metonym that if we cannot make criminals regret their actions out of their guilty consciences, we can make them regret their actions through financial punishment. We use metonymy in everyday speech when we refer to the entire movie-making industry as the L. A. suburb "Hollywood" or the advertising industry as the street "Madison Avenue" (and when we refer to businessmen working there as "suits.") Journalists use metonymy to refer to the collective decisions of the United States government as "Washington" or when they use the term "the White House" as a shorthand reference for the executive bureaucracy in American government. Popular writer Thomas Friedman coined a recent metonym, "the Arab Street," as a shorthand reference for the entire population of Muslim individuals in Saudi Arabia, Yeman, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the surrounding areas. When students talk about studying "Shakespeare," they mean metonymically all his collected works of drama and poetry, rather than the historical writer's life alone, and so on.

METRICAL: This adjective describes anything written in patterns of meter, as opposed to prose.

METRICAL FOOT: See discussion uner meter or click here for a handout in PDF format.

METRICAL SUBSTITUTION: A way of varying poetic meter by taking a single foot of the normal meter and replacing it with a foot of different meter. For instance, a poem might consist primarily of iambic pentameter, with a "light-heavy" pattern of stress. The poet might add variety by occasionally inserting a foot consisting of two stresses (spondeic substitution) or a foot with a reversed pattern of "heavy-light" stress (trochaic substitution). See meter. When a poet uses metrical substitution to replace the first entire foot with a single stressed beat, the result is an acephalous line.

MEZOZEUGMA: An alternative spelling of mesozeugma. See discussion under zeugma.

MIASMA (Grk, "stench"): Literally referring to a stench or bad smell, the Greek term also metaphorically indicates a sort of ceremonial taint or spiritual stain that can result from various sorts of impurity. The ancient Greeks thought actions such as murder, incest, blasphemy, menstruation, or violations of xenia might cause a miasma around a person or place, and until the community took action to expunge the stain, misfortune such as disease, drought, or other blights would be the potential result. Normally, people thought to be stained by miasma were forbidden to pass the sacred marker (temenos) separating the holy ground of a temple or a public forum from non-sacred space. The term is particularly applicable in the play Oedipus Rex, in which the entire community of Thebes has fallen under a curse because of a miasma in their midst.

MICROCOSM (cf. macrocosm): The human body. Renaissance thinkers believed that the human body was a "little universe" that reflected changes in the macrocosm, or greater universe.

MID VOWEL: In linguistics, any vowel sound made with the jaw and tongue positioned between the normal articulations for high and low vowels. An example of a mid-vowel would be the vowel sound in pate.

MIDDLE COMEDY: Greek comedies written in the early 300s BCE, in which the exaggerated costumes and the chorus of the Old Comedy were eliminated. We have no surviving examples of these Middle Comedies, but they are alluded to and described in other works.

MIDDLE ENGLISH: The version of English spoken after the Norman Conquest from 1066 but before 1450 or so. Before the Norman Conquest, the common version of English was Old English or Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language that is difficult to read without specialized training. An influx of Norman French and Latin vocabulary after the Normans conquered England resulted in rapid changes in spoken English. Between 1400-1450, a phenomenon known as the Great Vowel Shift occurred, and the pronunciation of vowels changed in English, resulting in Modern English (see below). To avoid irritating your teacher, do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. This diagram will help you contrast them.

MIDDLE PASSAGE: The sea-voyage from Africa to the West Indies and/or the Americas commonly used by slave-traders. It plays a prominent part in slave-narratives and abolitionist literature, including works such as Aphra Behn's Oronooko and Olaudah Equiano's autobiography.

MILES GLORIOSUS: The braggart soldier, a stock character in classical Roman drama. The braggart soldier is cowardly but boasts of his past deeds, and he becomes involved in sexual catastrophes, bullying, and thievery. (The miles gloriosus is frequently of low morals. Shakespeare's Falstaff has been compared to the miles gloriosus in classical literature.)

MILTONIC IMAGERY: Imagery made famous by Milton's poetry--especially Paradise Lost. Examples include the dark angels or twisted demons laboring at Pandemonium's construction deep below the earth in fiery shadow, especially when such imagery is taken in contrast with the pastoral tranquility of Eden or the pearly mansions of heaven afloat in glowing clouds. Likewise, the motif of the rejected, fallen, rebellious seraphim struggling against the Almighty's white lightning remains a haunting image in Milton's poetry. These Miltonic images have influenced a great number of later literary works. In H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Wells used Miltonic imagery in the Morlocks and Eloi, where (it initially appears) the troglodytic Morlocks labor in darkness under the earth and the child-like Eloi play in the blissful garden above. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein steals Miltonic imagery by casting the monster as both an innocent Adam figure and simultaneously a rebellious Satan figure who rejects his maker as flawed and morally inferior. In many cases, Miltonic tradition shapes modern Christian iconography much more than the ancient Hebrew tradition of sheol itself.

MIMESIS: Mimesis is usually translated as "imitation" or "representation," though the concept is much more complex than that and doesn't translate easily into English. It is an imitation or representation of something else rather than an attempt to literally duplicate the original. For instance, Aristotle in The Poetics defined tragedy as "the imitation [mimesis] of an action." In his sense, both poetry and drama are attempts to take an instance of human action and represent or re-present its essence while translating it into a new "medium" of material. For example, a play about World War II is an attempt to take the essence of an actual, complex historical event involving millions of people and thousands of square miles over several years and recreate that event in a simplified representation involving a few dozen people in a few thousand square feet over a few hours. The play would be a mimesis of that historic event using stage props, lighting, and individual actors to convey the sense of what World War II was to the audience. In the same way, the process of mimesis might involve creating a film about World War II (translating the event into images projected onto a flat screen or monitor using chemical images on a strip of photosynthetic film), or writing a poem about World War II would constitute an attempt at distilling that meaning into syllables, stress, verse, and diction. Picasso might attempt to embody warfare as a montage of destruction--his painting Guernica is the result. The degree to which each form of art accurately embodies the essence of its subject determines (for many classical theorists of art) the degree of its success.

Additionally, mimesis may involve ecphrasis--the act of translating art from one type of media into another. A classical musician or composer might be entranced by an earlier bit of folkloric art, the legend of William Tell. He attempts to imitate or represent the stirring emotions of that story by creating a stirring song that has the same effect; thus, the famous "The William Tell Overture" results. A story has been translated into a musical score. It is also possible to attempt mimesis of one medium into the same medium. For instance, American musician Aaron Copland was inspired by the simplicity of Quaker music, so he attempted to re-create that music mimetically in "Appalachian Spring," much like he earlier attempted to mimetically capture the American spirit in "Fanfare for the Common Man."

In literature, ecphrasis is likewise used to describe the way literature describes or mimics other media (other bits of art, architecture, music and so on). For instance, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is largely Keats' poetic attempt to capture the eternal and changeless nature of visual art depicted on an excavated piece of pottery. Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" involves an elaborate architectural recreation of three pagan temples, and the artwork on the walls of those temples, as well as the verbal construction of an entire coliseum to enclose a knightly combat. These are both ecphrases seeking to turn one type of non-verbal art into verbal art through mimetic principles.

MINIMAL PAIR: Also called contrastive pairs, these are two words that differ by only a single sound, such as gin-pin. Linguists commonly use minimal pairs for illustrating subtle sound differences.

MINNE: The German term for fin amour, i.e., courtly love.

MINNESÄNGER: Any German minstril who writes poems and songs about courtly love in the medieval period. He is usually considered the German equivalent of the French troubadour.

MINUSCULE: A small or lowercase letter, in contrast with majuscule, a large or capital letter. The invention of minuscule allowed for faster, more compact writing in scriptoria.

MIRACLE OF THE VIRGIN: A vita or a miracle play that dramatizes some aspect of humanity activity, and ends with the miraculous intervention of the Blessed Virgin. See discussion under miracle play (below), and vita.

MIRACLE PLAY: Not to be confused with medieval morality plays, a miracle play is a medieval drama depicting either biblical stories, the miracle(s) performed by a saint, or the martyrdom of a saint in Christian traditions. (Some critics prefer the third definition and reject the first two.) Miracle plays were usually presented in a cycle, such as dramas dealing with the Virgin Mary, the fall of man, and so on. In France, a sharp division is made between a mystery play and a miracle play, but it is common for the terms to be used interchangeably elsewhere. Few examples of miracle plays survive in English, but in France, there remains a famous cycle of Les Miracles de Notre Dame, forty-two plays belonging to the second half of the 1300s written in octosyllabic couplets. An example of a modern miracle play is the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck's Sister Beatrice. The general emphasis in a miracle play is to astonish and inspire the viewer with a sense of wonder at the numinous. An entire subgenre of miracles of the virgin also exist. Contrast with morality play and mystery play.

MIRROR PASSAGE: A section of a story that might not contribute directly to the plot (i.e., it contains characters divorced from the main narrative, and the events it deals with do not further the action) but which does reflect the basic concerns of the work in terms of theme, action, or symbolism or which seems to echo another scene, image, or situation. For instance, the Miller's story in The Canterbury Tales creates a love triangle to mock and mirror the love triangle in the Knight's earlier narrative, or the way Aeneas's attempt to hug Creüsa's ghost thrice mirrors his attempt to embrace the ghost of his father Anchises in The Aeneid, or the inversion of words and tears that distinguishes Aeneas and Dido's two farewells--the first at Carthage and the second in the Underworld. See also mirror scene.

MIRROR SCENE: A scene in a play or novel that does not contribute directly to the plot (i.e., it contains characters divorced from the main narrative, and the events it deals with do not further the action,) but which does mirror the basic concerns of the play or narrative in terms of theme, action, or symbolism. For instance, the scene with the gardeners in Richard II relates symbolically to the fact that Richard, as king, is not tending his own little Eden, the isle of Britain. The scene with Christopher Sly in the opening of The Taming of the Shrew does not relate directly to Petruchio's wooing of Kate, but it does establish the theme of how appearance might not match reality. See also mirror passage.

MLA: The acronym for the Modern Language Association. English students primarily know the MLA as the publisher of the MLA guidelines for research papers, the standard format used in American college English classes. Founded in 1883, this organization is a professional guild of sorts for professors and instructors of a variety of subjects: foreign languages, linguistics, composition, technical writing, philology, rhetoric, and literature. Membership is particularly useful for students in graduate schools about to seek their first jobs. (Membership allows them access to the JIL, the Job Information Listings.) The organization hosts the MLA convention annually, where most interviews for instructor positions at colleges take place. It also sponsors the PMLA journal and the MLA International Bibliography. You can learn more at the MLA website.

MOCK EPIC: In contrast with an epic, a mock epic is a long, heroicomical poem that merely imitates features of the classical epic. The poet often takes an elevated style of language, but incongruously applies that language to mundane or ridiculous objects and situations. The mock epic focuses frequently on the exploits of an antihero whose activities illustrate the stupidity of the class or group he represents. Various other attributes common to the classical epic, such as the invocation of the muse or the intervention of the gods, or the long catalogs of characters, appear in the mock epic as well, only to be spoofed. For instance, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock gives in hyperbolic language a lengthy account of how a 17th century lord cuts a lady's hair in order to steal a lock of it as a keepsake, leading to all sorts of social backlash when the woman is unhappy with her new hairdo. Lord Byron's Don Juan gives a lengthy list of the sexual conquests and catastrophes associated with a precocious young lord, Don Juan. Both are fine examples of the mock epic. In some ways, the mock epic is the opposite of a travesty. See also spoof, satire.

MOCK SERMON: A medieval genre commonly known as "une sermon joyeux" or "une sermon jolie," the conventions are that a non-clerical figure will present a humorous lecture on a non-religious topic (sexuality and food being two common choices) using all the tropes and conventions of a normal homily--such as the introduction and explication of a Biblical passage, allusions to various intellectual figures, a series of exempla to prove the speaker's point, and a concluding invocation of prayer. Some critics have read Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Prologue" as a mock sermon concerning a woman's place in marriage, for instance. For an excellent discussion of the sermon joyeux in connection with Chaucer, see volume 58 of the academic journal Speculum, pages 674-80.

MODERN ENGLISH: The English language as spoken between about 1450 and the modern day. The language you are speaking now and the language Shakespeare spoke are both considered examples of Modern English. Modern English is distinct from Middle English (spoken c. 1100 to 1400) in that vowels are pronounced differently after the Great Vowel Shift (1400-1450). Both Middle English and Modern English are distinct from Old English in that Old English and Middle English had numerous letters (such as the letters ash, thorn, and eth) and some sounds (such as yogh) that were used much more commonly. Old English also used elaborate declensions that have mostly fallen out of use in Modern English. To avoid irritating your teacher, do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. This diagram will help you contrast them. A good rule of thumb is that, (a) if you can read it easily, it's probably modern English, (b) if you can read it with some difficulty, but there are many words "misspelled" and an occasional strange letter, it's probably Middle English, and (c) if you can't read it all, and it looks like a foreign language with letters you don't recognize, you are probably looking at Old English. See Middle English and Old English.

MODERNISM: A vague, amorphous term referring to the art, poetry, literature, architecture, and philosophy of Europe and America in the early twentieth-century. Scholars do not agree exactly when Modernism began--most suggest after World War I, but some suggest it started as early as the late nineteenth century in France. Likewise, some assert Modernism ended with World War II or the bombing of Nagasaki, to be replaced with Postmodernism, or that modernism lasted until the 1960s, when post-structural linguistics dethroned it. Others suggest that the division between modernism and postmodernism is false, and that postmodernism is merely the continuing process of Modernism. Under the general umbrella of Modernism, we find several art movements such as surrealism, formalism, and various avante-garde French movements. Professor Frank Kermode further divides modernism into paleo-modernism (1914-1920) and neo-modernism (1920-1942). However, these divisions are hardly agreed upon by historians and critics. In general, modernism is an early twentieth-century artistic marked by the following characteristics: (1) the desire to break away from established traditions, (2) a quest to find fresh ways to view man's position or function in the universe, (3) experiments in form and style, particularly with fragmentation--as opposed to the "organic" theories of literary unity appearing in the Romantic and Victorian periods, and (4) a lingering concern with metaliterature. Cf. postmodernism. To see where modernism fits into a chronological listing of the major literary periods, click here for a pdf handout.

MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION: See MLA.

MOIRA: Fate or the three fates in Greek mythology. Contrast with wyrd.

MONODY: Any elegy or dirge represented as the utterance of a single speaker. Compare with dramatic monologue.

MONOGENESIS: The theory that, if two similar stories, words, or images appear in two different geographic regions or languages, they are actually related to each other rather than appearing independently. Either one was the original source, and the others adopted it later, or all the surviving examples come from an older (possibly lost) source. Contrast with polygenesis.

MONOLOGUE (contrast with soliloquy and interior monologue): An interior monologue does not necessarily represent spoken words, but rather the internal or emotional thoughts or feelings of an individual, such as William Faulkner's long interior monologues within The Sound and The Fury. Monologue can also be used to refer to a character speaking aloud to himself, or narrating an account to an audience with no other character on stage. Cf. dramatic monologue.

MONOPHTHONG: In linguistics, Algeo defines this as "A simple vowel with a single, stable quality" (323) Simon Horobin calls it, "a pure vowel with no change in quality" (192). Contrast with diphthong. See also monophthongization.

MONOPHTHONGIZATION: The tendency of diphthongs to turn into simple vowels over time, or the actual process by which diphthongs turn into such vowels. Contrast with diphthongization.

MONORHYME: A poem or section of a poem in which all the lines have the same end rhyme. The rhyming pattern would thus look like this: AAAA AAAA, AAA AAA, or AA AA AA AA, etc. It is a common rhyme scheme in Latin, Italian, Arabic, Welsh, and Slav poetry, especially in the Slav poetry of the oral-formulaic tradition. Because of the fact that English nouns are not declined and our adjectives do not have gender consistently indicated by particular endings, it is much harder to make effective poetic use of monorhyme in the English poetry. However, Shakespeare makes frequent use of it is a bit of doggerel in his plays. For instance, in The Merchant of Venice, we find the following section in monorhyme:



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