Ancient Prosody: That Old Presidential Pursuit

Thomas Jefferson, Thoughts on English Prosody:

“It is for foreigners principally that Prosody is necessary; not knowing the accustomed measures of words, they require the aid of rules to teach them those measures and to enable them to read verse so as to make themselves or others sensible of its music. I suppose that the system of rules or exceptions which constitutes Greek and Latin prosody, as shown with us, was unknown to those nations, and that it has been invented by moderns to whom those languages were foreign. I do not mean to affirm this, however, because you have not searched into the history of this art, nor am I at present in a situation which admits of that search. By industrious examination of the Greek and Latin verse it has been found that pronouncing certain combinations of vowels and consonants long, and certain others short, the actual arrangement of those long and short syllables, as found in their verse, constitutes a rhythm which is regular and pleasing to the ear, and that pronouncing them with any other measures, the run is unpleasing, and ceases to produce the effect of verse. Hence it is concluded and rationally enough that the Greeks and Romans pronounced those syllables long or short in reading their verse and as we observe in modern languages that the syllables of words have the same measures both in verse and prose, we ought to conclude that they had the same also in those ancient languages, and that we must lengthen or shorten in their prose the same syllables which we lengthen or shorten in their verse, Thus, if I meet with the word praeteritos in Latin prose and want to know how the Romans pronounced it, I search for it and find it in the line of Virgil, ‘O mihi praeteritos referat si Jupiter annos!’ where it is evident that prae is long and te short in direct opposition to the pronunciation which we often hear. The length allowed to a syllable is called its quantity, and hence we say that the Greek and Latin languages are to be pronounced according to quantity.”

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