Sound Features in Greek Poetry

This is a talk I gave with Stephen Sansom at the Intersections graduate student conference on November 6, 2015. We presented the results of some investigation into automatic detection of sound features in ancient poetry. We examined frequency distributions of letters (word-initial, and within-word), using letters as a proxy for sounds (mapping φ/π to the same bucket, similarly κ/χ). We also tried using entropy as a measure of alliteration (low word-initial letter entropy ⇒ higher alliteration) with interesting discoveries. Our text corpus consisted of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, the Works and Days, and the so-called Homeric Hymns.


The sound of poetry has recently gained much scholarly attention, whether in the burgeoning fields of Sound Studies and Auditory Culture (e.g. Sterne 2012, Bull and Black 2003) or phenomenological and formal approaches to the interpretation of poetry (Jarvis 2011, Bernstein 1998). Few, however, have attempted to devise and use digital tools to ‘read’ sound in texts. In this paper, we present computer techniques to identify textual sound features, including alliteration and accentuation. We demonstrate these techniques by application to poetry from Archaic Greece (8th–6th century BCE), particularly that of Hesiod. Not only do these approaches assist in identifying sound features in texts but they raise questions of formalism, historicity, selectivity, definitions of sound and figures of sound, and the use of technology in reading literature.

Here's a sample of the entropy-based alliteration output on Works and Days. Shorter bars mean less entropy and more alliteration.

Index of lines with least entropy

# line mean entropy
358 δώτῃ μέν τις ἔδωκεν, ἀδώτῃ δ’ οὔτις ἔδωκεν. 0.110
603 μέτρῳ δ’ εὖ κομίσασθαι ἐν ἄγγεσιν· αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν δὴ 0.116
356 τὸν φιλέοντα φιλεῖν, καὶ τῷ προσιόντι προσεῖναι. 0.117
366 καὶ θαμὰ τοῦτ’ ἔρδοις, τάχα κεν μέγα καὶ τὸ γένοιτο. 0.117
213 δεῖπνον δ’, αἴ κ’ ἐθέλω, ποιήσομαι ἠὲ μεθήσω. 0.118
384 σοὶ δ’ εἰ πλούτου θυμὸς ἐέλδεται ἐν φρεσὶν ᾗσιν, 0.118
602 χώρῳ ἐν εὐαέι καὶ ἐυτροχάλῳ ἐν ἀλωῇ. 0.121
357 καὶ δόμεν, ὅς κεν δῷ, καὶ μὴ δόμεν, ὅς κεν μὴ δῷ. 0.122
273 οἵην δὴ καὶ τήνδε δίκην πόλις ἐντὸς ἐέργει. 0.123
212 τῇ δ’ εἶς, ᾗ σ’ ἂν ἐγώ περ ἄγω καὶ ἀοιδὸν ἐοῦσαν· 0.123

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