*1.0 == Why
should you learn meter?*
*1.1 == Words, syllables, and
*1.2 == Syllables: two letters or
*1.3 == Syllables: start with
consonants if possible*
*1.4 == Syllables: follow
*1.5 == Long and short syllables*
1.0 == Why should you learn meter?
Because it's there, of
course. It was carefully put there
by the classical ghazal poets, and was completely
expected by their audiences. No poet wanted (or dared)
to break the metrical rules; people ridiculed each
other for even the smallest accidental mistake. Meter
was there because it was indispensable to how the
classical ghazal works. Here are some of the things
you can do with the help of meter:
*You can memorize verses very easily, because meter
creates such strong and consistent rhythmic patterns.
*You can recite verses with proper understanding and
intonation, and thus with much more pleasure for
yourself and your audience; educated listeners can
easily tell whether somebody reciting a verse knows
the meter or not.
*You can compose ghazals of your own that are
formally indistinguishable from traditional ones.
*You can tell where there must, or might, or must
not, be an i.zaafat [i.zaafat];
this is often very important information.
*You can read na:zm [na:zm]
and other forms of metrically freer modern poetry with
a much more subtle understanding of their technique.
*You can detect many calligraphic or editorial
errors, since most of them create unmetrical lines.
*You can often reconstruct half-remembered verses in
your mind, and can tell whether they are formally
NOTE: Urdu meter is not like
English meter! If you have some
intuition and a reasonably good ear, you can read
English poetry quite well with very little knowledge
of metrical theory. This is because there is not, and
never has been, any single universally-applied system
of English meter. Thus English metrical theory is
retrospective fancy icing on the cake. By contrast, Urdu
meter is a large part of the cake itself.
It tells you exactly and reliably how the verses are
made, and helps you enjoy them to the fullest.
1.1 == Words, syllables, and
The basic units of analysis in our system are words,
syllables, and letters. Words are made of syllables,
and syllables of letters. We don't intend to define
"word" in any special or technical way. We mean by
"word" what people generally mean in common usage: the
smallest independently meaningful unit of language.
Given a line of poetry, therefore, the student will
have no trouble recognizing its division into words.
The middle layer in the hierarchy, the syllable, is
the crucial one for metrical purposes. No line of
poetry can be scanned until it has first been broken
into a series of syllables. Each word in the line of
poetry must be divided into metrical syllables
according to the following three criteria.
1.2 == Syllables: two letters or
The first criterion is that A SYLLABLE MUST CONSIST
OF EITHER TWO LETTERS OR ONE. For metrical purposes,
*All the characters of the Urdu alphabet from alif [alif] to ye
[ye], except for the do-chashmii
he [do-chashmii he] of aspiration and the nuun-e ;Gunnah [nuun-e ;Gunnah] of
*The duplicate letter indicated by a tashdiid [tashdiid] on any letter.
*The madd [madd] which may
appear over alif [alif].
*The hamzah [hamzah] sign, )) , when it appears within a
Letters do NOT include: the short vowels indicated by
zer [zer], or zabar
[zabar], or pesh [pesh]; the
dotless medial ye [ye]
inserted into a word as a "chair" for hamzah [hamzah]; the do-chashmii he [do-chashmii he] of
aspiration, and the nuun-e ;Gunnah
[nuun-e ;Gunnah] of nasalization.
THE TREATMENT OF do-chashmii h :
The do-chashmii h [do-chashmii
he] of aspiration, although it affects the
pronunciation of the syllable in which it occurs, is
metrically invisible. This rule applies to do-chashmii h in its proper modern
usage, when it indicates an aspirated consonant. The
rule applies whether or not it is actually written in
the modern aspiration-marking way, that is, as in khaanaa [khaanaa]
rather than as in kahnaa [kahnaa]
. (Older texts often use a simple h
, gol he [gol he] for both
forms.) The consonants which the do-chashmii
h of aspiration may normally follow are: b , p , t , ;T , j , ch , d , ;D , ;R ,
k , g [b, p, t, ;T, j, ch, d, ;D, ;R, k, g].
In a few cases it may follow n [nuun],
as in nannhaa , or l
[laam], as in duulhaa ; all
such instances involve Indic words. Sometimes,
however, the two-eyed shape of do-chashmii
he may be found outside the environment of its
proper usage, being written in place of the
independent letter gol he . In
such cases it is to be treated as though it were gol he .
THE TREATMENT OF ;N : The nuun-e ;Gunnah [nuun-e ;Gunnah] of
nasalization, although it affects the pronunciation of
the syllable in which it occurs, is also metrically
invisible. It is often difficult for the student to
distinguish medial ;N the
nasalizer from ordinary medial n
, since they are written in the same way. We can offer
one helpful rule of thumb: in general, ;N the nasalizer can occur only
after long vowels. The only exceptions to this rule
are a group of mostly Indic words in which ;N occurs in the first syllable.
Except for a few rare cases--e.g., andheraa
--these words begin with consonants: sa;Nbhalnaa
, [sa;Nbhalnaa], sa;Nvaarnaa
[sa;Nvaarnaa], mu;Nh [mu;Nh], ha;Nsnaa [ha;Nsnaa], pha;Nsnaa [pha;Nsnaa], ba;Ndhnaa [ba;Ndhnaa], etc.
Almost all are verbs. Persian nouns, by contrast, more
often have the full n : rang [rang], band
[band], rind [rind]. (The verb ra;Ngnaa [ra;Ngnaa], however, has
only a ;N .) Despite this
handful of exceptions, our rule that ;N
occurs only after long vowels is generally reliable.
1.3 == Syllables: start with
consonants if possible
The second criterion is that A SYLLABLE MUST BEGIN
WITH A CONSONANT WHEREVER POSSIBLE. Since it's usually
possible, most syllables have one of the following
*consonant + consonant, as in kab
*consonant + vowel, as in kaa
*consonant alone, as in the k
of kabhii [ka-bhii]
At the beginning of a word, it is not always possible
for a syllable to begin with a consonant. Thus the
following forms also occur:
*a + vowel, as in the au of aur
*a + consonant, as in ab [ab]
*a alone, as in the a of abhii
*aa alone, as in the aa of aadmii
It should be remembered that such syllables normally
occur ONLY at the beginning of a word. (The few
exceptions to this pattern involve alif
madd ; most prominent among them is the word qur aan [qur-aa-n].
metrical purposes, all the letters of the alphabet may
be considered to be consonants except:
* a , that is, alif , wherever it occurs
* aa , that is, alif madd , wherever it occurs
* o , ii , e -- that is, vaa))o and cho;Tii
ye and ba;Rii ye --when
they occur as the SECOND letter in a syllable It
should be remembered that orthodox Urdu prosody, based
on Arabic prosody, recognizes only consonants, and
considers all the letters of the alphabet to be
consonants. Our use of the terms "consonant" and
"vowel" is a practical tactic for mobilizing the
linguistic intuitions of English speakers.
If o or either form of ye [ye] is doubled by a tashdiid [tashdiid], it is
pronounced both times as a consonant, as in tayyaar [tayyaar] or ta.savvur [ta.savvur], even though
it appears as the second letter of a syllable. But
this never changes the division of the syllables.
THE LETTER ((ain -- that is, (( --is usually pronounced as a
vowel in modern Urdu; sometimes it is not pronounced
at all. Nevertheless, for scansion purposes it behaves
exactly like a consonant.
THE LETTER hamzah : Similarly,
the letter )) [hamzah] within a
word, though of course it is pronounced as a glide, is
to be treated for scansion purposes as a consonant.
Thus however problematical its status in Urdu
orthography and pronunciation, within our system it is
clearly defined as a letter and a consonant. It shares
with all other consonants the ability to begin a
two-letter syllable, or to constitute a one-letter
syllable, within a word. (Vowels as a rule have this
ability only at the beginning of a word.) Furthermore,
hamzah has one property all its
own: it can never appear as the second letter of a
By defining )) [hamzah] within
a word as a full letter, we mean to exclude the )) placed after a word-final alif in certain Arabic words. This
kind of Arabic )) is very rare
and is almost never scanned at all even if it does
appear; see Section
4.4 for further discussion.
THE LETTER madd : The madd appears only over alif . The two together, as aa , called alif
madd , always form one syllable. The appearance
of madd thus always signals the
beginning of a new syllable. The syllable consisting
of aa is the only all-vowel
syllable which may appear medially, within a word. But
this is rare; almost always it occurs at the beginning
of a word.
1.4 == Syllables: follow
The third criterion is that the division into
syllables must follow normal standard (prose)
PRONUNCIATION as closely as possible. Much of the time
the syllable division will be obvious, even in the
case of unknown words.
In some cases, however, it will be necessary to
ascertain the exact pronunciation. Unfortunately, many
Urdu dictionaries don't give sufficiently detailed
information on pronunciation to be helpful in
scanning. For most words, it's sufficient to ask an
educated native speaker and listen carefully to his or
her pronunciation. Or you might want to consult the
very helpful book .si;h;hat-e alfaa:z
, which provides an extensive list of frequently
mispronounced words (pp. 9-42), together with their
metrically correct breakdown into syllables. Or you
could look in your trusty Platts dictionary, or
else consult the online Platts version.
WORDS: Especially hard to
pronounce and scan accurately are three-letter words
composed of three consonants. Most such words are
Arabic in origin. The great majority of these are
divided into first a two-letter syllable, then a
one-letter syllable, as in qism
[qis-m], mulk [mul-k], vaqt [vaq-t], farq
[far-q]. This tendency is particularly marked in those
words which end in ;h or (( , such as shar;h
[shar-;h], sa:t;h [sa:t-;h], jam((a [jam-((a], qa:t((a [qa:t-((a]. This division,
inherited from Arabic, persists in poetry, even though
in many cases colloquial pronunciation has changed.
There are only a few exceptions: :tama((
[:ta-ma((], qada;h [qa-da;h],
and the convenient :tar;h which
can be broken into either [:tar-;h] or [:ta-ra;h] at
the poet's pleasure.
Note that words that contain any of the letters ;s , ;h , ;z , .s , .z , :t , :z , ((
, ;G [;s , ;h , ;z , .s , .z , :t , :z , (( ,
;G ] are almost certainly
Arabic in origin. Words that contain p
, ch , zh , g [p , ch , zh , g], or aspirated
or retroflex consonants, are definitely not.
A minority of three-letter three-consonant words,
including both Arabic and non-Arabic ones, are divided
into first a one-letter syllable, then a two-letter
one, as in varaq [va-raq], qasam [qa-sam], magar
[ma-gar], ;Gazal [;Ga-zal], nikal [ni-kal].
Words of this minority group normally change their
syllable division when normal grammatical
transformations change their pronunciation. For
example: nikalnaa [ni-kal-naa]
gives rise to nikal [ni-kal],
but also to niklaa [nik-laa]
and niklo [nik-lo]; na:zar [na-:zar] gives rise to na:zre;N [na:z-re;N] and na:zro;N [na:z-ro;N]. One common
exception to this pattern of change: ;Gala:t
[;Ga-la:t] goes to ;Gala:tii
Such words as these do not, however, usually change
their syllable division when endings from Arabic and
Persian grammar are applied: na:zar
[na-:zar] goes to na:zariyah
[:ta-rab] goes to :tarabiyah
[:ta-ra-bi-yah]. But there are occasional exceptions
to this tendency too: qasam
[qa-sam] goes to qasmiyah
1.5 Long and short syllables
In general, any syllable consisting of two letters is
LONG, and any syllable consisting of one letter is
SHORT. The difference in pronunciation is basically
quantitative: a long syllable ideally takes twice as
long to say as a short one. In this book a long
syllable will be shown as (=) and a short syllable
will be shown as (-). A syllable that may be used as
long or short, at the poet's pleasure, will be called
a FLEXIBLE syllable. It will be shown as (x). A
flexible syllable may be treated as long in some
instances, and as short in others. But in each
individual instance, its value is as fixed as that of
any other syllable.