Invention of Sentence Endings

The early seventeenth century in England calls to mind the vigorous invention engendered – it’s said that Shakespeare alone coined a thousand words. A large part of this fruitfulness was the search for le mot juste (David Crystal, The Fight for English, 58):

‘Can this cockpit hold the [insert word for ‘large’] fields of France?’ asks the Chorus at the beginning of Henry V. Shakespeare needs a two-syllable word here. What options were available in the language of the time with the meaning of ‘very large’?

There was large itself, and huge, which had both been in the language since the thirteenth century, and great, which had been around since Anglo-Saxon times. But these were common everyday words, not very imaginative – hardly suitable for capturing the enormity of the dramatic scene the Chorus is painting. And in any case, with just one syllable they had the wrong rhythm. Immense and enormous also existed, but they had the wrong rhythm, too. Massive was an option: that had the right rhythm, but unfortunately the wrong meaning. Massive expresses the idea of concrete size upwards – as in a massive building – not the idea of a flat expanse. Vast was the only word which had the right meaning, and was sufficiently unusual to make a poet want to use it. But it too had only one syllable.

There is only one solution, under such circumstances. If there is no word in the language that meets all your needs – semantic, grammatical, phonetic – then you have to invent one. So he did: vasty.

At the same time, Renaissance England also preserved and adapted, in the collects of the Book of Common Prayer, cadences used in Latin from Cicero through the Middle Ages. With words vocalized, music mattered; rhythm mattered, because language was oral.

Hodie Christus natus est, chant from the Liber Usualis.

But there’s more to oral sensitivity than rhythm, more than relative stresses in the tongue’s excelling. With an eye to things to say about the St Albans Psalter, I imagined half a sentence while reading Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron at Moe’s and started thinking about melody in language. Just as melody in music adds as much to texture as rhythm, so too in words.

Far more satisfying an end to a sentence than polyphonic, multivalent is multivalent, polyphonic. For one thing, though the metrical feet are the same – stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed – polyphonic has assonance that multivalent doesn’t, a deep, echoing assonance that better equips it to finish a sentence. Similarly, both the p and the f of polyphonic are phonetically stronger than the m and the v of multivalent: if it were a word changing phonologically from one to the other, the process would be fortition (‘strengthening’) for each of these consonants, from m to p, and from v to f. Both of these sound qualities make polyphonic the amplifying, better last word.

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