On the meter of Middle English alliterative verse

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The meter of a large body of alliterative verse texts composed in English in the fourteenth century appears so irregular that it has defied formalization. Nevertheless, certain prosodic patterns recur with great frequency while others are rare or unattested; this invites further inquiry into the verse design. The first part of this paper lays out some of the received descriptions and interpretations of that particular metrical tradition, pointing out some philological problems that lead to circularity in accounting for the interplay between meter and language. The second part of the paper proposes an analysis of the most frequent b-verse attestations in terms of optimality-theoretic constraints. The application of OT to the account of this type of meter aligns it with the typology of other English verse forms and allows a discussion of continuity in terms of non-local properties. The paper ends with an outline of further research questions.


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