Tips for Poets ~
I. What is Old Norse
Common language of the Scandinavian people in century... place...
For Old Norse, we can use the convenient abbreviation ON.
II. Alliteration - What is it?
Alliteration is another word for stave-rhyme, and a poetic technique.
When do two words alliterate (stave) with each other ?
Two words alliterate when in both words the syllable that bears the main beat
starts with the same sound (which in most cases means the same letter, but not
Additionally, in a poem, for two words to be said to alliterate they must
usually be within the same line and not too far apart. Two words connected by
alliteration are often intentionally connected in meaning as well.
Btw, the word alliteration comes from Latin and is derived from
"ad"=towards and "littera"=letter=stave.
When we talk of rhyme nowadays, we usually mean end-rhyme. However, the broad
definition of rhyme includes stave-rhyme/alliteration as well. In European
languages stave-rhymed poetry precedes end-rhyme poetry by centuries.
Some prose authors also make conscious use of alliteration in order to create
a special athmosphere for some scenes. This sentence is from Susan Cooperīs
"The Dark is Rising":
Our everyday language knows also a variety of alliterating expressions: kith
and kin, ...........
A brief history of rhyme in European poetry
III. Alliteration in Old Norse - The Rules
1. Any (double) vowel alliterates with any other (double) vowel
The vowels a, e, i, o, u, Æ, oe, ae, ue, ei, ai, oi, ui, ey, ay, uy, oy, y
(when spoken as a vowel)... - alliterate with themselves and with each other.
No vowel alliterates with any consonant.
Example: Always, Eyvind, idles, over, unseemly, elks -
all these words alliterate because their main beat syllables all start with a
Coincidentally, the main beat syllable of these words is also the first
Keep in mind that it is always the main beat syllable that alliterates, which is
not necessarily the first syllable.
"always" and "anger" alliterate. But "always" also
alliterates with "however", even though "however" starts
with an "h", because the main beat is on the "e", not the
Examples: Always, forever, disintegrate, ... these words alliterate.
"always" does not alliterate with "elaborate", even though
both words start with a vowel, because the main beat syllabe of elaborate starts
with "l", a consonant - and vowels donīt alliterate with consonants.
Keep in mind that it is the sound that matters, not the spelling:
Example: "Always" does not alliterate with "union", even
though the spelling of both main beat syllables starts with a vowel. But union
is pronounced "joonion" - which starts with "j", a consonant
- and vowels donīt alliterate with consonants.
To be really technical about it, the reason vowels alliterate is because
everytime we speak a vowel that begins a stressed?? syllable, our stimmritze
makes a discreet opening sound just before the vowel comes. This opening sound,
in Arabic even rated as an independent letter, is always the same, no matter
what vowel follows. So in reality we are doing an alliteration of the opening
You can hear this sound before the "i" when you say "ice" or
dis-illusioned, as apart from "nice" and "desire" where you
2. A consonant alliterates with itself, or other consonant(s) that sound like
The letters b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, t only alliterate with
themselves - b with b, d with d,...
They do not alliterate among each other. It does not matter what kind of
letter(s) follow them.
"tea" alliterates with "turmoil", "two",
"trout", "betrothed", "foretell"...
"birch" alliterates with "belly", "bright",
"blithe", "umbilical", "forbidden"...
"door" alliterates with "dreary", "destiny",
"bedraggled", "undreamed of"...
"team" does not alliterate with "doom",
"birch" not with "perch",
"gall" not with "cull".
"s" alliterates only with "s".
"sh" alliterates only with "sh".
"s" with explosive consonants alliterate only with themselves:
"st" only with "st" , "sp" only with
"sp", "sk/sc" only with "sk/sc"
It does not matter what kind of letter(s) follows afterwards.
Example: Alliteration in each line:
Set the sails, slyly and swooning,
Shrouded by shields,
Standing with strength,
Spilling and splashing,
Skalds go scrounging.
Reverse example: No alliteration !
Shake your spear,
Stand in the sand,
Scamper and swallow.
Some Edda-translations follow these rules strictly, some more loosely and
e.g. alliterate "s" with "sp".
Depending on the actual pronounciation:
"q" and "c" as in call are treated as "k":
come, query, kolon... alliterate.
"c" as in cereals is treated as soundless "s": sun,
"z" is treated as sounding "s": "zoo",
Both kind of "s" sounds do not stave with each other. ????
"v" is either a "w" sound (vile), or an "f"
"th" staves with "th": That throng of thurses
"dh" staves with "dh": This
"th" and "dh" do not stave with each other.
Example stanza ON English
You can recognize the alliterating words in ON, often even if you do not
understand a word of it. In ON the root syllable bears the alliterative stress,
which very often also is the first syllable of a word. In longer, composite
words it is often possible to make a qualified guess which syllable within the
word is the word root and alliterates. After all, both ON and English are
III. Old Meters, or: How to Make an Alliterative Poem.
Now how is alliteration actually employed in a poem ? That depends on the
A poetic meter is like a cooking recipe. It tells you when and how to use your
ingredients. In ON meters, alliteration is the main ingredient. To avoid boring
their listeners with ever the same brand of mind-food, poets have come up with a
whole cooking book of various alliterative meters.
In this course, we will cover the two best-known, and easiest, meters:
Fornyrdhislag and Ljodhahattr. You will learn to recognize and appreciate them
and to write in them yourselves.
Alliterative rules were and are broken for various reasons, ranging from
wanting variety and poetic license to incompetence. For the purposes of learning
this meter, we will all try to stick as close to the rules as possible. You can
always break them later :). If you catch me breaking them, tell me.
As long as we follow the Old Norse meters, it does not matter that we use
modern English instead of ON. Those of you that already know or are going to
learn Old Norse, you can simply apply the rules you learn here to ON as well, or
to any other language for that matter.
During its evolution as a language, ON lost weak (unemphasized) word
syllables, thus becoming very short and terse in itself. The beat is on the root
syllable. Both make ON is ideally suited to the meters that were developed for
it. Other languages with dissimilar properties may be less ideally suited.
The first meter is called fornyrdhislag, or "old word way", usually
translated as Old Meter.
A poem in fornyrdhislag consists of a variable number of stanzas with four
Each line consists of two half-lines, which have a perceptible hiatus (break) in
Each half-line has two beats, hence each line has four beats.
The rules to employ alliteration are the same for all four lines in a stanza,
and hence for the whole poem.
In the first half-line, either the first beat or the second beat or both of
them must alliterate with
the first beat in the second half-line.
The rules do not allow to have the alliteration fall on the second beat of the
second half-line in any combination.
What about a b a b?????
The second meter, ljodhahattr, translates as Song Meter.
It is a simple variant of Old Meter and very similar to our modern scheme of
ballads or songs.
Again we have a variable number of stanzas. All stanzas follow the same
Each stanza has four lines.
The first and the third line of each stanza follow exactly the same rules as a
line in fornyrdhislag.
The second and fourth line of each stanza are full lines with three beats (i.e.
not two half-lines with a total of four beats).
In each of these full lines, two or three beats must alliterate.
-examples for 1. And 2.
Stylistic rules for making it more beautiful: same alliteration in more than
B with b and bl with bl - be stricter than the meter
Help ppl avoid pitfalls
Textmarks for jumping
Alliteration (Latin, ad=towards, littera=letter)