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Dactyl

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English Literature

Have you ever wondered what a Dactyl is? Here’s a poem, Higgeldy Piggeldy, by Ian Lancashire. Do you notice what’s interesting about this poem beyond the playful words? Do you recognise what sort of poem this is?

Higgledy piggledy,

Bacon, lord Chancellor.

Negligent, fell for the

Paltrier vice.

Bribery toppled him,

Bronchopneumonia

Finished him, testing some

Poultry on ice.

Reread the poem and focus on the words and their rhythm and syllables. What do you notice? The poem is an example of a double dactyl, which has a strict structure of dactyls, but what even are these?

The meaning of a dactyl

A dactyl is a foot of measurement for rhythm that is often found in poetry. It involves an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables.

A dactyl may occur in one word or several, depending on the syllables, but it has the general sound of dum-da-da or tum-ti-ti (where dum and tum are stressed syllables).

Stressed and unstressed syllables

In order to recognise a dactyl in English, we need to be able to recognise the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.

Stressed syllables often:

  • are louder,

  • longer,

  • higher,

  • have elongated vowel sounds,

  • and are said with more emphasis.

Unstressed syllables often:

  • are quieter,

  • shorter,

  • lower,

  • have reduced vowel sounds,

  • and are said with less emphasis.

In this article, the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables is indicated by displaying stressed syllables in bold and unstressed syllables in normal font. We also divide each foot with a space ‘ ‘ and each syllable with a hyphen.

The ‘app’ sound in the word ‘apple’ is stressed, and the ‘le’ is unstressed. ‘App- le’.

The ‘app’ sound in the word ‘apply’ is unstressed, and the ‘ly’ is stressed. ‘App- ly’.

Examples of dactyls

There are many words in the English language that are dactyls.

These words have a dactylic rhythm to them:

  • 'basketball' = bask-et-ball
  • 'alphabet' = alph-a-bet

Possibly the most popular example of dactyls in English poetry is Lord Alfred Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854). According to Michael Rifenburg, the dactyls in the poem create an almost hypnotic state to convey to the reader the futility of the charge1 while also creating a march-like rhythm. Here are a few stanzas from the poem. Can you spot a dactyl?

I

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

II

Forward, the Light Brigade!

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone had blundered.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Here are the lines in the poem that have a dactylic metre!

For-ward-the light-brig-ade

Was-there-a man-dis-mayed

Another example of dactyls can be found in the song America from the musical West Side Story (1961). These dactyls create an upbeat and bouncing tone in the chorus. Can you spot the dactyls?

I like to be in America,

Okay by me in America,

Everything’s free in America

This is where the dactyls are:

I-like-to be-in-Am … Ev-ery-thing’s free-in-Am …

Even nursery rhymes use dactyls to create an upbeat and bouncing tone. See, for example, Hickory Dickory Dock.

Hickory dickory dock.

The mouse went up the clock

The clock struck one.

The mouse went down

Hickory dickory dock

The dactyls work as follows:

hick-or-y, dick-or-y, dock

Dactylic rhythms

Dactyls are a type of metrical foot and thus may contribute to a greater scheme of rhythm in a poem or song. A poem can use dactyls in various ways, depending on how long the lines are, as this changes how many feet can be in it. Some poems commit entirely to these types of rhythms, but others may only devote individual lines to it. Below are several types of dactylic rhythms.

Dactylic dimeter

Dimeter means that there are two feet on each line.

Therefore, the dactylic dimeter has two dactyls on a line of poetry or song.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is a perfect example of a poem that features a dactylic dimeter. Think of the first two lines of the second stanza, which have two dactyls (and only two) on each line.

Forward, the Light Brigade!

Was there a man dismayed?

Double Dactyl

A double dactyl is a fun and jovial type of poetry that follows a specific structure within two quatrains.

The stanzas of a double dactyl each have three lines of dactylic diameter followed by a dactyl and a spondee, and the final spondees have to rhyme with each other.

A spondee is another type of metrical foot that has two stressed syllables, as in bus-stop.

Beyond the strict structure, the content of the poem is also controlled. This is because:

  • The first line must be nonsensical.
  • The second line must contain a proper noun (this might be a place, a name, an institution, etc.).
  • There must be another line with an entirely unique word never used in another double dactyl. This often happens in the sixth line.

Here is Wendy Cope’s version of a double dactyl (n.d.):

Higgledy-piggledy

Emily Dickinson

Liked to use dashes

Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such

Idiosyncrasy,

Critics and editors

Send for the cops.

As we can see, the nonsensical phrase is higgledy-piggledy, the proper noun is the famous poet Emily Dickinson, and the unique word is idiosyncrasy.

Dactylic pentameter

Pentameter means that there are five feet on a line of poetry, so dactylic pentameter means that there are five dactyls or perhaps four dactyls and another substituted metrical foot.

Here is an extract from a poem that is entirely constructed in dactylic pentameter called Angels First Assignment by Stan Galloway (n.d.). In this poem, the dactylic pentameter creates a wonderful flowing sense to the narrative as the speaker contemplates what they are asking.

Were you the same angels posted beside the new tomb with the

Body of Jesus the New Tree provided again for us

Here is how the dactyls work in the extract:

were-you-the same-an-gels post-ed-be side-the-new tomb-with-the

Bo-dy-of Je-sus-the New-tree-pro vi-ded-a gain-for-us

Dactylic hexameter

Hexameter means that there are six feet within a line, so in a dactylic hexameter, there are six dactyls on a line or perhaps a substitute of another metrical foot for one dactyl.

This rhythm is found in some of the oldest poems from ancient Greece (like Homer’s Iliad from the 8th century BC) but has all but disappeared in English literature. Despite this, some poets have tried to revitalise it, like Arthur Hugh Clough with his Amours De Voyage (1858) and The Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich (1848) or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline (1847), from which the extract below is taken.

This is the forest primaeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,

Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

Here is the first line of the poem:

This-is-the for-est-pri me-val-The mur-mur-ing pines-and-the hem-locks

Did you notice how there are six feet but only five dactyls? This is because this case of hexameter ends with a spondee.

The impact of dactyls

Dactyls create a sense of abnormality in a poem as they alter the normal intonation of English words. This might create a sense of unease as in The Charge of the Light Brigade that reflects the tragedy that occurred in the event. However, in some poems, dactyls create a sort of bouncy and upbeat tone, as in Hickory Dickory Dock or America. When used in dactylic hexameter, they may also resemble epic poetry where this metre was primarily used, as, for instance, in Evangeline.

Confusion with dactyls

There are several ways in which dactyls can be confusing, as there are other types of metrical feet that look quite similar. Lets, therefore, look at another way to define dactyls.

Another definition of a dactyl

There is another way of defining a dactyl that is used in other languages.

In the case of languages like ancient Greek or Latin, a dactyl is defined as a long syllable followed by two shorter syllables.

The first line of Virgil’s Aeneid (2919 BC) has several dactyls: arma virumque cano (I sing of weapons and men) goes ‘ar-ma-vir um-que-ca no’.

Other ternary feet

A ternary foot is a poetic term referring to a rhythmical foot that contains three syllables.

There are several types of ternary feet (each of which has its opposite). Below are some examples of other ternary feet (i.e., other than a dactyl). It is important to note that anapests and dactyls are the most common, even though the others do appear as well.

The anapest is the opposite of a dactyl; it is a ternary foot with two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

Anapests have the general sound of da-da-dum or ti-ti-tum. There is also a more archaic spelling of anapest, which is anapaest.

understand = un-der-stand

or velveteen = vel-ve-teen.

A molossus is a foot made up of three stressed (or long, if in Latin or Greek) syllables. They have the sound of tum-tum-tum or dum-dum-dum

This type of metre is most often found in Latin and Greek literature, such as the word audiri = au-di-ri. In English, the phrase must hold true is a molossus = must-hold-true.

A tribrach is the opposite of a molossus foot and so consists of three unstressed syllables.

They have the sound of ti-ti-ti or da-da-da.

The phrase he and me is an example of a tribrach = he-and-me.

Amphibrach

An amphibrach is a ternary foot that involves a stressed syllable in between two unstressed syllables.

It has the sound of ti-tum-ti or da-dum-da.

The word ancestral is an example of an amphibrach = an-cest-ral.

Amphimacer

An amphimacer is the opposite of an amphibrach, featuring two stressed syllables sandwiching an unstressed syllable.

This can also be called a cretic foot. It has the sound of tum-ti-tum or dum-da-dum.

The words common thought are an example of an amphimacer = com-mon-thought.

A Bacchius is a metrical foot that has one unstressed syllable followed by two stressed syllables.

Each line in the carol by Paul Edwards called No Small Wonder (1986) features a bacchius. You will notice the sound of the words having a ti-tum-tum or da-dum-dum feel.

when-day-breaks the-fish-bite at-small-flies.

Antibacchius

An antibacchius is the opposite of a bacchius, and so features two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable.

It has the general feel of tum-tum-ti or dum-dum-da.

The word bare-footed = bare-foot-ed.

Although there are many types of ternary feet, the way you can remember dactyls is from the etymology. The Greek term daktulos’ translates as ‘unit of measurement’ or ‘finger’. A dactyl in English is a unit of rhythmical measure that visually represents a finger. Think of the long finger bone followed by two shorter ones, just like one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones.

Dactyl - Key takeaways

  • A dactyl is a type of rhythmical measurement. It is a ternary foot, so it has three syllables: one stressed followed by two unstressed syllables.
  • Unstressed syllables are often quieter, shorter, lower, less emphasised and have more reduced vowel sounds than their stressed counterparts.
  • There are different types of dactylic metre. Dactylic hexameter is mostly used in homage to ancient epics, as this was the metre in which these were constructed. Other dactyls create either a sense of uneasiness because of the way that the normal intonation of words is altered or a sense of happiness because of the bounciness of the intonation.
  • Knowing the etymology of dactyl may help you remember what it is in comparison to other ternary feet. It is ancient Greek for unit of measure or finger’, and as fingers have one long bone followed by two shorter ones, a dactyl has one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones.

1 Michael Rifenburg, The Hypnotic Meter of The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (2005).

Dactyl

A dactylic word is like ‘poetry’ = po-et-ry or ‘alphabet’ = alph-a-bet.

A dactyl is a foot of measurement in poetry. It is a foot that has three syllables, with the first being stressed and the second and third being unstressed.

A dactyl is a way of measuring rhythm in poetry. It is a ternary foot (so it has three syllables), with one stressed syllable being followed by two unstressed syllables. There are different types of dactylic metre such as dactylic dimeter, dactylic pentameter, and dactylic hexameter (there is also a poetic form called a double dactyl).

The dactylic rhythm in poetry can have multiple effects. It might create a sense of unease or delight or pay tribute to ancient epic poems, depending on how it is used.

A dactyl is a ternary foot, so there are three syllables: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

Final Dactyl Quiz

Question

What is a dactyl? 

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Answer

A dactyl is a metrical foot of rhythm that involves a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

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Question

Is there another definition for a dactyl?

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Answer

In Latin and Ancient Greek, dactyls were also measurements of rhythm, but instead of being about stressed and unstressed syllables they were about syllable length.

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Question

What is the etymology of ‘dactyl’ and how does it help you remember what it is?


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Answer

The word dactyl comes from the Ancient Greek for ‘unit of measure’ (which it is) and for ‘finger’. A finger has one long bone and two shorter ones, just like a dactyl has one stressed syllable and two unstressed syllables.

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Question

What types of syllables are there?


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Answer

There are stressed syllables and unstressed syllables.

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Question

What are the differences between stressed and unstressed syllables?


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Answer

Stressed syllables are often longer, higher, louder, more emphasised and have more elongated vowel sounds in comparison.

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Question

What is the opposite of a dactyl?


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Answer

Anapest is the opposite of a dactyl. It is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.

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Question

What is a ternary foot?

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Answer

A ternary foot is a rhythmical measurement of a foot with three syllables.

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Question

What other types of ternary feet are there?


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Answer

A few other examples of ternary feet are anapest and molossus.

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Question

What famous poem has some dactylic dimeter?


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Answer

Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade has parts with dactylic dimeter.

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Question

What dactylic rhythms are there?


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Answer

Dactylic pentameter, hexameter and dimeter are the most common types of dactylic rhythms,

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Question

What is a double dactyl?

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Answer

A double dactyl is a very strict but jovial form of poetry. It has two stanzas of four lines (the first three must be in dactylic dimeter, the last is a combo of a dactyl and a spondee). The final word of each stanza must rhyme, the poem must include a word never used before in a double dactyl, a proper noun on line 2 and the first line must be nonsensical.

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Question

What is significant about dactylic hexameter?

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Answer

It is a form of rhythm most used in epic poetry. Thus, some writers use this rhythm to evoke historical writers like Virgil and Homer.

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