Definition of Syncope

Syncope is a literary device which can be defined as the contraction or the shortening of a word by omitting sounds, syllables or letters from the middle of the word such as bos’n for the word boatswain. Similarly, ne’er for the word never and `fo’c’sle’ for the word `forecastle’ are also used. From these examples, syncope can also be defined as the dropping of the unstressed vowels, letters or syllables or the consonants from the middle of a word. It can be found in synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis of the languages.

Uses of Syncope

1. As a Poetic Device
Syncope is mainly used in poetry when poets desperately want to avoid a single syllable from a word to harmonize the meter in each line. However, syncope can be found in drama and in prose as well.

2. Used in Informal Speech
Syncope is also used in informal speech. For instance, different kinds of colloquial contraction may also be called as syncope.

Examples from Literature

Poetic contractions are often found in English verse from the Restoration period to the end of the 18th century. Poets and writers use syncope to produce rhetorical effects in literature. Let’s take a look at some examples from literary texts to understand syncope.

Example #1

In the 18th century, the contractions were signified typographically by using apostrophes, such as in this example:

For talking age and whisp’ring lovers made!
Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,
And his last falt’ring accents whisper’d praise.
(The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith)

Example #2

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground, no hearth
Of Traveller’s half-way house with its turf smoke
Scented the air through which the plover wings
His solitary flight.

-from William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us” (Juvenilia XVIa; Juvenilia XVIb)

Here Wordsworth necessarily contracts the word over into o’er for the sake of rhyme and to give the lines a colloquial feel.

Example #3

The best example of syncope can be seen in Shakespeare’s poetry. Just take a look at an example from Shakespeare’s poem, “A Lover’s Complaint.”

This said, his wat’ry eyes he did dismount,
Whose sights till then were levell’d on my face,
Each cheek a river running from a fount,
With brinish current downward flowe’d a pace …
(A Lover’s Complaint by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare made use of Syncope in these words wat’ry for watery, levell’d for levelled and flowe’d for flowered. The contractions have been used to keep the metrical rhythm same in each line.

Example #4

“Thou thy worldy task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages”

Further he says,

“I would thou grew’st unto the shores o’ the haven,
And question’dst every sail: if he should write
And not have it, ‘twere a paper lost,
As offer’d mercy is. What was the last
That he spake to thee?”

(Cymbeline by William Shakespeare)

The words ta’en for taken, grew’st, question’dst and offer’d have been used as syncope to rhyme the poem.

Function of Syncope

The syllables or letters are mostly deleted from the center of words in speech to speed up the conversation or balance the rhythmical pattern of the poetic verse. The purpose is to create a rhetorical effect for embellishment and meter. However, in poetry and stylized prose it is generally used to modify the word sound. Either single letters or complete syllables are removed from a letter with the insertion of an apostrophe and this makes it easy to read and perfect the metrical rhythm. Generally, it was a fashion during Chaucerian age and more so during Elizabeth age that erudite people used it in their writing to embellish the piece and to create artistic effects in the readers’ minds. However, sometimes it comes into view as a rustic in style, and is therefore used as a literary device to differentiate ‘country simple folk’. Some dialects and languages make more use of syncope compared to others such as Scots.

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