Stylistic features of reduced words in poetry (in the English, Russian and Italian languages) (2023)


The demand for studying stylistic features of language is due to the current interest of linguistics in pragmatic components of speech. However, such stylistic aspect as the ability of shortened lexical forms to convey poetic connotations has not been fully examined yet. A.N. Kuleva explores truncated adjectives in Russian poetry, however, she does not consider other types of shortenings (Kuleva, 2017). Most studies related to the specifics of shortened forms deal with the analysis of truncations that are found mainly in informal language and media discourse where a speedy character of fluent spontaneous speech is the trigger mechanism of word shortening (Pletneva, 2011; Stoika, 2017). In particular, researchers study young people’s sociolects (Lashin, Sinelnikov, 2017), advertising slogans (Matyushenko, 2018). In studying phonetic variability E. Laporte neglects stylistic factors determining the development of phonetic variants, i.e. he does not bear in mind certain stylistic differences (Laporte, 2013). Despite the fact the shortenings in poetry are numerous and enjoy significant amounts of stylistic connotative meaning, the universal and national specifics of their formation and functioning in lyrics have not been fully described so far.

Language of poetry, on the one hand, is subject to the basic laws and principles of the standard language and at the same time it has its own characteristics forming a specific register in which general language rules are supplemented with poetry norms and regulations (Mukařovský, 1983). On the whole the vocabulary of verses duplicates the vocabulary of standard language – for the most part the same lexemes are found in poetic texts as in everyday language, but the poetic vocabulary withal has its own distinctive features. Stylistic discrepancies are resulted, inter alia, in changes of the very forms of words in poetry as compared with the forms functioning in daily language, in particular, in morphophonemic variation leading to appearance of various shortenings of standard full words (or to the preferred usage of existing shortened units). The modified forms aim to highlight “secondary elements of meaning” as Tynyanov called them, they are the result of “colouring the word by the nature of the activity or by the environment that once changed and created it” (Tynyanov, 1965; hereinafter the translation is ours– S. Sh.). However, shortened poetic forms are not always the product of poetic speech, they are often borrowed from other language registers and dialects and later they acquire a specific colouring associated with the amplification of secondary elements of meaning in verses. So, the semantics of truncated words used in poetry is enriched with specific stylistic connotations. It is clear that “morphology is not isolated from other linguistic levels, it is deeply enrooted in the language texture being an essential component influencing the development of meaning in the course of speech producing” (Besedina, 2015: 11) This article is devoted to the description of shortened lexical units with rich poetic connotations and to the analysis of their features in English, Russian and Italian. The work is undertaken to find out the reasons why poetry prefers truncated forms, to consider the types of possible reductions and their productivity in verses of different languages. In our study we take into account only the shortenings which are fixed in writing, those ones that are morphophonemic. Such shortenings are compared with the conventional word forms that are used in standard language, in other words we focus on studying pairs of words: both full and shortened variants.

Terminological difficulties

One of the difficulties the researcher of shortenings comes across is the absence of the general linguistic term interpreting common understanding and giving overall definition to various phenomena of word shortenings. Metaplasms are any changes in word forms based on both reductions and additions of new phonographic elements; this term is not suitable for our study as we consider only shortenings. In order to describe reductions linguists apply diverse terms: syncope (clipping, truncation), apheresis (clipping, syncope), apocope (clipping, syncope), elision (with various adjacent word synonyms), contraction, synaeresis, crasis. They are used to describe existing types of reduction. As we can see the terms are often interchangeable. The most common one is syncope that has slightly different meanings. In versification syncope is interpreted as rhythmic inversion – the accent shifts from the stressed syllable fixed by the norm to the unstressed syllable, the phenomenon occurs because the poet tries to adjust the text to a given metro-rhythmic pattern of the poem (for example, in accentual-syllabic verses): высоковысоко (high). Such syncope is thought to be a weak point of the verse and is usually considered as a poetic error. In the current paper this kind of syncope is not considered.

We study the syncope interpreted as a loss of a sound or syllable in a word occurring primarily in poetic language. But even in this case the understanding of syncope is not unambiguous. The term most often denotes the omission of a vowel, less often a syllable, in the middle of a word. As a rule, the initial loss of a sound/syllable is terminologically denoted as apheresis (left clipping), the final loss – as apocope (right clipping). But syncope sometimes refers to reductions occurring in any segment of the word, in this case apheresis and apocope are considered as subsets of syncope.

In poetry two types of truncated word forms circulate: fixed by the poetic tradition and occasional speech variants resulting as an author's variation. In this regard the fixed reduced forms are described as contractions while speech phonetic shortenings are more often denoted as elisions. At the same time elision is understood as omission of the final vowel in a word in the Latin (poetic) tradition, it is also considered as a synonym for syncope: “The general term for a loss of sound segments in the field of linguistics is known as “elision”.Other types of elision include the processes of apheresis, syncope, apocope, synizesis and synaloepha” (Trask, 2000: 102).

Contractions in European languages are often marked with the apostrophe substituting a part of word that has been lost, but contraction also denotes syneresis (in Russian linguistics) when two vowels merge into a diphthong. Similar process is crasis when a diphthong turns into a monophthong (though the interpretations of these two terms may slightly differ).

The current study does not aim to select and substantiate the most appropriate terms for the considered linguistic phenomena. However, if we look for the general definition for the process in which a word loses some of its segments, it could correctly be referred to as reduction, truncation, or shortening.

Reasons for word truncation

It should be noted that some kinds of reduced word forms are used not only in poetic texts but also in other language registers. The specificity of a national language determines the general tendencies in shortening. Word reductions in Russian, English, and Italian have some discrepancies in the productivity of the ways used to truncate lexemes. The English language in its everyday usage (and especially in the colloquial informal version) enjoys apocope occurring when the word loses a rather large final segment: literature – lit. Another common poetic device in the English language is numerous contractions like the following: it is - it’s. In Italian there are similar contractions of two forms when articles join nouns: l’albero (tree). Moreover, in this language there are numerous elisions at the end of words: vuole – vuol (wants). In the Russian language the process of syneresis is quite common resulting in the contraction of two adjacent vowels into a diphthong making one syllable out of two: обновление – обновленье; such shortening does not undergo nominal merging. Another common device is apocopation of particles: ли – ль (if, whether). Simultaneous usage of several ways to shorten a word is often possible. Thus, one of the reasons why truncated forms in verses are coined and used is the peculiarities of the national language which dictate the preferred ways of shortening; this process is started by the general tendency to simplify language.

On the other hand, there are reasons for using shortened word forms in lyrics connected exclusively with the specifics of poetic language itself. First of all, it is the need for the rhythm of words to be adjusted to the metro-rhythmic pattern of a verse texture. The presence of pairs of words with the same (similar) root but with a different number of syllables in a language allows the poet to select lexical forms in accordance with a given kind of metric foot. Short words, especially monosyllabic, fit into a given meter and rhythm much easier. So, variation of the word form is one of the poetic tools. Elements of a pair are not stylistically equivalent. As a rule, one of them stands out bearing richer poetic connotations; this word form is frequent in poetry and is less typical for standard language. Predominantly truncated forms are poetically marked. Among such words linguists distinguish traditional poetic words (typical only for poetic language); besides them there are standard language shortenings (frequent in poetry, but also found in other language registers) and nonce speech shortenings (coined by the poet, but used for one single occasion only). The last type of the above shortenings is not considered in this article.

Another reason why shortened forms emerge and circulate in verses is the inclination of poetic language to indirect or paradoxical nomination with creation of an aura of mystery and unusualness. The poet is driven by the desire to express the ideas in a different manner, to oppose the poetic speech to plain everyday vocabulary, but at the same time to use words with clear or easily guessed meanings. Modified poetic forms in contrast to traditional full forms act as elements of a quaint extraordinary language. “Deviations from the norm excite not only attention and communication centers, but also emotions” (Arutyunova 1999: 81-82), which are important components organizing poetic speech and poetic text. Shortened words have more intense emotional filling of the connotative layer than full word forms, the idea will be developed below. At the same time “the element of the game cannot be excluded as a factor contributing to the formation of truncations. They represent one of the ways to instantly intrigue the readers” (Matyushenko, 2018: 88).

Shortened word forms in English poetry

First of all, the abundance of apocopes in English poetry attracts the researcher’s attention. To begin with we distinguish those that are traditionally used in poetry and can be referred to as fixed poetic words. Mostly nouns are shortened but other parts of speech are also subject to truncation that “in English typically yields monosyllabics which are high in expressivity” (Miller, 2014:184). The examples of poetic apocope are the following: morn – morning, maid – maiden, vale – valley, mead – meadow, pard – leopard, mount – mountain, fount – fountain, ceil – ceiling, helm – helmet, list – listen, yester – yesterday, enow – enough, oft – often, isle – island, etc. In this list of pairs the first words have rich poetic connotations and have become specific poetic words fixed in the literary tradition. They are quite frequent in English lyrics, poets have actively used them, for example, there are three apocopes at once in one line from the poem by T.Hardy (Hardy, 1988):

We’ll come morn, noon, eve, everywhen! (from morning, noonday, evening)

The statement that shortened forms, in particular, apocopes have more poetic connotations in comparison with full word forms is proved through the analysis of the Corpus data. In the British National Corpus the index ipm (instances per million) of the word morn in the main section (All) is 0.46 while in the Poetry Section it rises up to 4.56; the word oft has the indices of 1.69 and 4.56 respectively.

Along with the poetic apocopes English verses are abundant in poetic aphereses. In addition to the everyday language ‘cause because other highly poetic aphetisms are common: ‘tis it is, ‘twere it were, ‘pon apon, ‘gainst against, midst/mid amid etc. Poetic apheresis unlike apocope is usually marked with the help of apostrophe in English:

Here, I have 'scaped the city's stifling heat;

But 'neath yon crimson tree;

'Mong briers, and ferns, and paths of sheep;

and 'twixt the earth and sky;

he beat / 'Gainst his barred sides his speckled wings

(the examples are taken from poems by W.C. Bryant (Bryant, 1875)).

Some of the above mentioned aphetisms are also typical for informal oral speech and “clipped forms do not block unclipped or vice versa, possibly because a hypocoristic meaning is added” (Miller, 2014: 185), though the relevance of shortenings to verses is proved by the Corpus research, for example, the indices ipm of the word ‘neath in the Main and Poetry Sections of the British National Corpus are 2.6 and 9.12 respectively.

As for the syncope interpreted as omission of a sound or syllable in the middle of a word, it is not typical either for everyday English or for English poetry, one of the few examples of this kind is mart market (fair). However, there are syncopated forms interpreted as contractions in which the loss is necessarily marked with the apostrophe: hastening hast’ning; heaven heav’n; over o’er with its numerous derivatives (o’ershadow; o’erlook; o’erthrow; o’erbear; o’erbrow, o’erhead; o’ercreep; o’ershoot; o’ertake, etc.) and ever e’er, also with various derivatives (where’er, wheresoe’er; whene’er; ne’er, etc.). The dictionary ABBYY Lingvo gives the label literary to the word wheresoever, saying its meaning is close to the meaning of wherever, and the dictionary labels the contracted form wheresoe’er as poetic.

At the same time English poetry applies common contraction resulting in making a single unit out of two words one of which is a preposition, auxiliary verb or pronoun; the following examples of such contractions are from T. Hardy’s works (Hardy, 1988):

wi’ might and wi’ main (with might/main);

Till her power to pour ‘em seemed wasted and gone (pour them)

From the heft o’ misfortune she bore (of misfortune).

It can be concluded that shortened word forms are common in English poetry and they sometimes become typical for verses – the fact that justifies labeling them as absolute poetisms. Anyway, most of reduced forms enjoy rich poetic connotations although the ways of shortening are few.

Shortened word forms in Russian poetry

In Russian verses the types of shortenings are more numerous. The most poetic device is probably the syncope in the middle of a word used as the opposition of full-vowel forms to the forms which are not pleophonic. Pleophony or full vocalization goes back to the Old East Slavic language, it is enshrined in the tradition of the national language while the non-pleophonic short forms originated in the Old Church Slavonic language and now they are perceived as archaic and poetic. The examples of syncopated poetic words of this kind are the following: злато – золото (gold), хладный – холодный (cold), огнь – огонь (fire), брег – берег (shore, bank), ветр – ветер (wind), град – город (city), глас – голос (voice), врата – ворота (gates), глава – голова (head), древо – дерево (tree), младой – молодой (young), сребристый – серебристый (silver), посредине – посередине (in the middle), сбирались – собирались (get together)etc.TheCorpus study of frequencies proves the poetic potential of short non-pleophonic forms, for example, the form сребрист* (silver) is found in the Poetry section of the Russian Corpus more often than the form серебрист* (indices ipm are 20.52 and 1.8, respectively), and the verb сребриться is found only in Poetry and is not rare there. A similar differentiation concerns the usage of the word хлад*, which is more frequent in poetry (indices ipm are 20.79 and 3.21).

Meanwhile there are few deviations from the described scheme of distribution of word forms through language registers. Standard language has some short word forms that have not undergone pleophony and are currently used in daily communication: воротиться – вернуться (to come back), ворог – враг (enemy), вослед – вслед (after). In this case full-vowel variants have more poetic connotations, this is also proved by some poetic indicators: the frequency of the form враг* and accordingly the relevance of this form to poetry is significantly reduced in the Poetry Section compared with the Main one (ipm 1497.7 and 495.11 respectively), at the same time the frequency of the form ворог* practically does not change (ipm 11.89 and 9.57).

There are also syncopes in Russian poetry which are the result of the loss of suffixes: багрец – багрянец (crimson colour), человечье – человеческое (human).

As for apocope it is typical for Russian particles and some prepositions: льли (whether, if), уж – уже (already), средь – среди (amid, among, during), коль – коли (if), б – бы (would, should), меж – между (among, between). Such reduction is found not only in poetic language, but occasionally in informal speech, for example, the form уж turned out to be more frequent in the Main Section of the Corpus, however, its poetic connotations are confirmed by the higher frequency index of the form уж compared with the index of the form уже in poetry: ipm 1082.22 and 815.99. In general, particles often undergo apocopation in poetry, for example, the ipm index of the shortened particle ль is higher in the Poetry Section than in the Main one (ipm 9112 and 5118).

Apocope in nouns is represented by several types. The clipping of the second half of a word is processed according to the model typical for the English language: крыл – крыльев (wings), дева — девушка (maiden), палисад – палисадник (dooryard), but this way is not very productive. A specific Russian apocope is truncation of a noun up to a consonant, which is further palatalised: синева – синь (blue colour), тишина – тишь (silence), высота – высь (heights), темнота – темень (darkness), сырость – сырь (dampness)etc. For example, the frequency of the form тишь is higher in the Poetry Section of the Russian Corpus than in the Main Section (indices ipm 73.58 and 19.97). There are poems laden with apocopes as in the example by N. A. Klyuev (Klyuev, 1977):

Черны проталины. Навозом,

Капустной прелью тянет с гряд.

Ушли Метелица с Морозом,

Оставив Марту снежный плат (платок, полотно).

Black are the thaw patches. The putrid cabbages

Are smelling from the garden.

The Blizzard and Frost are gone

Leaving March a snowy shawl.

The verse above has the reduced adjective черны besides some reduced nouns. Short forms of adjectives are numerous in Russian verses (разноцветны, тесны, чисты, свежи, нежны душисты etc.) due to their ability to rhyme with nouns easily (нежны – весны). The study of the frequencies of such forms also shows the predominance of truncated adjectives in poetry over standard language (черны: ipm 18.87 vs. 1.23). Reduced adjectives are one of the constants of the Russian poetic language.

Another type of common reduction is contraction of vowels based on syneresis, it is widely used in Russian poetry: озарением— озареньем (illumination). Examples of this kind are also numerous: виденье (dream, vision), дыханье (breath), вдохновенье (inspiration), обновленье (renewal), сожаленье (regret), благословенье (blessing)etc. The form дыхань*, for instance, prevails in poetry over the form дыхани* (ipm 184.1 versus 49.6), and is more frequent in poetry than in standard language (ipm 184.1 vs. 31.05).

Besides enhancing poetic meanings, the variation of the endings allows the poet to adapt poetic texts to disyllablesas well as to trisyllables, to adjust verses to the required number of feet: над сонною землею (disyllabic iamb, three feet) – над сонной землей (trisyllabic amphibrach, two feet).

Shortened word forms in Italian poetry

Apocopes in Italian poetry are common and frequent, they function as the elisions in the Latin manner (words lose the final vowel -e or -o). For instance, the following reduced forms of nouns and adjectives are found in poems by G. Leopardi: il Sol – il sole (sun), fior – fiore (flower), odor – odore (smell), uom di povero – l’uomo (man) , il ciel – il cielo (sky), di mar – di mare (sea), Nobil natura – natura nobile (sublime nature), orror – orrore (horror), il suon – il suono (sound), nel tempo giovanil – giovanile (at the dawn of civilization), etc. At the same time a large number of infinitive verbs without final vowels are used in poetic texts: sospirar (to sigh), rimembrar (to recall), guatar (to look suspiciously), cercar (to seek, search), volar (to fly). Moreover, in Italian verses there are variants with archaic forms of verb endings: Non brillin (brillano) gli occhi tuoi / your eyes are not shining (G. Leopardi, 2016), lo fan (fanno) d’ozi beato e di vivande / what they are doing out of idleness and bellyfull (U. Foscolo, 2010). Italian poetry of past centuries preferred truncated verb forms due to their melodic sounding. Unfortunately, the available Italian Corpora (PAISÀ, CORIS) do not have Poetry Sections, so it is problematic to compare frequency indices in the considered language registers; nevertheless, the descriptive comparative analysis itself of the standard language and the language of verses benefits much.

Another typical way to shorten words in Italian is crasis. Diphthongs existing in this language are occasionally converted into monophthongs in verses forming modified language units with accentuated poetic connotations: cuore – core (heart), fuoco – foco (fire).

The aphetisms in Italian poetry are diverse and numerous. Among them we can distinguish both poetic ones: state – estate (summer), verno – inverno (winter), guardo – sguardo (gaze), and common in fluent speech: words beginning with in-, im- often lose the first sound: le ‘ncresca (picks them up), ne ‘ngombra (obscures) (F. Petrarch, 2012); mainaste (ammainaste) la vela (to lower the sails) (G. Carducci, 2018).

The examples of the syncope with the loss of a vowel in the middle are the following: carco – carico (burden), merto – merito (merit). Sometimes there is a loss of a whole syllable or even a segment of a word: il desio – il desiderio (desire). The poetic syncopes in the Italian language also include: opra – opera (work), spirto – spirito (spirit). In poetry verb endings are often shortened: veniano (venivano) a conservar (conservare) / they came to save (G. Carducci, 2018).

In Italian like in Russian there are several exceptions to the described stylistic scheme. Some verbs in the Future Tense have the shortened standard form while the full-vowel variant has become the bearer of poetic connotations: sapere (to know) – saperò (poetic) – saprò (codified); vedere (to see) – vederòvedrò, etc. So, poetry strives to resist and violate the norms of standard language. Truncated forms are not a priori attributes of lyric language, their usage is dictated to a large extent by the desire to oppose commonplace things, and if the norms of a codified language prescribe to use a short form, poetry in this case prefers the full one (however such changes of roles in language are rare). No doubt, “a sign – for instance, a word – gets its meaning only in relation to or in contrast with other signs in a system of signs” (Moghaddas, Dekhnich, 2015: 25).


Summing up it is worth emphasizing the following. The reasons determining the relevance of shortened forms to poetry include: 1) the general tendency of language towards simplification which dictates the preferred national ways of reducing words; 2) the need for words to be adapted to a metro-rhythmic pattern, hence there is a demand for flexible, changing forms; 3) the desire to use nontraditional nonconventional approach to designate the world phenomena in contrast to the norms of day-to-day language. It can be argued that if there are two ways of nomination: common variant and unusual one and they apply different forms, poetic language prefers the latter in units of which stylistic connotations are expressed to a greater extent; such words are perceived as especial, somewhat mysterious lexemes.

In general, shortened units demonstrate a greater volume of poetic connotations compared to full forms. This statement is confirmed, in particular, by the Corpus studies.

In the considered above languages the productivity of certain ways of shortening is different. There are few syncopes – omissions in the middle – in English, there are rare aphetisms in Russian; in Italian the endings of many parts of speech are clipped actively, while in Russian the endings of adjectives are often truncated. Synearesis and especially crasis are not typical for English. The apostrophe sign that marks shortenings is never used in the Russian spelling.

The work contributes to the study of some reasons for the development of stylistic connotations in poetry as well as to the description of universal/national ways of fixing them in shortened language units.

Reference lists

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Lashin, M. N. and Sinelnikov, Yu. G. (2017). Reduced units in youth’s siciolect in French.Science Almanac: Philology,4-2(30), 255-258 (in Russian).

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Hardy, T. (1988). The complete poems. London.UK: Pan Macmillan.

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