Vowel transitions in the sonnets of Shakespeare: an information theoretic analysis

Josh Freeman, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Dept. of English


This paper argues for the importance of articulatory phonology in the study of poetic form and style, showing how a shift of focus away from symbol-probability centric analyses and towards vowel-transition probabilities improves the researcher’s ability to understand poetic sound structure. I use information theory and its principal measure, entropy, as a mathematical basis for this argument. I apply information entropy, a mathematical measure of the predictability of a signal source, to the probabilities of vowel sound occurrences in the sonnets of William Shakespeare. I first show how entropy can be applied to the probabilities of vowel sounds as identified by the International Phonemic Alphabet. Then, I present an alternative approach that eschews symbol-based vowel probabilities and instead calculates the probability of the next sound in a series based only on the physical location in the mouth where the previous sound was produced. The principal argument of this paper is that, as the receiver of the poetry signal, one can more accurately predict the next symbol in a series by taking into account the state of the articulator (the tongue) than one can by observing the symbol-based identity of the last sound produced. Said in reverse, I mathematically show that Shakespeare as a source of poetry adheres more strictly to a pattern of physical articulation than to patterns of specific sounds.