Monday, 25 July 2011

Rhyme Time: part 2

Continued from part 1, where we learn that I am a poet and I know it.

What I must stress

Following on from what I've said (well, written), it should be clear that the first, stressed syllable of a rhyme is the most important. If two paired stress positions bear an identical vowel, that is the first clue (or confirmation) that a rhyme has begun. From the "poet"/"know it" example, however, we know that we can "get away with" slight differences in a following unstressed vowel and, to a lesser extent, intermediate consonants. The terminal consonant is like the flourish at the end of a gymnastic tumble: best to leave your audience remembering the grace of your finish, however ungainly some of the journey may have been; leave your audience in no doubt that what you just said (or wrote) was purporting to be a rhyme. The middle bit should be as cleanly executed as you can get it, but there may be room for "artistic expression". Of course, if your stressed syllable is the last in the line, you have only one vowel and the terminal consonants to work with, so there is no middle bit, just a standing somersault.

How to squeeze a vowel

Do you have trouble spelling long words? How many times have you seen mis-spellings such as "definat[e]" or "seperate" compared to the generally correct spellings of "definition" and "apart"? (That last question, at least, was rhetorical: I will not deduct marks if you leave it blank.) The point is that unstressed vowels tend to degrade into an indistinct schwa (a short burst of a "vowel" where the underlying pitch delivered is actually a broad range of frequencies), leading us not to hear what is written. In the case of "poet"/"know it", the second vowel is not quite a true schwa, but it is well on the way: the short 'e' of "poetic" is nowhere to be heard. It is perhaps better to think of there being a family of schwas and near-schwas. (In fact, this level of subtlety is explicitly acknowledged in written Hebrew by the "pointing" that is sometimes placed under a consonant to indicate the quality of the following vowel: a symbol resembling a colon indicates a totally indistinct vowel; a pseudo-colon alongside another vowel symbol indicates a degraded version of that vowel.) As a crude caricature, in American English indistinct vowels are more likely to approximate an "uh" sound, while in British English there are more semi-distinct short 'i' sounds; however, most of us have heard enough accents (and solecisms) to be cajoled into squeezing an unstressed vowel into a schwa (or quasi-schwa) without difficulty. And if we are aiming for comic effect, squeezing a longer vowel into a schwa, or even stretching a schwa or quasi-schwa to match a longer vowel, can be a whimsical bonus. If your vowels combine in a diphthong, however, it is very difficult to stretch or squeeze your way towards an acceptable rhyme; in practice, most diphthongs will grab some level of secondary stress wherever they occur in a word. And if there is secondary stress, best stick to a perfect match.

How to corrupt a consonant

Consonants are, broadly speaking (and here you may appreciate the limits of my formal linguistics training), the punctuating sounds between, or either side of, vowels. They are mainly percussive, although they can be a soft transition ("nowell"), aspirate ("ahoy") or a glottal stop ("a nice cu' o' tea"), amongst other possible sounds. Many consonants come in voiced and unvoiced flavours (e.g. b/p, g/k, d/t); an unvoiced consonant can often be easily corrupted and lightly voiced for a satisfactory rhyme: "Climb the ladder. / What's the matter [madder]?". There are also some superficial similarities between consonant sounds which are produced very differently, most notably 'f' and an unvoiced 'th' ("fings ain't what they used to be"), meaning that you (or I) can - at a push - rhyme "encephalopathy" with "proper fee". This last example also demonstrates the southern British and Bostonian trait of not vocalising terminal 'r's, which involves more corruption to achieve in some other accents. Without taking too many liberties, it is possible to rhyme duplicate with single consonants ("swooping" / "soup ping") and/or ignore aspirates ("shopper" / "stop her"). But remember to try and be not too corrupt when starting any syllables which bear a secondary stress - differences are more likely to be noticed.

Blend it

Consonants can be sociable and often cluster in consonant blends. In the middle of a rhyme, it generally doesn't matter where your word division is, as long as all the consonant sounds are represented ("clock stop" / "box top"). If you have a large cluster of consonants, the listener will generally be more inclined to overlook minor corruption in one sound.

There are a limited number of consonant blends which will naturally start a syllable. It may be the most natural thing in the world to say "cops" and "baps", but almost nobody pronounces the 'p' in "psychology" (which is silent, as in water, according to the classic joke). This can help you to determine where your syllable begins: keep crediting consonants to the following vowel until the blend is unnatural to say if you pretend it is the start of a new word. Conventionally, syllables start with a consonant or consonant blend, if possible, and end, wherever possible, on an open vowel, closed only by those consonants that cannot be pronounced as part of an initial consonant blend.

Now, why does this matter?

Homophones and pseudo-homophones

In French, where rhymes are usually on one syllable and word stresses are not very insistent, homophones are greatly prized. In English, they often sound too similar. In the past, I have rhymed "peer" with "appear". Remembering that syllables start with a consonant where possible, both rhymed portions sound identical. It was only on reading the offending poem aloud that I heard the jarring sound of pure repetition, which reads to the mind as laziness, as if I had just repeated the same word because I couldn't think of a rhyme. Perhaps the greatest serial offender here is the pairing of "leave" and "believe".

But what if I paired "leave" (or "believe") with "sleeve"? No such problem. The 'sl' consonant blend is a natural start to a syllable, so the syllables sound different. But that does not mean I can rhyme "believe" with "this leave"; most people will hear the word division and have the syllable start with 'l' rather than 'sl'. The conventional concept of a syllable is sometimes trumped by knowledge of stand-alone words. Conversely, although I will never rhyme "all" with "at all", the latter idiom behaves so much like a single word that it would sound far worse to rhyme it with "tall"; the word "another", however, has crossed the threshold and rhymes relatively comfortably with "other" for most people.

Now it gets complicated. Consider which of the following words will rhyme euphoniously: "press", "express", "compress". Ultimately, euphony is in the ear of the beholder. To my ear, for what it's worth, I find it difficult to suppress (see what I did there?) the knowledge that "compress" and "express" (rendered "ek-SPRESS") contain the same root word meaning much the same thing. Although the final syllables are not strictly homophones, my brain registers a rhyme cop-out similar to if the word "press" on its own had been repeated. Others may disagree, but it would be much safer to find an alternative, etymologically unrelated rhyme, rather than appealing to the technicalities of conventional syllable division.

In the final part, I will take you on a whistle-stop tour of phonemes, and why one man's draw is another man's puddle.

Rhyme Time: part 1

Rhyme Time: some thoughts on the technicalities of English rhyme

I'm a poet
And I know it.
Do you see what I did there? Most English speakers will recognise this as a (very short) rhyming couplet. But let us analyse why and how. Trust me: it will be fun.

Why do we rhyme?

  1. Human beings are hard-wired to notice patterns. We recognise symmetry, similarity and repetition. When we hear two utterances that sound almost the same, if sufficiently juxtaposed, the brain takes note. We like the sound: it is a natural, primordial form of music.
  2. Rhymes are memorable. And if you know where a rhyme "belongs" - say, in a regular metrical pattern (or "poem" if you will) - then you can navigate your way through something the length of "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" with the aid of a series of verbal way-markers bobbing above the surface of the text.
  3. If listeners (in this context think of the reader as a virtual listener) know that a rhyme is coming, they will listen more attentively to where they expect it to occur. Rhyming position is therefore a good place for a writer or composer to put significant information such as twist, punchline or musical cue.
  4. The more poetry a listener hears, the more he or she will anticipate a familiar or obvious rhyme. The writer can turn this to his advantage by anticipating that anticipation and defeating the expectation. Result: laughter at the discrepancy. Moreover, if the deception is slick and swift enough, it can perform a form of hypnosis, tapping into the listener's subconscious for a split-second while the rest of the brain is engaged in mental processing.
  5. Technically speaking, some words are buggers to rhyme. There is humour to be had at the sheer audacity of attempting to rhyme intelligibly on "antihistamine", let alone do it twice in the space of 39 syllables. It is like a novelty act you might see on a TV talent show: it can be so bad, it's good; but if it's good, with deftness and daftness hand-in-hand, it can be fan-tmesis-tastic. I shall leave the reader to appreciate, on whatever terms, the following limerick which attempts to define "dermatoautoplasty" (available online at the Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form here).
Dr. Jock said, "It's bad to begin
Juggling chainsaws on stilts — nerves set in.
It's nae fun to tak saw-topplers tae
Where grafts will re-site their ain skin."

How do we rhyme?

To start at the really basic basics, sound is vibration. All human speech is vibration of air molecules at varying frequency. What we think of as a vowel is essentially a characteristic frequency, an underlying pitch capable of being sustained for a reasonable length of time; consonants are momentary percussion with our mouths, which produce rapid spiky waveforms, of characteristic shape, when illustrated graphically. The cadences of human speech, our earliest music, follow to a significant extent the pitches of the vowels; the consonants add distinctive punctuation. We recognise similarities and/or repetitions in both vowels and consonants and either of these may generously be referred to as a species of rhyme, usually under the terms assonance or alliteration.

In my first example above, I unoriginally rhyme "poet" with "know it". Let's start at the end and work backwards. Trust me...
  • The 't' sounds are to all intents and purposes identical. 
  • The vowel sound that precedes the 't' is a naturally short vowel (whose underlying pitch is too high to be sustained for long). In "know it" the vowel is clearly a short 'i', while in "poet" we have what looks like it should be a short 'e'. In practice, we don't say "poet" the same way as we would the first four letters of the word "poetic", where that short 'e' is clearer. Although we don't (at least not all of us) say "po-it", whatever vowel we do say is close enough to be approximated to it. We will return to this.
  • The 'w' of "know it" is predominantly part of the long 'o' that precedes it, but it also adds a weak consonant-type sound to the vowel that follows. In "poet" the two vowels are more visibly juxtaposed. The 'w'-like transition is perhaps naturally weaker in "poet", but again, this is a close enough approximation.
  • The 'p' of "poet" and the 'n' of "know it" (ignoring the 'k' for obvious reasons) sound nothing alike. If they sounded the same, however, we would have more than a rhyme: a homophone, where every sound in the pairing is identical or overwhelmingly similar.
In the light of the above, let us consider why I didn't write "I must keep fit / And I know it" to illustrate rhyme. On their own, the words "fit" and "it" rhyme perfectly, without any of the fudging of the 'e' in "poet". The answer is simple: word stress. In English, we convey a lot of meaning in where we stress words and which words are stressed more than others. (In the example above, putting emphasis on "it"  would only be natural if "it" were contrasted with something else; "know" is stressed because verbs are generally weightier than pronouns; "fit", being an adjective, would normally be weightier than the verb "keep" which serves it - unless keeping fit were contrasted with e.g. getting fit.) Stressed and unstressed syllables (or vowels) sound different, in volume, overlying pitch and (sometimes) duration. Those differences create patterns of stresses which can create, or follow, an underlying beat, pulse, rhythm or, since we are talking poetry here, "metre".

Put simply, rhyme does not work without rhythm. In music, we only recognise a tune when the notes come to us in an ordered fashion, however subtly expressed the underlying time signature. So, in poetry (which is music without stave paper) the strong cadences of the English language (which vary between dialects and over time, admit to very easily applicable rules, and require to be learned by experience), dominate our perception of patterns.

Rhyme, if we want it (and I usually do), must follow the rhythm. By some loose definitions, it is possible to "rhyme" on unstressed syllables, but these so-called "rhymes" are usually insignificant. For a rhyme to be noticed above the choppy waters of English stress patterns, it must ride the wave of a major beat, trailing as much as it can or needs to after it, like a buoy with smaller floats attached. That means that an end-of-line rhyme must start with the last major beat of the line and continue rhyming, as far as is possible, with everything that follows until that line finishes - be that one syllable, two syllables or polysyllabic "Italianate" rhymes. If the last stressed syllable is the pre-ante-penultimate, you will have four syllables to rhyme - all the vowels and all but the initial consonant sound. And that is how you end up with limericks about juggling chainsaws on stilts.

In the next instalment, I will show you how to squeeze vowels, how to corrupt consonants, and how to tell the difference between a homophone and something that sounds like a homophone.

Friday, 15 July 2011

BBC Radio Scotland Comedy Zone

Can you guess who's presenting this week's Comedy Zone on BBC Radio Scotland? I'll give you a clue: it's on "Clever Voices". That's right it's me - and Fernando Macaw. You can catch it in the small hours tonight, 12.45 - 6am Saturday. Or, if you miss it, you can find it online here.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Tonight: Nights at the Circus

Roll up! Roll up! Come see the freaks. One of them is me...

Thursday 7 July, 7.30-11pm
The Captain's Rest, 185 Great Western Rd, Glasgow, G4 9EB
Nights at the Circus
A Vaudevillian Night of Magic, Mystery and Music... Live Music from Natalie Pryce, Adopted as Holograph, and Scope; Performance Poetry from Chris Young; Strange tales from Allan Johnstone; Puppetry from The Great Puppeteer; Magic from Fergus the Great Magician; and Live Visual Art. All for only £4 on the door.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Introducing... Fousty Springburn

At the Scarlett Fever "Summer Holiday Boylesque Revue" a few weeks ago, there seemed to be some problem getting started. A rather strident "lady" made her way on stage and took hold of the mic to bay for male flesh. After regaling the audience with some of her woes, she decided to fill in time by singing a song to a backing track she had happened to bring with her. So, here are some pictures of Ms. Fousty Springburn, who is available for work should you wish to book her (through me). Photographs courtesy of Duncan F Hamilton of G. Morgen Enterprises.