Monday 25 July 2011

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.

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