When my Facebook friend shared this article by Mark Forsyth, I read it with enjoyment because one of the things my long years as a teacher of English as a second language in a foreign country has taught me is that I didn’t really understand my own language until I had contact with people who were struggling to learn it. Which is to say my students have taught me a great deal about the ins and outs of speaking English. And it was nice to see Forsyth writing about how we actually use language without haven’t much detailed knowledge about the inner workings of it.
The problem I had with the article was that while Forsyth tells us about the unspoken rules we have, he never goes into why we have these rules in the first place. He does tell us what the rules about ablaut reduplication are, yet he never delves into why of them. My long years as an ESL teacher, and yes thanks to the myriad of questions I’ve gotten from students about why things are said they way they are, I naturally start asking myself what the basis of having such linguistic rules are in the first place.
To understand the why for the rules of ablaut reduplication in English you have to understand what rhyme is, which Forsyth obviously shows he doesn’t understand when he tells that this limerick ‘has no rhymes’:
There was a young man from Dundee
Got stung on the leg by a wasp
When asked does it hurt
He said, ‘Yes, it does.
‘I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.’
Although the above has no ‘perfect rhymes’, it does have something called ‘slant rhymes.’ A good explanation of a slant rhyme is on this website:
Slant rhymes (sometimes called imperfect, partial, near, oblique, off etc.) Rhyme in which two words share just a vowel sound (assonance – e.g. “heart” and “star”) or in which they share just a consonant sound (consonance – e.g. “milk” and “walk”).
In the limerick above ‘wasp’ and ‘does’ are slant rhymes that are playing off the linguistic similarities that ‘wASp” and and ‘dOES’ share because the ‘s’ in ‘wasp’ deadens and softens the bite we usually say when speaking a ‘p’, (the ‘p’ in the word ‘warp’, for example, isn’t soft) and the ‘does’ as a verb vocalizes the ‘oe’ towards the sound of an ‘a’ rather than the ‘o’ which we do when we are talking about female deer in the plural. So this is an assonance slant rhyme. The words ‘hurt’ and ‘hornet’ are slant rhymes because the share the same end consonant sound of ‘t’.
Forsyth writing that the ‘rhymes aren’t as important as the rhythm’ is, well, wrong. These slant rhymes still slide the reader into the rhythm of the words, just like limericks that have perfect rhymes do, because even slant rhymes anchor the end of their lines and by doing so tie them together with the other rhyme.
Now, turning to why ‘big bad wolf’ is what we say rather than ‘bad big wolf’, the reason is because of an another type of rhyme, called ‘alliteration’ or ‘head rhyme’, which matches initial consonant sounds.
‘Big bad’ sets up an alliteration because the sound of the ‘b’ in both of them match each other. However, when we turn the words around and say ‘bad big’, the head rhyme between the two is lost because the ‘b’ in ‘bad’ is no longer pronounced the same as it is in ‘big’. The way the ‘g’ in ‘big’ is pronounced allows us to smack our lips for the ‘b’ in ‘bad’ the same way we have ready done on the first ‘b’. However, when the words are reversed, the ‘d’ of ‘bad’ gets in the way of the lip smacking and we don’t pronounce the second ‘b’ quite the same as the first one now, thus breaking the head rhyme and killing the alliteration.
(Of course, if we take a breath pause after saying ‘bad’ we can reload and make ‘big’ match up the head rhyme, but it is impossible to do if we keep it in a natural speech rhythm.)
All the other examples that Forsyth gave (‘clip-clop’, ‘zig-zag’, ‘crisis-cross’ etc.) are something called pararhyme, which is the type of rhyming that occurs when all the consonants in the two words match. As above, once we turn the word order around, the pararhyme disappears. ‘Clop-clip’ no longer rhymes because we neither speak the ‘cl’ nor the ‘p’ of both words the same because the switching of the vowels has made it impossible for us to do so. The ‘o’ forces us to smack so heavily on the ‘p’ following it that we shorten the way we pronounce ‘clip’ coming after it to the point where it no longer rhymes with ‘clop’ because we have to work the sound of the ‘i’ into the mechanics of our mouth.
Forsyth’s rules start to have meaning for us when we understand that speaking is the physical act of our mouth, our lips and our tongue working in concert, and because of this there are physical limitations to how we can fit the sounds of our language together. Sure, the patterns of language changes, we certainly don’t talk like people in Chaucer’s days did, probably because in the end we always are trying to find smoother ways to fit our thoughts into language. But acquiring this smoothness takes generations of time, just as it takes time for anyone to build up any muscular part of their body.
I don’t think we have to over think why Little Richard never sang ‘Tall Long Sally’, but even this should remind us how rhyme really is a part of the English language, and it is a part of it in ways which we often aren’t very aware of. And it reveals something that we as native speakers innately understand: that the same word can be pronounced differently depending on where you place it in relation to other words. It is the heritage of speaking a stress timed language. And who knows, maybe in the future people will develop a stress pattern so ‘bad big’ will come out as a rhyme in a natural rhythm??