Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Maybe Rhyming Words Can Sound the Same

Posted by Neal on April 12, 2008

One of my favorite poems is Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”. I know at least one first-grade teacher who dares not read it aloud to her students these days, but I used to read it aloud a lot to Doug and Adam — both the Little Golden Books version that’s on loan from Mom and Dad (who used to read it to my sister Ellen), and a newer version that Jan Brett illustrated. I like that you can sing it to the tune of “Beep-Beep” and have it match right down to the repetitions at the end of each verse; that when Doug was a toddler he’d say “you elegant fowl” as “you elephant fowl”; and that piggy-wig is an exception to Steven Pinker’s rule on rhyming nonsense pairs.

However, I cannot abide Edward Lear’s limericks. He’s famous for them, maybe even more famous than for “The Owl and the Pussycat”, but just take a look at one of them:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

It’s clean, I’ll give it that. And its meter is impeccable, unlike page after page of junk in a limerick-a-day calendar I had one year. But the first and the last lines both end with the same word, and as I’ve said before, rhyming words don’t sound the same! This one limerick is no fluke, either. I browsed through several pages of Lear’s limericks online, and could not find a single one with distinct words ending the first and last lines. Lear seems to have made a point out of cheating on these particular rhymes.

I was reminded of the issue of whether rhyming words can start with the same sound by a discussion thread on the American Dialect Society mailing list. Various participants were talking about different kinds of rhyme, and the question came up as to whether homophones/homonyms counted as rhymes. I pointed to my post on the subject, mentioning that a half-century-old book on poetry I’d referred to was quite clear on the point that homophones did not rhyme. Larry Horn, however, raised an interesting point. He wrote:

I do not … agree that words with identical phonology fail to rhyme, maintaining instead (contra that 50-year-old book, written before Grice’s theory of conversational implicature was available) that they rhyme trivially. In some poetic traditions, such trivial rhymes are ruled out, in others at least homonymy (if not identity) is permitted…. But this is a question of which rhymes are allowed within a particular tradition of versification, not whether the lines rhyme in the first place. I see no reason to alter what seems to be the standard lexicographic practice which as far as I can tell with a quick search defines “rhyme” in such a way that identity is no barrier.

He makes a good point. The bit about Grice and conversational implicature is basically the idea that even though Neal and kneel rhyme, you wouldn’t say that, because you can make a stronger statement; i.e. they sound completely alike, not just from the nucleus of the primary stressed syllable to the end.

All the same, I’m not ready to embrace Lear-style limericks. Even if I could get used to accepting homonymy as a legitimate rhyme, identity is too much. Lear’s rhyming words like beard and beard don’t just sound the same; they are the same!

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7 Responses to “Maybe Rhyming Words Can Sound the Same”

  1. michael said

    The identical finials in Lear’s limericks have always itched my ear as well. I don’t know that it’s fair to call it cheating tho. I recall Jon Stallworthy’s essay on versification in The Norton Anthology of Poetry mentioning that Lear was strict about following that form because it was traditional.

    And yet when I go to find my copy I find that 3 of Lear’s limericks are included — and only one strictly follows that form.

    The other two:

    There was an Old Man in a tree,
    Who was horribly bored by a Bee
    When they said, "Does it buzz?" he replied, "Yes, it does!"
    "It's a regular brute of a Bee!"

    There was an Old Man who supposed,
    That the street door was partially closed;
    But some very large rats, ate his coats and his hats,
    While that futile old gentleman dozed.

    So he bends the rule in the first one and breaks it in the last.

  2. Matthew said

    I enjoyed that poem for years and never even thought about the repeated word, even though I usually don’t like it when the same word is used to rhyme. I think my ear accepted this because it is structured: the same word ends both the first and last lines, and they are separated by a rhyming word that’s distinct.

  3. Glen said

    Here’s what bothers me about Lear’s using ‘beard’ twice. Imagine you were just telling the story, instead of reading a poem. Where would you put the stress? Given that the beard is already the topic of the conversation, you would not stress the word ‘beard.’ It would go on ‘nests.’ But in reading a limerick, the tradition is to stress the rhyming words at the end of sentences.

    (An analogy: If you asked a friend what she would be doing on Christmas, and she said, “I’m visiting my family on CHRISTMAS,” that would be weird. You’d expect her to say, “I’m visiting my FAMILY on Christmas.” Likewise, I expect the bearded fellow to say those various birds “have all built their NESTS in my beard.”)

    On the general subject of rhymes, I think we should understand them in terms of mathematical similarity relations, which are not of a zero-one character (and which are also non-transitive). I agreed with Neal’s initial post on the meaning of rhyme (having the same sounds starting on the last stressed syllable, minus the initial sound). But then I realized this would rule out one heck of a lot of rhymes I enjoy in pop music. Specifically, here’s one from Eminem that I happen to like:

    “Set to blow college dorm room doors off the hinges,
    Oranges [stressed on 2nd syllable], peach, pears, plums, syringes,
    Here here I come, I’m inches
    Away from you, dear fear none,
    Hip-hop is a state of 911…”

    Ignore the deliberate mispronunciation of the supposedly un-rhymable ‘orange.’ What I like here is the rhyming of ‘the hinges,’ ‘syringes,’ and ‘I’m inches.’ Now, the soft-g and hard-ch aren’t quite the same, but they’re pretty close, right? That one passes my rhyme-detector just fine, albeit not as easily as ‘hinges’ with ‘syringes.’

  4. david said

    I could never stand limericks which ended with something like “that silly old man from Nantucket’, repeating the entire line rather than saying anything new. But even using the same word twice has always irritated me.

    I think I find it less than satisfying, especially in limericks, because it’s not as funny. A lot of the conceit of a limerick depends on the revelation of the final line and word. We laugh at a limerick because of the way the poet is obliged to find a second rhyme for the word he started with. The more surprising this final word, the funnier the limerick. And even if it’s another type of poetry, the skill of a poet is to find and use seamlessly a word that fits both semantically andphonologically.

    In my language a rhyme is two words which sound almost the same.
    Of course, in your example, the two words are not exactly the same as they feature in semantically different contexts, and are pronounced with different intonations and stress, so the limerick rates higher than some.

  5. Viola said

    A poet I am most certainly not, but the fact that Lear was so blatantly repetitive goes against the advice my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Young, gave us regarding too much repetition (rather than actually rhyming) in a poem. Her encouragement inspired me to write a poem titled, There Was An Old Geezer Who Swallowed A Tweezer. Being more of an artist, I drew a picture as well…of a balding man…with freckles…choking on a tweezer. The song, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly may have been an inspiration as well. Actually, looking back, I’m quite shocked at the morbid sense of humor I had as a little girl.

    (Shaking head to get to present day) Anyway, it does kind of gripe me to read a poem with repeated words at the end of the limerick, considering from the get-go we’ve been encouraged not to do this when we create some form of writing.

  6. Like Michael, I was always under the impression that it was part of the definition of a limerick to have the last line ending with the same word as the first. In fact, one definition I read said that the last line should be the same as the first. The only limerick I’ve ever encountered that meets that condition is my favourite of Edward Lear’s:
    There was a young man from Herne Bay
    Who played with explosives one day
    But he dropped his cigar
    In the gunpowder jar
    There WAS a young man from Herne Bay.

  7. […] sister Ellen got married this past weekend, and we’re all happy for her. (You know, the one whose father read to her when she was young, who was subjected to stupid linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from […]

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