Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Rhyming Words Don’t Sound the Same

Posted by Neal on March 29, 2006

I was volunteering in Adam’s classroom today, and on the way in, I passed a teacher in the hall doing some language assessments with a student. The teacher would read one word to the student, and then present three other words, asking, “Which of these words sounds the same or rhymes?” Barney the dinosaur and the characters on Sesame Street do this, too: say that “rhyming words sound the same!”

No, rhyming words do not sound the same. And on that note, I will now add to Heidi Harley’s recently posted, most-complete-yet listing of linguistic humor from The Simpsons an item from last Sunday’s episode, which I finally got around to watching tonight. This episode was guest-written by Ricky Gervais, who also voiced one of its characters, which character sings a love song, one of whose verses goes like this:

Lady, when you go away,
I feel like I could die.
And not die like your hair is dyed,
But die like Lady Di.
And not die like her name is Di,
But die like when she died.

Marge compliments him on the song, asking how he found so many rhyming words. Heh. Ricky Gervais knows: Homophones don’t count as rhymes. And rhyming words can’t just sound similar, either, or else Homer and hammer would count as a rhyme, or Skinner and skinny.

Also, it can’t just be that the last syllable rhymes, or else insect and perfect would rhyme, too. Actually, Doug and Adam have a CD with a song about fossils on it, and it does force a rhyme out of these two words, by putting the stress on the final syllables: in-sect, per-fect Argh, that’s so annoying! And they cheat on rhymes this way in other songs, too. A song about Plesiosaurus says his body looks like “a barrel that is full,” and why? Why mention that the barrel his body resembles is full, since barrels look the same whether they’re full, empty, or in between? They did it so they could make a rhyme with the next line, which concludes with, “you look just wonder-ful.” Full and wonderful don’t rhyme! The pointless addition in the first line and the vague, treacly sentiment in the next one were chosen so as to engineer a rhyme that isn’t even a rhyme! (In case you’re wondering how to avoid buying this CD for your kids by accident, it’s this one.)

For two words (or series of words) to rhyme, the last stressed syllables have to start with different sounds (i.e. have different onsets), continue with the same vowel (i.e. have the same nucleus), and finish with the same consonant, if there is one (i.e. have the same coda). And any unstressed syllables that follow have to be completely identical. Thus, to choose a couple of rhymes from a master rhymer and close personal friend of Geoff Pullum, Aunt Hortense and importance rhyme, as do quickenin’ and strych-a-nine.

But you know, I never did have any trouble learning the concept of rhyme, even though the only definition I ever heard as a kid was probably the “words that sound the same” one, so I suppose it works for teachers to use it. Still, I wonder if any kids ever get confused by it, and have to have a more in-depth explanation in order to recognize rhymes.

22 Responses to “Rhyming Words Don’t Sound the Same”

  1. arabicgems said

    Thanks for a great post. I have a question regarding this part:

    >For two words (or series of words) to rhyme, the last stressed syllables have to start with >different sounds (i.e. have different onsets), continue with the same vowel (i.e. have the >same nucleus), and finish with the same consonant, if there is one (i.e. have the same >coda). And any unstressed syllables that follow have to be completely identical.

    Would you know if this is a general phonological rule that extends to all languages? I was thinking of it in terms of Arabic, and it also seems to be what is followed and accepted in Arabic poetry; do you know of any exceptions in other languages to this?

  2. ACW said

    I advise our host not to listen too closely to the limericks composed by Philip Goedicke for the NPR news quiz show, Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!. Mind you, I couldn’t do what Goedicke does. But to do it, he does often break the Rules of Rhyme that our host and I share. (Identity on and after the stress, but not before.) In multisyllabic rhymes, Goedicke occasionally lets some consonants after the stress differ. I can’t remember any examples; I’ll have to start collecting data to make a guess at what Goedicke’s more relaxed rules are.

    And don’t get me started on pop music.

  3. Neal said

    I dislike many of Edward Lear’s limericks for this reason. As for pop music, I don’t mind non-rhymes such as line and time, because they’re only intended to be close-enough rhymes, and if it sounds natural, it’ll be OK. But the non-rhymes I mentioned stand out because they’re so unnatural in their syntax, distorted stress patterns, or both, and what makes it so tupid is that the writers have deliberately done these things for the sake of what they think is a rhyme but isn’t.

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I’ve always grumbled at that kidvid definition of rhyme, too…words which truly “sound the same” are called homophones, though I’ll concede that a typical first-grader would have trouble saying and spelling that. If I were a writer for one of those programs, I’d say that rhymes sound “different at the beginning, but the same at the end”; it may not be 100% accurate, but it still beats the usual misstated rule.

    On the same note, here’s another bit of literal-minded grumbling from the kidvid world: Sesame Street often refers to “things that start with >letter<” or “things that rhyme with <word>”. Come on…non-verbal things don’t start with a letter or rhyme with a word; their names do. Sooner or later, kids need to learn the difference between an actual ball and the word “ball”; only the latter “starts with a B” or “rhymes with ‘wall'”.

  5. Neal said

    Amen to that! But I’ll grant an exemption to my favorite song from Sesame Street: It’d be hard to sing, “Oh, the word cookie, the word cookie, the word cookie starts with C!” If only there were some way to italicize speech to make the name vs. thing distinction.

  6. Mark Teacher said

    As a kindergarten and former first grade teacher, I am interested in the homophone of rhyme, rime. We are told that English is in some way “based” on the onset-rime structure. In my recent experience of teaching literacy in Spanish, the meaning of this has become more concrete. Spanish words and spanish reading skills seem to center on the C-V syllable. One learns to manage ma, pe, si, lo, and such and then adds more complicated structures (bru, seis) to this syllable prototype. By contrast, English phonics instruction tends to begin with C-V-C words. Children are often taught to treat each letter as making an individual sound (C-A-T), but most often attention is called to “word families”and children learn to switch out the first letter, treating the V-C combination as a unit.
    My question, finally, is whether this onset-rime structure is credited by linguists as being the inescapable basic structure of English syllables, or is it just a way to teach it. In spanish, the C-V principle could be tested by calculating how many syllables in an average text are C-V, and what variations are found. I feel less able to test the onset- rime idea in English, but my suspicion is that there are a lot more CV syllables in Spanish than there are (C)(VC)s in English.

  7. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Neal–good point about the song lyrics; I could just hear the writers groaning whenever some semantics nerd in the office brought up the word-versus-referent problem. (Not to mention visualizing this possible outtake: Cookie Monster glares at the camera as well as a google-eyed creature could, and protests ‘Me no can sing quotation marks, guys!’ *giggle*)

  8. Neal said

    Mark: Your question goes outside the amount of phonology I know, so I now refer you to some actual phonologists. In the linguablogosphere, there is Eric Bakovic on Phonoloblog (see blogroll), and from my alma mater there is Beth Hume (see this page for contact information).

  9. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Neal, you originally remarked–

    It’d be hard to sing, “Oh, the word cookie, the word cookie, the word cookie starts with C!” If only there were some way to italicize speech to make the name vs. thing distinction.

    And I had answered–

    [Imagine t]his possible outtake: Cookie Monster glares at the camera as well as a google-eyed creature could, and protests ‘Me no can sing quotation marks, guys!’

    Now that I think about it, I may have discovered a non-sarcastic use for air quotes. As long as the speaker can keep his hands free, and as long as he and the audience can see each other clearly…the name vs. thing distinction is obvious enough. (Unfortunately, that ‘C is for Cookie’ performance would require a second character to hold the props mentioned in the song…)

  10. bearing said

    I blame the game of Charades.

  11. Grig said

    Reminds me of a Bruce Springsteen song, “Born in the USA,” where he tries to make “land” rhyme with “enemy.”

    Sent me off to a foreign land
    To go and kill the enemy

    The way he sings it works, though:

    Sen me aaf t’ a foreh laaaaah
    T’ go a kill t’ enemaaaah

    Origianlly, I was told by a fan it was “Vietnam” and “yellow man,” but “yellow man” was deemed offensive. Listening to it again, it could still be “yellow man” because he could be saying “enomaaaah” instead of “enemaaaah.”

    /my 2% of a universal credit voucher

  12. Fudge Factor said

    I keep hearing a lot lately about bombing Iran. Does the phrase “bomb Iran” rhyme? It sounds sounds kind of musical to my ears, anyway.

  13. man with just enough time to laugh his ass off at you said

    OMFG dude seriously step away from the computer and go breathe some actual air.
    Ride a bike, walk in the rain, do something else!
    You gotta stop spending your time worried about things nobody cares about but a few psychos out there.
    I mean hey, if you wanna be a psycho please register with someone.
    At least seek help because you know, life has way too much to offer for someone to be all dramatic about a few words that werent yours anyway, and how dare you tell a musician that his words are wrong!
    The musician writes the words the way he or she intended for them to be.
    Same with poems, etc.
    They arent your words to twist any way you want to.
    Those words mean something to the author and are layed out in the final product exactly the way they wanted them or they would have changed them themselves.
    You seriously need to get a life.
    Betchya havent been laid lately have ya?
    Dude if its that bad, get a hooker!
    Spare the world your banter of the meaningless academy of the farts!
    Also a member of the Oralis Diarrein Turgidity Association and an outstanding member at that!

  14. I’m enjoying your blog. We think alike. I think my mother’s number one complaint about me has always been that I’m “too” literal.

    Anyway, Old Irish rhyme is interesting. I don’t know the rules well enough to give them in my own words, so I’ll just quote from Cal Watkins (1995, p. 119). “Rhyme in Irish requires that vowels or diphthongs must be identical in quality and quantity and that consonants must agree in ‘quality’, i.e. palatalized or non-palatalized. Irish is unusual in that consonants involved in a rhyme need not be identical but must belong to the same class, of which the system recognizes six:

    voiced stops: b d g
    unvoiced stops: p t k
    unvoiced continuants: f (th) x
    tense sonorants: m N L R
    voiced continuants and lax sonorants: beta, delta, gamma, (w~), n, l, r
    sibilant: s (can rhyme only with itself).

    While some exceptions do occur, and the restrictions can be slightly eased for consonant clusters, this system of rhyme remained basically unchanged from the first attested poetry of the sixth century through the end of the Early Modern period in the seventeenth century.”

    Font issues: ‘th’ is a theta, I had to spell out the Greek letters, and the ‘w’ should have the tilda above it.

  15. Lauren Deidwehnehsilkeided(its german) said

    ur site…………………………..suckssssssssssssssssssssssss!!=]]
    oh yeah!!

    *its also…..kinda funnay!!
    (at least the die song was)!!!

  16. the ridger said

    Old English poetry didn’t rhyme, it assonated; the rhyme concept came from French, iirc.

    But the question is interesting. I don’t think any kid ever got confused by “sounds the same” though this may be as much because we’re generally given examples (sounds the same like “name same game”) as the prominence of the bulk of the word that does sound the same…

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  18. fernando said

    i bet i rhyme better tan u………..

    i shine da brightest
    my rhymes r da tightest
    tighter tan a babys eyelids
    scared after they hear lighting
    ever since da earths creation
    ive been shining
    god said let there be light
    i stared rhyming
    me and da mike connect like ur wrist and ur hands
    i created rhymes tat have u pissing ur pants

  19. Neal said

    There’s only one pair of perfectly rhyming words in your ur rap: brightest, tightest. However, just because the rhymes aren’t perfect doesn’t mean a song or rap is bad. If done with conviction, imperfect rhymes sound great. What sounds bad is someone trying so hard to make stuff rhyme (without knowing the rules) that they end up with stupid sounding stuff that not only doesn’t rhyme, but also disrupts normal English stress patterns.

  20. Super dude said

    You unfathomable loser! I really think you should reconsider your existence

  21. Three-Day-Poet said

    I just wanted to thankyou for the examples given and the actually helpful replies posted on your blog by intelligent individuals. Hopefully my rhymes for today are at least semy-workable.
    I’m writing a few limericks for a contest, and some words just sound bizarre. Its a good thing most limericks I’ve seen don’t make much since.*laughes at Edward Lear limericks*
    A good laugh if your easily amused(Like me!*giggles*). Here’s the site if you want to see what I mean.

  22. […] saying “Rhyming words sound the same,” telling kids to “restate the question” is a good example of giving a rule in […]

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