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!