Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lyrical Language

A while back I went through a sort of Children's Classics marathon, which included an entire set of Disney films, from Sleepy Beauty to Aladdin. I also saw the original animated film, Charlotte's Web, in which Wilbur sings a song, celebrating his new-found ability to talk. The best was in this verse:
I pop with perspicacity
I'm loaded with loquacity
My vocalized veracity is tops
Semantically each bit of me's
The verbalized epitome
My plethory of patter never stops!
Apparently, Wilbur isn't alone in teaching young children difficult words. Consider this classic from Merlin's aquatic lesson in 1963:
You must set your sights upon the heights
Don't be a mediocrity
Don't just wait and trust to fate
And say, "That's how it's meant to be."
It's up to you how far you go
If you don't try you'll never know
And so my lad as I've explained
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
But as far as linguists and Children's literature buffs are concerned, this is nothing new. For some strange reason, there is a strong tendency for children's literature to preserve more antiquated aspects of language than contemporary novels. Thus:
C: "Who dares disturb my slumber?"
A: "It is I, Aladdin."
Notice that it isn't "it is me, Aladdin". Here, the copular principle is preserved; both sides of the verb are in nominative form.

Also, consider the traditional opening and closing forms:
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived ...
... . And they lived happily ever after.
instead of
... lived in a foreign country, a long time ago.
... And they were happy for the rest of their lives.
Supposedly, there's some principle somewhere that states that languages whose objects follow their verbs, would also have a stronger tendency for their adjectives to follow their nouns, which makes English a glaring exception. And yet, we can see "a land far away" somehow sounds more classical than "a far away land". Also consider: "The Brothers Grimm" versus "the Grimm Brothers"; "the extraordinary man" v. "the man extraodinaire". Perhaps this is history and grammatical regularity preserved in the innocent tomes of fiction for children. Too bad they forget it all as soon as they enter formal education.

Another interesting point is the significance of rhyme. When I was seven, and still imperfect in English, I misunderstood (or misremembered) my teacher, giving me the impression that poets were a rare, foreign race of people, whose language always rhymed. I thought it'd be cool if I could become one of these "poets", which obviously didn't happen. For the first few days after I heard my teacher, I would consciously try to speak in rhyme. It was really hard work.

But my personal linguistic struggles aside, rhyme is an extremely strong literary device used in children's literature, and indeed, a lot of older literature. I'm sure a lot of it was appended to the mysticism of symmetry and evenness of lines, but in any case, the intentional pattern of random sounds would draw attention to the listener. For this reason, dialogue in German Märchen was always in rhyme, even if the rest of the narrative was blank prose. (I think this tradition was preserved to some degree in English literature, but I lack the resources to verify the claim.)

Rhyming, as a literary device, obviously fails in SOV languages, since every sentence would rhyme, given the same tense, as all sentences would end with verbs. Japanese poetry, for example, has no appreciable notion of rhyming. But all PIE languages have some rhyming tradition in their literature, as does Chinese, being more-or-less SVO languages. as far as "structured" poetry goes, I'm only aware of the haiku and the tanka. as for Chinese, they basically had a ABXB rhyming scheme, where A could rhyme with B, but wasn't necessary (and X was anything else).

Some more interesting facts about rhyme: the phrase rhyme or reason dates back from the mid-late 1600's. Maybe because at the time, people would often spread easy rhymes to help spread royal rumor, or rile revolution, but there wasn't one foreshadowing Charles II reclaimation of the throne from Cromwell's cold, clammy claws. (Historical example: "When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then a gentleman?" which eventually led to the Peasant revolt in 1381.) In any case, that phrase is really, really old, and generally avoided. Whenever I hear a person use it more than once in the same day, I wonder if they've been reading a vocab-building book.

Frank H. Vizetelly, in his book Essentials of English Speech and Literature, consistently spells "rhyme" as "rime", explaining it thusly:
The spelling rhyme, although commoner in literature than the older rime, is etymologically incorrect, having been introduced in the sixteenth century through a mistaken connection with rhythm. The use of the older spelling has now been revived by many writers.
This was published in 1915. Sorry, Franko, nobody listened; Rhyme is here to stay.


Anonymous said...

so i've been spelling rhyme wrong my entire life?! o_O that's how the teachers taught us to spell it!!! oh shucks, another reason why i can't respect (most)

Joseph said...

Well, if you go back far enough, the spelling or pronunciation of any word or creation of any word form is ultimately arbitrary. (Well, except for things like all languages having an /a/ sound, but not necessarily a /u/ sound.) rhyme/rime is kinda like det/debt. We added letters to make their spelling spiffy. :)

andrew said...

wow your blog reads like a textbook.

okay, so it IS grammatically correct to write "it is i, aladdin"? i seriously thought "it is me, aladdin" was more grammatically proper. nowadays it seems people ALWAYS use "[name] and i" even when it should be "[name] and me."

Joseph said...

Haha... yeah, nowadays it's more common to treat the verb "to be" like any other verb, but teeechnically, it's in a special class, like "to suppose", and "to dream".
(Ex: "I suppose he's coming now" instead of "I suppose him coming now"
Ex2: "I dreamed I was a butterfly" instead of "I dreamed me was a butterfly")
But since everybody speaks differently from 50 years ago, I'd stick with "it is me" in speech.

Anonymous said...

Can you think of a phrase structure that would be called a "lyrical command?"