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Lightness that Drew Me: Rhyme in Gaelic

One question that arises for the new terminology is whether it can cover rhyme practice in languages other than English adequately. It ought to be able to, as it’s based on phonetic/phonemic correspondence rather than any single tradition of what does or doesn’t constitute a rhyme. In this post, I start to test it out against Scottish Gaelic rhyme practice.

In Gaelic poetry, rhyme is traditionally considered to focus on vowel sounds, with no reference to the coda consonants of the rhyme syllables. Because stress is on the first syllable of a word in Gaelic, the rhyme vowel in end rhyme often falls on the penultimate syllable of the line. However, this isn’t feminine rhyme, as the final syllable doesn’t participate in the rhyme correspondence. Final-syllable rhymes are nonetheless perfectly possible (there are plenty monosyllables in the language), and it’s also common to find internal rhyme, in which a vowel sound rhymes with a stressed vowel at a given point in a preceding or following line. It’s also worth noting that vowels do not necesarily have to be identical, but closely related: /e/ and /E/ can rhyme, for example.

Meg Bateman’s beautiful short poem “Aotramachd” neatly demonstrates the rhyme on the penultimate vowel sounds:

Aotramachd
B’ e d’aotromachd a rinn mo thàladh,
aotromachd do chainnte ’s do ghàire,
aotromachd do lethchinn nam làmhan,
d’aotrmachd lurach ùr mhàlda:
agus ’s e aotromachd do phòige
a tha a’ cur trasg air mo bheòil-sa,
is ’s e aotromachd do ghlaic mum chuairt-sa
a leigeas seachad leis an t-sruth mi.

Lightness
It was your lightness that drew me,
the lightness of your talk and your laughter,
the lightness of your cheek in my hands,
your sweet gentle modest lightness:
and it is the lightness of your kiss
that is starving my mouth,
and the lightness of your embrace
that will let me go adrift.

There’s so much going on in this densely wrought lyric, with its rich mix of semantic, grammatical and phonological parallelism, but the feature I want to focus on is the end rhyme scheme. According to the Gaelic criteria outlined above, the poem rhymes AAAABBCC. The A rhyme is on à (thàladh:ghàire:làmhan:mhàlda), the B on ò (phòige:bheòil-sa) and the C on u (chuairt-sa:t-sruth mi). The first four lines–those that rhyme on à–are concerned with what drew the speaker to the object of her desire; they unpack the attractive lightness of the first line. In the subsequent four lines, as the lightness repels instead of attracts and the lovers drift apart, the rhyme scheme changes and fractures into two couplets.

It will not have escaped the astute reader’s notice that the scheme of “Aotramachd” is more or less nuclear rhyme. In fact, analysed in these terms, we can break it down further into a clear A1A1A2A2BBCC structure. Before we do that, a quick note on Gaelic phonology is necessary.

Gaelic understanding recognises two classes of vowels and consonants: the broad and the slender. Slender vowels are i and e in the orthography, which represent the high front vowels /i/, /e/ and /E/; the rest are broad vowels. The slender vowels are sounds that, across languages, cause palatalisation of consonants*. And that’s what the slender consonants are: palatalised versions of the basic, broad consonants (except that, in some dialects, the /rj/** is pronounced as a [T] or [D]). This means that what might be a secondary articulation for a consonant English is a significant difference in Gaelic, significant enough to create a separate class. I’m sure I needn’t point out the importance of that for the possibilities in rhyme.

The A1 rhyme thàladh:ghàire transcribes roughly as /hAl6G:GArj@/. The rhyming vowels are identical. In the codas***, we have /l/ and /r/, which linguists class together under the term liquids. The correspondence of /h/ and the voiced velar fricative /G/ is less obvious but, if we take into account the morphophonemics–the interface of grammar and phonology–we get a clearer relationship. In their unmodified form, the rhyme fellows are tàladh and gàire, so their first sounds are /t/ and /g/ respectively: two non-nasal stops. However, because they follow the possessive adjectives mo (my) and do (the singular and familiar form of your) in the poem, they are lenited. That is to say, the stops weaken to fricatives. In the change from the velar stop /g/ to the velar fricative /G/, the place of articulation stays the same. However, in Gaelic, the voiceless coronal stop /t/ always lenites to the voiceless glottal fricative /h/. Not a close correspondence phonetically or even necessarily phonemically, but a clear morphophonemic correspondence.

I don’t even need to transcribe the A2 rhyme for it to be obvious that it’s a texbook example of segmental swapping: làmhan:mhàlda. However, perhaps a comment on dialect is appropriate here. In all dialects of Gaelic, the grapheme mh represents /v/ when it occurs at the beginning of a word. The word-medial mh in làmhan would be realised as /v/ in some dialects but, in others, it would be a /w/. Happily for my analysis, a recording of Meg Bateman reading the poem is on hand in The Jewel Box: it reveals her pronunciation to be /lAv@n/. Even if it was a /w/, it would still share the labial place of articulation with /v/, so it would be a case of featural swapping rather than segmental.

The B rhyme, phòige:bheòil-sa, transcribes as /fO:kj@:vjO:ljsa/. As is clear from the orthography and transcription, the place and manner features of the onsets are identical; the only major difference is in voicing. The codas might seem less closely related, but the /kj/ is a palatalised velar stop, which brings the blade of the tongue into a position much closer to that for /lj/ than in an unpalatalised /k/ so, in Gaelic terms, both codas are slender consonants. Interestingly, in the second rhyme fellow, the onset consonant /vj/ is palatalised. There’s a lot going on in this apparently simple rhyme.

Finally, there’s the C rhyme, chuairt-sa:t-sruth mi. It transcribes as /xuartjsa:tru:#mi/. Again, there’s some segmental swapping going on here, with a /rtj/coda becoming a /tr/ onset. The second rhyme fellow has an empty coda. We could borrow the /m/ from mi, which would involve the sonority and the stop features of the /m/ breaking into the /r/ (sonority) and /t/ (stop) from the coda in chuairt.

There’s much much more I could say about the poem, but this analysis indicates two things: that rhyme in Gaelic can, in fact, go beyond the vowel and that the new terminology is well placed to describe a non-English rhyme tradition. I might, in future posts, test it against older Gaelic poetry, but this will do for starters!

*Note that the presence of a vowel in the spelling doesn’t necessarily mean it’s pronounced. Like English, Gaelic has plenty of digraphs (two-letter symbols that represent one sound). However, the orthography often indicates historical pronunciation and the presence of slender vowels around a consonant always means that that consonant is slender.

**I use the /j/to indicate palatisation. Hence, /rj/ is a palatalised form of /r/.

***In these words and several others in the poem, what I’m treating as codas would probably be better described as the onsets of the second syllable. Therefore, as there are clear relationships, we can say that they are borrowed from the second syllables, which doesn’t really participate in the rhyme scheme, as is shown by the varying vowel sounds and the variation between syllables with and without codas.

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