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Response to Tiel Aisha Ansari’s Objections 1

It’s good to see Tiel Aisha Ansari’s critique of my Reasoning Rhyme posts on her Knocking From Inside blog. This is the first time anybody has taken me to task on any elements of my rhyme terminology and analysis, and it’s envigorating.

Ansari says there is a lot she likes about my terminology. However, she’s a bit less keen on certain aspects. For example, she states:

I don’t quite see why the traditional terms assonance and consonance should be discarded in favor of nuclear rhyme and peripheral rhyme.

It’s a fair question, and hope I can persuade her or at least clarify my rationale. Part of it is that I’m aiming for a reasonably consistent, coherent, detailed, comprehensive nomenclature and taxonomy, based on phonetic/phonological correspondences. The rationale for the attempt at consistence is partly to begin to move away from the confused array of terms in traditional usage. Most traditional rhyme terminology is based on aesthetic judgements or is impressionistic. Assonance and consonance don’t suffer from that fault, but neither do they fit into the schema of kinship vocabulary that I’ve used. And my use of that vocabulary is not arbitrary: as I think Ansari understands, I’m trying to illustrate through my choice of words the underlying linguistic connections between the different forms of rhyme.

There is a further reason for not using the term assonance in particular. As I stated when I introduced my basic nomencalture, the definition of assonance makes no reference to the onsets and codas in rhyme fellows. By contrast, nuclear rhyme refers to a rhyme with identical nucleii but onsets and codas that are related, not identical. Therefore, it does not mean quite the same as assonance, although it focuses clearly and transparently on the identity that is highlighted in the definition of assonance.

That objection is understandable, but I find Ansari’s comments on alliteration somewhat curious:

Philips [sic] points out that the onset, the consonant or consonant cluster before the vowel of the stressed syllable, is irrelevant to traditional rhyme but becomes important when considering consonance of the onset or coda. What he overlooks is that there is already a traditional term for consonance of the onset: it’s called alliteration, defined as the identity of the first sounds preceding the vowels in the syllables carrying the primary stresses of two words. I would like to have seen Philips [sic] develop his terminology to cover alliteration by analogy, rather than redefining it as a form of rhyme.

I haven’t redefined alliteration at all; I simply don’t think it’s the right term to use in the context of rhyme. Ansari is, of course, wholly correct that it’s an accepted term for onset identity. However, alliteration goes no further than the onset; rhyme necessarily includes some reference to the other constituent parts of the syllable in each fellow. As far as alliteration is concerned, the rest of the word can do what it likes; for there to be rhyme, there must be some other correspondence, even if non-identical, in nucleus and/or coda. I wonder, for example, would Ansari say that Wilfred Owen’s rhyme is alliterative? That would surely be a less than satisfactory description, given how strongly coda identity features in Owen’s distinctive rhyme practice.

Besides, alliteration doesn’t cover non-identical but related onsets*, which my terminology does. And not all rhyme fellows are lexically stressed syllables. If we follow the definition Ansari uses, an unstressed fellow cannot be said to alliterate, even if its onset is identical to that of the other rhyme fellow. That might be a problem with the definition as much as anything else, but that’s what she gave us to work with.

Alliteration is therefore an inadequate term to use when considering rhyme, but it is extremely useful when examining the overall sound structure–the broader consonantal and vocalic music–of a line, stanza or complete poem. It might even be a primary structural device, as in alliterative meter, but that wouldn’t make it rhyme and I don’t really understand why Ansari believes that I think it would. This isn’t in Ansari’s definition, but alliteration tends to work within a line, even in alliterative meter. It can work across lines, but that’s not the general trend. By contrast, the default for rhyme is to work across lines, although internal rhyme is hardly unheard-of. So there’s a further structural reason for not using the term alliteration.

That mention of structure brings me to Ansari’s most fundamental objection. However, rather than extend this post, I’ll hold my discussion of that over for a separate one.

*Although I’d say that features can alliterate just as well as segments and that any full account of a line’s music should take that fact into account.

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