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Reasoning Rhyme: The Intolerable Wrestle With Words


This post concerns itself with brief definitions of the basic rhyme phenomena and a quick critque of the traditional terminology. Throughout this series, it’ll be necessary to use some technical terms from linguistics and literary studies, but I’ll explain them as I go along.

Rhyme involves a correspondence between two or more elements, usually, but not necessarily, in different lines of a poem. Each word or group of words involved in a given rhyme relationship is termed a fellow and the relationship is accordingly referred to as fellowship. Three correspondences are used to define the basic forms of rhyme: syllabic, morphological, and segmental. Traditional rhyme terminology covers each of these, which I will explain.

Syllabic correspondence is pretty self-explanatory. Monosyllabic rhymes (e.g., fame:name; begin:sin), which are almost all stressed, are referred to as masculine rhymes. Disyllabic rhymes (e.g., pleasure:treasure; rolling:controlling), in which the stress usually falls on the initial syllable, are referred to as feminine rhymes.

Morphological correspondence refers to the grammatical form of the rhyme fellows. Most rhymes are morphologically identical. That is, both fellows are normally one word or, less frequently, more than one word. Rhymes that are morphologically non-identical (e.g., jealous:tell us; intellectual: peck’d you all) are called mosaic rhymes. For obvious reasons, the vast majority of mosaic rhymes are feminine, although a masculine mosaic rhyme in English is not beyond possibility (e.g., cheese:she’s).

In linguistics, individual speech sounds are referred to as segments. Thus the term segmental correspondence covers the degree of similarity between the consonants and vowels in the rhyme fellows. Linguists divide syllables into the onset (the initial consonant(s), if the syllable has any) and the rime (the vowel and any following consonants). The rime is further divided into the nucleus (the vowel) and coda (the following consonants). Traditionally, rhyme is considered to begin at the nucleus of a stressed syllable and to require the nucleus and any coda consonants to be identical. For feminine rhymes, any syllables that follow the stressed syllable should also be identical. This discounting of the onset is a crucial point, which we’ll return to. The one exception to the skipping of syllable onsets is so-called rich rhyme, which involves homophones (e.g., felt [past tense of feel] and felt [material]) or the repetition of the same word.

Normal masculine and feminine rhymes such as those quoted above are referred to as perfect or full rhyme. Other forms of rhyme, which will be explored properly later, are variously called half rhyme, near rhyme, slant rhyme and imperfect rhyme. These phenomena include assonance, consonance and pararhyme. Those terms and the reasons for labelling the phenomena that they describe as rhyme will be explored in a subsequent post.

The traditional terms for the segmental correspondences are inadequate for various reasons. Firstly, none of them are at all transparent. Secondly, because they exclude the onset, they fail to take account of various subdivisions of “imperfect” rhyme or the relationship between “perfect” and “rich” rhyme. Thirdly, they are misleading as to poetic practice: the term “rich” rhyme implies a highly developed form of rhyme, but such rhymes are considered poor practice; the terms “half-rhyme” or “imperfect” rhyme have been used to imply that such rhymes are shoddy, when in point of fact they are linguistically–and, in the opinion of some poets and readers, aesthetically–more subtle and interesting than their “perfect” cousins.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explain my suggestions for a revised terminology.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Alex permalink
    05/02/2007 17:59

    Wow! What a great post and what a real peek inside the toolbox! I’m looking forward to the rest of the series…

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