Past Poets’ Rhymes.

Alex Foreman (frequently linked at LH, e.g. here and here) has an informative and (as is usual for this boisterous fellow) provocative essay called What Past Poets’ Rhymes Don’t Tell You About Past Speech:

I’ve just got to get this out there, after seeing so many people make terrible assumptions about what rhymes can tell you about the English pronunciation of the past. Did pre-modern English poets’ verse always rhyme perfectly in their own speech?

Not so much. No. They didn’t in the 16th century. They didn’t in the 17th. Nor at any later point. This becomes obvious when we get the rare chance to see a poem phonetically transcribed (or in this case, notated) by its author.

He provides examples from Richard Hodges’ The English Primrose (1644) and Robert Robinson (fl 1617), summing up as follows:

There is evidence that people in reciting verse might adjust their normal pronunciation to a degree to give full rhymes. For example, the only time Robinson transcribes secondarily stressed final <-y> with /i:/ is when rhyme requires it, e.g. misery/she. Alexander Gil’s transcriptions of Spenser show that when rhyme called for it he could adopt pronunciations of head (rhyming with lead v.b.), desert, swerve (rhyming with art, starve), dear (rhyming with were), and poor, door (rhyming with store, adore) other than his normal one.

But this kind of thing only went so far. Gil’s transcriptions in particular do not accomodate rhymes that rest on a pronunciation used by social groups he found objectionable: thus he transcribes Spenser’s rhyme despair/whilere as / (the rhyme rests on a monophthongized WAIT vowel which Gil condemned with mighty spleen as an effete affectation). Mismatches in shortening of ME /ọ̄/ simply do not affect his transcriptions at rhyme. Wood/stood and move/love are for him / and /. Nor does he drop the velar fricative in “fight” when Spenser rhymes this word with “smite”. Recitation practice (as one might expect) also seems like it varied considerably from person to person. (In Robinson’s transcriptions of his own verse, the two examples I cited are the only imperfect rhymes, but his transcriptions of Richard Barnfield’s verse are on the whole remarkable for how unconcerned with rhyme they are: he often opts to transcribe a non-rhyming form even when the form that would’ve made a perfect rhyme also existed in his own speech.)

And, as I’ve just shown, poets themselves could clearly rely for their rhymes on forms of speech other than their own. My point is that one cannot assume, without a good deal of other evidence, that a pre-modern poet’s use of a particular rhyme implies that the pronunciation on which such a rhyme rests was necessarily their own. It doesn’t even necessarily imply that the rhyme would have been perfect in their own reading of their own verse.

He finishes up with a swipe at careless scholars:

Poets also could and did also use what are unarguably approximate rhymes, like Spenser’s sharpe/darke, gather/scater. But many seem to routinely forget this, especially when it comes to Shakespeare (despite his use of rhymes like open/broken, come/sung), reluctant accept that a given rhyme might well not rest on phonetic identity. Shakespeare in particular has been vested by literary and cultural history with a staggering ability to make brilliant researchers stupid. For example, Ellis, Kökeritz and David Crystal would have one believe that Shakespeare must have pronounced nothing as a perfect rhyme for doting on the strength of one solitary rhyme and a couple of dubious puns. That modern “OP” performances are full of actors saying /no:tɪn/ for every. single. instance of this word in Shakespeare’s scripts (the only form supplied in Crystal’s “Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation”) is a testament to the weirdness of Anglo ideologies concerning Shakespeare and his language. Ideologies can make people miss the obvious: in this case, the fact that — because of how sound-changes had shaken out — the word “nothing” will have had few if any perfect rhymes. The segment /θ/ did not normally occur in this environment, apart from loanwords (mostly from Greek, where final /ŋ/ was phonotactically impermissible). A poet wishing to rhyme on nothing would have to adapt, either by using a word with a voiced interdental (as in Drayton’s nothing/loathing) or do what Shakespeare did and rhyme on /t/.

What I wouldn’t give to see historians of English cease their irresponsible use of rhyme.

No pre-modern literary text was ever written with a future philologist audience in mind, and don’t you forget it.

This guy knows what he’s talking about, and people should listen to him. (An aside: he says Early Modern writing “was given to use of abnormal and ad hoc symbols in the creation of new orthographies”; this continued, alas, to be a tradition right down into the twentieth century in the invention of writing systems for languages spoken by people with too little clout to say “Thanks, but we’d rather write in a way that doesn’t require advanced study to reproduce and can be printed by more than one press in the world.”)

As lagniappe, check out this reporter and his many languages! Native speakers can weigh in, but he sounds fluent to me.


  1. I have wondered how Wordsworth (to name one of many possible examples) pronounced the final vowel of “majesty” when reciting the sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, in which it rhymes, or ought to, with by, lie, and sky. Did poets using that kind of traditional rhyme or eye-rhyme distort the pronunciation of the “majesty” sort of words to make the rhyme, or did they let the rhyme go?

  2. Some of the phonetic symbols in the quotes are missing.

    I have mixed feelings about slant rhymes in general. Sometimes they are useful, but frequently they are bad for verse.

  3. Wikipedia has nothing on either Richard Hodges or Robert Robinson (unless he’s this guy). I wonder what part of Britain they were from and what sort of regional accent they might have had, which could obviously have influenced their perception of exact or near rhymes.

  4. I’ve definitely wondered, when reading about the use of rhymes in poetry to help understand how words were pronounced in the past, how they conclude the words actually rhymed. Maybe I’ve been naïve in assuming they allow for imperfect rhymes and eye-rhymes.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    On a slightly parallel tack, I’ve often wondered* how the Romans actually read their Greek-modelled quantity-based poetry. Did they override the normal Latin stress and stress their arses? (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) Or did they keep the Latin stress and just have such a delicate feeling for quantitative metres that it was all fine anyway?

    * OK, occasionally wondered.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Did they override the normal Latin stress and stress their arses?

    My textbook said the “accent” (stress in verse) and the ictus (stress in real life) generally coincided in the second half of a verse (quae víndice núllo), but not in the first (…satá est aetás).

    I have no trouble believing that. Stress is generally ignored in FYLOSC verse from children’s rhymes upwards. And northern Mandarin ignores the tones completely in singing (while in Cantonese you don’t even bother composing a tune – you exaggerate the distance between the tones of the lyrics till the 3 level and 3 contour tones become distinguishable as 6 level tones, and that’s your tune right there).

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    This I knew, but it doesn’t actually answer my question, which (to be a bit clearer) was whether in the first part of a verse people were appreciating the aesthetic effect of words actually being stressed on the wrong syllable, or whether they had internalised the intrinsically non-stressed-based metres to such a degree that they felt the thrill of the mismatch without shifting the word stresses at all.

    For hexameters and elegiacs (and hendecasyllables), it’s not too hard to believe the latter, but I find it hard to swallow in the case of some of Horace’s very distinctly Greek metres, which basically make about as much sense for Latin as they would for English. Maybe the very difficulty was part of the cachet though …

    The phenomenon does of course show that normal word stress mattered in Latin verse; but that’s where my very problem lies. How did it matter? There’d be no puzzle to solve if Latin verse simply ignored normal word stress altogether. In a way, that’s what you’d have expected when the Romans adopted the verse forms of a language that worked quite differently prosodically from their own.

  8. @David Eddyshaw: I can’t remember the source, but I found at least one ancient Roman author snarking about somebody else pronounced Greek. However, I also cannot remember whether the butt of the joke was supposed to sound too Latin or too Greek. In fact, I may never actually have figured out what specific cultural aspersions the author was trying to cast.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Cicero is reported (by Quintilian, I think) to have mocked a Greek witness for not being able to pronounce the Latin /f/. (I think this is somewhere in that excellent book Vox Latina, much as I would like to give the impression of intimate familiarity with the works of Quintilian.)

    Cato the Censor (the miserable old bugger, as opposed to his differently-annoying great-grandson) was fond of dissing Greek and Greeks. Might well be him.

  10. Lars Mathiesen says

    We get the same thing in Danish, especially in church music. (That is Carl Nielsen’s original arrangement from 1919 which we will be giving in our summer concert).

    When the words were written in 1734, stressed dig (mig, sig) did rhyme with -lig (cognate with G -lich and E -ly, and maybe even when NFS Grundtvig revised them in 1846, but today they are [d̥ɐɨ̯] and [-lɪ]. The first two stanzas use this for the B rhymes of the ABAB scheme. Actually short in modern speech, Nielsen chose to put them on semibreves (in 3/2 time), so you can’t hide.

    (We also get old and pres.subj, even forms in -er in older texts where the modern forms don’t fit the melody [while other instances tend to be revised or folked away] but those were part of the written standard well into the 19th or maybe 20th. You have to go back to the 16th to get things like stat/stander as the imperative of stå in regular prose, but there is a well known Easter psalm starting Stat op min sjæl i morgengry that was written in 1858 [by a Norwegian pastor, but that was before Norwegian was invented]).


  11. No pre-modern literary text was ever written with a future philologist audience in mind, and don’t you forget it.

    There’s an Asimov short story essentially making that point.

  12. Amanda Adams says

    (An aside: he says Early Modern writing “was given to use of abnormal and ad hoc symbols in the creation of new orthographies”; this continued, alas, to be a tradition right down into the twentieth century in the invention of writing systems for languages spoken by people with too little clout to say “Thanks, but we’d rather write in a way that doesn’t require advanced study to reproduce and can be printed by more than one press in the world.”)

    Thank-you, Mr Hat.

  13. When the words were written in 1734, stressed dig (mig, sig) did rhyme with -lig (cognate with G -lich and E -ly

    How were they pronounced?

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    How were they pronounced?

    My best guess is something like [ˈd̥eɣ]/[ˈmeɣ]/[ˈseɣ]/[-leɣ], but I can’t find it quickly in my references.

    Further guess: First of all the final [ɣ] fell in the unstressed ending — I don’t know why it didn’t merge with all the other unstressed final vowels then, except that they were all schwa long before that so maybe there was some sort of dissimilation. In the pronouns, still guessing, it was [ɣ] > [ɨ̯] and the nucleus dissimilating to a more open value, with stressed and unstressed forms keeping each other in check. (In allegro speech, it’s now {unstressed} [d̥ɐ]/[mɐ]/[sɐ]/[-lə]).

  15. Thanks!

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    More Danish phonotactic fun, which touches on another thread (which I forget which): The vowel in -ig counts as lax, which has the reliable consequence that /ng/ becomes [ŋ] before it (and when not intervocalic). whereas it is [n.g̥] before other vowels: [ŋ] in finger, fange, synge, sang, Inge, afhængig, pingvin, but [n.g̥] in Inga, Ingo, Pingu (only proper nouns here, a desultory search for others came up empty). But anyway, there are no minimal pairs for /ŋ/ ~ /ng/, so most phonemic analyses of Danish only have the latter. Note that the cartoon penguin Pingu gets [ng] even though pingvin has [ŋ].

  17. Lars Mathiesen:

    The names the songs of the band Dungen were sometimes misspelled. “Du e för fin för mig” was sometimes spelled as “Du är”, IIRC, even in official releases. Link: It basically means take at easy. And, you know, they’re Swedish.

  18. David Marjanović says

    another thread (which I forget which)

    The Rise of Arabic – where I still have to comment on the theory of evolution!

    Do you really mean [ng̥] and not [ŋg̥]?

  19. Some English poetry of the 19th century gives me the feeling of “Well so-and-so rhymed these two words back 200 or 300 years ago, so by jingo that makes it good enough for me to rhyme them now!”

  20. Lars Mathiesen says

    Do you really mean [ng̥] and not [ŋg̥]? — thanks, of course not.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    @V, I lived in Sweden for 11 years so I’m well familiar with that sort of eye-colloquial spellings. But that was in the Chukhpuch thread, and besides, I didn’t comment on the sentence.

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    @de 22/02:21.17
    in quo illud etiam notandum mihi videtur ad studium persequendae suavitatis in vocibus: ipsa enim natura, quasi modularetur hominum orationem, in omni verbo posuit acutam vocem nec una plus nec a postrema syllaba citra tertiam; quo magis naturam ducem ad aurium voluptatem sequatur industria.
    Cicero Orator 540

    Note he uses acutus for stress within a word, where longus is used consistently for a quantitative long/heavy syllable. Could acutus refer to a rising tone, which then would be orthogonal to any quantitative length variation, but would produce an agreeable (or not) sing-song when the word was not stressed on a long syllable?
    Compare the flat Dublin “HOW(can be rising, but Dubs mostly prefer to sound depressed)aya” as opposed to the more euphonious Cork/Kerry “How ARE(rising) you?”

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I think this is just a carry-over from Greek terminology, as with so much Latin linguistic vocabulary. There seems to be no doubt that Latin had stresses rather than tones, though the actual realisation of stress presumably also involved pitch as well as intensity, as in English. But the phenomenon that DM flagged up above, viz that word stress usually drifts into alignment with verse ictus towards the end of the line, only really makes sense on the supposition that Latin stress was the same sort of phenomenon as found in Italian or Spanish or Modern Greek.

    I recall reading a spirited attempt somewhere to make sense of Classical Greek metres in terms of word stress assigned by syllable weight as in Latin or Classical Arabic, which, if it existed, was obviously not contrastive at that time in Greek and has nothing to do with the modern system, but might nevertheless have been the basis of metre.

    The WP article on Welsh phonology used to claim that (modern) Welsh has a final pitch accent and a penultimate stress accent (an incoherent claim that I’ve seen in various forms elsewhere), but I see it’s been tidied up by someone with a better grasp of such things now, though in a way which is still pretty evidence-free. Still, plausible speculation beats nonsense.

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