Something everyone seems to have intuitions about is: What types of rhyme sound good? What types of rhyme sound bad? One particular type of rhyme, called ‘identity rhyme’ (write/right, to bear, a bear), is licit in French but quite poor in English (So poor indeed that King James proscribed the use of identity rhymes in a treatise in 1584.) See an earlier post on the topic here.
We present evidence that this difference in rhyming between French (and other Romance languages) and English (and other Germanic languages) can be explained by a seemingly unrelated difference between them: English uses emphasis to foreground new and contrastive information and to background old and repeated information, much like one uses a highlighter to emphasize important information in a text. French (and other Romance languages) does not use acoustic prominence in this way, or at least does so to a much smaller degree and under a much narrower set of circumstances. An admittedly quirky but illustrative example: the name of the band AC/DC has less prominence on the two ‘C’s in English and other Germanic language, but not in French and other Romance languages. This difference becomes very salient in french-accented English and English-accented French, a fact one can experience every day in a bilingual city like Montreal. We argue that the mechanics of how this ‘highlighter’ works in English has the effect that identity rhymes sound odd.
[completely unrelated side note: i was wondering what the right agreement is in the sentence above, and ‘the mechanics of … has’ and ‘the mechanics of … have’ and i let the google vote. both seem to be equally used (same for is/are)]
Title and Abstract of the Paper:
Michael Wagner (McGill University) & Kate McCurdy (Harvard University)
Poetic Rhyme Reflects Cross-Linguistic Differences in Information Structure
Identity rhymes (to bear/a bear, right/write) are considered satisfactory and even artistic in French poetry but are considered unsatisfactory in English. This has been a consistent generalization over the course of centuries, a surprising fact given that other aspects of poetic form in French were happily applied in English. This paper puts forward the hypothesis that this difference is not merely one of poetic tradition, but is grounded in the distinct ways in which information structure affects prosody in the two languages. A study of rhyme usage in poetry and a perception experiment confirm that native speakers’ intuitions about rhyming in the two languages indeed differ, and a further perception experiment supports the hypothesis that this fact is due to a constraint on prosody that is active in English but not in French. The findings suggest that certain forms of artistic expression in poetry are influenced, and even constrained, by more general properties of a language.