Monday, May 25, 2020

General remarks on rhyming (From rhymes to networks 2)

In this month's post, I want to provide some general remarks on rhyming and rhyme practice. I hope that they will help lay the foundations for tackling the problem of rhyme annotation, in the next post. Ideally, I should provide a maximally unbiased overview that takes all languages and cultures into account. However, since this would be an impossible task at this time (at least for myself), I hope that I can, instead, look at the phenomenon from a viewpoint that is a bit broader than the naive prescriptive accounts of rhyming used by teachers torture young school kids mentally.

What is a rhyme?

It is not easy to give an exact and exhaustive definition of rhyme. As a starting point, one can have a look at Wikipedia, where we find the following definition:
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds (usually, exactly the same sound) in the final stressed syllables and any following syllables of two or more words. Most often, this kind of perfect rhyming is consciously used for effect in the final positions of lines of poems and songs. Wikipedia: s. v. "Rhyme", accessed on 21.05.2020
This definition is a good starting point, but it does not apply to rhyming in general, but rather to rhyming in English as a specific language. While stress, for example, seems to play an important role in English rhyming, we don't find stress being used in a similar way in Chinese, so if we tie a definition of rhyming to stress, we exclude all of those languages in which stress plays a minor role or no role at all.

Furthermore, the notion of similar and identical sounds is also problematic from a cross-linguistic perspective on rhyming. It is true that rhyming requires some degree of similarity of sounds, but where the boundaries are being placed, and how the similarity is defined in the end, can differ from language to language and from tradition to tradition. Thus, while in German poetry it is fine to rhyme words like Mai [mai] and neu [noi], it is questionable whether English speakers would ever think that words like joy could form a rhyme with rye. Irish seems to be an extreme case of very complex rules underlying what counts as a rhyme, where consonants are clustered into certain classes (b, d, g, or ph, f, th, ch) that are defined to rhyme with each other (provided the vowels also rhyme), and as a result, words like oba and foda are judged to be good rhymes (Cuív 1966).

When looking at philological descriptions of rhyme traditions of individual languages, we often find a distinction between perfect rhymes on the one hand and imperfect rhymes on the other. But what counts as perfect or imperfect often differs from language to language. Thus, while French largely accepts the rhyming of words that sound identical, this is considered less satisfactory in English and German, and studies seem to have confirmed that speakers of French and English indeed differ in their intuitions about rhyme in this regard (Wagner and McCurdy 2010.

Peust (2014) discusses rhyme practices across several languages and epochs, suggesting that similarity in rhyming was based on some sort of rhyme phonology, that would account for the differences in rhyme judgments across languages. While the ordinary phonology of a language is a classical device in linguistics to determine those sounds that are perceived as being distinctive in a given language, rhyme phonology can achieve the same for rhyming in individual languages.

While this idea has some appeal at first sight, given that the differences in rhyme practice across languages often follow very specific rules, I am afraid it may be too restrictive. Instead, I rather prefer to see rhyming as a continuum, in which a well-defined core of perfect rhymes is surrounded by various instances of less perfect rhymes, with language-specific patterns of variation that one would still have to compare in detail.

Beyond perfection

If we accept that all languages have some notion of a perfect rhyme that they distinguish from less perfect rhymes, which will, nevertheless, still be accepted as rhymes, it is useful to have a quick look at differences in deviation from the perfect. German, for example, is often used as an example where vowel differences in rhymes are treated rather loosely; and, indeed, we find that diphthongs like the above-mentioned [ai] and [oi] are perceived as rhyming well by most German speakers. In popular songs, however, we find additional deviations from the perceived norm, which are usually not discussed in philological descriptions of German rhyming. Thus, in the famous German Schlager Griechischer Wein by Udo Jürgens (1934-2014), we find the following introductory line:
Es war schon dunkel, als ich durch Vorstadtstrassen heimwärts ging.
Da war ein Wirtshaus, aus dem das Licht noch auf den Gehsteig schien.
[Translation: It was already dark, when I went through the streets outside of the city. There was a pub which still emitted light that was shining on the street.]
There is no doubt that the artist intended these two lines to rhyme, given that the overall schema of the song shows a strict schema of AABCCB. So, in this particular case, the artist judged that rhyming ging [gɪŋ] with schien [ʃiːn] would be better than not attempting a rhyme at all, and it shows that it is difficult to assume one strict notion of rhyme phonology to guide all of the decisions that humans make when they create poems.

More extreme cases of permissive rhyming can be found in some traditions of English poetry, including Hip Hop (of course), but also the work of Bob Dylan, who does not have a problem rhyming time with fine, used with refused, or own with home, as in Like a Rolling Stone. In Spanish, where we also find a distinction between perfect (rima consonante) and imperfect rhyming (rima asonante), basically all that needs to coincide are the vowels, which allows Silvio Rodriguez to rhyme amór with canción in Te doy una canción.

While most languages coincide on the notion of perfect rhymes (notwithstanding certain differences due to general differences in their phonology), the interesting aspects for rhyming are those where they allow for imperfection. Given that rhyming seems to be something that reflects, at least to some extent, a general linguistic competence of the native speakers, a comparison of the practices across languages and cultures may help to shed light on general questions in linguistics.

Rhyming is linear

When discussing with colleagues the idea of making annotated rhyme corpora, I was repeatedly pointed to the worst cases, which I would never be able to capture. This is typical for linguists, who tend to see the complexities before they see what's simple, and who often prefer to not even try to tackle a problem before they feel they have understood all the sub-problems that could arise from the potential solution they might want to try.

One of the worst cases, when we developed our first annotation format as presented last year (List et al. 2019), was the problem of intransitive rhyming. The idea behind this is that imperfect rhyming may lead to a situation where one word rhymes with a word that follows, and this again rhymes with a word that follows that, but the first and the third would never really rhyme themselves. We find this clearly stated in Zwicky (1976: 677):
Imperfect rhymes can also be linked in a chain: X is rhymed (imperfectly) with Y, and Y with Z, so that X and Z may count as rhymes thanks to the mediation of Y, even when X and Z satisfy neither the feature nor the subsequence principle.
Intransitive rhyming is, indeed, a problem for annotation, since it would require that we think of very complex annotation schemas in which we assign words to individual rhyme chains instead of just assigning them to the same group of rhymes in a poem or a song. However, one thing that I realized afterwards, which one should never forget is: rhyming is linear. Rhyming does proceed in a chain. We first hear one line, then we hear another line, etc, so that each line is based on a succession of words that we all hear through time.

It is just as the famous Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) said about the linguistic sign and its material representation, which can be measured in a single dimension ("c'est une linge", Saussure 1916: 103). Since we perceive poetry and songs in a linear fashion, we should not be surprised that the major attention we give to a rhyme when perceiving it is on those words that are not too far away from each other in their temporal arrangement.

The same holds accordingly for the concrete comparison of words that rhyme: since words are sequences of sounds, the similarity of rhyme words is a similarity of sequences. This means we can make use of the typical methods for automated and computer-assisted sequence comparison in historical linguistics, which have been developed during the past twenty years (see the overview in List 2014), when trying to analyze rhyming across different languages and traditions.


When writing this post, I realized that I still feel like I am swimming in an ocean of ignorance when it comes to rhyming and rhyming practices, and how to compare them in a way that takes linguistic aspects into account. I hope that I can make up for this in the follow-up post, where I will introduce my first solutions for a consistent annotation of poetry. By then, I also hope it will become clearer why I give so much importance to the notion of imperfect rhymes, and the emphasis on the linearity of rhyming.


Brian Ó Cuív (1966) The phonetic basis of classical modern irish rhyme. Ériu 20: 94-103.

List, Johann-Mattis (2014) Sequence Comparison in Historical Linguistics. Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf University Press.

List, Johann-Mattis and Nathan W. Hill and Christopher J. Foster (2019) Towards a standardized annotation of rhyme judgments in Chinese historical phonology (and beyond). Journal of Language Relationship 17.1: 26-43.

Peust, Carsten (2014) Parametric variation of end rhyme across languages. In: Grossmann et al. Egyptian-Coptic Linguistics in Typological Perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 341-385.

de Saussure, Ferdinand (1916) Cours de linguistique générale. Lausanne:Payot.

Wagner, M. and McCurdy, K. (2010) Poetic rhyme reflects cross-linguistic differences in information structure. Cognition 117.2: 166-175.

Zwicky, Arnold (1976) Well, This rock and roll has got to stop. Junior’s head is hard as a rock. In: Papers from the Twelfth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society 676-697.

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