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 Ling 131: Language & Style

Topic 5 (session A) - Sound > Rhyme - More than One Sound in a Special Position

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Session Overview
Sounds and meanings
Alliteration and assonance
Alliteration and assonance revisited
Sound symbolism
Meeting at night
Phonetics checksheet
Sound symbolism checksheet
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Rhyme - More than One Sound in a Special Position

Before we go back to alliteration and assonance, let's look at rhyme. Canonical rhymes come at the ends of lines of poetry, and patterns of these rhymes are usually called rhyme schemes (e.g. couplet schemes (AABB etc.), alternate line rhyme schemes (ABAB etc.), and so on. Rhymes usually involve the last syllable of the words which rhyme. So canonical rhyme is defined partly in terms of phonemic parallelism in the final syllable of the rhyming words and partly in terms of position in the poetic line. An example would be 'Mankind' and 'behind', (/mQnkaInd/ and /bIhaInd/ in phonemic script) from Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock':

This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
Nourish'd two Locks, which graceful hung behind . . .

(Alexander Pope More about Alexander Pope, 0000-0000, 'The Rape of the Lock, Canto II, 19-20)

From this, and many examples like it, we can see that in canonical rhymes the syllable-initial consonants (those in the syllable which come before the vowel) usually vary but the vowel has to be repeated, and also any syllable-final consonants (those which come after the vowel).

But in other poems and songs you can also have:

  1. Rhymes between words which are not in line-final position (but these are less common and are usually known by the marked term 'internal rhyme'), and

  2. Rhymes where the vowel or the final consonant cluster does not involve exact repetition (so-called 'half-rhymes' or 'partial rhymes').

Task - Rhyme in Cole Porter's 'You're the Top'

Below is a stanza (refrain 4) from a famous 1930s song by Cole Porter More about Cole Porter, 0000-0000, called 'You're the Top'. [There is a great recording of 'You're the Top' by Ella Fitzgerald (volume 2 of her Cole Porter Songbook collection)]. We will use this extract to learn something about the nature of rhyme, and also something about how rhyming can be pleasurable and why Cole Porter is regarded as such a great lyricist.

For copyright reasons we can't quote the whole song or reproduce a professional recording here, but we have prepared an amateur recording of it for you. In the Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, this song has eight refrains (as well as two other verses), and the Ella Fitzgerald recording mixes together parts of refrain 4 with refrain 5, to produce a three-refrain version. This is partly because some of the examples of 'top' things mentioned in the song had become a bit dated by the time she made her recording.

In case you are not sure of some of the allusions we have provided links which spell them out. Read to the refrain and then answer the questions after it.

1. You're the top!
2. You're an Arrow collar.
3. You're the top!
4. You're a Coolidge dollar!
5. You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire.
6. You're an O'Neill drama,
7. You're Whistler's mama,
8. You're Camembert.
9. You're a rose,
10. You're Inferno's Dante,
11. You're the nose
12. On the great Durante.

13. I'm just in the way, as the French would say, 'De trop,"
14. But if, baby, I'm the bottom
15. You're the top.

Answer each of the following four questions in turn, and then access our comments:

1. What is the rhyme scheme for the refrain, how many syllables are involved in the rhymes and what does this tell us about Cole Porter's song writing skills?

2. Are there any other rhymes besides the line-end ones?

3. Are there any line-end rhymes which are not perfect?

4. If Cole Porter is such a clever song writer, why isn't he in the list of 'Great Dead Poets'?

The rhyme scheme is ABABCDDCEFEFAGA. The B, D and F rhymes all involve two syllables, not one. The fact that Porter manages this complex rhyme scheme over such a long stanza (15 lines), involving two-syllable as well as one-syllable rhymes indicates considerable verbal skill, particularly when we remember that he manages it (two-syllable rhymes and all) in all eight refrains.

Yes, the two long lines (lines 5 and 13) both contain internal rhymes (/tred/ and 'fred/ and /weɪ/ and /seɪ/) on the second and fourth beats in the line. This pattern of internal rhyme is also repeated in the other seven refrains, adding to the complexity of the pattern which Porter manages to adhere to.

To some degree the answer to this question depends on your dialect. For many speakers of American English lines 6 and 7 will be full rhymes, but for many other English speakers (including those from the UK), this will be a partial rhyme, because the vowels in the first syllable of the two syllable rhyme are not identical. But even the members of this second group will interpret the half-rhyme as a rhyme, particularly as it does not happen very often in the song.

The other case, that of lines 13 and 15, is a bit more complex. The phrase 'de trop' does not rhyme with 'top' in the original French, or its standard Anglicised version (/de trəʊ/). But to complete the rhyme in the song, the singer will almost certainly make it rhyme, by pronouncing /trəʊ/ as /trop/. This 'over-Anglicised' pronunciation then becomes ironic, adding to the playful tone of the song.

This refrain thus contains internal rhymes and half-rhymes of different kinds, showing that although the canonical definition of rhyme as 'identical vowel and final consonant cluster in line-end position' fits most cases, there are a fair number of variations on this canonical form, making the lives of poets and song writers a bit easier than they might otherwise be.

For great poetry, being verbally clever (as Porter clearly is) is not enough. You usually have to be describing or discussing things which human beings feel are important, and these important issues (e.g. the nature of love, our relations with others and with the world around us) are often also quite complex to encapsulate. Porter's message in the song is 'you're the best, I'm the worst' is simple and not that significant in human terms. This is not to decry Porter's work though. Although he will never make the 'Great Poets' Society', Porter wrote excellent tunes and excellent lyrics which have given pleasure to millions of people. That is a considerable achievement in itself. Mick certainly couldn't do it. How about you? Contributions gratefully received!



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