Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices

Daniel (Sergey) Levchin

A few thoughts on the nature of rhyme

The relatively recent transformation of English poetry into blank verse is often blamed on some inherent peculiarity of the language. Following this dictum, not only original English poetry, but even tranlsations from languages where rhyme is still prevalent, often dispense with rhyme. When asked about the properties of English that make this crucial attribute of poetry unwelcome, translators often point to the absence of a declension system, which supposedly makes the language less susceptible to rhyme. However, rhymes relying on case endings are not only unaesthetic, they are simply not very common. For example, in Russian, where the system of cases is advanced, case endings are generally unaccented. Therefore, they cannot serve as rhymes, the latter being always determined by the accented syllable. Similarly, in English we cannot use the imperfect ending "-ed" for the purposes of rhyme. Rather the roots must rhyme: plowed/allowed rhymes, but not exposed/estranged. (There are instances where endings are indeed accented and can be used as rhymes in Russian as well as in English. In the latter we have the imperfect/participial formant "-ought/-aught"; e.g. fought, bought, whose roots obviously do not rhyme. Notably, this rhyme is not very attractive.)
The greatest source of rhymes, however, appears to be the peculiar affinity each language has for a certain set of sounds and letter sequences. We need only examine some basic words to be assured of this:
eat, beat, neat, meat, feat, heat, seat, teat.
Without making any claims about the origin and formation of these words, we can regard them as the basic array "-eat" with various consonants attached at the front to produce different words, unrelated in meaning. The English language, and many other languages so far as I can judge, comprise a multitude of such blocks and through them are easily distinguished from one another. On the one hand, formation of such blocks seem to turn language into a very crude mechanism. Words appears analogous to readings from a kind of counter, and as the letters in the "first position" change new meanings are assigned to new letter sequences. On the other hand, these blocks give language its distinct character: English becomes the language of -ow, -uel, -ost, -ance, to name just a few peculiar English sounds and spellings. Every language, it seems, has its own "familiar sounds" that more than any peculiarity of syntax are responsible for its distinctness. This is the reason, incidentally, why someone who hears an incoherent speech can sometimes guess what language is being spoken.
Let us examine the same block further:
treat, street, discrete, Crete
We have moved on to slightly more complicated cases. Here, words of different function and different in spelling are united within the same block. The last choice should not appear surprising. It elucidates that tendency of languages that helps create these blocks in the first place. English, it seems, has a peculiar trait of assimilating others "democratically." Stricter languages, where words must be pronounced as they are written, do considerable violence in assimilating foreign words, twisting their roots until they fit a sound/spelling pattern acceptable in that language (e.g. what Russian sometimes does to French words). English attempts to save the original spelling as much as possible - it is a language mindful of original forms - and alters only the word's pronunciation. Therefore it follows that in English many different letter sequences yield the same sound. This is how becomes Crete in spelling, but in pronunciation joins the "-eat" block. We should note that such manner of appropriation renders English rhyme very attractive, as words that do not look alike may combine as rhymes. The ability to rhyme unlike words seems to give the poet some kind of linguistic proficiency, though we must admit that few poets are concerned with the physical appearance of their words. And of those that do, e.g. the visual poets, even fewer concern themselves with creating rhymes that in writing do not immediately seem to rhyme. Yet, I believe that many choices in composing verse were tacitly based on this very consideration.
Further, it should not be assumed that the appropriation into blocks occurs only with foreign words. The greater part of linguistic content is supplied by the predecessor language. Now, the transition from Old Language into New Language largely concerns the new ways to pronounce old words. It should be noted that English speakers are perpetually simplifying their language, eliminating entire blocks of sounds in one blow by adjoining them to greater blocks. Therefore, sad though it is to say, the English language is acquiring more and more rhymes as its words are reduced to a small number of sound patterns.
More words:
cost, lost, frost, exhaust
The first three words represent three different parts of speech belonging to the same block. Since similarity of root sounds is not necessarily due to same root origin (besides, rhymes like perceive/conceive are for the most part unacceptable), various words of thoroughly unrelated meaning and serving distinct functions may belong to the same block. Needless to say, rhymes that use words differing in function appear less forced or even accidental and therefore create the sense of spontaneity or freedom that often surprises us in rhymed poetry. The fourth word on this list is an example of the process described in the previous paragraph, i.e. of the simplification of language and the appropriations of smaller into larger blocks. Judging by its spelling, exhaust once had quite a different sound, one not pleasant to the current English ear. As we said earlier, the phenomenon of rhyme is due mainly to the tendency of languages toward certain sounds, and also to the rejection of other sounds, as the fourth example illustrates.
English, no less than any other language, possesses these tendencies. Moreover, a certain aspect of English thought makes the language highly conducive to rhyme formation (i.e. the need we experience for simplification.) However, this ideology also makes rhyme an object of scorn in our language. We are aware of our desire to simplify language and to dispense with thought by means of cliches and catchy phrases, which we have found best achieved through rhyme! Our highly developed tendency to assimilate words gives rise to a culture where these blocks of words all at once are thrown in our faces as if in accusation, i.e. in what we call pop-culture. Modern scholars attack rhyme itself as the cause of these phenomena, while in reality the excessive presence of rhyme in rap and pop music and commercial jingles is only a symptom of the above mentioned ideology. A truly alarming phenomenon that no one has yet come to address is that everywhere we are losing ground to the advances of barbarism, and in retreating curse the ground we have just surrendered as naturally devoid of culture.