Linguistic form in art and play:

language games, song, verse


Language games

In the chapter on the phonology of the Mawu language, we talked about the Ngoboobo children's game. This is a language game used by children, based on a systematic phonological distortion of ordinary speech. Specifically, every vowel V is replaced by the sequence VbV (where /b/ is the implosive version of the labial stop), or by VmV if the vowel is nasalized. Thus Ngoo "I say" becomes Ngoboobo, the name of the game.

Such language games are very common, perhaps ubiquitous, in the cultures of the world. They function partly as "secret languages" -- because without knowledge and practice it can be hard to understand what is being said -- and partly just as games.

Some of the language games are almost exactly the same, in detail, as Ngoboobo. For instance, there is a Spanish game called "Jerigonza" or "Jeringonza,"  which involves replacing every vowel V with the sequence VpV. Searching the web for "Jerigonza" turns up a C program for turning Spanish text into Jerigonza, written by someone at the Universidad Católica de Chile.

However, this program applies the Jerigonza rule literally to spelling, and so does not act the way that most Spanish-speaking children would. Becasue the program applies the V-to-VpV change to every orthographic vowel, it turns the (three-syllable) Spanish word escuela "school" into the (eight-syllable) Jerigonza word epescupuepelapa. Spanish-speaking children -- who often learn the jerigonza game before they learn to read -- would think in terms of the categories of their natural and internal phonology, rather than in terms of letters of the alphabet. In the letter sequence "ue" in Spanish spelling, the "u" letter is actually pronounced as a glide /w/, which in phonological terms is a consonant rather than a vowel. Thus we might write the pronunciation of escuela as /eskwela/, with three syllables, not four, even though there are four vowel letters in the word. In the same form of quasi-phonetic writing, the jerigonza version would be /epe skwepe lapa/, with six syllables, not /epe skupu epe lapa/, with eight. Most Spanish-speaking children would produce the six-syllable form -- though there are a few who have learned to apply the jerigonza rules to spelling instead of to sound.

In parts of Brazil, the same language game applied to Portuguese is called "lingua do Pe", or "P language."

There is a very similar American English language game called "Ubbi Dubbi", or sometimes "Double Dutch", popularized on the children's television program Zoom some years ago. In Ubbi Dubbi (rhymes with "hubby"), you insert the VC sequence "ub" (pronounced to rhyme with "hub") in front of every vowel. Usually the "ub" syllable is stressed more than the vowel that it precedes, which makes Ubbi Dubbi very hard to understand.

The writing system of English is (especially on a letter-by-letter basis) much futher from English phonology than Spanish writing is from Spanish phonology. So no American child would every apply ubbi dubbi to spelling -- it is always the phonological vowels that get "ub" inserted in front of them, not the vowel letters a e i o u in the written form of English.

For example, the two-syllable word "speaking" in Ubbi Dubbi will have four syllables, which the official Zoom ubbi dubbi page would write as sp-ub-eak-ub-ing, and which we might write in IPA as []. In an imitation of the conventions of English orthography, the Ubbi Dubbi rendition of "speaking" might be given as "spubby cubbing". This treatment is the natural interpretation of of the Ubbi Dubbi rule ("put ub in front of every vowel") because the digraph (two-letter combination) "ea" in the spelling of the word "speaking" actually represents only one vowel. A child speaking (or understanding) Ubbi Dubbi knows this.

Some other examples from Ubbi Dubbi:

Uniformly, around the world, children's secret languages (and other language games) are defined in terms of the phonological categories of their languages. There are sometimes influences from spelling, but more often the vagaries of spelling are ignored. In fact, children commonly learn these secret languages before they learn to read, and such games also exist for languages that have no written form at all.

Tune-text alignment in English

Consider the first verse of the simple song Skip to my Lou, as presented in Ruth Crawford Seeger's American Folk Songs for Children (Doubleday, 1948).

In this verse, as throughout the song, a single line is repeated three times, against a simple melody that sketches a major triad in the tonic, the dominant, and then again the tonic.The verse ends with the invariant line "skip-a to my lou, my darling."

The songbook gives a couple of dozen other verses. Each has the same structure -- a single line repeated three times, and the invariant ending "skip-a to my lou, my darling." Thus the problem of fitting words to music can be reduced for each verse to the problem of
fitting a single line to the first two bars of the melody -- everything else is just repetition.

This is about as simple as songs get. Nevertheless, a four- or five-year-old learning new verses has to solve a non-trivial problem.

One way to look at the problem is to line a few verses up against a depiction of the metrical structure of the first two bars of the song. These two bars contain four "quarter notes". The metronome marking at the top of the music says that the quarter note equals 132,  i.e. 132 quarter notes per minute, or a little more than two quarter notes per second.

Standard western musical structure assumes a regular hierarchical subdivision of  time. In this case, each quarter note can be divided into two eighth notes, each eighth note into two sixteenth notes, etc. At each level, the first of the subdividing notes is "stronger" than the other -- it is the "downbeat."

Three levels are enough for this musical example. As for the alignment with the melody, the song provides a separate pitch for each quarter note. If that note is subdivided by the syllables of the verse, then the subdividing syllables just repeat the same note.

Here is the first verse -- this is just a schematic presentation of exactly the information provided by the musical notation above:

  E               C               E               G                (pitches of the tune)
  X               X               X               X                (quarter notes)
  X       X       X       X       X       X       X       X        (eighth notes)
  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X    (sixteenth notes)
 little  red     wa-     gon     pain-   ted    blue

Here are some other verses, aligned under another copy of the same melodic and metrical schema:

  E               C               E               G                (pitches of the tune)
  X               X               X               X                (quarter notes)
  X       X       X       X       X       X       X       X        (eighth notes)
  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X    (sixteenth notes)
 pig      in the par-    lour    what'll  I      do
 cat      in the but-ter milk     lapping up    cream
 rab-bit  in the corn    field    big as  a      mule
 hogs in the  po-ta- to  patch    rooting up     corn
 dad's    old    hat      and     ma- ma's old  shoe
There are many other verses -- Seeger provides a couple of dozen in the publication cited, and says "this song has hundreds of stanzas and is always picking up new ones. One collector alone gives 150, from which the above 22 were selected as encrouagement to further improvisation."

The  samples given above are enough to give us a guess about the principles involved. For a start, we can say something about what the principles are NOT:

For instance, both "little red wagon painted blue" and "dad's old hat and mama's old shoe" have eight syllables, but if we used the syllable-by-syllable alignment of the first line for the second line, we'd get:

  E               C               E               G                (pitches of the tune)
  X               X               X               X                (quarter notes)
  X       X       X       X       X       X       X       X        (eighth notes)
  X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X   X    (sixteenth notes)
dad's old hat     and     ma-    ma's     old   shoe

which gives the impression of stressing the line as "DAD's-old-hat AND maMA's old SHOE" (where the capitalized syllables correspond to the quarter-note beat of the song, and also to the points of pitch change).

No self-respecting American nursery school graduate would ever think to sing the line that way -- except perhaps as a joke.

The principles of tune-text alignment for this song seem to be:

This implies that the minimum plausible line of "skip to my lou" might be seven rather than eight syllables. For instance, "Jane's old hat and Jim's old shoe" might be OK.

We can make some other observations, such as this one:

You can verify for yourself that the rest of Ruth Crawford Seeger's cited lines follow the same pattern: The only real novelty in these additional examples is in the line ending with wagon, where there is an extra syllable aligned after the fourth quarter-note.

We can rephrase our observations by saying that Skip to my lou has a four-beat line, where the beats correspond to the quarter notes of the first two bars of the song, and where one to four additional syllables occur between each adjacent pair of beats.

I have seen four- and five-year-old children making up new verses to this song. No one has to teach them the rules -- they figure them out easily enough by themselves.

Most songs are more complicated than this one, but the basic principles of tune-text alignment in English remain the same: syllables are aligned with notes so that the stress pattern of the text and the rhythmic structure of the tune are congruent. If you have some familarity with designing computer algorithms, you might see if you can design one that will correctly specify the tune-text alignment for a simple song like this one.

To make up new verses -- or to sing old ones correctly -- you have to understand, implicitly, the metrical hierarchy of the music, the stress pattern of the text, and the way that they can be aligned. This understanding comes effortlessly to young children, providing  more evidence of the psychological reality (and naturalness) of the linguistic (and musical) concepts involved.

Why should there be something natural about the process of aligning two structures so as to make them rhythmically congruent? One plausible hypothesis is that this is the basis of coordination among speech articulators in ordinary talking. On this view, singing is just a kind of regularized and stylized form of speaking. In both cases, rhythmic structures are serving a coordinative function.

Accentual/syllabic verse in English

The principles of tune-text association for Skip to my Lou are basically the same as the principles that underlie most metered verse in English.

This is especially clear if we look at verse with a very clear rhythmic pattern, like Mother Goose rhymes, or Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, or Robert W. Service's ballad The shooting of Dan McGrew, or Aerosmith's Walk this way.

Let's take a look at how McGrew works. The poem has 58 lines, of which the first six are given below.

If you read these lines out loud, you can hardly avoid getting an impression of the intended rhythm. It's a seven-beat line, with either one or two additional syllables between each pair of adjacent beats. The beginning of the line can start with zero, one or two "upbeat" syllables. There is always a phrasal break between the fourth and fifth beats of each line, and occasionally there is no intervening syllable at this point (as if it were a line break).

We can annotate the rhythmic structure of the next six lines of the poem by using a sharp sign (#) for each "beat", a period for additional syllables, and a slash (/) for the phrase break:

This kind of annotation of the rhythmic structure of a verse is called scansion, and the basic rhythmic pattern of a poem (if it has one) is called its meter. The scansion shows us how the underlying pattern (here a seven-beat line with one or two intervening syllables) is realized in each line of the poem.

There is quite a bit to say about meter and scansion, even of metrically simple poems (some might even say doggerel) like McGrew. The point that we want to draw out here is that the basic principles are the same as those that applied in the case of Skip to my lou -- a certain number of beats per line, with variable (but constrained) numbers of syllables between the beats, and a regular break in a certain position.

Theorists distinguish among various kinds of poetic meter. The word meter means measure, and in each case, something is being measured or counted. In syllabic meters (as in French poetry), the only thing that matters is the number of syllables per line. In accentual meters, what is counted is accents -- or more properly beat-aligned accents. Most English metered verse is accentual-syllabic -- each line has a given number of "beats", but there are also more or less strong restrictions of the number of intervening syllables.

It is important to remember that poetic meter is an abtract pattern, a kind of grid against which the poet arranges his or her lines according to some geenral principles of congruence. How the congruence is defined depends on the poetic style, but also very much on the sound structure of the language that the poetry is written in. For metered verse to be a living form -- as it has been in many cultures around the world, both ancient and modern -- its patterns have to be defined in terms of phonological categories whose patterns poets and their audience can hear and feel.

Metrical feet

In the notation we've been using, The shooting of Dan McGrew is written in a fairly even mixture of . # and . . # rhythmic elements
(225 . # and 198 . . # to be precise). The distinction doesn't really seem to matter to its form, which we described simply as seven beats with one or two intervening syllables, divided into two half-lines of four beats and three beats. The lyrics to Aerosmith's song Walk this way have the same basic pattern: seven beats, divided as four plus three. However, now there can be as many as three weak syllables between each pair of strong syllables (where "strong" means "aligned with the beat"):

. . # . . # . . # . # / . . # . . . # . . # So I took a big chance at the high school dance, With a missy who was ready to play. . . # . . # . . . # . . . # . / . . # . . . # . # Wasn't me she was foolin' 'cause she knew what she was doin', when she told me how to walk this way.

Thus Walk this way has exactly the same meter and rhyme scheme as The shooting of Dan McGrew, except for a slight relaxation of the meter: instead of one or two weak syllables between beats, Aerosmith's song has one, two or three.

Lewis Carroll's mock epic The Hunting of the Snark also has the same basic meter as The shooting of Dan McGrew: Here are the first two stanzas:

              .     .   #    .  .   #       .  #   .    #
            "Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
                .   .  #  .   .    #   .    #
                As he landed his crew with care;
             .  #  .   .     #  .    .  #  .    .  #
            Supporting each man on the top of the tide
                 . .  #  .  .   #    .   .   #
                By a finger entwined in his hair.
              .     .   #    .  .   #     .  .    #   .    #
            "Just the place for a Snark!  I have said it twice:
                  .  . #     .    .  #  .     .   #
                That alone should encourage the crew.
             .     .   #    .  .   #     .  .    #   .     #
            Just the place for a Snark!  I have said it thrice:
                  .  .  #    .     .   #    .    #
                What I tell you three times is true."

Snark has alternate lines of four and three beats -- corresponding to the four/three division of the seven-beat line in McGrew. With the promotion of the half lines to full lines, additional rhymes are added (here cried/tide and twice/thrice) to reinforce the stanzaic form, but the meter is basically identical.

In Snark, however, the balance between . # and . . # shifts dramatically towards . . # 

There are 1754 . . # sequences, to only 251 . # sequences, for a ratio of about seven to one, while the . # sequences that do occur are essentially all at the beginning or the end of a line. Thus Snark is moving in the direction of fixing not only the number of "beats" -- of strong syllables in the line -- but also the number and placement of weak syllables.

In order to characterize poetic forms in which the arrangement of strong and weak positions is regulated in this way, poets and critics have borrowed the terminology of Greek (and Latin) metrics. The Greek metrical system was based on patterns of totally different units -- their meters did not care about the location of accented syllables, but rather regulated the pattern of long and short syllables. They then established a congruence between long and short syllables and patterns of long and short time-units in the musical meters of the period. Metrical systems that depend on syllable-length in this way are called quantitative. By contrast, English lyric poets rely on a congruence between stress patterns and the beat structure of our music, resulting in a metrical system that is called accentual or accentual-syllabic.

These different choices of basic poetic stuff are not arbitrary. The (classical) Greek language made a systematic distinction between long and short vowels, whereas English does not; English word-stress organizes the rhythm of English speech in a way that Greek accent did not.

Nevertheless, all poetic forms are based on analogies among different sorts of patterns, and it is easy enough to make an analogy between the Greeks' patterns of long and short syllables, and our patterns of strong and weak syllables. Thus we can borrow the Greek term iamb -- applied to the Greek pattern "short long" -- and apply it to the English pattern "weak strong." The Greeks called these basic patterns "feet" (actually of course they called them the equivalent in Greek). Here are some of the commoner foot names:

iamb . #
anapest . . #
trochee # .
dactyl # . .
spondee # #

Thus Snark is basically an anapestic meter, with alternating lines of four and three feet.

The Greeks (and their Roman students) identified types of poetic lines in terms of the type of rhythmic pattern (foot) used, and the number of repetitions of the pattern. Thus a pattern consisting of five iambs would be an iambic pentameter; a pattern consisting of six dactyls would be a dactylic hexameter; and so on.

For instance, a limerick is typically two lines of anapestic trimeter, followed by two lines of anapestic dimeter, followed by a final anapestic trimeter:

Iambic pentameter

When we look at the scansion of Skip to my lou or The shooting of Dan McGrew, we see that there is a very good correlation between strong positions in the meter ("beats") and main-stressed syllables of content words.

This correlation is not perfect. There are a few cases where stressed syllables of content words are in weak positions. Here is a line with four examples (in bold face):

The rhythm of this line remains clear, however, since in each case there are adjacent stressed words that are naturally more prominent, and so a completely ordinary reading of the line still gives a direct expression of the "swing" of the meter.

What never happens -- in such verse -- is for the main-stressed syllable of a polysyllabic word to be scanned in a weak position.

There are also examples of a "beat" position occupied by a word -- such as a function word -- whose natural degree of prominence is weak. However, in nearly all of these cases, there are even weaker words adjacent, so that the natural rhythm of the phrase still expresses the meter clearly:

As a result, it is impossible to read the poem without intuitively grasping its meter -- whether you want to or not!

In most metered verse in English, the meter is not as obvious. Nevertheless, the basic rules of meter and scansion remain the same: there are a certain number of strong ("beat") syllables per line, with a specified number of intervening syllables permitted between the beats. The main-stressed syllable of a polysyllabic word is never allowed to occur in one of the intervening weak (non-beat) positions in the meter. Naturally strong monosyllables may occur in metrically weak positions.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Service's handling of meter and that of subtler English poets is the treatment of metrically strong positions. In poems where the meter is obvious or even insistent, like limericks or The shooting of Dan McGrew or The hunting of the Snark, metrically strong positions are usually occupied by strongly stressed syllables, with weaker syllables around them. In subtler metrical styles, this correlation is relaxed, so that weak monosyllables often appear in strong positions in the meter.

The result is a flexible sort of meter, able to vary between clear and obvious rhythmicity and more prose-like patterns.
Like much English-language art poetry from Shakespeare to Auden, Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism is written in iambic pentameter, that is, in lines of five repetitions of the iambic rhythm /. #/

Sometimes his lines express the meter as directly as any limerick:

Each strong position in the previous line is occupied by the stressed syllable of a content word; each weak position is occupied by a prosodically-weak function word, or by the unstressed syllable of a polysyllabic word. In the line given below, both stressed syllables of imagination are used in metrically strong positions, but otherwise the situation is the same: However, it is easy to find lines in the same poem where unstressed and prosodically weak syllables are put in metrically strong positions, like is and the in the couplet below:

 As a result of this (and other aspects of poetic practice, such as frequent inversion of the first foot of a line), there may be a complex relationship between the abstract metrical pattern of iambic pentameter and its linguistic rhythms. Different poetic styles may constrain the relationship in quite different ways. However, the relationship is not dependent on arbitrary conventions -- say, "you can add extra syllables if they contain the letter 'x'". Rather, like children's language games and the relation of lyrics to music in songs, it is rooted in the sound structure of the language. Metrics is applied phonology.