Teenage Mutant Ninja Metrics

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In today's xkcd, a list of

The relevant bit of the song goes like this:

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Those who have had a lesson in accentual-syllabic metrics will recognize the pattern as trochaic tetrameter, with the added requirement that the line have the right shape for a Wikipedia article title. Well, and also actually be a Wikipedia article title.

I'm not sure how Randall compiled his list, but needless to say, it's incomplete — a bit of thought turns up Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and Crescent City, California, among many other place names; Harold Goodwin (English Actor) among many other PERSON (OCCUPATION) combinations; and so on.

But given how common two-syllable words with initial stress are in English, trochaic tetrameter seems to be relatively uncommon among Wikipedia titles.

Update — as AJD points out in the comments, we should perhaps worry about a new epidemic of trochee fixation.


  1. Bobbie said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 5:38 am

    Rapid City, North Dakota (also Willow City, Tower City, Watford City, etc)
    North Sioux City, South Dakota
    Cypress City, Manitoba

  2. Ewan said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 5:53 am

    I think he was referring to this ("original") theme song (not that it changes the stress pattern):


    [(myl) OK, fixed.

  3. Rodger C said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:42 am

    Dies irae, dies illa.

  4. AJD said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:58 am

    Xkcd seems to be succumbing to a malady described in an earlier strip: http://xkcd.com/856/

  5. Boris said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    Isn't it more like spondaic, given the staccato emphasis on every syllable?

  6. Neil Tarrant said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 7:32 am

    If you were raised in the UK, then the name 'ninja' was controversial, so it was replaced by 'hero' – see the altered intro below:

    More on the reasoning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teenage_Mutant_Ninja_Turtles_(1987_TV_series)#International_broadcasting

  7. Levantine said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:08 am

    In the UK, the show was renamed (and the theme song resung as) Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. I heard two explanations for this: that "ninja" wasn't a sufficiently well-known term in the UK at the time, and/or that it was considered too violent for those who understood it.

  8. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:53 am

    Munroe apparently pronounces "squirrel" with two syllables. This pronunciation is supported by dictionaries I've looked at, but it seems odd to me. I can't recall ever having heard it said that way, but probably I have many times but didn't notice.

  9. Brett said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:56 am

    @Neil Tarrant, Levantine: I had forgotten about the renaming overseas. The cartoon was already made less violent in America, because they took out the nunchucks. I find the objections to the violence of "ninja" doubly hillarious, becuase the TMNT comic book started out as a totally over-the-top parody of "gritty," hyper-violent comics. The name tried to cram in a bunch of high-energy buzzwords along with the definitely not high-energy "Turtles." However, the comic proved to be wildly popular with kids who didn't get that it was a joke, so the creators just ran with it.

    On an unrelated point, Randall got at least one of the stress patterns wrong, and it was one that he ought to have known better about: "proton-proton chain reaction." Pronouncing it in trochaic tetrameter makes it sound like it's bracketed as (proton-proton) (chain reaction). That might actually how the name was originally conceived, in the early days after Hans Bethe identified the process as the primary source of solar fusion energy; however, in a current pronunciation, there is no stress on "chain," because the implicit bracketing of the words is (proton-proton chain) (reaction). The name of the process is the "proton-proton chain" (usually shortened to "PP chain" or "PPI [pee pee one] chain"), and "reaction" would only be appended to identify what it is to a non-astrophysicist.

    [(myl) But from the point of view of metered verse in English, only word stress matters, to a first approximation at least, so that (((proton proton) chain) reaction) is still a valid instance of trochaic tetrameter — and could also be aligned with the beats of the song in question.

    It's easy to find lines in e.g. The Song of Hiawatha that retain their doggerel charm, as well as their metrical status, despite being similarly parsed (X . X . X) (. X .), e.g.

    Sees what is to be, but is not

    As it falls and flecks an oak-tree

    Came the Black-Robe chief, the Prophet
    He the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face


  10. Francois Lang said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    Most of these article titles work well also sung to the tune of Camptown Races


    A former colleague once opined that the most outlandish headlines from tabloid papers work beautifully with Camptown Races, e.g., the all-time classic "Headless Body in Topless Bar":


  11. Theophylact said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:30 am

    Dennis Paul Himes: This Ogden Nash poem presents the case for both.

    A squirrel to some is a squirrel,
    To others, a squirrel’s a squirl.
    Since freedom of speech is the birthright of each,
    I can only this fable unfurl:
    A virile young squirrel named Cyril,
    In an argument over a girl,
    Was lambasted from here to the Tyrol
    By a churl of a squirl named Earl.

  12. Nathan said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    Dennis Paul Himes raises an interesting point. The adjacent [r] and [l] seem too hard for me to pronounce as one syllable.

    Pearl, Carl, girl, curl…

    But everyone agrees "rural" is two syllables, right?

  13. Levantine said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    I somehow missed Neil Tarrant's comment when I reduplicated it with my own. As for "squirrel", I don't think it's possible to pronounce it other than as two syllables in British English.

  14. parkrrrr said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    Nathan: "Rural" may be two syllables normally, but – at least where I grew up in northeastern Indiana – "rural route" (as used in postal addresses) was essentially two syllables, though the bit in the middle was usually so muddy as to make it difficult to say whether it was pronounced "rule-route" or "rur-route."

  15. Ted said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:07 am

    I think the dialects in which "squirrel" is pronounced as one syllable are those in which it rhymes with "oil."

    [(myl) Not necessarily. My intuition says I pronounce squirrel with one syllable (though I have some doubts about how crisp the notion of "syllable" is in such cases), but I definitely don't rhyme squirrel with oil. Rather, squirrel rhymes with girl, whirl, pearl, churl, etc.]

  16. S Frankel said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    A few of these have accented syllables that are too short, for ex. the first syllable in "arctic" (Former Arctic Monkeys Members) – if you say this with normal speech rhythms, it doesn't work because it comes up a bit short. Alexander Pope was a master at modulating this sort of thing.

    @Boris – a spondee has two long syllables. There hardly are any in English; one commonly cited possible example might be "Amen."

  17. Mara K said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    I found myself reading the list aloud to the tune of the Can-can.

  18. Sniffnoy said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:30 am

    In addition to assuming that "squirrel" is pronounced with two syllables instead of one, the comic also assumes that "coiling" is pronounced with two syllables instead of three.

  19. Neil Dolinger said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    Is it still considered trochaic tetrameter if the syllables are just slightly off the beat?


  20. Jongseong Park said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    @Nathan: But everyone agrees "rural" is two syllables, right?

    In the American sitcom 30 Rock, one of the characters appears in a fictional film whose title none of her colleagues can parse due to her indistinct pronunciation. The title is The Rural Juror and here's the theme song: The Rural Juror

  21. Y said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 11:24 am

    I like it where people pronounce 'orange' as one syllable, but don't know how widespread it is (Upstate NY? Appalachia?)

  22. Corwin said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 11:34 am

    For monosyllabic "squirrel"-utterers: Is "squirreled" still one syllable? Is "squirreledst"?

  23. Ethan said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    @Corwin: As in "yestreday thou squirreledst thy nuts"?

  24. Jongseong Park said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

    Syllabification is quite flexible in English for large classes of words. In rhotic dialects, it seems to me that words featuring /r/ adjacent to an underlying weak vowel will be prone to the vowel being absorbed when the resulting contraction is permissible in English (which rules out pronouncing 'barrel' as one single syllable, for example).

    For many speakers, it seems to me that the NEAR and CURE lexical sets (the latter when not absorbed into NORTH) are being reanalysed as FLEECE + /ər/ and GOOSE + /ər/ respectively that can be realized as either one syllable or two. You can find many instances of such words sung as two syllables in songs.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    Freude, schöner Götterfunken

    Deutschland, Deutschland über alles / Gott erhalte Franz
    den Kaiser /
    Glorious things of thee are spoken…

    Y: I'm from Cleveland, and I pronounce orange as one syllable. I think it's common here in New Mexico and in lots of other parts of the U.S. too.

    Ted: I pronounce squirrel as two syllables—so it rhymes with girl. In a song, I can make girl one syllable, but that would seem strange with squirrel.

  26. arthur said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    The predilection for trochees is strong evidence that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were not created by the same person who wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare. Okay, not the only evidence . . .

  27. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    @Corwin: Yes, "squirreled" is one syllable for me. I don't know what "squirreledst" is.

  28. S Frankel said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

    Poetic syllabification is not always the same as linguistic syllabification. There are conventions in poetry, often honored only in the breech, even by the few who know about them, but they do exist. The conventions are largely based on spelling, so they are linguistically somewhat arbitrary. If I remember correctly, Nabokov made fun of Arndt's *Onegin* translation for, among very many other things, rhyming "fire" and "higher."

    Anyway, "squirrel" is definitely two syllables, according to convention, as is "coiling."

    This is one area where English majors might be consulted with profit.

    (disclaimer: I was never an English major, but I know people who were)

    [(myl) Alas, the last time English majors were routinely taught how to scan metered verse was, like, 1963 or so. See "No Professor Left Behind", 7/5/2004.]

  29. Adam Roberts said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

    I'm pondering whether we should sing the list of Wikipedia titles he picks out to the tune of the song, and when we get to the hurried 'heroes-in-a-half-shell' conclusion of the original, substitute 'xkcd-dot-com'. That surely can't have been Munroe's idea. Can it?

  30. Brett said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

    @Adam Roberts: I sang through the whole list under my breath, but after every three lines, I jumped back to the beginning of the tune. It worked well, except that (as I noted above) "proton-proton chain reaction" sounded all wrong.

  31. Roy S said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    http://www.xkcd.com/788/ is in a similar vein. Refer to the mouseover text…

  32. Jongseong Park said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I pronounce squirrel as two syllables—so it rhymes with girl.

    This astonished me as I didn't realize that there were people who pronounced 'girl' as two syllables. All dictionaries that I'm aware of indicate a one-syllable pronunciation of 'girl'.

    But it seems that there are enough native speakers with the intuition that they are pronouncing something like [ˈɡɝ.əl] instead of [ˈɡɝːl] in this and similar words. I found a video called Difficult words "world", etc. where the "accent reduction trainer" explains, "You will have to add an extra sound, an extra vowel, between the 'r' and the 'l'," and then writes /ə/ to illustrate this.

    Her natural pronunciation of 'world' is exactly what I would recognize as a one-syllable [ˈwɝːld], but when she pronounces it slowly in the course of the video for the benefit of learners, it is unmistakably [ˈwɝ.əld]. So in her mind, the citation form of 'world' has two syllables, and even when she's speaking naturally and I hear one syllable, she probably thinks that she's saying two syllables.

    To me, a clearly bisyllabic 'world' [ˈwɝ.əld] or 'girl' [ˈɡɝ.əl] sounds jocular or somehow non-standard ('England' as 'Ing-ger-land', 'damn' as 'day-um', 'athlete' as 'ath-uh-lete', or the Irish pronunciation of 'film' as 'fillum'). Yet here is someone purporting to teach a "Standard American Accent" (according to the video description) clearly explaining that 'world' is bisyllabic with an epenthetic schwa. Still not sure what to make of this.

  33. Jongseong Park said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

    For me, when I'm speaking in a rhotic American or near-American accent, 'squirrel' is two syllables, [ˈskwɝ.əl] in the citation form (as a non-native speaker who picked up English at the same time I learned to read it as an 8-year-old, I tended to be influenced by the spelling in the pronunciation, and 'squirrel' as two syllables was later reinforced as I also picked up a non-rhotic accent). But my intuition is that when I start saying this more quickly, it becomes almost indistinguishable in rhyme with 'girl' and sounds like a single syllable.

    For those of you who think 'girl', 'world', etc. are two syllables, does this also apply to 'Carl'? Surely not to 'turn' or 'firm'?

  34. David Morris said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

    One book of word-play I once owned but now don't so can't check ('The Joy of Lex' by Gyles Brandreth springs to mind) listed 'squirreled' as the longest one-syllable word, which I just couldn't get my head around – 'squirrel' and 'squirreled' are definitely two syllables for me – even before I studied linguistics I knew what syllable structure is. Many years later I was talking to a young American woman about this, and she vigorously declared that 'squirreled' was one syllable.
    My first instinct is to spell it 'squirrelled'. The spell-checker doesn't like that.
    I had not previous known the Ogden Nash. There is also Anon's:
    There once was a young man named Cyril
    Who was had in a wood by a squirrel,
    And he liked it so good
    That he stayed in the wood,
    Just as long as the squirrel stayed virile.

  35. John Lawler said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

    His list of titles is necessarily not complete.

    But it is alphabetical.

    How many other song lyrics can that be said of?

  36. Nathan said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    @Jongseong Park: I already listed "Carl". All the "-rl" words I listed (and others I didn't) have an extra syllable for me. It doesn't happen with nasals (not "turn" or "firm"), just the ell.
    And while my English is very rhotic, the 'r' isn't necessary. I sense a similar effect in words like "oil" and "whale" as well. My wife has the "fill–feel" and "fell–fail" mergers, and her pronunciation trips me up sometimes. In return she picks on my extra syllable.

  37. Ray Dillinger said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

    I'm with Nathan. By default, all words ending in short-vowel, r, l, have a schwa before the 'l' for me.

  38. Jongseong Park said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

    Thanks, Nathan. The pre-l breaking in word like 'oil' [ˈɔɪ(ə)l], 'whale' [ˈ(h)weɪ(ə)l], 'feel' [ˈfiː(ə)l], or 'file' [ˈfaɪ(ə)l] is well known and indicated in specialist pronunciation dictionaries. So is pre-r breaking in American English for words like 'fear' [ˈfɪ(ə)r] or 'care' [ˈkɛ(ə)r]. These are examples of a glide [ə] being inserted between a vowel and a liquid.

    But I haven't seen anything in the literature that treats 'girl', 'world', or 'Carl' as two-syllable words, with a glide [ə] inserted between /r/ and /l/. Is this widespread enough in American English to treat as a legitimate phenomenon? It kind of reminds me of what happened in Dutch where the /rl/ coda is nearly always broken up with a glide, e.g. Karel for Charles.

  39. Rubrick said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

    Lore Sjöberg once wrote a "Doo-Dah News Ticker" which would pull headlines from (I think) the AP newswire singable to "Camptown Races" and present them as a news ticker. Sadly it is currently unavailable.

    Regarding the "how many syllables?" debate: is "syllable" actually well-defined linguistically? It definitely feels like a fuzzy-edged category to me (similar to "vowel").

  40. Jongseong Park said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

    In saying that I haven't seen anything in the literature about [ə] insertion between /r/ and /l/, I should have specified that I was talking about General American, the only major rhotic dialect that is widely taught to EFL students. If we're talking about English dialects in general (and especially the Celtic-influenced ones), there are of course several that feature such insertions. The much studied epenthetic schwa in Irish English (e.g. film [ˈfɪləm]) can also occur in more environments in vernacular Irish English, including between /r/ and /l/ (e.g. 'girl' [ˈɡɛɹəl]) according to this book, p. 49.

  41. Jacob said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    If you want to save time, sing the entire list to the tune of the middle section of Weird Al Yankovic's "Hardware Store."

  42. Alyssa said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

    I speak a pretty standard American English (west coast), and of Jongseong Park's examples I can pronounce most of them as either one or two syllables. I suspect that in normal speech they are always one syllable, but if I go slow and enunciate I do both syllables. This is true for oil, whale, feel, file, fear, girl, world, and Carl.

    The exception, oddly, is "care" – if I try to make it two syllables, it ends up like "kay-er", and that sounds odd. (Isn't there some rule about how you can't have a stressed syllable that ends in [ɛ]? That might explain why this is the odd man out.)

  43. Alyssa said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    Oh I forgot to add – rhyming squirrel with girl seems off to me, so I'd say that usually I give it two syllables. I think it's just too much of a mouthful to collapse into one.

  44. AEM said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    I've written a Python program to find Wikipedia article titles that fit this pattern:

    Here's a sample, in alphabetical order:
    academic plagiarism
    academic publication
    academic skepticism
    accidental adversaries
    accidental algorithm
    accidental bowel leakage
    accidental cancellation
    accidental death insurance

  45. Eric P Smith said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

    To me as a Scot, 'squirrel' and 'barrel' are definitely two-syllable. The pronunciation of words like 'girl', 'world', 'arm' gave me much anxiety as a child. The local pronunciations 'gerrul', 'wurrulled', 'arrum' were coached out of me at home. Then I would hyper-correct, and try to say the name of the island of Arran as one syllable.

  46. Mark F. said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:29 pm

    A friend named Charles tells of the time in first grade they went around the room and counted the syllables in their own names. He was stumped.

  47. leoboiko said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

    @Roy S: The point in that mouseover text is just delightful. I'm going through everything in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_metre#Examples and singing them all to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.

  48. leoboiko said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    Someone even automated the process! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZqR_M20Y48

  49. Ray Dillinger said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    We used to have fun with this game of singing chains of songs with compatible syllabic patterns (and therefore interchangeable tunes).

    It wasn't long until someone noticed that most of the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay could be sung to the tune of either 'Amazing Grace' or 'Gilligan's Island.'

    Alas, though for the game. Lacking established tunes of their own the chain always ended with one of those poems.

  50. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

    As I learned the trick, it wasn't singing Emily Dickinson poems to the "Gilligan's Island" tune; it was singing them to the tune of "I'd like to teach the world to sing and/or buy the world a Coke." Totally different aesthetic results.

  51. Viseguy said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

    myl> … but I definitely don't rhyme squirrel with oil.

    So, you didn't grow up in a tenement above 96th Street on Manhattan's East Side in the 1920s? My (Italian-American) mom had twin brothers who might have pronounced it that way — though she herself never would have (and they went to high school, while she wasn't allowed to). Even as a kid I was fascinated by the ir-oi inversion: girl-goil, toilet/tirlet.

  52. Chris C. said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:03 pm

    @Brett: However, the comic proved to be wildly popular with kids who didn't get that it was a joke, so the creators just ran with it.

    That's not my recollection. TMNT was in the vanguard of the black-and-white indie comic boom of the mid-1980s. I was in my early 20s then and so perhaps qualified as a "kid", but I don't know anyone who didn't get the joke. (I may not have discovered them until the Cerebus crossover issue, but I can't quite remember now.) Any longtime comic reader instantly recognized their origin story as a riff on Daredevil's, but alongside the humor Eastman and Laird were able to tell a really good story. It was very much not a kiddie book, though, and I don't know how many younger readers went for the B & Ws.

  53. Brett said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

    @Chris C.: I was a kid when the first comics came out, and there were plenty of boys my age and (mostly) a bit older who were reading the comics from a very early stage, even though they were black and white. I was not really a fan, but the kids I knew who were did not seem to get the joke at all. Looking back at the comics as an adult, it's not very subtle, but it went over plenty of young readers' heads at the time.

  54. Chris C. said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

    I doubt there's much more than anecdote to tell us about original TMNT reader demographics, but I don't see how the creators "ran with it" when it came to the book itself. With the merchandising empire, yes, they very much did — and this, unfortunately, led to the demise of the original book when E & L no longer had the time to devote themselves to it personally anymore.

  55. AJD said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

    Thomas Veatch's 1991 dissertation refers to "the breaking of sequences of long or gliding vowels plus vocalized /l/ into two syllables" as in owl, feel, and fail; he describes it as a consequence of /l/ becoming phonologically more vowel-like (and thus unable to coexist in the same syllable after a long vowel). He doesn't mention the Carl, curl etc. classes specifically, but since he describes /ar/ and /ɚ/ eslewhere as long/gliding vowel phonemes themselves, it's clear that the same explanation applies.

  56. Ken said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:05 pm

    When I read those titles, I start hearing some of the incidental music from "Star Trek" (original series). It's the one they used when the ship is going into battle or doing warp nine. "DAH-dah DAH-dah DAH-dah DAH-dah" (well duh, four trochees), but followed by a kind of "dum-dada-DUUM".

  57. Bloix said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

    In England squirrel is pronounced skwih-rel, so I can see how an Englishman wouldn't be able to make it into one syllable. Skwihrl is more or less unpronounceable.

    But the American skwuh-rul easily slurs into skwerl.

    see (rather, hear) – http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/squirrel#

  58. David P said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

    Henry James' niece, chatting with him, mentioned something about a jewel. He corrected her: – "That's 'jew-el'." She: "I'm afraid we don't pronounce our vowels as carefully in America." He: "That's 'vow-els'." She: "Oh, Uncle Henry, don't be cruel." He: "'Cru-el'."

  59. Joe Fineman said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 9:46 pm

    "Oil", in my ideolect, has two syllables. It does not rhyme with "boil".
    "Fire" and "higher" rhyme; they both have two syllables. So also in Longfellow:
    Let us by the fire
    Ever higher
    Sing them till the night expire.

  60. S Frankel said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

    @Joe Fineman – do you syllabify "oiling" and "boiling" differently?

    The Longfellow isn't a good example of art verse. Like so much else of his output, it's an imitation of popular or folk verse. In the case you cited, it's from (thanks, Google!) his translation of a rustic French-dialect Christmas carol, which he imaginatively called "A Christmas Carol." Incidentally, he rhymes "cells" and "else"; that definitely wouldn't be permitted in traditional English art verse.

  61. bfwebster said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 10:51 pm

    @Jongseong Park: This astonished me as I didn't realize that there were people who pronounced 'girl' as two syllables.

    When my (former) wife and I moved to Clear Lake, Texas, some 35 years ago, we became good friends with the young married couple in the apartment next to ours. For at least a few weeks, I thought the wife was calling her young son by his initials, "J. F." I then discovered that the boy's name was actually "Jeff", which his mom pronounced "Jay-eff" with two full glorious syllables and just a hint of a break between them.

  62. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 12:04 am

    Apparently this was also the reaction to the initial publication of The Song of Hiawatha:


  63. rosie said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 12:56 am

    I'm English, and all Randall's trochees work for me — including squirrel, orange and oil — except some not mentioned here yet: "William" needs two syllables to be pronounced as one, so the scansion isn't perfect — but that fault is minor — then there's "resource", which here is stressed on the second syllable, and "iguana", which here is pronounced as an English word, though Randall presumably uses a pronunciation closer to that of the Spanish original.

  64. CThornett said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    Church organists (at least in the UK) are generally adept at mixing and matching words and tunes of hymns according to the number of syllables and the stress pattern. (There are indices to consult.) The reasons include hating the tune in the hymnbook, no one being able to sing the tune in the hymnbook, having sung one or the other too many times recently or just liking another tune better. This can be quite disconcerting to someone primed to sing a different tune.

    Some lyric and poetic conventions allow multiple unaccented syllables in the place of one, two being more generally acceptable than three or more, or additional unstressed syllables. A note is divided or an upbeat or grace note added.

    Songs and hymns that put too many normally unstressed syllables on stressed beats of a bar are a real annoyance to anyone who pays attention to the words.

  65. Jongseong Park said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 2:01 am

    The Song of Hiawatha is in the Kalevala metre, directly inspired by the Finnish epic poem. Now I'm going to be singing "Vaka vanha Väinämöinen" in the TMNT tune…

    From Randall's list, the one that I stumbled on while singing through it in my head was "Quantuum [sic] vacuum plasma thruster". Perhaps influenced by the misspelling of 'quantum', I was tempted to say 'vacuum' as a dactyl. Of course, 'vacuum' can be easily smoothed to two syllables, even if you don't rhyme its second syllable with 'boom'.

  66. AEM said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 2:34 am

    All of the XKCD examples have (I think) 4-5 words, presumably because "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" has 4 words. I think this is a reason why examples like "Broken Arrow, Oklahoma" and "Crescent City, California" (mentioned by MYL) weren't included.

  67. DMT said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 4:13 am

    A bit off-topic in a thread about squirrels, but "Crescent City, California" would also fail to fit the pattern for some speakers (including me) for whom "California" is pentasyllabic. Trying out different pronunciations, non-rhotic California seems to work with either four or five syllables, but rhotic "California" only seems to work with four – are there any natively rhotic speakers who use pentasyllabic "California" in their normal speech?

  68. leoboiko said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    Wikipedia's page on The Song of Hiawatha has an early report of xkcd's trochee disease. From The New York Times' gossip column, November 24, 1855:

    The madness of the hour takes the metrical shape of trochees, everybody writes trochaics, talks trochaics, and think in trochees. People talk trochees in the street; merchants ask the price of raw material in that strain, and even ladies retail the scandal of the day in trochaic measure. […]

    "By the way, the rise in Erie
    Makes the bears as cross as thunder."
    "Yes sir-ree! And Jacob's losses,
    I've been told, are quite enormous…"

  69. Akito said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    Perhaps the reason why care (and prayer but not layer, mayor, player) is the odd man out is that the glided vowel /ej/ loses its tenseness (and gliding) through the Mary-merry-marry merger?

    The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary is quite inconsistent in indicating the disyllabic American variant for curl, hurl, pearl, whirl, world, etc., for EFL learners.

    Is pueblo one syllable or two syllables, and why?

  70. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 10:25 am

    S Frankel: What about Pope, in The Dunciad, Book II?

    The senior’s judgment all the crowd admire, Who but to sink the deeper rose the higher.

    (Hope the br tag works better than it does in preview)

    And Robert Hillyer, maybe the most traditional 20th-century American poet of any note, wrote

    We talked of women poets, nothing else, From Sappho to our friend at Sevenels.

    There are conventions, but poets violate them when they feel a need to. I'd like to see an example of a poet that never did. Hopkins, of course, was so unconventional that his usage isn't evidence of anything, but I can't resist quoting one line:

    What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent

    Anyway, I don't think the conventions apply to popular songs. Jim Morrison famously rhymed fire with higher and liar.

    Jongseong Park: Fear, care, and four are no more than 1.2 syllables for me, I think, and "arm" and "film" are 1.0. On the other hand, here's an iambic pentameter couplet in my speech:

    This hour, oils sire world-chasm Between the one who lacks, the one who has 'em.

  71. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 10:27 am

    Akito: Here in New Mexico, I generally hear pueblo as two syllables, which may be Spanish influence—though Spanish influence on N. M. English is far from consistent.

  72. Akito said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    Thank you, Jerry Friedman. And sorry, I meant two syllables or three.

  73. Jongseong Park said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 11:25 am

    I agree that 'care' usually can't be pronounced as two syllables in speech, but I'm pretty sure I've heard it become 'cay-er' in a song or a chant: "Wave 'em around like you just don't care".

  74. Nathan said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

    @Akito: Pueblo is 2 syllables, because the "u" is a glide /w/. I suppose there may be language communities, far from Spanish influence, who might know the word only from writing, and therefore use a full vowel. After all, I've heard commercials where someone speaking British English pronounces Jaguar with 3 syllables.

  75. chris y said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

    Jaguar is standardly pronounced with three syllables in British English; I was an adult before I ever heard it with two.

    There's a Lawrence Block novel where Millay's poems are all sung to "Yellow Rose of Texas".

  76. Jongseong Park said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    I agree that 'pueblo' is usually two syllables for English speakers. I think 'Puerto' (as in 'Puerto Rican lizard-cuckoo') is only ever two syllables. Tautosyllabic /pw/ only appears in loanwords like these (others include 'Poisson' and 'puissance'), but English speakers don't seem to have any problems with it.

    @Akito: The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary is quite inconsistent in indicating the disyllabic American variant for curl, hurl, pearl, whirl, world, etc., for EFL learners.

    You're right, I see that it gives 'curl' as [kɝːᵊl] while the others are 'hurl' [hɝːl], 'pearl' [pɝːl], 'whirl' [hwɝːl], and 'world' [wɝːld]. But 'curl' is the only case in the whole dictionary where an optional breaking is shown between /r/ and /l/ (I did a sound search on the CD version). It's as if 'curl' was treated as an individual oddity, though based on the comments here we should perhaps be looking at the possible breaking as a general rule in this class of words.

  77. Rodger C said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

    Several small unrelated points:

    –I've heard AAVE speakers say "peblo," especially for the city in Colorado. Is this, I wonder a hypercorrection of the AAVE tendency to postlabialize labials?

    –"If a body kiss a body, need the warld ken?"

    –Here in Kentucky there seems to be a tendency to pronounce "Jaguar" in hypercorrected form as "Jagwire."

    –I grew up pronouncing "oil" with one syllable and "all" with two.

  78. S Frankel said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    Pope: The senior’s judgment all the crowd admire, Who but to sink the deeper rose the higher.

    Pope is so cool! He's playing with the meter – "sink," "deep" and "rose" are all long syllables, but the line ends with a Wile E Coyote effect in order to mock the senior.

    I wouldn't expect something like this in his Iliad, though.

    JF: There are conventions, but poets violate them when they feel a need to.

    (Side note: I would expect a Brit to leave out that last word.) Of course. Again, Pope, from his Essay on Criticism:

    Music resembles poetry, in each / Are nameless graces which no methods teach, / And which a master-hand alone can reach. / If, where the rules not far enough extend, / (Since rules were made but to promote their end) / Some lucky license answers to the full / Th'intent proposed, that license is a rule. / Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take, / May bold deviate from the common track.

    (with the obvious bold deviation from the iambic pattern in the last line)

    The point, though, is that the syllabification (and accentuation) of verse is different from that of normal speech – it's affected by convention and by spelling. And if the verse is to be set to music, it's affected by that as well. For extreme example, consider the first line of the refrain in the Toreador Song from Bizet's Carmen: "To-ré-a-dor, en gar-de !" This ends with a heavy thump on a syllable that doesn't even exist in normal speech.

  79. Mark Dowson said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 2:32 pm

    As a child in England I knew the following rhyme (I have no idea of the origin):

    The bishop of Durham trod on a wurrum
    He said to the beadle "Prepare the cathedral
    For I'm going to inturrum this wurrum"

  80. AntC said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

    The mouseover's one song to the tune of another is a standard round in this radio panel game http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_sorry_I_haven%27t_a_clue

  81. Chris C. said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

    "Jaguar" has 3 syllables in my wife's Orange County, California ideolect too, only it's a different 3. She pronounces it "jagwire".

  82. Rodger C said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    Chris C., see my comment above. A result, no doubt, of being drilled not to refer to the stuff that keeps cows in as "bobwar."

  83. Chris C. said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 9:40 pm

    @Rodger — I did miss that before, but it's rather improbable in her case. You're about as likely to encounter a cow in Orange County as you are a yak, and never mind a barbed wire fence.

  84. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 26, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    S Frankel: Okay, it's not in Pope's Iliad (which uses higher only once), so I'll resort to Tennyson, In Memoriam XV:

    That rises upward always higher,
    And onward drags a labouring breast,
    And topples round the dreary west,
    A looming bastion fringed with fire.

    Yes, I agree that syllabication in songs is different from that of speech, and it's not necessarily the same as that of 18th- and 19th-century poetry.

  85. Rodger C said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:47 am

    @Chris C.–Interesting. Is this originally a hypercorrection that has escaped into the wild, I wonder?

  86. Jongseong Park said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    It seems highly unlikely to me that a Californian would smooth -ire /aɪər/ into -ar [aːr] (~/ɑːr/) in the first place for such confusion to occur. I would guess the idiosyncratic pronunciation of 'jaguar' as 'jagwire' is just cross-contamination from words like McGuire.

    The smoothing of English 'triphthongs' /aɪər/ and /aʊər/ is something I associate more with non-rhotic British English. I'll bet many Americans will feel that even words like 'fire' and 'hour', traditionally treated as monosyllabic in poetry, are disyllabic.

    The traditional distinction of monosyllabic 'fire' /faɪər/ and disyllabic 'higher' /haɪ.ər/ is no longer a strict phonetic reality. From what I can tell, most speakers pronounce these as exact rhymes at least some of the time. Even in traditional poetry, you can see forms like pow'r (= power), indicating that English 'triphthongs' have been varisyllabic for a while.

  87. S Frankel said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman: You're quite right (as you probably knew all along). The issue isn't that, in the traditional poetry we've been talking about, "higher" can't rhyme with "fire." Jongseong Park explained it much better than I did: it's that words like "power" and), presumably, "higher" can have either one or two syllables, but "fire" can have only one. (My point: this is just a convention more-or-less based on spelling; it doesn't reflect normal speech.

    What are the magical tools you're using that let you make categorical statements such as Pope's Iliad uses "higher" only once?

  88. AEM said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

    Here's a fairly comprehensive list of Wikipedia article titles that can be sung to the TMNT theme song: http://pastebin.com/u1RNYx4i

    (I wrote a program to gather these; I'm wondering if that's how the XKCD list was assembled.)

  89. Brett said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

    @S Frankel : Are you actually asserting that "fire" cannot have two syllables in real speech? Because my natural pronunciation gives it two syllables. I remember being mystified in elementary school that I got a question about how many syllables "fire" had wrong.

  90. S Frankel said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

    @Bret – no, quite the opposite. I'm talking only about conventions in traditional art verse, and my point was exactly that they are based on spelling and tradition as much as natural speech so that, from the standpoint of natural speech, they can be quite arbitrary. For example, "flour" can have only one syllable, whereas "flower" can have either one (sometimes spell'd "flow'r") or two.

    Your elementary school was wicked to insist on this, but these were the sort of prescriptive rules, based on a stupidly inappropriate register, that used to be taught. May still be, for all I know.

  91. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

    S Frankel: Thanks, I see your point. Incidentally, higher seems to rhyme with fire etc. much less often than pow'r or flow'r with hour. One of those matters of convention, I guess.

    I searched the U. of Adelaide's e-book of Pope's Iliad for "higher".

  92. S Frankel said,

    August 27, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

    @Jerry Friedman – Spellings like pow'r and flow'r are common enough, but I'm quite sure that I've never seen high'r. My knowledge of English literature in original spelling isn't extensive enough to provide a statistically valid sample, though; and if somebody snuck in a "hire" I probably wouldn't remember that. Maybe "high'r" just looked awkward, and that impeded it's use as a single syllable (which wouldn't bother the 19th-cent. poets quite so much as the earlier ones)? I don't know much about the history of English spelling.

  93. Jongseong Park said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 2:41 am

    @S Frankel: For example, "flour" can have only one syllable, whereas "flower" can have either one (sometimes spell'd "flow'r") or two.

    The word "flour" was originally a variant of the word "flower" (cf. French fleur de farine) and the spelling "flower" remained in use in this sense until the early part of the 19th century. "Flower" itself came from Middle English flour.

    Perhaps the spellings reflected real differences in pronunciation that came to distinguish the etymological doublet, or maybe it was mostly (or entirely) a graphic convention. In any case, this is another example that demonstrates that one-syllable and two-syllable pronunciations of words of this type haven't been clear-cut, immutable distinctions for a while now.

  94. Gabriel Burns said,

    August 28, 2014 @ 11:50 am

    In the interest of future readers, you may want to link to xkcd.com/1412 rather than simply xkcd.com since the comic in question is no longer the current one.

  95. Chas Belov said,

    August 30, 2014 @ 1:02 am

    Hmmm, I sometimes think of some words having 1.5 syllables.

    That said, for me:
    flour – two syllables, homophonous with flower
    squirrel – one to 1.5 syllables, never two
    oil – two rhymes with boil, also two
    all – one
    squirreled – one, never 1.5
    squirreledst – never though to say it until now, but one
    rural – 1.5 to two
    juror – 1.5 to two
    fire – 1.5 to two
    curl, hurl, pearl, whirl, world – all one

  96. Bloix said,

    September 2, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

    In Light My Fire, Jim Morrison rhymes liar, higher, fire, pyre, mire – and sings them all monosyllabically. But in the closing line of each verse ("try to set the night on fire") he sings fire disyllabically.


    Jose Feliciano sings all the words disyllabically.


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