Academic journal article Style

The Data Fetishist's Guide to Rime Coherence

Academic journal article Style

The Data Fetishist's Guide to Rime Coherence

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

This article is another installment in an ongoing linguistic detective serial. Its roots, like those of Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night, lie in academic England in the first third of the last century; and like that estimable novel, it has no corpse but plenty of mystery and even the odd poem. Also, like Sayers's posthumously completed novel Thrones, Dominations, investigation of this mystery is multigenerational and seems to proceed in spasms; about once every decade or so there are a few more facts brought to light and a few more theories adduced, but somehow, as in any good serial, the whole thing remains quite mysterious. As in any good detective story, the object of investigation is a real phenomenon, something that is demonstrable but unexplainable. And like any linguistic detective--especially one whose hero, Jim McCawley, declared himself quite satisfied to be described as a "data fetishist"--I'm interested in data on the extent of the phenomenon, some explanation about how it works, and--insha' allah--some way to relate it to the rest of the linguistic world.

The mysterious phenomenon I'm concerned with here goes under the general rubric of sound symbolism, and in particular is often referred to with the term phonestheme, a terra due to J. R. Firth and and a fairly natural outgrowth of the concepts of the phoneme, the principal unit of sound in a language, and the morpheme, the principal unit of lexical meaning. The number of phonemes in any language is usually on the order of a thousand times as small as the number of morphemes. Three orders of magnitude is a big conceptual gap, in which the phonestheme was intended to be the major unit. Kepler, and later Bode, remarked on the odd gap in the solar system between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, which was unfilled until the discovery of the first asteroid, Ceres, by Piazzi in 1800. Like a linguistic Piazzi, Firth filled a conceptual gap by discovering something unexpected in it. And, like the study of the minor planets, the scientific study of these minor word parts and their symbolism has lurched along spasmodically ever since.

The phonestheme, however, is part of folk linguistics at least as much as it is of academic: the first published clue, in fact, is to be found in the syndicated graphic strip Ripley's Believe It Or Not, which (some time before the publication of Firth's paper) trumpeted the fact that "400 words in English beginning with 'SN' apply to the nose--and its activities." (1)

Dwight Bolinger next focused attention on the phenomenon in his 1950 article in which he came regretfully to the conclusion that the problem was not susceptible to analysis under the then-current understanding of how language (and especially meaning) worked. In the process, however, he did establish the standard terminology, distinguishing between a syllable's assonance (word- or syllable-initial consonant cluster), and its rime (concatenated vocalic nucleus and final consonant cluster); thus in the word stump, for instance, the assonance is st- and the rime is -ump. Bolinger's use of terminology derived from (though not quite identical in meaning to) terms widespread in poetic analysis signaled, of course, that this phenomenon was not exactly unknown to poets, whether or not linguists might be able to make anything of it.

Rich Rhodes and I were responsible for the next spasm, in our 1981 Chicago Linguistic Society paper (hereafter RL81), in which we first made the claim that is perhaps best put as phonesthemes form a classifier system. Specifically, we showed that (at least) most initial bi- and triconsonantal cluster assonances in English monosyllables were semantically coherent--in the same sense that classifier systems are--to a degree (typically 70%) far beyond chance, and that rimes were also coherent, though to a lesser degree. We also proposed a theory for how this surprising state of affairs could have come to pass and for how it could maintain its stability over millennia of language history. …

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