Recently in the Rhythm/Stress/Meter Category

Back in December, linguistics grad student Gretchen McCulloch analyzed joke variants on Benedict Cumberbatch's name to see what the underlying patterns are. She gave more statistical detail in a post on her blog.

Interesting and fun discussion, but I found it odd (in the Toast article) that it took her a couple of iterations to come up with initial-syllable stress as a factor; that part seemed obvious to me. But maybe she was guiding readers through a process of figuring it out, rather than describing the actual process she went through.

I also would've liked to've seen some further discussion about whether secondary stress on the final syllable of each word is relevant, but secondary stress is tricky and might've been too much of a digression.

...I also found it interesting that some of the specific examples don't work for me; in particular, I would never have guessed that “Bombadil Rivendell” was a Cumberbatch variation. (At first I thought she was saying it was a non-valid example, but then she says it came from the generator.) I think my own personal rules for what sounds like a variant of his name are stricter than the ones implied by the name generator. Another example: “Beetlejuice Animorph” doesn't sound to me like a joke on “Benedict Cumberbatch” except in the context of discussing Cumberbatchian names.

And I think she may not go far enough in some directions. The PronunciationManual joke pronunciation video for Benedict Cumberbatch opts for “Bucket Crunderdunder,” which isn't a perfect variation but is a funny one. And I think if someone said “I'm a big fan of that actor Bucket Crunderdunder,” I would know who they were talking about. Though in large part that's because (as McCulloch mentions) if one of the names is really obvious, the other one doesn't have to be. In other words, the “Bucket” part is almost useless, but “Crunderdunder” carries the variation almost on its own.

(I think The Cumberbatch Variations would be a good Fake Ludlum Title.)

I'd also have liked to see her try to construct new variations to test her hypotheses. For example, we could start with a pair of three-syllable words with initial stress, like “Higgledy Piggledy,” and see whether transforming them in accordance with her rules produces a valid variation:

Ends in consonant: Higgledip Piggledip.

Begins with B and/or hard C sounds: Biggledip Kiggledip.

Second word ends in preferred consonant: Biggledip Kiggledish.

She said that a good variant should have at least three of the listed factors. I think this one probably works: “I'm a big fan of that actor Biggledip Kiggledish.” Probably close enough. I'll go on to add her other rules:

N or M between first two syllables: Bimmeldip Kinneldish.

Has æ in final syllable: Bimmeldip Kinneldash.

Yep, Bimmeldip Kinneldash is definitely a valid variation. (For best results, I would tweak it a bit to Bunnydip Kenneldash.) But that's also because using all five of her rules transforms any pair of dactylic words into being awfully close to the original name. So I think that part of what's going on with those rules is that they demonstrate the allowable variations for certain phonemes to “sound like” certain other phonemes to English speakers. Nasals sound similar, sibilants sound similar, etc. So if you take a word and replace the sounds in it with other ones that sound similar, then you'll get a word that sounds similar to the original.

To be clear: I'm not trying to disparage her rules! I think they're neat, and it's a good analysis, and the at-least-three part is especially interesting to me. I certainly would never have figured out most of this. So I don't intend this post as criticism; just exploring the ideas.

Nothing Like a Dame

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Was just listening to bits of South Pacific, looking for duets (at Jacob's suggestion), and came across this excellent couplet from the song “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”:

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother,

There is one particular thing that is nothin' whatsoever in any way, shape or form like any other.

Who knew that Ogden Nash wrote showtunes?

(I know the lyrics are by Hammerstein. But don't they look like Nash could have written them?)

Four-footed poets

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I just read a bit of verse in a book that reminded me, because of its rhythm, of Tolkien. It looked like a quotation, so I Googled it, and discovered that it was actually a riff on a particular Tolkien poem, “The Song of Beren and Lúthien,” the one that starts thusly:

The leaves were long, the grass was green,

The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,

And in the glade a light was seen

Of stars in shadow shimmering.

And I started thinking about how quintessentially Tolkienian that particular metrical scheme is. And I was thinking maybe I should put together a quiz: made-up verse with the meter and rhyme scheme of various poets, to see whether y'all could guess the poet from the meter.

And then I realized that the above-shown Tolkien meter is actually shared (almost) by another of the most beloved poets of our time:

My hat is old. My teeth are gold.

I have a bird I like to hold.

My shoe is off. My foot is cold.

And now my story is all told.

The only significant metrical difference, I think, is that Tolkien loves to end a quatrain of iambic tetrameter with a dactyl, usually an -ing verb (shimmering, listening, wavering, quivering, etc.), leaving that last syllable unstressed, whereas Seuss follows through on the iambs and finishes on a stressed syllable.

Of course, there are lots of poets who use iambic tetrameter. Like Marlowe, in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That hills and valleys, dale and field,

And all the craggy mountains yield.

So it's not just meter that makes Tolkien and Seuss so distinctive. It's also diction (imagine Seuss writing the phrase “hemlock-umbels”!) and rhyme scheme and sentence structure; the similarity of structure in the abovequoted first lines of the Tolkien and Seuss pieces is what initially juxtaposed them in my head, but Tolkien combines the two simple declarative sentences and makes them just the first two clauses of a much longer sentence.

This sort of analysis can yield all sorts of interesting mashups. What if Seuss had written the Passionate Shepherd?

Come live with me. Come be my love.

We'll fit together, hand in glove.

From hill to dale, from push to shove,

We'll look at mountains up above.

Or, for that matter, Tolkien, perhaps channeling Wordsworth a little:

Come live with me, come be my dream,

And wander, lovely as a cloud,

O'er hill and dale, o'er field and stream,

With mountains craggy glowering.

And so on.

Rum, hobbitses, and the Kirk

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A few weeks back, N introduced me to the catchy video remix "Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain; why is he climbing a mountain?"

It does a neat job of turning spoken intonation into quasi-melody (and adding music and video). As I wrote in an old column on intonation:

I'm fascinated by spoken-word recordings in which intonation almost provides a melody. There's a Scott Johnson recording which includes clips of someone saying, "Remember that guy, J-John somebody? He was a—he was sort of a jerk" over and over. It's not really a melody, but when repeated it begins almost to sound like one. Peter Berryman suggests elaborating on this notion by recording conversations and basing melodies on them. Jim Moskowitz adds that minimalist composer Steve Reich has used spoken-word techniques like this, most famously in a piece called "Different Trains," which uses recordings of people talking about 1940s US passenger trains and Nazi concentration-camp trains.

Turns out that Kirk is not the only subject of such remixes. Suddenly everyone seems to be talking about "They're taking the hobbits to Isengard!" and "Why is the rum gone?"

Who knew spoken words could provide such catchy melodies?

Title of entry, of course, refers to the three great traditions of the British Navy.

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