English can allow the word-initial sequence ʃr. English can allow word-final sequences like -lfths. English words can be multisyllabic without being morphologically complex. English prose sentences can conform to highly regular rhythmic patterns.

shred /ʃrɛd/
twelfths /twɛlfθs/
military territory

Three cream scones please – Kate Snow will share Paul’s.
Thirty happy laddies whistled loudly all the way to Portmahomack.
Innocent mineral magazines reappeared yesterday.
Don’t you want a fundamental macaroni explanation?

But these are all rarities – these phonotactic sequences, this morpho/phonological fact, the extended consistency of these rhythmical patterns – they illustrate what is unusual about the forms of English, not what is typical.

So I’m wondering – we can play around with things like these (and a noted psycholinguist and a renowned anglicist are in print with apparently independent and beautifully elaborate manipulations of prose rhythm) and presumably there is something to be learned from the exercise – but what is that something?

“Our understanding of the complex and ‘irregular’ structure of ordinary prose can be sharpened,” says Angus McIntosh, “by exposure to … simple but abnormally iterative structures…” But how? Read this aloud, with a Tum-ti-ti rhythm:

Note, in a triangle having an angle of ninety degrees that the square that is made with its base the hypotenuse equals in area the sum of the squares that are made on the sides which are forming the right angle.

Examples like this show that the rhythms of ordinary prose include the raw materials for artfully constructed ‘abnormal’ structures, but doesn’t that just creatively exaggerate or parody the characteristics of naturally occurring text, rather than also providing much basis for insight into these forms?

Abercrombie, D. (1965). Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics. Oxford: OUP
Breen, M. & Clifton, C. (in press). Stress matters: Effects of anticipated lexical stress on silent reading.
Cutler, A. (1994).  The perception of rhythm in language. Cognition, 50: 79-81
Davies, M. (1986). Literacy and Intonation. In Couture, Barbara (ed.) Functional Approaches to Writing: Research Perspectives. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 199–230.
McIntosh, A. (1990). Some elementary rhythmical exercises and experiments. Anglo-American Studies, X (1): 5-19.

5 thoughts on “parodies

  1. I won’t pretend to understand any of this but enjoyed the reference to Portmahomack! Happy teenage memories made there.


    • Ditto, Elspeth re understanding what Cath is talking about in this particular post. My memories of Portmahomack are more from when I was 6/7 when I lived at North Tarrel farmhouse for a few months. That’s the one on the corner where you turn left towards Port after coming from Tain.

      We have a minor heatwave here in Tain yesterday and today, and you prob saw from Rachel that we took the kids to a beach just outside Hilton yesterday – I lived in Hilton from 1974 to 1977. You’ll gather I’m a bit ancient compared with Rachel and her contemporaries like yourselves.


  2. An interesting post. My memories of Portmahomack go back even further – and on passing through Tain on the train on the way to Wick.

    Could you please settle an argument about the current pronunciation in Morningside of the famous resort of Gullane. I remember Gillin as in Killin. Some say Gullan and I have heard Gul-lane on an audio recording of an Inspector Rebis story. I think this last one can be discarded as the narrator got Gorgie wrong.

    I don’t know if you’ve noticed improvements in Scottish place name pronunciation on Radio4. I usually listen for the coldest spot in the UK and while some hide their inability to pronounce the name of the place with ‘in Highland’, I have heard very brave attempts at both Kinlochewe and Loch Glascarnoch. The real treat, however, was the Shipping Forecast read recently by Arlene Fleming. Listening to Ardnamurchan Point reminds me of sailing on the Sound of Mull on the ferry. Happy memories!


  3. Peter, Tain was my families favourite place to live (and we’ve lived in a few!). You are very blessed have grown up near there and it’s impressive that Rachel made the beach yesterday! It was so nice to be in a small place where most people knew each other and miles away from all the hustle and bustle. At that time the schools were great as well – not sure what they are like now. I went from a Midlands school were the behaviour was really terrible and bullying rife to the quiet lessons at the Academy where people actually listened! Our time there was a real blessing.


  4. Elspeth, I thought of you when I thought of Portmahomack :)

    As for Gullane – not being a native of these parts, I’m not very sure … I’ve only heard gullan but who knows …

    The best thing about P was that it fitted the sentence with the strong-weak strong-weak rhythm perfectly. (The fourth sentence in the list is a half-hearted attempt at a sentence consisting of words with four syllables, but I’m not sure if the eventual rhythm is any different from the 2nd sentence.)


    Some folk get in print with one neat piece where all fits one great rhythm.

    Others offer handy papers merely raising tricky questions – sadly lacking detailed development.

    Foregoing’s usefulness?

    Opinion’s divided.


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