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.