Topic 5 Sound Sounds and meaning



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Topic 5 - Sound


Sounds and meaning

On this page we will explore the relationship between spelling and sounds in English. Because this relationship varies a lttle from one English accent to another, we will use just one accent to avoid confusion. We will use Received Pronunciation (RP), the accent associated with most BBC news readers, as this accent is probably the most widely known in the UK..

Spelling and sounds

When we talk about patterns of alliteration, assonance and rhyme, we are talking about patterns of distinctive speech sounds (phonemes). But people often confuse sound patterns with spelling patterns. The English writing system is based on the idea that a spelling letter represents a phoneme. So, for example, the word 'bed' has three letters in its written version and also three sounds in its spoken version: /bed/ (the 'slash brackets' indicate a phonemic transcription, as opposed to a spelling - which we put in inverted commas in the standard way). A reasonably exact relationship between spellings and phonemes exists for many simple words in English (e.g. 'mat', 'cap', 'lit'), but there are also plenty where things are nothing like so straightforward. The word 'back' has four letters, for example, but only three phonemes: //, and 'scuffle' has seven letters but only five phonemes: //. Sometimes the numerical relationship is the other way round. 'Fox' has three letters but four phonemes: //. There are also lots of inconsistencies in how our spelling system represents phonemes. So, the 'x' in 'fox' represents at the same time both the /k/ and the /s/ in /. But elsewhere, /k/ can be represented in spelling terms as a 'k' (as in 'kin') or a 'c' (as in 'can'). There are 26 letters (21 consonants, 5 vowels) in the English alphabet, but approximately 45 phonemes (22 consonants, 3 approximants, 12 pure vowels and 8 diphthongs) in English (exactly how many varies a little from one dialect to another). It is no wonder that children sometimes have difficulties learning to spell!

Rhymes and Eye Rhymes

It is this 'lack of fit' between the spelling and sound systems that gives rise to the distinction between rhymes (a property of sounds: what you can hear) and eye rhymes (a property of letters: what you can see). So:


'fine' (//) and 'line' (// are rhymes and also eye rhymes

'scoff' (//) and 'trough' (//) rhyme, but are not eye rhymes

'bough' (//) and 'cough' (/ are eye rhymes but do not rhyme
Task A - How good are you at spotting rhymes and eye rhymes? ONLINE TASK
Because the spelling/phoneme relation is an inexact one in many languages, phoneticians have developed phonetic and phonemic alphabets to represent sounds accurately when they transcribe them. These alphabets use the symbols associated with the English spelling system (but with a consistent relationship between the transcription symbol and the sound it represents). One thing to watch out for is that different traditions of phonetics and phonology use slightly different terminology and have a few transcription symbols which differ too. The set of characters we adopt is the one used by Gimson in his Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. But you might find a few differences between the set we use and what you might read elsewhere.
Task B - The phonetic alphabet ONLINE TASK
Alliteration and Assonance

On this page we will look at patterns of sounds and the kinds of effect they can have in poems. First of all, though, we need to know what count as alliteration, assonance and rhyme. This may seem so obvious as not to be worth considering, but in fact things are a bit more complex than they first appear.


What are alliteration and assonance? - Same or similar single sounds?

Alliteration is usually described as the repetition of the same consonants, and assonance as the repetition of the same vowels. But we will argue below (i) that some identical sound repetitions do not count as alliteration or assonance and (ii) that sometimes 'repetitions' which are similar but not identical do count sometimes. Interestingly, students of poetry don't have much trouble in accepting that rhymes do not always have to be exact (cf. terms like 'half-rhyme', 'partial-rhyme', 'semi-rhyme' and 'para-rhyme'), and this should prepare us for the idea that alliteration and assonance do not always have to be exact either.


Task A: Consonants and Vowels

What is it that distinguishes consonants from vowels (and therefore alliteration from assonance)? How can we define them? Discuss these questions with your partner and type your answer below.



Rhyme - More than One Sound in a Special Position

Before we go back to alliteration and assonance, let's look at rhyme. Canonical rhymes come at the ends of lines of poetry, and patterns of these rhymes are usually called rhyme schemes (e.g. couplet schemes (AABB etc.), alternate line rhyme schemes (ABAB etc.), and so on. Rhymes usually involve the last syllable of the words which rhyme. So canonical rhyme is defined partly in terms of phonemic parallelism in the final syllable of the rhyming words and partly in terms of position in the poetic line. An example would be 'Mankind' and 'behind', (// and / in phonemic script) from Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock':

This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
Nourish'd two Locks, which graceful hung behind . . .

(Alexander Pope, 'The Rape of the Lock, Canto II, 19-20)

From this, and many examples like it, we can see that in canonical rhymes the syllable-initial consonants (those in the syllable which come before the vowel) usually vary but the vowel has to be repeated, and also any syllable-final consonants (those which come after the vowel).

But in other poems and songs you can also have:




  1. Rhymes between words which are not in line-final position (but these are less common and are usually known by the marked term 'internal rhyme'), and

  2. Rhymes where the vowel or the final consonant cluster does not involve exact repetition (so-called 'half-rhymes' or 'partial rhymes').

Task - Rhyme in Cole Porter's 'You're the Top'

Below is a stanza (refrain 4) from a famous 1930s song by Cole Porter, called 'You're the Top'. [There is a great recording of 'You're the Top' by Ella Fitzgerald (volume 2 of her Cole Porter Songbook collection)]. We will use this extract to learn something about the nature of rhyme, and also something about how rhyming can be pleasurable and why Cole Porter is regarded as such a great lyricist.

For copyright reasons we can't quote the whole song or reproduce a professional recording here, but we have prepared an amateur recording of it for you. In the Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, this song has eight refrains (as well as two other verses), and the Ella Fitzgerald recording mixes together parts of refrain 4 with refrain 5, to produce a three-refrain version. This is partly because some of the examples of 'top' things mentioned in the song had become a bit dated by the time she made her recording.

In case you are not sure of some of the allusions we have provided links which spell them out. Read/listen to the refrain and then answer the questions after it.


1. You're the top!

2. You're an Arrow collar.

3. You're the top!

4. You're a Coolidge dollar!

5. You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire.

6. You're an O'Neill drama,

7. You're Whistler's mama,

8. You're Camembert.

9. You're a rose,

10. You're Inferno's Dante,

11. You're the nose

12. On the great Durante.

13. I'm just in the way, as the French would say, 'De trop,"

14. But if, baby, I'm the bottom

15. You're the top.
(i) What is the rhyme scheme for the refrain, how many syllables are involved in the rhymes and what does this tell us about Cole Porter's song writing skills?

(ii) Are there any other rhymes besides the line-end ones?

(iii) Are there any line-end rhymes which are not perfect?

(iv) If Cole Porter is such a clever song writer, why isn't he in the list of 'Great Dead Poets'?


Alliteration and Assonance Revisited

As we noted at the beginning of the Alliteration and Assonance page, alliteration is usually described as the repetition of the same individual consonant sounds, and assonance as the repetition of the same vowel sounds. But do all sound repetitions count as alliteration or assonance?

Given that there are only around 45 phonemes in any dialect of English, statistically phoneme repetition is going to happen a lot. So it is unlikely that all repetitions will be perceived as alliteration/assonance by readers.

Task A - Is all sound repetition alliteration or assonance?

Below are some lines from a famous poem by the C18 poet, Alexander Pope. It is written in rhyming couplets and he called it 'an heroi-comical poem'. He wrote it in response to hearing about a high-society quarrel between two noble families over the fact that Lord Petre had forcibly cut off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor's hair. Pope's poem makes fun of this incident. Here, his 'heroine' the Lady Belinda, is seated at her dressing table, putting her make-up on.



Here piles of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billets-doux.
Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;
The Fair each moment rises in her Charms, . . .

(Alexander Pope, 'The Rape of the Lock', Canto I, 137-40)


The satire is obvious enough in the third line of the quotation, in the phrase 'awful Beauty' and the ludicrous implicit comparison between putting on make-up and preparing for battle. But we are going to concentrate on alliteration and associated effects.
What patterns of /p/ alliteration can you see in lines 1 and 2. Are they all equally strong? What effects do you think are associated with them? Discuss your ideas with a partner, making notes as you do so.

Alliteration, assonance and perception

It should be clear from the last exercise that alliteration is not a straightforward matter. Whether we perceive a pattern of consonants as being alliteration or not will depend upon a number of interrelated factors. And the same will be true of vowel patterns and assonance. Here are some obvious factors (the list is almost certainly not exhaustive though):


  1. Alliteration and assonance can sometimes involve similar sounds as well as the same sounds.

  2. Examples close together (within the same line or only a line or two) will be felt more strongly than those further apart. There are few, if any, examples of alliterative connections 100 lines apart.

  3. Alliterative and assonantal patterns are felt more strongly if they involve lexical words and less if they involve grammatical words (because it is easier to perceive semantic connections between lexical words).

  4. They are most perceptible if they occur at the beginnings of words (the ends of words are next most perceptible and the middle of words the least).

  5. They are more perceptible if the occur in stressed syllables than unstressed syllables.

  6. They are more likely to be noticed if they help make an interpretative connection, and less likely if they do not help to promote such a connection. This is where the parallelism rule comes in.

Alliteration and Assonance in 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'

In a moment we will have a look at alliteration and assonance in one of the stanzas from Wilfred Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', which we have looked at before when we were learning about language levels. But first of all, let's have a bit more sounds practice.



Task B - A bit of practice with phonemic script

Below is one of the stanzas from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', written using phonemic symbols. 'Translate' it into ordinary written English and then compare your version with the written original.

Note, by the way, that we have removed the punctuation and capitalisation (which you will have to guess), because these do not occur in speech. There is no lineation or spaces between the words, as they don't exist in speech either. So when you 'translate' the stanza you will need to add in the lineation and word spaces too! We have helped you a bit, though, in that the exercise you did on the Sound and Meaning page involved many of the words in this stanza.



(Wilfred Owen, 'Anthem for Doomed Youth')
Once you're happy with your 'translation', check its accuracy.

Task C - Alliteration assonance and rhyme

Below is the stanza we looked at in task B agian.

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orison.

(Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’)


Identify all the examples of alliteration, assonance and rhyme you can find in this stanza. Say how you think these patterns are being used in relation to meaning and effect (if at all).Then compare your comments with ours.

Sound Symbolism (e.g. onomatopoeia) - 'Words that sound like what they mean'

This topic will look at sound symbolism, or 'words that sound like what they mean'. The most obvious examples of this are onomatopoeic words like 'buzz' or 'hum', where the sound structure of the nouns mimic the sound they represent in the world outside language. But as we shall soon see, words can sound appropriate not just in relation to the sense of hearing, but also in relation to the other senses. For example, some sounds can symbolize size, length and so on. Onomatopoeia is one kind of sound symbolism. This is why we use the general term 'sound symbolism' rather than 'onomatopoeia'.


Are all words sound symbolic?

The short answer to this question is no. In fact, most words in languages (including English) are not sound symbolic. The phonemic composition of the vast majority of words is arbitrary.

There is nothing particularly dog-like or cat-like about the phonemic composition of the words 'dog' or 'cat', and one easy way of grasping this is by noting how the phonemic make-up of these words differs when we provide English synonyms for the same concepts (e.g. 'hound' and 'moggy') or, indeed, words from other languages. If the words of languages had to be sound symbolic, you would expect the phonemic composition of words in different languages referring to the same thing to have lots of phonetic similarities.
It takes quite a lot of time and effort to explain how sound symbolism works, and because of this, if you are not careful, as you learn about sound symbolism you will begin to assume that it is more prevalent than it actually is (a sort of phonetic equivalent to seeing beauty everywhere!). ONLINE ANIMATION

The Sound Symbolism Checksheet

We have provided you with a checksheet of the major sound symbolic effects associated with particular phonetic qualities. It is very difficult to produce a list which is completely inclusive, but you might find it useful to consult this checksheet as you try to do the following tasks.



Task A - Sound symbolic words ONLINE TASK

Task B - Little and Large

There is an English comedy duo called Little and Large. Why didn't they call themselves 'Small and Big'? [Tip: think about the way the vowels / and // are pronounced in the mouth]. Note down some ideas.


Task C - Clunk Click

In the 1960s there was an advertising campaign in the UK trying to persuade people to put their seatbelts on when they got into their cars. The slogan, which was promoted by a famous DJ, Jimmy Saville, was:


Clunk Click Every Trip

How is sound symbolism and sound patterning used in this slogan to get people to use their seatbelts? Compare your answer with ours.



Task D - 'Ode to Autumn'

In the four lines quoted below from Keats's 'Ode to Autumn', the last line is often felt by readers to be sound symbolic. What phonetic properties give rise to this feeling?:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

(John Keats, ‘To Autumn’)



Task E - 'Piano'

In the excerpt from 'Piano' by D. H. Lawrence below, the highlighted words are sound symbolic. The effect here is quite complex, and involves a sort of 'double take' in terms of viewpoint.


Write down (i) what you think the effects are and (b) what phonetic characteristics relate to these effects. Then compare your findings with ours.

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;


Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings
(D. H. Lawrence, ‘Piano’)

Meeting at night

On this topic we are going to carry out a number of tasks to examine the role that sounds play in a whole poem, 'Meeting at Night' by the C19 poet, Robert Browning (husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning).



Task A - Transcription Reading

First of all, let's practise our phonemic transcription knowledge a bit more.

'Translate' the phonemic transcription of the poem we provide below into its normal written form (to help you, we have included gaps between the words, the lineation and the written punctuation marks in our transcription, as you probably cannot accurately deduce these from a standard phonemic transcription). When you have completed the written version, submit it to our checker, which will highlight any errors you have made, if any, so that you can look at those parts of the poem again and resubmit your translation.



/



















Task B - The 'Story' of the Poem

Before we examine the sounds in the poem it will be helpful to have an agreed account of the 'story' of the poem to relate our sound symbolism and sound pattern analysis to, particularly as the form of the poem is somewhat enigmatic, to match the subject matter - a secret meeting at night.


Read the poem through two or three times, until you think you are familiar with it. Then write a short summary of what you think happens in each of the two stanzas. Finally, compare your general understanding with ours.

The grey sea and the long black land;


And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beaches;


Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch

And blue spurt of a lighted match,

And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Then the two hearts beating each to each!

Task C - Sound Symbolism

Below we provide a version of the poem with some stretches highlighted. These are the parts we think contain sound symbolism within them.


For each marked section, (i) work out what is being symbolised and by what words and (ii) what appropriate pronunciation features are involved in the sound symbolism. Then click on the highlighted stretch to get our commentary.

The grey sea and the long black land;


And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep
,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beaches;


Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match
,
And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,
Then the two hearts beating each to each!

Task D - Any Other Structural Symbolism in the poem?

The grammar and punctuation in the poem seem also to have structure symbolic effects. The first stanza consists of one sentence, of which the first four lines appear to be the unusual equivalent of a main clause in overall structural terms (the last two lines are two subordinate clauses, signalled by the subordinate conjunction 'As' in line 5) which are conjoined by the word 'and'. But the first four lines do not have a main verb at all. They consist of four coordinated noun phrases:

(i) two in the first line (headwords 'sea' and 'land'),
(ii) the second line (headword 'half-moon') and

(iii) the third and fourth lines together (headword 'waves').

The only verb in the first four lines is 'leap' (line 3), which is part of the relative clause postmodifying 'waves'.

This list of noun phrases with no main verb helps to enact the impression of the viewer (the male lover, whose viewpoint we share) noticing/contemplating first one thing and then another in (what, because of the lack of verbs, is) a static environment. The semi-colons at the ends of lines 1 and 2 reinforce this effect and push us to connect the first two noun phrases intimately together. Hence, first of all we see in the same perceptual moment the more distant seascape and the land beyond it, then our attention moves upwards to see the moon hanging above the land. These two views are both static. Finally we see the sea immediately around the boat, which is much more active (because of the verb 'leap' in the relative clause postmodifying 'waves' and the two dynamic premodifiers 'startled' and 'fiery'). Overall, we thus feel that we are observing sequentially, as the lover notices them, a number of different aspects of the same overall scene.
In the second stanza, which is also one sentence, the whole sentence is dominated by a series of noun phrases. However, this time, we get much more of a sense of movement. This is explained by three interconnected factors:

(i) the noun phrases in the first three lines are not coordinated by 'and' as before, suggesting faster change,


(ii) the headwords of three of the phrases are nouns derived from verbs ('tap', 'scratch' and 'spurt'), suggesting more dynamism, and

(iii) the topic shifts from one noun phrase to another are wider than before, so that it's not possible for our 'mind's eye' to join together into one overall 'scene' what is being referred to. This, in turn, prompts the idea of change.

In the last line of the poem, the mirror-image grammatical structure of 'each to each' matches the mirror-image word repetition already referred to which symbolically represents the 'at oneness' of the two lovers.

Overall, then, the grammar of the poem (aided by the lineation and punctuation) is structure-symbolic, helping us to feel the perceptions, experiences and feelings of the lovers through a series of perceived parallels between the experience of reading the lines and the experience of the lovers in the world of the poem.
What do you think is the overall purpose of the structural symbolism in the poem? Why does Browning use this device so much? Confer with your partner[s], jotting down your responses, and then compare them with our findings.

Task E - Rhyme, alliteration and assonance

Are there any significant patterns of rhyme, alliteration or assonance in the poem? How do they help to achieve the effects Browning appears to be striving for? Again, jot down your ideas, and then compare them with our response.


Phonetics Checksheet

See separate sheet


Sound symbolism checksheet

See separate sheet





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