November 11, 2020

Why Doesn't Greensleeves Rhyme?

Art thou in the mood for Traditional Englishe Ballades? Yesterday, a friend asked me why there are couplets in the traditional English song "Greensleeves" that don't rhyme. Most of the song is in an ABAB rhyme scheme, but some lines stand out for not rhyming at all. Or rather, not rhyming in modern versions. In 1580, when the song first appeared, the song did rhyme - we've just changed the language a bit since then.

The song "Greensleeves" was first registered in 1580. This date is important because there were some great changes happening in the English language, not least of which is the Great Vowel Shift. The Great Vowel Shift is a series of changes that happened in English that overhauled the entire vowel system, resulting in modern English sounding very different from Middle English.

A painting by Rossetti. A woman is wearing a dress with green sleeves.

The changes didn't happen all at once - the Great Vowel Shift is often divided into phases. Greensleeves was written after the first phase of the Great Vowel Shift, but not quite having completetd the second phase.

"I have been readie at your hand,
⁠to grant what ever you would crave.
I have both waged life and land,
⁠your love and good will for to have."

Here, "have" and "crave" rhyme. No modern rendition of Greensleeves rhymes these two, with "crave" having the /e/ sound and "have" having the /æ/ sound. But in Middle English, "crave" and "have" rhymed, both having an /a/ sound. The Great Vowel Shift would later affect "crave", raising the vowel to become /e/.

Why did "have" not become [hejv]? Some more common words escaped the effects of the GVS - for example, 'bead' and 'bread' used to rhyme, but 'bead' changed to an /i/ sound and 'bread' didn't. The uneven applicability of the GVS has ruined the rhyme for modern English speakers.

Another failed rhyme occurs in this verse:

"Thy purse and eke thy gay guilt knives,
⁠thy pincase gallant to the eye:
No better wore the Burgesse wives,
⁠and yet thou wouldst not love me."

"Eye" in modern English is /ai/, and "me" is /i/. But "eye" and "me" rhyme here. What did "eye" sound like, and what did "me" sound like? We can get some tips, because "me" is rhymed with a number of words throughout the song:

"Thy girdle of gold so red,
⁠with pearles bedecked sumptuously:
The like no other lasses had,
⁠and yet thou wouldst not loue me,"
"My men were clothed all in green,
⁠And they did euer wait on thee
Al this was gallant to be seen,
⁠and yet thou wouldst not love me."

"Me" rhymes with other "thee" and "sumptuously," suggesting all these words ended in the same vowel.

"Me" and "thee" both had an /e:/ vowel in Middle English. The GVS would have already raised them both to /i/ at this point. The "-ly" suffix was already pronounced with /i/ in Middle English, and was not affected at this phase. So it seems that "eye", which was originally /ɛi/, had become /i:/!

A final interesting note: the song's first two verses use "you", but the song switches to "thou" on the third verse and stays that way for the rest of the song.

First Verse:
Alas my love, ye do me wrong,
⁠to cast me off discurteously:
And I haue loved you so long,
⁠Delighting in your companie.
Third Verse:
I bought thee kerchers to thy head, ⁠that were wrought fine and gallantly: I kept thee both at boord and bed, ⁠Which cost my purse wel fauouredly,

The famous English playwright William Shakespeare also did this switching. "Thou" was used for social inferiors or intimate relationships, and "you" was used to indicate distance, formality, or respect.

BENEDICT. Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee.
BEATRICE. Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.
BENEDICT. Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?

- Much Ado About Nothing

The play "Much Ado About Nothing" was written between 1598 and 1599, almost twenty years after Greensleeves was first registered. If we apply the same line of thinking to the song "Greensleeves," it begins with a respectful reference to the addressee, before degrading into either disrespect or intimacy.

Finally, a fun fact - Shakespeare was aware of the song "Greensleeves," for he references it in his play "Merry Wives of Windsor:"

"Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves'."

November 2, 2020

Recommendations: ProTactile Sign Languages

I wanted to share some interesting links. Within linguistics, we recognize that a language can have different modalities: spoken, signed, arguably written. But I recently found that languages can also have a tactile modality.

ProTactile American Sign Language (ASL) developed in 2008 as a way for deafblind people to communicate with each other. One of the most notable aspects of it, compared to visual American Sign Language, is that speakers will hold each other's hands as they sign, and listeners will tap or lightly scratch the speaker to display their emotional reaction.

There does not appear to be a lot of linguistic research on ProTactile ASL, or other ProTactile languages. The potential for ProTactile languages to help deafblind folks communicate with each other as well as with non deafblind folks is enormous. It would be wonderful for future researchers to look into things like how to teach ProTactile languages, stories from deafblind people about themselves and their communities, and both the differences and similarities between languages where tactile elements are critical and languages where it isn't.

Further reading and watching:

ProTactile ASL, a video by Quartz.

A video presentation at the Deaf Theatre Action Planning Session on ProTactile ASL, as well as an explanation of "backchanneling."

ProTactile: Touch Language Techniques, a video by Seek the World.

The story of Heather Lawson (video), an Australian advocate for deafblind people. She speaks Tactile Auslan augmented by haptics, which is similar to backchanneling.

An interview with Terra Edwards, a Ph.D. student in Anthropology.

An honors thesis by Alissa McAlpine: "Keep in Touch: A Comparative Analysis of Visual and ProTactile American Sign Language."

October 26, 2020

Get Ready For This - Accent Mix-up?

I'm going to need a special tag for '90s music' because I keep finding weird stuff going on in music from the 90s.

Today's 90s jam we're talking about is "Get Ready For This," by 2 Unlimited. If you grew up in the U.S. during the 90s and 2000s, you will remember this song as a club banger and a basketball "jock jam" (the only basketball game I've ever been to, in the 2000s, played this song). I never heard the full version until recently.

The song features a standard, 80s-inspired New York-style rap. The parts that sound particularly New York-ish are the following:

"Feel the base, you just get closer
Be impressed by the words I chose of
Once again kickin' it live
Doin' everything yo just to survive
Above the law, I take our stand
Being on stage with a mic in my hand"

Let's ignore the ungrammatical "the words I chose of" lyric. In "live" and "law," the singer uses a heavy dark 'l' sound. Using a dark 'l' sound at the beginning of syllables used to be a more common New York feature. Nowadays it's widespread enough among American English speakers to not be considered "accented," but Newman (2015) considers New York dark 'l's to be heavier than other American varieties.

The more interesting part is the vowels that follow - he uses an [a] sound in "live" and on [o] in "law."

Monophthongal [a] is found in two varieties - white Southern English and African American English. The song otherwise doesn't have features of white Southern English. The original influential rappers were Black Americans from New York, who speak an accent of African American English that is influenced by the multi-ethnic New York English variety. He sounds more similar to the latter than the former to me.

He also uses an [o] vowel in "law" and "on." If he were imitating either white or Black Southerners, he would have probably used a diphthong like [ɑɒ] here. Instead he uses [o]. The COT-CAUGHT distinction was already losing its foothold on American English by this time, with New York English holding out and preserving the distinction. This distinction would also be found among Black New Yorkers. This makes his performance even more Black New York-ish.

This wouldn't be notable except for this lyric:

"Bustin' it loud to the crowd, the age is 20, I'm from the south"

No way this man is "from the South." He is obviously imitating New York rappers. He may be broadly imitating Black Americans, but African American Vernacular English has regionally distinct varieties, and the one he's imitating is not Southern.

The rapper in question is not only not from the South, he's not even from the U.S. His name is Ray Slijngaard, and he seems to be a Black Dutchman. He speaks English, but with a clear Dutch accent. Notice how he devoices /v/ to [f] in his interviews.

There are varieties of Dutch that distinguish /v/ and /f/, but Amsterdam Dutch does not (H. Van de Helde, 1996) - just as well, since Slijngaard is from Amsterdam. There is no English dialect that devoices /v/ to [f], to my knowledge. And his English, while seemingly based on American English, still shows signs of L1 interference.

One topic we have covered ceaselessly on this site is that people feel comfortable imitating other accents in music, but not so much in spoken speech. Slijngaard appears to have felt comfortable enough doing a faux-NY-AAVE accent on his rap. But he didn't have enough awareness to realize that there is something a little weird about saying "I'm from the South" when you have an accent that is not only not Southern, but from another region entirely.

The "I'm from the south" lyric is probably just mimicking rappers who rep their hometown, and filling in a rhyme with "crowd." And nobody else seems to have paid much attention to this, because it's not a song that requires deep attention to the lyrics. It is, nevertheless, a source of humor when listening to the song on repeat.

Works Cited