Do all spoken languages have the concept of rhyme?

Um, basically, what the Subject says.

This may be more a cultural question than a linguistic one. I’m sure that most, if not all, spoken languages have words with ends that sound the same – i.e., that rhyme. I’m wondering if all languages acknowledge that as something interesting or special.

With English and most of the western languages I’m aware of, rhyme is used in (some) poetry, music and greeting card puns. What about other tongues?

I don’t think Japanese has an absence of rhyme, but you very rarely see it used.

In most English language songs, there is rhyme. Most Japanese songs don’t use it, though.

Haiku doesn’t rhyme either. I guess there are different aspects that the Japanese focus on.

I believe there are some languages where word endings are used in such a way that it’s just as easy, if not even easier, to rhyme than to not rhyme.

IIRC, it used to be that alliteration was preferred over rhyme. See the Illiad, or the Scandinavian sagas.

That is, the beginning of words reflect the similar sounds, not the ends.

All ancient poetry that I can think of (Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Germanic, Chinese) did not rhyme.

The earliest rhymed poetry I’m aware of was Arabian. The earliest extant Arabic poems date to the pre-Islamic era, circa the 5th century AD. All Arabic poems rhymed from their earliest appearance. Not only that, even the prose in Classical Arabic usually was rhymed. Modern hip-hop rap lyrics are remarkably close in style to old Arabic rhymed prose.

Rhyme first appeared in French and other European poetry sometime after the year 1000, correct me if I’m wrong. The Middle English text of Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight makes reference to the recent vogue of rhyming poetry and the abandonment of earlier alliteration in English poetry. That period in the Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300) is when Arabic/Islamic culture filtered into Europe via Islamic Spain and Sicily, and the Crusades. That Arab literature influenced European literature in this period has been demonstrated by many scholars. (Cites? See, for example, the studies of Dante by Miguel Asín Palacios like Islam and the Divine Comedy; Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougement; and España, eslabón entre la Cristiandad y el Islam by Ramón Menéndez Pidal).

Beginning in the 10th century, Persian poetry reappeared after Persian literature had been through a hiatus following the Arab/Islamic conquest of Persia. It now rhymed. I don’t think ancient Avestan poetry rhymed. Likewise, Hindi poetry in the late medieval period began to rhyme under the influence of Persian poetry.

Countries that did not have Arab cultural influence (like China, Thailand, Japan, American Indians) never developed rhyming poetry. Countries that did have medieval cultural exchange with Arabs did start to rhyme, beginning from that time.

So the implication of all of this is that rhyme originated in Arabia and its occurrence in all other languages from Europe to India is traceable to Arabic influence. I’m so glad I discovered this I could burst — Remember, folks, you read it here first.

Sagas are prose works by definition, and I’ve never heard that the Iliad is alliterative! (I don’t know ancient Greek – or modern Greek for that matter – so I can’t prove it but I don’t think it is.)

However, you are right that alliterative poetry was once far more common than rhyming poetry, at least in Northern European countries (that’s the area I know most about). Here’s how it usually works: there are four stressed syllables in a line, and the third stressed syllable alliterates with either the first or the second (sometimes both). For example…

Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten
mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold,
fen ond fæsten; fifelcynnes eard
wonsæli wer weardode hwile.

There’s actually an Old English rhyming poem in the Exeter Book (which dates to the tenth century IIRC) but I don’t have a copy handy. I’m told it isn’t very good. :wink: And there was something of an alliterative revival in England in the fourteenth century, which is where we get stuff like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (already mentioned by Jomo Mojo and the alliterative Morte Arthure (not to be confused with Malory’s prose Morte, which is much later). I’m not sure if Piers Plowman is associated with it or not; it’s also written in alliterative verse but comes from a different part of England, and anyway the Norton Anthology of English Lit editors say that people had been writing alliterative poetry all along, but relatively little of it has survived.

BTW, while we’re cataloging poetic devices, there’s a lot of medieval French poetry that uses assonance at the end of each line (i.e. all the vowel sounds are the same). The Chanson de Roland is written in this style.

Ack – this is what happens when you forget to preview. The spacing in the OE snippet I quoted (it’s from Beowulf, if the mention of Grendel didn’t make it obvious ;)) didn’t work – there’s supposed to be a break after gæst in the first line, mearcstapa in the second, fæsten in the third, and wer in the fourth.

Uh, Chinese poetry does have rhyme. I’m taking a course on the Chinese literary tradition at the moment, and our teacher read some heavily-rhyming poetry aloud just last week. There were elaborate systems of rhyme, tone, and alliteration necessary in certain forms of poetry like the elaborate ‘capital style’ poetry of the Tang.

This page has an actual rhyming poem on it. Scroll down a little bit, it’s the third or fourth poem on the page. Here’s some pinyin with some of the rhyme highlighted:

dan1 e4 zhi1 sui4 xi1 si4 yue4 meng4 xia4
geng1 zi3 ri4 xie2 xi1 peng2 ji2 yu2 she3
zhi3 yu2 zuo4 yu2 xi1 mao4 shen4 xian2 xia2
yi4 wu4 lai2 cui4 xi1 si1 guai4 qi2 **gu4 **
fa1 shu1 zhan4 zhi1 xi1 chen4 yan2 qi2 **du4 **
yue1: ye3 niao3 ru4 shi4 xi1 zhu3 ren2 jiang1 **qu4 **


Thanks, Yue Han. That’s the one exception so far that I’ll have to take into account. Any other examples of ancient poetry developing rhyme independent of Arab influence?

Ancient Tamil poetry didn’t rhyme, and it didn’t alliterate either. Rather, the Tamil assonance scheme works by matching the second syllable in each line. I don’t know any other language that does that. Examples:

eNporuLa vâkac celac collit tânpirarvây
nuNporuL kâNpa tarivu

Wisdom speaks well, conveying each meaning clearly,
And listens for the subtlest sense in others’ speech.

tirukkuraL 424

**uNTârkaN allatu aTunarâk kâmampôl
kaNTâr makilceytal inru **

Unlike boiled honey which yields delight only when it is drunk,
love gives pleasure even when looked at.

-tirukkuraL 1090

Every single couplet is put together that way.

Ancient Greek and Latin poetry didn’t rhyme, and it didn’t generally alliterate (as Old English and other old Germanic poetry did) either. It did have fairly strict meter, though.

I know that in Itallian, the challenge in poetry is to not rhyme, as so many of the words end in vowel sounds.

Also, I have been told, in sign language, words are considered to “rhyme” if two out of the three of the following are identical[ul][li]hand shape[]hand placement[]hand action/movement[/ul] Hence “aeroplane” and “telephone” do not rhyme as the hands only have the same shape, while “clown” and “pig” do (or at least the South African sign for pig which is the same as clown, but with the fingers pointing away from the face) …[/li]

A few more notes on Middle English alliterative poetry (just finished a seminar on it, can’t resist).

Are you sure about this? I can’t recall any comments of this sort in SGGK, but one of the characters in the Canterbury Tales says that he is from the south of England and can’t compose alliterative verse as the northerners do. I’m not sure either rhyme or alliteration would have been a novelty at this time, but there was a definite geographic divide.

Yes, it is; Langland evidently worked in London but originally came from northwest England, the same region that gave us the rest of the alliterative revival poetry.

Yue Han has kinda answered this. You did specify ancient poetry. Among the Tang Dynasty classic poems, rhymes can be found, but that was not the focus of the poem. Then again, we are really not sure how ancient Chinese was pronounced, so there may have been more rhymes. Ancient Chinese had a lot more double meanings, or selected certain words to convey a feeling of a sound.

More modern stuff has tons of rhymes. There is also a rapping style thing popular among kids that rhymes, but that’s only a century or two old.

You’re right; my bad. I remember now; I read those lines in some professor’s introduction to an edition of Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight. It was telling about the position of Sir Gawaine’s old-fashioned alliterative verse in relation to the new rhyming verse which had entered English poetry from France.

It was from the Parson’s Tale prologue:

That’s what I was thinking of. Thanks for settynge me y-straighte. Anyway, my point was that the 14th century was when rhyme began to take over English poetry, and that originated from Southern Europe, specifically Italy and France.

In the 13th century, Petrarca and Dante worked out new styles of Italian poetry (like the dolce stil nuovo), originally pioneered by the “Sicilian School.” This had its roots in the multicultural court of Frederick of Hohenstaufen (1197-1250) in Sicily, where Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew letters all flourished. The Sicilian revolution in Italian poetry, that made Petrarca and Dante possible, was built upon Arab models. This is how rhyme got into Europe.