Some Near Rhymes from Nashville

A near rhyme is refers to words paired in songs or verse which sound similar, but not quite enough to be called a “perfect rhyme”…at least not in Standard English. They can be interesting for revealing insights into spoken phonology, in this case the phonology of country songs.

Here are some interesting cases I found on a recent mix CD playing in my car.

Hell On Heels (Say What You Will)

In Hell On Heels (by the Pistol Annies featuring Miranda Lambert), there are lots near rhymes. Just for context, the song chronicles the past exploits of a classic “gold digger.”

Most near rhymes have the same vowel, but end with slightly different consonant, although usually with some phonological smilarities. For example

(1) This diamond ring on my hand
Is the only good thing that came from that man

(2) Poor ol’ Billy, bless his heart
I’m still using his credit card

Note: both /d/ and /t/ are coronal stops.

And even one actual rhyme that features two words with different spellings

(3) Then there’s Jim, I almost forgot
I ran him off, but I took the yacht

Both end with [at] in this dialect.

For me though the most interesting near rhyme is one which pairs deal /dil/ and heels /hilz/ with will /wɪl/. It would be interesting to see how the spectrograms compare here.

(4) I’m hell on heels
Say what you will
I’ve done made the devil a deal

In this case, the vowels are different even though the final consonant is the same. However, in terms of the English vowel space, they are very close – that is both /i/ and /ɪ/ are phonemically high front unrounded vowels. Interestingly, it seems like first hell on heels is pronounced closer to [ɪ] to emphasize the rhyme, but closer to [i] or even [iə] thereafter.

Note: Another interesting case of /i/ in a near rhyme is from the Addams Family theme song which pairs scream and see’um.

Psycho Girlfriend

Another song with an interesting set of rhymes is Psycho Girlfriend by Jessie James (Decker) about a woman who has “issues” talking to her boyfriend who can’t seem to quit her.

Again, we have a great near rhyme where the vowel is the same, but the final consonant is different.

(1) Did I forget to mention
I need all your attention
Or else I’ll throw a tantrum [for it?]

This pairs both /ʌn/ in -tion and /ʌm/ in -um.. Even better, all the words actually end with [ntʌN] where N stands for nasal stop (/m/ or /n/).

And here’s another with different underlying pronunciations, but actually more closely rhyming in the colloquial pronunciation

(2) I’ll call you when you’re workin’ /i.e. working/
Over n over again

Underlylingly, the first line ends with working /wərkɪŋ/ and the second with again /əgɛn/. But phonetically, both end with [ɨn] in the actual lyrics. The vowel change is part of a larger pattern where many unstressed vowels reduce to [ɨ] in American English, causing spelling nightmares for American school children everywhere.

The last case is interesting to me because I think it’s meant to be a rhyme, but doesn’t work for me in my idiolect.

(3) Insecure, in denial
Immature, like a child

The way Jessie James sings it, but both denial and child have two syllables [aj.ɨl] or [aj.l̩] (with vocalic /l/). In my grammar though, I feel like child has only one syllable, so the rhyme doesn’t quite work for me. Checking the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciations, they too transcribe child with one syllable and denial with two.

So this appears to be a dialectal difference interfering with the rhyme. On the other hand, I suspect that if I took a spectrogram of my own speech, I might find that child and denial were actually more similar than I think. The status of /ajl/ and /ajr/ syllables is interesting in general.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *