Natural Versification in French and German counting-out rhymes

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Nursery rhymes have frequently been regarded as a testing ground for hypotheses concerning metrical and prosodic unmarkedness. The recurrence of tetrametric patterns and the unmarkedness of binary feet, for example, have been interpreted as a universal of child(-directed) verse, and of folk verse in general. According to other approaches, however, nursery rhymes as part of poetic folklore emerge on the basis of language-specific prosody in the characteristic ways of Natural Versification. In our contribution we have analyzed corpora of French and German counting-out rhymes. In French, both lines containing ternary alternation and lines with more than four beats are of marginal frequency. By contrast, stress clash as well as shorter lines occur, albeit typically with nonce items. By analyzing Standard German as well as dialectal German data, we have investigated the impact of some varieties of German on metrical patterns. Unlike French, almost one third of the German counting-out rhymes have ternary feet; in a number of cases, ternarity is even enhanced by the use of nonce items. Interestingly, German nursery rhymes regularly show a stress clash pattern at the end of lines with a final reduced syllable. We suggest that this pattern is best understood as a historical residue. On the basis of cross-linguistic and cross-dialectal comparisons, we conclude with a discussion of the relative importance of markedness, naturalness, poetic traditions, and text-pragmatic factors.


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