Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


21. Children’s rhymes and folklore


Andy Arleo


Do children’s rhymes reveal universal metrical patterns?


The previous example has demonstrated the appeal of children’s games based on universal themes such as the human life-cycle. Another strand in research has dealt with the linguistic and poetic form of children’s rhymes. In the middle of the twentieth century, Romanian ethnomusicologist Constantin Brailoiu and American linguist Robbins Burling independently uncovered evidence showing that children’s rhymes around the world have strikingly similar metrical patterns and speculated that these may indeed be universal. According to Brailoiu, children’s rhythms, as embodied in children’s rhymes, constitute an immediately recognisable autonomous system that is ‘spread over a considerable surface of the earth, from Hudson Bay to Japan’ (Brailoiu 1984: 207). Furthermore, ‘children’s rhythms are based on a restricted number of extremely simple principles’, which are ‘constantly concealed by the resources (almost unlimited here) of variation’ (209). Brailoiu describes what he calls ‘series’ of syllables, which generally correspond to lines. The most frequent series is the equivalent of eight short syllables or, in musical terms, eight quavers, as shown in the examples below:






























The series worth eight does not necessarily comprise eight pronounced syllables. The counting-out rhyme ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Mo’, for example, has seven-syllable lines, but each line has a total duration of eight quavers. Brailoiu concludes that children’s rhythms are governed by ‘strict symmetry’ and suggests that ‘the system proceeds, if not from dance, then at least from ordered movement, which is closely associated with it.’ He notes that ‘it remains to be seen how the most diverse languages manage to bend themselves to its inflexibility’, a task that can only be accomplished by collaboration between researchers ‘as numerous as the languages themselves’ (238).

Ten years after Brailoiu’s paper first appeared (it was first published as ‘Le Rythme enfantine’ in 1956), Robbins Burling published a seminal study on the metrics of children’s rhymes in several structurally different languages, such as English, Chinese and Bengkulu, a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken in southwestern Sumatra (Burling 1966). While Brailoiu had focused on the line, Burling examined the stanza, discovering a widespread sixteen-beat pattern, consisting of four four-beat lines. This is illustrated by many familiar nursery rhymes in English, such as ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ or ‘Old King Cole’. Burling points out that four-beat lines are extremely widespread in popular verse in English, not only in nursery rhymes but in innumerable popular songs, advertising jingles and light verse. Furthermore, the four-beat line has great historical depth and appears to be linked to the earliest poetry in the Germanic languages, in which the line is made up of four predominant syllables. In his conclusion Burling states: ‘If these patterns should prove to be universal, I can see no explanation except that of our common humanity’ (Burling 1966: 1435). He suggests that sophisticated verse might be built in part on the foundation of simple verse, the result of modifying rules and adding restrictions. If this is the case, the ‘comparative study of metrics would then be the study of the diverse ways in which different poetic traditions depart from the common basis of simple verse’ (1436).

The hypotheses put forth independently by Brailoiu and Burling are compatible, at least for the line; although Burling also deals with the stanza, his four-beat lines are equivalent to Brailoiu’s ‘series worth eight quavers’. Unfortunately, the two studies do not offer much contextual information and do not attempt to systematically investigate specific genres of childlore. The play function of rhymes often has a direct effect on the metrical pattern. In the French handclapping rhyme shown below each line has five beats, reflecting the fact that the player claps her partner’s hands three times on the last syllable of each line:







La sa-





Va a

la fon-





A second weakness of the two studies is that they do not indicate the frequency of the supposedly universal metrical patterns for each language or culture. More recent work has attempted to provide quantitative data for specific genres of childlore in different languages. For example, the sixteen-beat pattern described by Burling is common in French and English counting-out rhymes, but appears to be more frequent in English (Arleo 2001b). Likewise, an investigation of 540 English-language jump-rope (skipping) rhymes showed that 43 per cent had four lines and 20 per cent had two lines, thereby supporting a hypothesis of metrical symmetry stating that rhymes tend to have an even number of lines or a number of lines equal to a power of two.