Ever since nineteen, had a perfect rhyme scheme[1]: A corpus study of English rap rhyme

Russell Horton
University of California, San Diego (UCSD)

The standard definition of perfect rhyme demands that “the stressed vowels of corresponding words are identical, and so are the following consonants and any following unstressed syllables" [2]. This is a quite serviceable definition: word pairs that adhere to these criteria will satisfy most speakers as true rhymes, and those that fail to meet these criteria will not. Imperfect rhyme, by contrast, defies strict formalization.

This paper will be concerned with the features that characterize imperfect rhyme and their relation to phonological similarity more generally. I will give evidence that rhyme is a phonological phenomenon, not a matter of general acoustic similarity. Further, I will argue that the differences observed in imperfect rhyme pairs reflect a phonological similarity—the more similar two segments are, the more easily they may be aligned in an imperfect rhyme. Finally, I use empirical evidence from a large-scale corpus study of imperfect rhyme in English rap lyrics to attempt to draw a general map of phonological similarity.

The empirical study presented was performed on a corpus of lyrics from 45,000 rap songs, comprising 320,000 line groups with 96,000 pairs of imperfect rhymes, computationally identified based on pronunciations from the Carnegie Mellon University pronouncing dictionary. Likelihoods were computed for each pair of phonological segments, representing the probability of an imperfect rhyme aligning those phonemes. A network model was generated to explore and visualize the resulting affinity graph. It is my contention that this map of similarity between segments is flawed but valuable instantiation of the P-map of general phonological similarity proposed by Donca Steriade [1]. With further refinement, the technique of the empirical study of imperfect rhyme can become a valuable tool for investigating phonological similarity.

[1] Donca Steriade. The phonology of perceptibility effects: the p-map and its consequences for constraint
organization. Manuscript, 2001.
[2] AM Zwicky. Well, this rock and roll has got to stop. Junior's head is hard as a rock. In Proceedings of
the Chicago Linguistics Society 12, pages 676 – 697, 1976.

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