Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

For my graduate phonetics class, I was asked to phonetically transcribe a poem using the IPA. The poem given was called “The Chaos”, by Gerard Nolst Trenité. It’s a rhyming poem in the English language written to show off some of the most interesting spelling irregularities in the English language.

The assignment itself was just a great deal of transcription, but the wonderful bonus to it all was finally seeing a poem rhyme.

English spelling isn’t terribly phonetic, to put it nicely. The same letter combinations can have the different pronunciations in different words (“gh” in “ghost” and “rough”), and only through years of teaching, spelling bees, and repetition are we able to finally figure out how to read things written in our own alphabet.

So, not surprisingly, unless you speak the language, it’s nearly impossible to detect a rhyme looking at the text of a poem alone. To illustrate that point, here are the first twelve verses of “The Chaos”, justified to the right to emphasize the endings of lines:


(My apologies to those using screenreaders for using a graphic to display text, but IPA fonts and text formatting just don’t work well on websites)

If you read the poem aloud, the rhyme is obvious. Just looking at the text, though, there’s really no hint of the rhyme excepting the final letter, and rhyme is more than just final letters. “Sound” and “Wound” (injury) don’t rhyme (in the simple sense), even though every letter but the first is identical. Bough and flow share only one letter, yet they rhyme wonderfully in English.

In the English language, our writing system isn’t remotely phonetic. In order to detect rhyme, we have to hear something read (either aloud or in our heads). However, in a phonetic writing system, something truly wonderful happens.

Here are the same twelve verses transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet:


Even if you can’t read the IPA, you can see the words rhyming. Because the IPA transcribes sounds, we can see when the lines end in the exact same sounds. If the final vowel and consonant(s) are the same in the IPA, then it rhymes. It’s that simple.

Literate English speakers have a great deal of training throughout their lives dedicated to making heads or tails of our bizarre writing system. We sometimes even forget how strange it is, and we stop looking for exact correspondences to sound and rhyme.

English readers seldom see that spelling’s chains won’t let us be. We speak aloud inside our heads, we forget our long past reading dreads. The spelling bees all left behind, phonics beaten through our minds. The system seems easy, perhaps, sublime, but alas, we’ve never seen a rhyme.

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