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In various cultures, traditional songs often have a chorus, sometimes consisting largely or entirely of nonsense words, not making sense from one phrase to the next, for example: “Knick, knack, paddy whack, give a dog a bone, this old man comes rolling home” or “La di da da” or the Beatles’ “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

The equivalent of a chorus can be very helpful for child-learners of a language, epitomising in one or more ways its fundamental structures. For instance, knick knack exemplifies one common pattern of doubling or ‘reduplication’ in English where the only variation is with respect to the vowel going from high to low in terms of where in the mouth it is articulated. Paddy whack recapitulates the low vowel, but contrasts the simplest metrical foot in paddy with the plain syllable in whack, tellingly closed with a consonant. And in Give a dog a bone, this old man comes rolling home, the same diphthong is repeated four times.

With some musical invention, these principles can be exploited in work with children who have problems with the sound structures of English.

Almost, but not quite all, linguists agree that it is useful to list the sounds or ‘phonemes’ of a language. The phonemes of an accent or dialect or variety are commonly known as the ‘phonemic inventory’. Children often seem to be missing one or more phonemes from the inventory.

Rhyming is reflected in verse from Chaucer to Shakespeare to the work of Roald Dahl to rap. At the time of Geoffrey Chaucer 600 years ago, chamber, gander, and wander, all rhymed with one another, at least approximately, as did spoon and fun. But the supposedly nursery rhymes which feature these words don’t rhyme any more because of major changes in the vowel system over the last 600 years, most of these changes between the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare.