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Meaningless words and nonsense

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” or the “E – I – E – I – O” from Old MacDonald had a farm.

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 the vowel. Paddy whack recapitulates the vowel, but contrasts the simplest metrical foot in paddy with the plain syllable in whack. In Give a dog a bone, this old man comes rolling home, the OH diphthong is repeated four times, in bone, old, rolling and home. Most simply of all E – I – E – I – O rehearses a series of diphthongs in I and O and another long vowel in E.

With children who have problems with the sound structures of English, these principles can be put to use. Singing songs is fun, even if it isn’t a magic bullet.

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 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.

Nursery rhymes are what they are for a good reason.

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