Splitting up: the enjambment connection

Once again, it started with something that came up on a random iTunes playlist — this time, the song “My Home Town” from the Best of the Foremen album (comic songs) in which one of the Foremen sings

Mý hóme tówn
Is Chicágo, Íllinóis,
Which ónly góes to shów
Why Í’m a bróad [long pause] shouldered gúy.

(The accent marks indicate where accents fall in the performance. So this is four trimeter lines.)

The line division is mine, and could be wrong from the Foremen’s point of view, but what’s important here is that pause, which splits a (compound) word, broad-shouldered, into two parts, leading to a temporary potential ambiguity in which “I’m a broad” will be parsed, garden-path style, as a clause on its own — a comic result, since the singer is a guy, not a broad. The comic misparsing is then dissipated, to the listeners’ relief, by the continuation of the word.

This phenomenon, which has (so far as I know) no widely used technical label, is reminiscent of a number of other phenomena. In one direction, it’s like enjambment in verse; in another direction, it’s like “broken rhyme” or (to my mind the better term) “split rhyme” in verse, and in turn that’s like various ways of splitting up words by interposing material between the parts.

This posting topic has grown over the past two weeks, thanks in part to some very helpful discussion on the American Dialect Society mailing list — grown to such an extent that the only way I can see to get on with it is to chop it into pieces. Today’s piece is about what I’ll call As/tor Bars, after another example.

This label comes from the treatment of the expression Astor Bar in Cole Porter’s song “Well, Did you Evah”, from the movie High Society (1959). At a big party before the second wedding of Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Grace Kelley), her ex-husband Dex(ter) — C. K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby), a jazz musician with social standing of his own — is getting drunk with tabloid reporter Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra), and the two men are joking uneasily (both are in love with Tracy) and trading gossip, in song of course. In the middle of their revelry comes this exchange:

DEXTER: Havin’ a nice time? / Grab a line!
MIKE: Have you heard that Mimsie Starr,
DEXTER: What now?
MIKE: She got pinched in the As [pause] tor bar.
DEXTER: Sauced again, eh?
MIKE: She was stoned!
DEXTER: Well, did you evah!
MIKE: Never!
MIKE and DEXTER: What a swell party this is!

(This is more than I needed to set up the context. But I just like the song, and the movie. Humor me.)

In fact, ol’ Mimsie was arrested for drunkenness in the Astor Bar, not pinched on the derriere there, but Mike’s split of Astor sets up the listener to hear “She got pinched in the ass”. (This one made a brief appearance in Language Log a few years ago, as an example of “suggestive lyrics”.)

Let’s take stock of the (two) examples so far:

– the word-internal splits that invite temporary misparsing are line-internal;

– sometimes the split is at a morpheme boundary (broad / shouldered), but sometimes not (As / tor);

– they could have happened if the lines were spoken in ordinary speech, rather than as part of a song or poem;

– they aren’t just pauses in speech production, occurring at places where a speaker is planning the next thing to stay, or where the speaker is distracted, or whatever, though such intra-word pauses do happen;

– instead, the pauses are intentional, deliberately inviting a misparsing, and

– deployed for the comic effect of this misparsing.

What about pauses that aren’t inside a word, but between words? That would be like broad / shouldered, but at one structural level up.

Well, such pauses occur all the time, as pauses in speech production, either marking constituent structure divisions or appearing at choice points within major constituents (in English, for example, pauses after the articles the and a are very comon indeed). But they can also be deployed strategically, as a way of marking constituent divisions so as to (try to) eliminate unintended readings of potentially ambiguous expressions (for example: old / men and women vs. old men / and women) — or to deliberately and misleadingly convey one meaning, which is then corrected after the pause by a continuation, most spectacularly in “retro-not” (“You’re a great friend — not!”).

[Looking ahead to future installments: So far I’ve talked about splits marked by pauses, but splits can also be marked by material with some segmental phonetic substance: conventionalized hesitation noises (oh, uh/er, ah, hmm, etc.), conventionalized discourse particles like well, y’know, and like, and longer parentheticals like I guess, y’know what?, and so to speak.

Such “filled splits” can work themselves down into words, usually for comic effect. About the character Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) on the U.S. tv show How I Met Your Mother:

He also frequently intersperses the phrase “Wait for it” between syllables of a long word. The season two finale closed with Barney saying “Legen – wait for it…”, and he opened season three with “..Dary!” (link)

But back to “pause splits”.]

Another place for  pause splits is between lines in poetry. There’s a long poetic tradition for dividing lines at major constituent boundaries, clause boundaries in particular. These syntactic constituents are usually also semantic units and prosodic constituents, so traditional poetic lineation respects all three types of chunking into parts. And the line divisions correspond to (brief) pauses in speech or song.

Folk songs, nursery rhymes, popular playful verse forms (like limericks), and the like are especially strongly regulated this way, but more elevated forms are so regulated as well. Examples abound.

What flies against this are breaks separating material that is closely tied syntactically (a premodifier — adjectival or adverbial — and its head, for instance, as in the students’ / compaints, beautiful / melodies, very / encouraging, and recently / achieved), and, most especially, breaks between prosodically dependent items and the material they’re dependent on: between a personal pronoun subject and its following predicate (it / failed), a personal pronoun object and its preceding governing verb (touched / it), a preposition and its object (to / the end), a subordinator or complementizer and the rest of the clause that it introduces (if / you gosee that / it’s snowing), and so on. When a line division occurs in such a situation, the lines are said to be enjambed (though the term takes in more cases than the ones above; see below)

Enjambment is a “special case”, but it’s not infrequent, and in some modern poetry it’s common indeed. My own poetry is very heavily enjambed. Here’s an extreme example from an occasional poem of mine, the occasion being a discussion with musicologist Blake Stevens about “storm music” by several composers (it all started, I think, with Rameau); I don’t recall how Conan Doyle came into it, though i do recall that Blake didn’t get the reference to the Giant Rat of Sumatra:

The Giant Rat of Sumatra’s song – 10/1/05
for Blake Stevens

Rameau, Mozart, and
Played the
Giant Rat of

Hoping to enmesh the
Creature in an
Epic storm, which it
Could not long

It was the
Only tactic they could
Agree on.

[Digression 1. The Giant Rat of Sumatra is one of those Sherlock Holmes adventures that Watson referred to (in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”) but never got around to writing up. So of course devoted Sherlockians have taken up the task, producing numerous Holmesian pastiches under this title; amazon.com has at least seven such books in its listings, and this doesn’t include short stories or pastiches under other titles. Or the two books of pirate adventures or the Hardy Boys mystery (#143, omigod) under the GRoS title, or Jack Sharkey’s “musical Victorian spoof”, or the Firesign Theatre’s 1974 comedy album (with Hemlock Stones and Flotsam). Well, even aside from the horror of giant rats and the exotic lure of Sumatra, the title is irresistible, a little phonological wonder.]

[Digression 2. This just in, from analyst Teresa Shipley on the Discovery News website, July 26, the news flash (from the July Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History) that

Archaeologists have unearthed the largest species of rat ever discovered, which lived on East Timor until about 1,000 to 2,000 years ago.

The new species was three times heavier — about six kilograms (13 pounds) — than the biggest rats known to exist today, which are found in the tropical forests of the Philippines and New Guinea.

Yes, the giant, or great, rat of East Timor.

Still-extant is the Flores Giant Rat, which is big, but not as big as the monster that used to roam East Timor (until it was, possibly, eaten to death by humans).

These rodents belong to the genus Papagomys, which unavoidably suggests Papageno to me, though “Ich bin der Vogelfänger Papagomys” wouldn’t be realistic, since the Flores Giant Rat probably sticks to leaves, buds, fruit, and some insects, and doesn’t catch birds. Still, we can fantasize about a Giant Bird-Catching Rat of Sumatra, fleshing out Doctor Watson’s vision a bit.]

Back to my GRoS poem. Of the 13 pairs of lines in it, only three aren’t enjambed, namely the two that span poetic verses (“Song, / Hoping to enmesh the” and “Endure. / It was the”) and lines 2/3 (“Wagner / Played the”). The effect within the verses is that of constantly holding back and then rushing on. (I didn’t do any of this analysis when I was writing the thing. I just put down on paper what sounded right to me.)

(You can appreciate why enjambed lines are sometimes called run-on lines.)

The label enjambment applies to much less extreme splittings than these, in particular to splits after a subject, before a direct object, and before an adverbial, even when no dependent pronouns are involved or any tight syntactic units broken up, as in these lines from The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare (from the Wikipedia enjambment page):

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown.

The breaks are: subject / predicate, subject / predicate, verb / direct object, and verb / adverbial.

Most readers still perceive some rushing-on, the effect that generally attends enjambment, but it’s less pronounced. And such enjambments can be read without significant pauses, but with some pitch fall or final lengthening at the end of each line, so that listeners can still hear the line divisions. Such readings of blank verse don’t have to end up sounding prosaic.

Of course, without final pauses, pitch falls, or lengthening, unmetered poetry whose lines aren’t syntactically end-stopped (like GRoS) won’t sound like poetry at all, but just like ordinary prose. I could have chosen to write a very short story about the Giant Rat of Sumatra, after all, which a reader might find interesting because of the images it evokes or because of its diction —

Rameau, Mozart, and Wagner played the Giant Rat of Sumatra’s song, hoping to enmesh the creature in an epic storm, which it could not long endure. It was the only tactic they could agree on.

but I wanted a different sort of effect, and not just on the page.

I started this posting with splits within words (As/tor Bars), and then moved on to splits between words within constituents, specifically such splits in poetic lineation (enjambment). In the next posting, I’ll put the two together, in the phenomenon of split, or broken, rhyme. Then I’ll return to the topic, glancingly mentioned above, of those legen-wait for it!-dary filled splits: splitting plus insertion (a.k.a. infixation, interpolation, interposition).

12 Responses to “Splitting up: the enjambment connection”

  1. Ned Deily Says:

    {With apologies to WAM & Schikaneder:]

    Der Rattenfänger bin ich ja!
    Bekannt durch alle Sumatra.
    Die grössten dieser Ratten doch
    Stehen höher als ein Meter hoch.
    Weiß mit dem Käse herumzugehen
    und sie damit schnell festzunehmen.
    Dann sperre ich sie bei mir ein
    Und rate alle wären mein.

    || : Pa pa pa : ||
    || : Papa pa pa pa : ||

    Papa papa [Pause] Papagomys !

    [(amz) Pause applause!]

  2. Debby Says:

    When I was in elementary school, we all learned a titillating rhyme which had some of the following lines — I can’t remember it all any more.

    Lulu had a tugboat, the tugboat had a bell.
    Lulu went to heaven, the tugboat went to …
    Hello operator, give me number nine.

    The boys are in the basement pulling down their …
    Flies on the ceiling, flies on the wall

    I bet it was once a jump-rope song, though I don’t think we recited it that way. I just googled “Lulu had a tugboat,” and found the following version. Some of it sounds familiar, but it obviously isn’t exactly the same version we giggled over.

    Lulu had a tugboat, the tugboat had a bell
    Lulu went to heaven, the tugboat went to

    Hello Operator, give me Number Nine
    And if you disconnect me, I’ll cut off your

    Behind the ‘fridgerator, there was a piece of glass
    Lulu sat upon it and broke her little

    Ask me no more questions, I’ll tell you no more lies
    The boys are in the bathroom, zipping up their

    Flies are in the meadow, the bees are in the skies
    This is what Miss Lulu said before she closed her eyes

    I know a song that gets on everybody’s nerves YES! (x3)
    And this is how it goes (M.G.)

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Debby:

    Oh my, from my childhood too, though I recall only the beginning of it. The poetic scheme is an interesting one: lines highly enjambed by the deferment of a naughty rhyming word, which would be predicted in context, but the listeners’ expectations are defeated by a continuation that shifts to a completely different, and innocent, expression that begins with a homophone of the predicted word, or something phonologically similar to it. Apparently it’s had a long life as a kids’ rhyme, for jump-rope, in particular.

    [The appeal to a telephone operator takes us back to pay phones, and even further to home phones where you went through an operator to place your call. Telephone operators have been memorialized in song many times — just on my iTunes, by the Grateful Dead (“Operator, can you he’p me… ?”), Jim Croce (“Operator, will you help me place this call?”), and the Manhattan Transfer (“Operator, give me information… Put Jesus on the line” — an old gospel song by Bill Spivey).

    And to when telephone numbers, routed through an operator at a local exchange, had really short numbers. My family’s number (on a party line, of course) was first 134, then 2134, then 8-2134, then OR8-2134, which of course became 678-2134 and picked up an area code.]

    In any case, the “go to / Hello operator” scheme is different from, though clearly related to, ordinary enjambment. It doesn’t have a name; maybe it doesn’t need one, since instances of it seem to be very very rare.

  4. The Gasoline Prize « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Splitting up: the enjambment connection […]

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic rat!

  6. Splitting up: collaborative word-splitting « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in my previous posting. This time it’s antici- …say it!… […]

  7. Ilse Lehiste Says:

    Just a brief comment. It does not have to be a pause – there are all kinds of boundary signals that function just as well.

    There are even contrastive degrees of deceleration that can have a lingusitic function. In physics, it would be different rates of change –

  8. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Ilse Lehiste: I knew you were going to pounce on this point, Ilse. For expository purposes, I started the posting talking only about pauses (because that’s the way most people think about boundary signals — people “hear” pauses, whether they’re there or not). But eventually I expanded the inventory of boundary signals to pitch movement (in particular, falling pitch) and (segmental) lengthening. And changes in the rate of pitch movement should be added to that list. And changes in voice quality, in particular shift to creaky voice. And probably more things that I haven’t thought of.

  9. Elaine Chaika Says:

    I also do a linguistics blog on quite different topics, like How the Pilgrims Spoke & The Which Hunt. […]

    Modern English allows infixing like “abso-fuckin-lutely”. Also portmanteaus are rampant in magazines I’ve done years of research in schizophrenic speech & garden path discourse is common in that population


    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Expletive Infixation/Insertion (o which there is a huge literature, a little bit of it from me) is on the menu for one of the “splitting” installments. My problem is that a small reply has turned into a monstrously large project. But I’ll get to it.

  10. Elaine Chaika Says:

    Look at Rap lyrics for split rhymes, etc

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh goodness, I scarcely need more examples of split rhymes. One of the things that have held up my “splitting” postings is the sheer overwhelming amount of data. But eventually I’ll finish the posting.

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