Case choice by rhyme; non-standard case systems

This is a re-play (edited) of an exchange on ADS-L, back in 2005, about two subtopics in choosing case forms of pronouns in English. The thread was not posted about in Language Log at the time, but now some of these issues have arisen afresh on Facebook in recent days. I’m not sure if I can wrestle the current discussion into some sort of coherent shape, but I can at least revive a bit of the older conversation.

I started the thread on 8/11/05, under the heading “Case choice by rhyme”, and then on from there.

My posting:

The exigencies of rhyme often result in choices for pronoun case that are quite alien to the people who say, or sing, the rhymes, as in the popular song cited by Michael Quinion on p. 155 of his Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds:

Oh where oh where has my little dog gone?
Oh where oh where can he be?
Now sausage is good, baloney, of course.
Oh where oh where can he be?
They make them of dog they make them of horse,
I think they make them of he.

Nom he as the object of the P of, to satisfy the rhyme with be.

Then Ben Zimmer on 8/19, with a nice digression:

Somewhat related is the rhyme-governed choice of pronouns that are outside of the expected register of a verse or song. I’m thinking of the choice of “thee” instead of “you” for obj. 2p pronoun in African-American songs from blues to rap, where the register is clearly not liturgical. Here’s an example from Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s version of “Dust My Broom” (1949):

It’s a sin and a shame
Darling, the way you treat poor me
Yes it’s a sin and a shame
Lord, the way you treat poor me
You know well that I love you
And I really wouldn’t mistreat thee.

And here’s a hiphop example, from Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” (1990):

My name is Humpty, pronounced with an umpty
Yo ladies, oh how I like to hump thee
And all the rappers in the top ten
Please allow me to bump thee.

I’m crazy, allow me to amaze thee
They say I’m ugly but it just don’t faze me.

Then a diversion from Alison Murie on 8/19:

The “exigencies of rhyme” don’t account for the case choices in the epitaph I quoted earlier (8/7) (“Her as was has gone from we, Us as is will go to she”), since much the same sentiment could easily have been expressed with standard cases, e.g.,

She whose bones we here inter
Will wait for us to follow her
— or
She whom we do here inter
Will wait for us to follow her.

To which I replied:

No one was claiming that the exigencies of rhyme account for all, or even most, instances of nonstandard case choice. In particular, nonstandard dialects of English have quite a variety of case choices, including some uses of nominative objects for emphasis/contrast — which might be going on in the epitaph above, and in a family story from Kentucky, which ends with a man reflecting: “It don’t hurt I, and it pleases she”.

On the other hand, the fact that something could be completely rephrased so as to allow entirely standard case choices is not necessarily an argument against the exigencies of rhyme being a contributing factor in nonstandard case choice. In particular, the original epitaph is strikingly parallel, with the contrasted pronouns in (accented) first and last positions in each line: her … we and us … she.

With ordinary rhyme; standard pronouns would eliminate ordinary (end) rhyme, in favor of rhyming first words. And the proposed rewordings lack the parallelism in the accented words of the two lines.

The thread was resumed on 9/21/05, with a posting of mine:

Another kind of example, which came by on my iTunes (sung by Blossom Dearie) a little while ago…
From “You for Me”, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer (1959):

Take a look and see
You’ve hooked the she
Who’ll agree
Quite cheerfully…

Here, the personal pronoun (in the nominative, in this case) is used like an ordinary head noun.

I’m sure there are other examples out there of a/the she/her/he/him, but search engines really aren’t good at picking the good stuff out.

Arnold, annoyed to discover that the lyrics don’t seem to be available on the web, presumably because of copyright fanatacism (on the Harold Arlen site, I was given the option of licensing the song)

Then, still on 9/21, John Baker with Shakespeare:

It’s not new. Compare Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXX:

“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

Shakespeare didn’t need the rhyme, but he did need a monosyllabic reference for his dark lady.

Considerable (inconclusive) discussion ensued about the interpretation of this passage.

Meanwhile, on a separate track, Wilson Gray on 9/23:

R&B lyric from “My True Story,” by The Jive Five:

This story is true, dear
It is no lie
The names have been changed, dear
To protect you and I

I figure that Wilson was assuming that NomConjObjs (as in to protect you and I) were entirely foreign to the speech of The Jive Five (a doo-wop group of the 1960s, later into soul), so this woukd be another rhyme-motivated case choice.

5 Responses to “Case choice by rhyme; non-standard case systems”

  1. Martin van den Berg Says:

    I guess another classic is the English version of “The Girl From Ipanema”, which contains the lines

    But each day, when she walks to the sea
    She looks straight ahead, not at me

    which were changed to

    But each day, when she walks to the sea
    She looks straight ahead, not at he

    in Astrud Gilberto’s version.

  2. Neal Says:

    From Tom Lehrer’s parody of Gilbert and Sullivan by way of “Clementine”:

    Well I love her and she loves me,
    Enraptured are the both of we.
    Yes I love she and she loves I,
    And will for all eterni-tie!

    From “I Don’t Want to Wait,” a song by Paula Cole from the mid-90s that annoyed me with this verse, sung unironically:

    So open up your morning light
    And say a little prayer for I
    You know that if we are to stay alive
    Then see the peace in every eye

    As one guy noted, “She pulls off something here that is the rarely-seen double whammy of lyrical tragedy. She molests and violates the English language to try to make her rhyme work… and even with the horrendous grammar, the rhyme is STILL imperfect.”

  3. dysangelist Says:

    And the various examples from W.S. Gilbert; the one that comes to mind is

    [First Lord of the Admiralty]
    “And that kind of ship so suited me,
    that they made me the ruler of the Queen’s Navee”
    “And that kind of ship so suited he,”

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