Feet and rhythm in a limerick

Feet and rhythm in a limerick

This document attempts to illustrate the often very complex relationship between word, foot and prosodic phrase boundaries. This is one possible analysis of such a text. This limerick could be analysed in a number of ways depending upon the model being used and also upon the actual speech patterns of someone speaking this verse. This analysis predicts only one possible way of saying this verse.

ǁ      there | WAS an | old ǁ | MAN from  ǁ  ne-   | PAL ǁ | ǁǁ
ǁ      who | WAS so in- ǁ | CRED-ib-ly ǁ | TALL ǁ | ǁǁ
ǁ      that | WHEN he | looked ǁ | DOWN ǁ |     ǁǁ
ǁ      he | THOUGHT he would ǁ | DROWN ǁ |     ǁǁ
ǁ      but | NOW he's just ǁ | SCARED that he'll ǁ | FALL ǁ | ǁǁ

Several features of this limerick should be noted:

  • "|" represents a foot boundary, "ǁ" represents an "intermediate phrase" boundary, and (for the purposes of this example) "ǁǁ" represents an "intonational phrase" boundary (see below). When 2 or 3 different types of boundaries are adjacent their order is not significant and they should be seen as being simultaneous. The only example of a higher level boundary not coinciding with a lower level boundary is the intermediate phrase boundary between "from" and "Nepal" in the first line. This occurs because foot boundaries occur before a stressed syllable (because they are primarily rhythmic) whilst intermediate phrase boundaries occur at word boundaries (because they are primarily semantic).
  • Each line commences with a single unfooted unstressed syllable (although its also possible for some of these words to be stressed but unaccented). These syllables have not been associated with the preceding foot (ie. at the end of the preceding line) because Limericks are recited so that each line is realised as a separate intonational phrase. Feet can ignore word boundaries and even intermediate phrase boundaries, but they cannot ignore intonational phrase boundaries (which are often realised acoustically by a pause). An unstressed syllable cannot be associated with a preceding foot which is on the other side of an intonational phrase boundary. (see the topic on Intonation, for more information on prosodic phrases).
  • Some words, such as "was" and "when", which can be unstressed are stressed in a Limerick because the structure of the Limerick places an accent on them. The lines of the Limerick are realised as intonational phrases, but the placement of accents on the capitalised words in this Limerick divides these intonational phrases into two or three intermediate phrases (a lower level prosodic phrase containing a single accented word). (see the topic on Intonation, for more information on accented syllables). Note that intermediate phrase boundaries can occur in the middle of a foot (see line 1 "Nepal") and, unlike foot boundaries, they always occur at word boundaries. This is because intonation is associated with meaning and words are basic units of meaning whilst feet are associated with rhythm which is not so strongly linked to meaning.
  • The function words are unstressed.
  • Some content words, such as "old" and "looked", which would normally have a primary stressed syllable may be pronounced unstressed in Limericks. It is also possible that this Limerick could be pronounced with "old" and "looked" stressed. If this were so then this would result in an extra foot, but not an extra intermediate phrase, on lines 1 and 3 (as indicated by the foot boundaries placed immediately before "old" and "looked").
  • In this example some feet consist of more than one word and some words are broken into more than one foot.
  • If we ignore the optional line-initial unfooted unstressed syllables, we can see that Limericks have the following rhythmic structure: 5 lines consisting of 3, 3, 2, 2 and 3 accented words (with definitely the same number of intermediate phrases, and in some cases the same number of feet).

Content owner: Department of Linguistics Last updated: 12 Mar 2020 12:34pm

Back to the top of this page