Monday, 8 April 2013

Eenie Meenie Miney Mo

From Memory In Oral Traditions

(some line breaks added by me)

"More suble poetics also exist. For instance, the first line of Eenie Meenie contains vowels that progress from front to back (as in the fee, fi fo of fee, fi, fo, fum or in ee, eye, ee eye, oh of Old McDonald Had a Farm). Therefore meenie, miney mo sounds better than miney, meenie, mo, and the order is unlikely to change. 

In addition, the first word, eenie, is part of the second word, meenie. This is a sophisticated poetic device used by Jakobson (1960) in relation to the political slogan I like Ike, used by Eisenhower in his presidental campaign. Together these first two words of the first line have four repetitions of the sound ee. It could even be argued that the /m/ sound is used because it is the easiest for a child to make.

Changing words without reducing the amount and quality of the poetic device is not easy. Changing words while maintaining both the meaning and the poetic devices is even more difficult. To be convinced of this, it is only neccessary to try to find, for each word in the two rhymes, a word that fits as well as the original. 

Consider the first line of Eenie Meenie again. It has only sound pattern, not meaning, but sound pattern is enough. As noted, eenie is part of meenie, and there is a front-to-back vowel progression for the middle words. Meenie, miney and mo alliterate. Ennie, meenie and miney rhyme with a sound that repeats as the first vowel of eenie and meenie. Mo rhymes with toe and go. The remaining sound, /n/, repeats in the same location in three words. The whole line repeats as the last line, where the one sungle-syllable word, mo, coincides with the person who is chosen. This change from the two-syllable pattern adds to the closure of the piece (Smith, 1968) and emphasizes the end and the rhyme scheme by putting a stress on the last word. Thus there is not a phoneme or even a distictive feature that can change without breaking some pattern.

The whole line can change - for instance, to the Scottish version Eena, deena, dina, do, noted later in the chapter - but any single change reduces a sound-pattern repetition. The multiple constraints outlined in Chapter 5 are at work here, resulting in many sounds being overdetermined. Thus a change from the /o/ of mo would break the front-to-back vowel progression and the end-ryhme pattern, and a change from mo to a two-syllable word would take the stress off the rhyme sound"


  1. Of vague and lacklustre relevance - I've been listening to spoken-word versions of scores of fairy-tales of late and the variations on sing-song cannibalistic ogrishness are many. Fee-fi-fo-fum seems to be ancient. It makes me wonder where such a thing originated to then have an explosive evolutionary radiation across many regions. This gives an insight into the mechanism that keeps the particular manifestation of syllabic rhythm and metre stable and is as usual, fucking interesting.

    1. Bah! By this I mean this post is interesting and am not saying I am as usual interesting. I was in a rush to get to work and typing nonsense.

      There is a theory out there that music predated abstract language as a device signalling individual creative capacity and/or a means of communal aesthetic experience for group bonding. Maybe the aesthetically pleasing devices of poetic language are archaic and derived from language play only later to be co-opted as mnemonic devices due to their inherently delicious quality. Maybe the mnemonic thing is also selected for but it smells like an epiphenomenon.

      At its most basic level poetry is a manipulation of our inherited proclivities to enjoy certain sound structures (possibly derived from baby talk). That which is imbued with inculcatory Groupthink bullshit (like Homer)and helps to form the structure of the culture seems to create its own context, sprawling a kind of extended phenotype across space and time, becoming in the process a kind of unstampoutable Darwinian Demon.

      Thanks for keeping the tone dense and crunchy and apologies for my self-indulgent aspie tangent-skewing.