Ask Artie #2: A minor matter of rhyme.

Artie Q. PebbletonAr(tie')s Poetica, Ars Poetica, Ask Artie, Linguistics!

Nate M. writes:


So, I have this ongoing joke with my friends that I would like to lay to rest.  Basically, one day I said “High” and “Hi” rhyme. Not in the “rap” sort of way, either.. Legitimately and 100% rhyme. My friends do not agree… Care to take sides?


Nate, I always take sides, although I must protest your degradation of rhyme-quality in rap lyrics; following Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of everything is terrible – which leaves room for 10% of lyrics to be, well, lyric and marvelous and fine, like 10% of everything.

The short version is, yes.  The words high and hi are pronounced exactly the same.

I’m not sure if I’d use them in a poetic context, because it seems kind of cheap to rhyme homophones.  I’m not sure what dialect of English your friends are speaking, but I think they might be claiming that there’s a diphthong in high where there isn’t in hi.  A diphthong is two vowel-sounds represented by one letter, and that’s what it means in Greek – two sounds.  You can render high as /haɪ/ in IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet, because that long-i sound in English is actually pronounced, “ha-ee”.  Try it.  Say “high” aloud, very slowly.  Now say hi.  They’re exactly the same, aren’t they?

I bet you never realized you were saying two sounds, because in your mind, hi or high is one syllable long.  That’s a diphthong, and it’s exactly the same in both words.  I think, Nate, that your friends were confused by the presence of those extra two letters, their reasoning being that the –gh has to count for something, has to make some kind of sound.  We’ll get to that.

High and hi are not etymologically connected, however; they’re homophones with a convergent development, meaning they started out differently but now sound similar.  In fact, in Chaucer’s time, 700 years ago, you would have pronounced high as /hix/.  That is to say, the -gh part would not have been silent; it would have been a voiceless velar fricative sound, a sound mostly found in modern German and Yiddish in names or words like Bach or ach or challah or chutzpah – that throat-rattling -ch sound.  Fricative just means that two parts of your vocal apparatus are rubbing together as air passes through them; in this case, your velum ((the velum is the soft palate at the back of your mouth just before the uvula, which is the little pink punching bag at the opening to your esophagus) and the back of your tongue.

In Chaucer’s time, all of these words would have been pronounced with the voiceless velar fricative: Knight, night, daughter, fraught, bought, naught, light, bright, laugh, enough.

And that’s enough, I think.  Send your questions, comments, and requests for advice to Ask Artie.

Thanks again for writing, Nate!  Hope you give this answer high marks.  And tell your friends I say… hello.

Yours in learning,

– Artie