An article of mine about the Catalan language once appeared in a magazine under the title ‘Catalan Got Your Tongue? The Language With Nine Lives.’ I showed it to my Spanish friend M-J. She was bemused. “In Spanish,” she said solemnly, “a cat has seven lives. Why nine?”
Because yes, which has always been my standard answer to questions like ‘why doesn’t English have a subjunctive?’ (Or rather, I would turn it round: “Okay, guys, so why does Spanish have a subjunctive?” and the class would chorus: “¡Porque sí!” But I quit teaching many years ago.)
To get back to the cat and its number of lives, there’s no particular reason a cat would have nine lives as opposed to seven or eleven or a hundred and something, except that it rhymes. Well, not quite – it has assonance. If we really wanted a proper rhyme, we’d have to say five lives, which is a bit of a tongue twister, and anyway, that doesn’t sound like nearly enough lives. For a cat, I mean. Unless it’s Schrödinger’s, but we won’t go down that road right now.
Whenever it can, English will make a rhyme, because rhymes are memorable, and, above all, fun. Odds and ends become odds and sods, the meal delivery service for the housebound is Meals on Wheels, and the business model that integrates both online and physical presences is bricks and clicks (or clicks and bricks). If you’re looking for trouble you’re cruising for a bruising, rooting for a booting or even clammering (sic) for a hammering. And, on a more erudite note, evolutionary developmental biology is evo-devo.
Rhythm is basic to life, and rhyme is a form of rhythm that somehow seems to lie at the core of language. The infant’s first utterances are monosyllables, repeated over and over: mama, papa, dada, baba. Small children – and the adults around them – naturally use rhymes, as in nicknames: Jojo, Dee Dee, Pepe, Lulu, and nursery words like moo moo, bow wow and so on.
Hugs not drugs. No pain no gain. Walk your talk. Wheeling and dealing. Prime time. Lean cuisine. Wear and tear. Sneak a peak. Gloom and doom. Fight or flight. Wine and dine. Name and blame. Balls to the wall. Dream team. Fake it till you make it.
The rhymes come together effortlessly as if the words were always meant for each other.
So I asked M-J:
“Do you know what we call Marks and Spencer (the famous department store) in the UK?”
“Sí, sí: M & S.”
“Yes. But everyone says Marks and Sparks. In fact Marks and Spencer have registered it.”
“Esparks? Chispas in Spanish?”
“What have sparks to do with the store?”
A long silence.
And then she got it.