Seasons come and go, and come back again. History repeats itself. The verses might be different, but the chorus is the same…
Repetition is rife, even in language. Every critic knows that much of what will be said, will already have been said before – probably many times over. But even the staunchest critic might be surprised at just how rife linguistic repetition really is.
Repetition, of course, is a key feature of poetry. Alliteration, assonance and rhyme are the repetition of particular phonemes (consonants and vowels) across a passage of text. Rhythm in poetry, or discourse in general, is the repetition of stress (of pitch, syllable length or volume) and the repetition of a particular time interval. In Berowne’s monologue from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, for example, the triplet rhythm and terminal rhyme (rather aptly) create sweet, heavenly music:
“For valour, is not love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?”
But repetition in poetry goes beyond rhythm and rhyme.
Linguistic anthropologist James Fox describes linguistic parallelism as “the common tendency to resort to pairing words and phrases to provide emphasis, authority or significance to an expression of ideas” (Fox, 2014). First described in 1753 by Robert Lowth, a Bishop and Oxford Professor with a penchant for Hebrew poetry, “parallelism” refers most broadly to the repetition of phonemes, words, phrases, syntactic structures or semantic concepts across (at least two) lines of texts.
It is a particularly common feature of biblical language, for example. Take Psalm 54:
“O God, save me by your name,
and vindicate me by your might.”
And in Footnote to Howl, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (like some screaming Walt Whitman) echoes, and deliberately subverts, such religious parallelism:
“Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace peyote pipes & drums!”
Researchers have found parallelism has been found to be a common feature of poetic, religious and ceremonial language across the world – from Mandarin to the Finno-Ugric family – as well as across the ages (the first recorded example is a cuneiform tablet dating back to 1750 BC). It is so ubiquitous that prominent Russian linguist Roman Jakobson spent much of his career studying it.
But parallelism is not constrained to poetical texts. For the great political speakers, repetition is a powerful rhetorical device – and Winston Churchill, for example, knew it:
“We shall fight in France.
We shall fight on the seas and oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence, and growing strength in the air!”
Repetition and parallelism can be found in the pop music charts too too. For example, there’s a reason the first line of The Troggs’ classic Love is All Around (made famous by Wet, Wet, Wet in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral) is so memorable:
“I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes.”
And it’s there in prose too, albeit of the more poetic kind. In Jack Kerouac’s debut novel, The Town and the City, repetition is a key device Kerouac uses to sketch a scene or convey affect. In a key transitional moment in the story, young Peter Martin is sat on the porch of the home that his family are having to sell following his father’s bankruptcy. The repetition of words (“farewell”), syntactic constructions (“he knew…”), and ideas (“serenade”, “lullaby”, “song”) all evoke a particularly bittersweet mood:
“Now everyone was asleep, and he was alone listening to the serenade of his dark old trees, the lullaby of his boyhood trees, and he knew he didn’t want to leave now, he knew he would never come back, it was the farewell song of his trees bending near him, farewell, farewell […]”
Even in this, Kerouac’s most traditionally narrative-driven novel, there are clear indications of the “spontaneous prose poetry” to come in On the Road:
“[…] because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”
But why is such parallelism so rife in language?
In part, it is surely because the repetition of words and phrases can be involuntary or at least sub-conscious. In psycholinguistics, “priming” refers to the process by which the recall of particular words or concepts (like “cat”) from semantic memory is facilitated by exposure to related words and concepts (like “whiskers”). Even syntactic priming is possible. If I let you read a sentence in the passive tense and then ask you to describe a picture of a boy kicking a football, you are more likely to say “the ball was kicked by the boy” (rather than “the boy kicked the ball”).
In Kerouac’s case, then, the extensive parallelism could be a result of his jazz-inspired writing methods, promoting free semantic and lexical associations – as well as his minimal self-editing afterwards (Johnson, 2012).
Linguist Deborah Tannen, best known famous for her work on language and gender, has also studied linguistic repetition. She points out that, perhaps more fundamentally than in poetry, repetition is also a prominent feature of ordinary and everyday conversation.
This dialogue, for example, is taken from a 2015 episode of the The Late, Late Show with James Corden. The host is interviewing former and current heroes of zeitgeist TV, David Duchovny and Kit Harrison. He has just asked about Harrison’s first name when Duchovny interrupts:
D: Is a, is a Kit in England? Is that, is this [points to Harrison’s groin] not a “Kit”? Is this a “Kit”?
C: You mean this? [also points to Harrison’s groin]
D: Yes. Is that, is that a “Kit”?
C: Is that a “Kit”?
C: Just specific to his one, or all of our “Kits”?
D: No, not Kit’s “Kit”. Not Kit’s
C: Is mine a “Kit”?
H: Is that what you call it?
D: Don’t you call it that?
C: No, I always think of Nightrider with a “Kit”, I don’t think of. I don’t think. I don’t think of what I call “the truth” [laughter]
D: So you’re saying the truth is in there? [points to Corden’s groin]
C: The truth is in there [points to his own groin]. And the truth will set you free. But you know what [points at Harrison]. You can’t handle the truth [laughs].
H: I can’t handle the truth. I can’t handle the truth.
Knob-jokes aside, the prominence of repetition in the dialogue – of words (“Kit”) and phrases (“can’t handle the truth”) – is clear.
Tannen suggests that – conscious or otherwise – there are four main functions of repetition in discourse (Tannen, 1987). First of all, she argues, repetition facilitates the production of speech by reducing the cognitive effort required for a given utterance. Secondly, and just as importantly, it aids our own comprehension of other people’s utterances. Thirdly, it produces a sense of connection between the turns of the conversation (or the lines of the poem). That is, it builds a sort of linguistic cohesion, at the same time adding emphasis or aesthetic quality.
Finally, she argues, repetition functions on an interactional or social level, tying the participants to the conversation (or the reader to the poem), as well as the speakers to each other (the poet to the reader). It’s no coincidence that in the dialogue there is a clear sense that rapport is being built between Corden and his two interviewees as the conversation progresses. As well as the locker-room humour, it’s clear that linguistic repetition is a major part of that.
So, although The Troggs claimed that “love is all around”, it’s clear from some of their most successful lyrics that they also knew for certain what poets and linguists have know for centuries: In biblical texts, Shakespeare’s plays, Ginsberg’s poetry and Kerouac’s prose – even on late night chat shows – linguistic repetition really is all around.
Fox, J. J. (2014). Explorations in Semantic Parallelism. Canberra: ANU Press.
Johnson, J. (2012). The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. New York: Viking.
Tannen, D. (1987). Repetition in Conversation: Toward a Poetics of Talk. Language, 63(3), 574-605.