Alex Tabisher writes that a mistake we make is to categorise nursery rhymes as either lullabies or rhythmic songs that are aids to memorisation. Picture: Carole LR/Pixabay
Alex Tabisher writes that a mistake we make is to categorise nursery rhymes as either lullabies or rhythmic songs that are aids to memorisation. Picture: Carole LR/Pixabay

Rhymes with reason: Nursery rhymes are more complicated than what we think

By Alex Tabisher Time of article published Apr 8, 2021

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A mistake we make is to categorise nursery rhymes as either lullabies or rhythmic songs that are aids to memorisation. Lately, television pumps them out as surrogate nannies while mummy does housework. There isn’t much wrong with this for the very young, because it employs the potent didactic agencies of colour, rhyme, rhythm and music.

Modern psychologists recognise these modalities as excellent tools to increase a child’s spatial reasoning and aids in the development of mathematical skills. Thinks of numbers songs, counting songs and matching colours, supplying missing words and so forth. It promotes aural discrimination combined with visual input.

Nursery rhymes have a close affinity with lullabies. The universal soothing sounds of lu-lu and by-by probably combine to give us the term lullaby. This explanation is limited in that it concentrates almost exclusively on aural discrimination. This genre is much more than that.

During the 17th century, these songs were published in a drive to move reading away from mere polemic and education towards the element of entertainment. One can appreciate the massive didactic shift and the potential of these nursery rhymes towards achieving more effective (and enjoyable) teaching techniques.

Originally, nursery rhymes and lullabies were called “Mother Goose rhymes”, or “Sonnets from the Cradle”. They covered riddles, proverbs, ballads, plays, drinking songs, historical events and even pagan rituals. James Orchard Halliwell’s The Nursery Rhymes of England (1849) became definitive in this genre. He grouped them into categories that included antiquities, fireside stories, games, alphabet riddles, places, families, proverbs, customs and many others. One can only marvel at the range that the content of this genre addressed.

And it is at this point that the study of nursery rhymes becomes interesting. Because it could refer to real-life events, it was also seen as containing gratuitous violence. Think about Who killed Cock Robin? and connect the dots to the later famous question “Who shot JR?” One can see how the centuries-old generic nursery rhymes influenced the way information is disseminated in our modern world.

Much like St George and the Dragon spawned Superman and the other superheroes that enthral today’s techno-generation. Pity there was no nursery rhyme for “Who stole the money?”

Before we become too academic, let us recognise the potential for bowdlerisation. Many of these nursery rhymes covered acts of heinous cruelty, or made light of serious historical or social events.

Three Blind Mice actually tells of the burning at the stake of three Protestant loyalists who annoyed Queen Mary I and her husband, King Philip of Spain.

And we all know how current the “Husha, husha, we all fall down” could refer to the many daily Covid deaths, just as “Atisha, atisha”(sneezing) catalogued victims of the flu epidemic and other plagues where folk dropped dead in their tracks in the streets.

Bowdlerisation, which is the act of editing and cleaning up passages or references that were deemed to be indecent or improper, had its day. Our current tendency towards political correctness comes from that tendency.

Fortunately, the psycho-analyst Bruno Bettelheim showed how exposure to violence in the euphemisms of nursery rhymes are useful in preparing children for the mistaken promise that life was all about sugar-plum fairies. This debate will go on for a long time.

To close on a light note, these rhymes also lend themselves to pleasant lampooning. “Mary had a little lamb: The midwife had a shock.” “Mary had a little lamb/she also had a bear/I have seen Mary’s little lamb/but I have never seen her bear”. “Mary had a little lamb. So what? Old MacDonald had a farm”.

Make of that what you will, and enjoy the fun ride.

* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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