Tuesday 2 February 2010

mnemonic rhymes

Nowadays we tend to have a low opinion of learning by rote. But I have to say that for language learning it has its uses. Things we learn off by heart at a tender age tend to remain in our memory for ever.
When I was being taught Latin (from age 9 onwards) we were encouraged to learn various little rhymes intended to help us remember the gender of nouns.
Many nouns in is we find
to the masculine assigned:
amnis, axis, caulis, collis,
clūnis, crīnis, fascis, follis,
fūstis, ignis, orbis, ēnsis,
pānis, piscis, postis, mēnsis…

Latin nouns that fluctuate between masculine and feminine are said to be of ‘common’ gender.
Diēs in the singular
common we define:
but its plural cases are
always masculine.

Aequor, marmor, cor decline
neuter; arbor feminine.

(It didn’t worry us to pronounce ˈmæskjulaɪn and ˈfemɪnaɪn here for the sake of the rhyme, instead of the usual ˈmæskjʊlɪn and ˈfemənɪn. Sometimes we said ˈsɪŋɡjulɑː for the same reason.)

We had our little parodies, of course. We were supposed to recite
Common are: sacerdōs, dux,
vātēs, parēns, et coniūnx…

but we actually took delight in saying
Common are: sacerdōs, dux,
Hoover and Electrolux.

You’ll find these and other “memorial lines” in an appendix at the end of Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer.

Do today’s language learners ever memorize mnemonic verses? Here’s one I’ve just made up.
Come and go, but came and went;
tend and tended, bend and bent.
Try and tried, but buy and bought;
reach and reached, but teach and taught.


  1. And dic, duc, fac, fer, drop the e and you'll find it there!

    Very nice, the Hoover rhyme.

    I think [ˈmæskjulaɪn] &c. are part of the fun even in the "serious" rhymes.

    It's hard to imagine these rhymes for grammar, history, music and some sciences aren't used anymore, even if you don't have to because you can scan in the question with your wristwatch camera, have things looked up and hear the answer through an invisible hearing device today.

  2. All Altruists Gladly Make Gum In Gallon Tanks.

    But I cannot remember the names of the sugars, themselves. (I suck at learning by heart.)

  3. "To nouns that cannot be declined
    The neuter gender is assigned..."

    "Primer" itself seems to have the KIT vowel here in the US. I think that in the UK it has PRICE, although I can't say I remember for certain.

  4. I was taught largely by someone who remembered these rhymes, but not with any great affection. There was one he liked because it was funny, but he told us only for our entertainment:

    Dick had a duck
    With fur on its back
    It's a fac(t)

    This indicate's that my teacher's teacher remembered or still lived in a climate where:

    1. 'Knowing Latin' amounted to knowing the answer to questions such as What is the second person singular imperative of dicere?

    2. Latin pronunciation amounted to reading words aloud as if they were English.

    The rhyme would be a puzzle to today's students learning to say duk and fɛr, not dʌk and fɜ:.

    We were also exposed to a rhyme consisting of prepositions that take the ablative. All I remember bits of lines with prepositions I never used like usque and coram, and the final words

    ...ad and in
    When state not motion 'tis they mean

    For a change this is something worth remembering. But the concept is easy to grasp and much easier to remember than the rhyme.

    Form French, I remember

    'Hibou, caillou, chou,
    Genou, bijou, jou-jou
    Et pou

    From time to time I have looked up and rediscovered what 'rule' these words are exception to. But I always forget again.

    All these Latin rhymes seem to approximate to the metre of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Indeed. most seem to conform exactly. Suddenly I'm reminded of another rhyme with Latin


    This also relies on the 'old' pronuciation, rhyming
    Corn and High with motoris bi. And the mnemonic effect is turned on its head: the rhyme easier to remember if you already understand the grammar.

    The choice of metre surely can't be a coincidence.

    PS How can you post a link so that it works as a link?

  5. Like <a href="http://url_">this</a>.

  6. From time to time I have looked up and rediscovered what 'rule' these words are exception to. But I always forget again.

    They form an irregular plural in -oux.

  7. I have little trouble remembering poetry and songs I learned before age 25. After that it gets hazier and hazier ... what's my name again? I wish I'd learned those Latin ones when I took Latin, although given the difference in pronunciation, we might have needed a few that were different from yours.

    I'm a great believer in mnemonics, but I find it useful to ask clients to come up with their own, or to offer several and have them choose.

    For accents, kinesthetic triggers can be amazingly useful. I have some favorites for myself, but again, I encourage clients (in this case, usually actors) to come up with their own.

    For those who are interested in memory tricks for learning lines, you'll find an article on this page, if you scroll down a bit (I don't have an anchor for it): Just Ask Amy: Learning Lines

  8. Or again not.

    I'll try again with this

    Can I delete the previous attempts, or can only John do so?

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  11. Please, John,we'd like to know how you pronounced those Latin word sixty years ago.

  12. David: In theory, if you're posting non-anonymously from your Blogger account, you should see a little trash can icon under your own posts. That should allow you to remove your own posts. But sometimes it doesn't work for me -- maybe a browser cache problem. Give it a try.

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  14. "Dic had a duc with fer on its fac." That's how one of my secondary-school Latin teachers taught us. He had a few other mnemonics, too. And I thought he made them up.

    @David Crosbie

    >This indicate's that my teacher's teacher remembered or still lived in a climate where:

    >1. 'Knowing Latin' amounted to knowing the answer to questions such as What is the second person singular imperative of dicere?"

    I'd apportion "topic" and "comment" differently. I think the idea was to remember a general rule (in this case, "the imperative of a 3rd-conjugation verb is the stem plus short e") plus the fact that the mnemonic gave exceptions where there is no final e. If the point of the mnemonic was only to tell you the forms of 4 words, that would, I agree, be less useful.

    >2. Latin pronunciation amounted to reading words aloud as if they were English.

    Mangle the pronunciations of words, conjure up a silly image (like a duck with fur)... a mnemonic may do absurd things and still be a good mnemonic if it enables you to remember what you needed to remember.

    As for the metres of those mnemonics that are in verse, the one Prof. Wells quoted first in this blog entry reminded me not of Twinkle Twinkle, but of this.

  15. Richard

    1. Whichever way you look at it, the initial aim of the old-fashined Latin teacher was to teach you how to produce a Latin word from English grammatical specifications -- a sort of reversed parsing.

    2. I wasn't suggesting that the pronunciation was 'mangled'. There was a perfectly consistent English pronunciation of Latin -- which just happened to be dramatically different from any reconstructed 'authentic' pronunciation, or anything used by the Catholic Church, or by speakers of other language. One stills hears it from the mouths of some lawyers.

    3. Except for Dies in the singular, which is a whole foot short in alternate lines, all the rhymes are one syllable short of that Carmina Burana song. As is Twinkle, twinkle.

  16. Jack: like this
    ˈæmnɪs ˈæksɪs ˈkaʊlɪs ˈkɒlɪs
    ˈkluːnɪs ˈkriːnɪs ˈfæskɪs ˈfɒlɪs
    ˈfuːstɪs ˈɪɡnɪs ˈɔːbɪs ˈensɪs
    ˈpɑːnɪs ˈpɪskɪs ˈpɒstɪs ˈmensɪs


    ˈaɪkwɔː ˈmɑːmɔː ˈkɔː

    səˈkɜːdɒs ˈdʊks/dʌks

  17. @JW
    "Do today’s language learners ever memorize mnemonic verses?"

    Re one of your recent blog entries I was bewailing the fact that one comes across some these days who have never even memorized the alphabet and can't look things up in physical dictionaries. But we're all virtualized and digickalized now, so that's all right then.

    The rot had already set in when we were given the low-down at the kids' induction into reception class. NO alphabet, NO reading. Just little ditties. I expostulated, "But the alphabet IS a little ditty!" No go.

    "Here’s one I’ve just made up."

    And very nice it is. But DID we ever make up our own? We were TAUGHT. And not only mnemonics, but how to teach ourselves. And the mnemonics we were taught were so good: Down in a deep dark dell sat an old cow munching a beanstalk./Out of its mouth came forth yesterday's dinner and tea. That's the elegiac couplet sorted.

    "dic, duc, fac, fer, drop the e and you'll find it there!"

    We had a variation on David Crosbie's, with I think better metre: Dick had a duck with fur on its back, and that's a fac.

    And his "...ad and in
    When state not motion 'tis they mean"

    can't have had ad in it. Our version was

    A, ab, absque, coram, de
    palam, cum, and ex or e,
    sine, tenus, pro and prae.
    Sub, subter, super, in beside,
    when state, not motion, is implied.

    I start a new list with UC for Sub, as the state not motion condition only applies from there on.

    And yes, that and Dick's duck depend on the old pronunciation, but although we were supposed to be using the new, it was not exactly a fussy new. (But less unfussy than Oxford, we subsequently discovered!)

    I loved David's motor bus so much I certainly memorized that, and still know it by heart. A pity the site he links to has 'and still' duplicated in "Thus I sang; and still and still anigh".

    Don't mnemonics work all the better if they do conjure up a silly image?

    I prefer the Archpoet's "Meum est propositum/In taberna mori"! But don't even go new Youtube for that!

    And it isn’t even in Carmina Burana. On Vicipaedia it is claimed to be, but it is not in what claims to be the complete collection of Carmina Burana on a German site called I think Gaudeamus. I seem to have lent my vinyl of whatever it was in on permanent loan to someone "as one does", and am fast losing confidence in my belief that I ever had a CD recording.

    So I find different versions of it everywhere I look for the original. They are mostly variations on one or other of these themes:

    Meum est propositum
    in taberna mori
    ubi vina proxima
    morientis ori.
    Tunc cantabunt laetius
    angelorum chori:
    "Deus sit propitious
    isti potatori."

    Meum est propositum
    in taberna mori;
    Vinum sit appositum
    sitienti ori:
    Ut dicant cum venerint
    angelorum chori
    "Deus sit propitius
    isti potatori."

    I think in the days when I was as impressionable as the wax from which we had not long since gravitated to vinyl, and was besotted with Mediaeval Latin, OF and MHG songs, the version I had got had "ubi sit propinquius vinum meo ori", instead of either the above or "ut sint vina proxima morienti ori" or "vinum sit appositum sitienti ori". But I can’t find that anywhere.

    The poem is from the original carmina potoria. Helen Waddell called it "the greatest drinking song in the world".

  18. About fifteen years ago, when I was studying Chinese in Vienna, we had to memorise the Kāngxī 康熙 radicals, 214 basic elements of Chinese characters. The question at the exam would be, for example: “List all radicals with two, seven and eleven strokes, with their pronunciation and meaning,” so we had to memorise them in groups by the number of brush (or pen) strokes they consisted of. (Two strokes: 二 èr “two”, 亠 tóu “lid”, 人 rén “man”, etc.; seven strokes: 見 jiàn “see”, 角 jiǎo “horn”, 言 yán “speech”, etc., eleven strokes: 魚 “fish”, 鳥 niǎo “bird”, 鹵 “brine”, etc.) This was part of an exam at the end of each semester for the first two years, a rather useless exercise.

    People made up mnemonic stories and rhymes about them, and there even was a competition for the most absurd. The results were published in the students’ journal UnSinN (Unabhängige Sinologische Nachrichten). I forgot most of them and remember only fragments: Great 大 women 女 and their little 小 children 子, hands folded 廾, march 廴 to the river 巛 where the swines’ snouts 彐 sprout 屮 …

  19. Richard

    So that's it!

    Your Meum est propositum is the metric model for John's Dies in the singular. And, as I should have seen before, the metre of Gaudeamus igitur.

    And, indeed, of the English-Latin rhyme

    Caesar 'ad some jam for tea
    Brutus 'ad a rat

    If this was ever mnemonic of anything, the point never reached me. It sounds more like a parody by a schoolboy somewhat fed up with Kennedy's rhymes.

  20. @David Crosbie,

    No, my point was that the list of Latin words in the first mnemonic in this blog entry, each word a trochee, laid out 4 to a line, reminded me of the metre of "In taverna".

    I retract my comment about "mangling" pronunciations; I now see that I misunderstood you.

    As for "Caesar 'ad some...", I see such ditties presented as the correct spellings of words in the language the ditty was made to resemble. Latin, in this case, hence Caesar adsum... I take them as just a bit of fun, that is, unless when it's a bully telling his victim to translate the text from Latin to English.

  21. I remember being taught the Swedish word classes in the form of a rhyme when I was in school (and this was in the 90s). I only remembered the first lines, but Wikipedia gives the full text, to the melody of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star":

    Substantiv är namn på ting,
    till exempel boll och ring
    Verb är saker man kan göra,
    som att hoppa, se och höra
    Adjektiven sen oss lär
    hurudana tingen är

    Non-rhyming translation:

    Nouns are names for things
    For example "ball" and "ring"
    Verbs are things that you can do
    Such as "jump", "see" and "hear"
    The adjectives then teach us
    What these things are like

    Different variant versions abound on the Internet.

  22. "Come and go, but came and went;
    tend and tended, bend and bent.
    Try and tried, but buy and bought;
    reach and reached, but teach and taught."

    I think the following would be difficult to memorize, and might prove more terrifying than edifying, but I've always enjoyed them.


    Lots more here:


  23. A simple rhyming mnemonic device often makes even most arcane facts easily remembered!

  24. Ours was "It's a fact, that Dick's duck has no fur." (Then we'd just remember the actual spellings by heart.)


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