Why Don’t Some Hymn Lyrics Rhyme?

by | Mar. 10, 2016

Mormon Life

Something is off.

Sitting and singing in sacrament meeting, this feeling has struck me before. Am I forgetting something? Am I experiencing deja vu? Why, in the middle of this song, do I feel like something isn’t right?

And then I realize: the last couplet in this hymn didn’t rhyme, so now I feel like the song is off balance.

It’s not a big deal, and I don’t let it interrupt my Sabbath worship, but I’ve had this eyebrow-crunching moment on more than one occasion. Mostly, I just figure the author had too difficult a time trying to get the words to fit their message.

But sometimes, there’s actually more to it than that. Turns out, a lot of the time when a hymn doesn’t rhyme, there’s usually a logical, often linguistic reason behind it.

Here are a few of those explanations for why some English hymns don’t rhyme perfectly.

The Great Vowel Shift

If you’ve ever looked at the end of a hymn underneath the last line, often the names, birth dates, and death dates of the composers are listed. This becomes important when you realize that some of our hymn lyrics come from as far back at the 8th century. (In case you’re wondering, the oldest hymn in the hymnal is “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” Its lyrics were written by Theodulph of Orleans who lived sometime around 760 – 821 A.D.)

English words were pronounced much differently in those past eras.

Over the course of centuries, systematic language changes alter the way we pronounce words. One in particular is known as the Great Vowel Shift, which occurred sometime between 1350 and 1700 A.D. During that time, the vowels in some words changed, while others didn’t. This became a problem for old hymns when one word in a rhyme changed and the other was left the same, leaving a set of words that no longer rhymed.

A good example from the hymnal is in hymn #119, “Come, We That Love the Lord.” In the third verse, we see surveys paired with seas. Pronouncing this today, these two words don’t match at all. But before the Great Vowel Shift, seas actually had the same vowel sound as surveys. They used to rhyme. Today, however, the vowel in seas changed while surveys remained the same, leaving us with a rhyme that doesn’t really rhyme.

So if you’re curious about a hymn lyric that doesn’t rhyme, first check the date. It might just be that the author rhymed fine, but time has slowly altered the sounds.

Dialect Differences

While most English-speaking members of the Church agree that words affected by the Great Vowel Shift no longer rhyme, there are other words that may or may not rhyme, depending on the English speaker you are talking to.

For example, “Now Let Us Rejoice” (Hymn #3), sets the words Jehovah and over as rhymes. American members of the Church probably don’t think these words rhyme; however, members in England and surrounding areas (where many of the early saints came from), will think the opposite. This is because British accents (along with several of its neighbors) are “non-rhotic,” meaning, they don’t pronounce the sound /r/ in some places. Thus, Jehovah would indeed rhyme with over pronounced as “ovah.”

Lost in Translation

Another difficulty with rhyming comes when a song is translated into English from its original language.

For example, in “Prayer of Thanksgiving” (Hymn #93), which was originally written in Dutch, there are pairs like joining and winning, and triumphant and tribulation. These don’t really come close to a proper “end rhyme,” but likely were translated this way on purpose to help preserve the original meaning of the song. There are still some similarities between the words, but not enough to be considered a “true” rhyme.

(But it’s important to note that not all translated hymns have this problem. Consider “All Creatures of Our God and King.”)

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Without Rhyme (for a Reason)

Believe it or not, there are also a couple of hymns in the 1984 LDS hymnal that were intentionally written without rhyme. Can you think of any? I guarantee you know at least one.

The most recognizable example is “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

Obviously, since this hymn wasn’t written to rhyme, it’s hard to notice that it doesn’t—there’s no “off-balance” feeling because there was no rhyme to bring balance in the first place. Another helping factor is that it’s written in an irregular meter (another rare feature in hymns), which hides its anti-rhymes because the uneven line lengths don’t feel as though they need to match.

Another great example of a non-rhyming hymn is #110, “Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord.”

What’s in a Rhyme?

This is by no means a comprehensive list of every possible reason a hymn may not rhyme. There are other linguistic quirks not discussed here that could cause a rhyme to change over time and leave it un-matching. After all, despite how many hymns contain the pair, Lord has never rhymed with word (Hymns #79; #90; #147; and many others).

So the next time you find yourself singing a hymn that doesn’t rhyme, you might still feel a little off balance, but at least you can hopefully figure out why.

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