Nursery rhymes rely on meter and rhyme to stick into our memories. When we remember them, we do not remember just the words; we remember them in time, sometimes even with their pitch.
Before children acquire words and syntax, parents naturally talk to them in a particular style. In the late 1980s, psychologist Deborah Kemler-Nelson proved that mothers all over the world speak to their children differently than they speak to adults. She called this speaking style “motherese.” When speaking to babies, we speak slowly in a higher pitched voice and tend to repeat phrases. Similarly many nursery rhymes slow down the speaking process and include repetition to help children learn. When children learn to speak and later to read, they acquire what linguists call “phoneme awareness.” What does that mean? Well, we aren’t born with the sounds of language in our heads, but rather we learn what the discreet, separate parts of sounds are as we learn language. Children do not automatically know when one word starts and another begins.
Some child psychologists claim that nursery rhymes help children learn these discrete units sound in a language. Children between the ages of two and three are just learning how to form sentences. Since they do not always understand when one word ends and another begins, the meter of nursery rhymes helps them learn the dynamics of what will be their mother tongue. Think about “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Each syllable is separated and enunciated because of how the meter and tune work. Speech therapists also recommend reciting nursery rhymes to help children with speech delays accelerate their language acquisition.
English nursery rhymes, like The Cat and the Fiddle, Pattycake, and Solomon Grundy, date back to the early 1600s. Others, like Old Mcdonald, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and This Old Man, originated in the early 1900s. Of course, nursery rhymes are not limited to the English language. French, Russian, Chinese: most languages have some sort of rhyming songs for children. In fact, Brother John, the English nursery rhyme made famous by Charlie Brown, was translated from the French original, Frère Jacques.
People have speculated that nursery rhymes contain codes or were veiled political messages. A few of them, such as “Old King Cole” and “Mary had a Little Lamb,” may have been connected to real-life events, but for the most part, they are completely fictional, non-allegorical stories. “Mary had a Little Lamb” is based on a poem by Sarah Josepha Hale about her neighbor Mary who had a pet lamb.
Do you remember the nursery rhymes of your childhood? What are your favorites?