Sunday 19 December 2010

Antanaclasic Verse

There's a Chinese poem called Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi. The reason for the title should be obvious if you read the poem in Westernised script:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Which translates as:

In a stone den was a poet named Shi, who loved to eat lions, and had resolved to eat ten.
He often went to the market to hunt for lions.
At exactly ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that moment, Shi had just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those lions, he shot them with his arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp, so he had his servant clean it.
After the stone den was cleaned, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized the corpses were in fact ten stone lions.
Try to explain this matter.

It was written by a linguist called Chao Yuen Ren to demonstrate how inflection and the use of tone could alter the sense of Chinese words. In Chinese the same word can have different meanings when pronounced at a different pitch.

It's an exercise in what the ancient and rhetorical Greeks called antanaclasis, the repetition of a word in different senses. As Benjamin Franklin said: 'Your argument is sound. All sound.' Or Shakespeare's:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy will,
And will to boot, and will in over-plus...
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me, for my name is will.

(These verse are often ignored by the Shakespeare-was-all-written-by-Walter-Raleigh-dressed-as-Queen-Elizabeth brigade.)

Shī Shì shí shī shǐ, put me to pondering whether it was a possible to write something slightly similar in English. I started with: She's chi-chi, sews so-so tutus too. And then turned to: Right, write which witch ate eight bare bears, but got bored. So instead I shall give you the much looser poem below as a Sunday punishment. You are invited, dear inventive reader, to write your own antanaclasic rhyme over Christmas and to post it in the comments.

House Rules

Don’t meddle with medals
And don’t peddle pedals
And don’t throw your beer on the bier.
Don’t ever stalk storks
And don’t hawk those hawks,
Don’t peer at that peer on the pier.

Don’t fiddle with fiddles
Or riddle me riddles
Or wail about whales in Wales.
Well, well, you’re not well
Since you fell down that fell;
And - Alas! - that’s the tail of my tale.

So reader so dear to my heart, be as a deer to my hart, and write your own. I am not averse to a verse that is short, nor long for one that is long. Come to the waters of creativity, lower your can into the well and do as well as you can.

Very chi-chi

P.S. For the translation, and indeed the name of the author, of Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi I am indebted to this article.


  1. It's this sort of thing that gives poets a bad name.

    Also, the Chinese.

    p.s. I'm working on it

  2. Here's an old chestnut from the wife:

    Won One was a racehorse
    Two To was one too.
    Won One won one race
    and Two To won one too.

  3. I'm also working on it. In the meantime, my favorite of limerick-like objects:

    Said a boy to his teacher one day,
    "Wright has not written 'rite' right, I say."
    So the teacher replied,
    As the error she eyed,
    "Right. Wright, write 'rite' right, right away."

  4. I like the limerick very much.

    On the subject of pupils making mistakes in essay-writing, my step-father taught me this one as a child, although sadly it's not poetic:

    Smith, where Jones had had "had had", had had "had". "Had had" had been right.

  5. There is of course the buffalo sentence.

  6. I had entirely forgotten the buffalo sentence, which makes me feel rather foolish (and ink-stained).

  7. There was a long sentence I had to punctuate in Latin that went something like 'John said said said said' but much longer. Does this ring any bells?

    P.S. The sentence was in English but I was in Latin.

  8. Sorry, I'm in a stupor now, so you'll get nothing much more than this from me (well, my dad to be fair). It relates to the painting of a pub sign:

    "They wanted me to put extra spaces between the rose and and and and and crown"

  9. for what it's worth to you, here is my attempt to (loosely) render the first couple lines of the Tao Te Ching into gibberish:
    "The road wrote is not the road rode, nor the rede read the reed wrought."