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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the colour of undyed fabric

Beige Undyed linen fabric, the origin of the word greige

If one tweet kicked off something of a fratch in our comments section this week, it was this: nothing rhymes with beige except greige, an obscure word for the colour of undyed fabric.

That being said, it wasn’t long before the counter-suggestions started rolling in. And in. Age. Phage. Sage. Stage. Rage. And, apparently, in. Mage. Gauge. Page. Rage. Wage.

So just how accurate is that tweet? Is it really only greige that rhymes with beige?

Well, apologies to the age–phage–sage advocates out there, but the short answer is that, yes, strictly speaking, it’s only greige that rhymes with beige. The long answer is—errr, a bit more complicated than that.

All the debate here rests on precisely what constitutes a rhyme. As we’ve talked about before here on HH (in a debate about the many non-rhymes of the word carpet), we like to follow the same rules as most rhyming dictionaries for facts like these: so the field is limited to standard English pronunciation and vocabulary, and to pairs of so-called “perfect” or “full” rhymes—namely words those that match each other precisely, sound for sound.

So slang and dialect words, pairs of juxtaposed words, and regional pronunciations are all excluded, as are half-rhymes and other almost-but-not-quite rhymes that are subtly different from the word we want a rhyme for. Alas, age, phage, sage, and all those other suggestions that popped up in the comments would fall under that half-rhyme heading. Why? Well, for that, we need to know some phonology.

So. Buckle up. This is going to get linguistic...

Phonetically, beige is realised as /beɪʒ/. That curly z-shaped symbol at the end there, <ʒ>, is called an ezh, and represents that zh sound—the same sound you’ll find in the middle of words like vision, fusion, Asia and treasure, as well as the end of beige.

Technically, that sound called a voiced palato-alveolar fricative. A voiced sound is one that involves some vibration of your vocal cords (place your fingers on your throat and say lots of b or z sounds then lots of p or s sounds to feel the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds). A palato-alveolar sound is one that involves your tongue touching your alveolar ridge (the bumpy protuberance behind your upper row of teeth). And a fricative is a sound that involves frication, a technical term for a narrowing of some part of the mouth or throat, so that the air flowing through your mouth is distorted or subject to turbulence.

What does all that mean? Well, to be classed as a perfect rhyme for beige, a word would ultimately have to end in that voiced palato-alveolar fricative. The problem is that that isn’t the sound you’ll find at the end of words like age and stage.

Age is phonetically realised as /eɪdʒ/. That <dʒ> at the end there is called a voiced post-alveolar affricate. It’s still a voiced sound (involving the vocal cords), but it’s produced in the post-alveolar part of the mouth (so somewhat further back than the alveolar ridge), and it’s not a fricative, but an affricate—a sound that involves temporarily stopping the air flowing through your mouth, then producing frication.

So say beige and age really slowly, and you should be able to feel that at no point in beige is the airflow through your mouth blocked or halted, whereas in age it is. In fact, say age really very slowly indeed, and you might find yourself pronouncing a d sound you never knew was there. Alternatively, try saying ager (as in “someone who ages”). And now say Asia. Spot a difference? Age has almost a djuh sound in the middle of it, whereas Asia just has a mellower zh sound.

It’s a seriously very subtle difference, but it’s a difference all the same. And it’s enough to make words like age, stage and phage phonetically different from both beige, and its only true rhyme, greige.

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