The first thing that one needs to understand about Panini’s Law is that it is not a law. Frequently contravened in prose, and sometimes only rarely observed in poetry, this is the principle that lists will apparantly “always” feature shorter items before longer items. The classic examples in English are always given: “hook, line and sinker”, “lock, stock and barrel”, “bits and pieces”, “fine and dandy”. So prevalent is this theme that it is often referred to as a law, despite the fact that contraventions of this principle are so incredibly frequent. I wrote a poem once for a visiting academic (Gary Rendsburg of Rutgers University) who spoke of this “Law” at great length in one of our Classical Hebrew tutorials. His reply to my email flattered me (“a new Dr Seuss in the making!”) and, as I am now also flattered by its recent publication in the cleverly named Australian Mensa journal, TableAus, I reproduce it for you here.
It is rather well known, as you kindly have shown,
That our language has ‘reason and rhyme’.
I’m not being facetious, I’m glad that you teach us,
But what about nickels and dimes?
Perhaps you could say that that’s simply the way
That we put the important one first;
This could truly be said: it’s not ‘water and bread’
But it’s nonetheless hunger and thirst.
But I still must insist that there is quite a list
Of exceptions – I can’t name them all
But you’d surely agree (if a few you would see)
That this theory must topple and fall
For there’s bangers and mash and there’s Tango and Cash
(And although that last one’s not a text
Even shows on TV will most often agree
For we don’t watch ‘The City and Sex’)
We drink lemon and lime, we eat bacon and eggs
(The plot is beginning to thicken!)
If I ask what comes first to one who is well-versed
Well, they won’t ask, “the egg or the chicken?”
And on I can go for there’s triumph and woe,
Oh there are certainly many indeed!
It’s not ‘proper and prim’ but it’s vigour and vim
And, of course, there is colour and creed…
Now, despite my display I will nonetheless say
I agree, after all I’m no fool
For it’s all in inflection and all these exceptions
Do naught but to highlight the rule
For to try and imply that your theory’s awry
Why, that would be a terrible sin
So I take off my hat and I leave it at that
Now it’s back to my tonic and gin…
After having read this poem some months ago now, a kindred spirit (which is a nicer way of referring to a fellow postgrad language-and-literature-geek; albeit one whose observations tend to be far more eclectic and perspicacious than my own) was kind enough to offer his opinion. Commenting upon a previous blog that happened to feature examples of my poetry, Conrad H. Roth noted that “in all of your examples, the first item is trochaic; English will plump quite happily for a capped dactyl, long-short-short-long. Lists of three are much more regularly end-heavy”.
My knowledge of what might be deemed ‘metapoetic’ terminology is certainly lacking, but I believe that Conrad is here referring to a trisyllabic word that features a primary stress, followed by a stressed monosyllabic word. An example of this would be in the made-up name “Barnacle Bob”. Should we substitute the third syllable of the first word for the separate, unstressed, word “and” then we have the same rhythm as is found in “bangers and mash”. The first example would be a “capped dactyl”, while the first word in the second example is “trochaic”. I don’t know if there are many examples of bisyllabic nouns in English that are not trochaic (ie: featuring the stress on the first syllable), but the point is certainly taken. Furthermore, Conrad’s observations regarding the predilection for capped dactyl’s in our language may also do much to explain the eschewing of Panini’s Law so often in rhythmical verse.
So far as lists of three being regularly end-heavy is concerned, Panini’s Law did gain credibility for a reason. Another example of such a clause occurred to me while walking through Kings Cross the other day, and it is one that will certainly be familiar to any religious Jews in my small circle of readership. Were we to refer to the three greatest Halakhic codifiers of the Mediaeval period in chronological order, they would be “the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh”. So far as I am aware, nobody has ever referred to them as anything other than “the Rosh, the Rif and the Rambam”.