Here, in Japan, there are two versions of the Alphabet Song. There’s the familiar one:
W-X-Y- and Z–,
Now I know my A,B,C,
Won’t you come and sing with me?
The version used in most Japanese schools, however, is:
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.
Now I know my A,B,C,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.)
This got me wondering what exactly the function of the ABC song actually is. You might think that it is obviously to teach children the alphabet but I’m not sure this is the case. If it were, then the Japanese version is much clearer and does perform, and is designed to perform, this function. Yet the original version is quite different. I personally think that the role of teaching the alphabet for the original version is, in fact, secondary. I think the primary function of the ABC song, and similar nursery rhymes, is to teach fundamental concepts of how a text is constructed – it provides a bridge between the spoken and written worlds.
Firstly the original version rhymes. Each line ends with a lengthened /i:/ sound. Textually, this introduces the concept of rhyme as a resource for cohesion across a text. Secondly, it introduces the concept of rhythm, in this case a regular trochaic (strong + weak) pattern, introducing rhythm as a resource for cohesion within a text. These two together provide some idea of generic coherence – they hold it together as a text and we can recognise it as such.
The second part of the song provides a link between the stratum of Expression and that of Content. Both the rhythm and the rhyme are the same yet it is now mapped onto the lexico-grammar. This demonstrates formally the interaction between the two stratum and how lexico-grammar is realised through Expression. Semantically it also introduces a basic clause relation of statement + suggestion (in the form of Now that…Why don’t...).
I think then that the ABC song does, in fact, do more than just teach the alphabet. It introduces the fundamental concepts of texture and textuality and the operation of the three stratum of Expression, Content and Context. The importance of songs and nursery rhymes is also well-recognised in L1 acquisition (see Guardian) and it would be interesting to see any effects on L2 acquisition. The Japanese version of the ABC song, however, is quite different.