Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Twitter’s Unexpected Locus of Lay Prosody
Over the summer, I developed a small research project targeted at discussions of prosody on social media. Specifically, I have been searching for ways in which lay (non-specialist) discourses on prosody emerge on Twitter, the most popular word-centered media platform. How are people speaking of or circling around concepts of prosody without even realizing it?
I approached the topic with various searches across Twitter, beginning with a survey of meter-based Twitter bots such as @pentametron, which retweets any posts written in iambic pentameter. Next, I delved into culturally popular linguistic trends such as describing the rhythm of Barack Obama’s speech or replacing song lyrics like “Come On Eileen” with “COVID-19.” In this research, I found that one deep dive proved to be strikingly fruitful: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT).
The title of a popular children’s franchise dating back to the 1980s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is likely known by many. This recognizable phrase and its accompanying theme song are fascinatingly relevant on Twitter—through the tweets of hundreds of adults—for the unique, sometimes random phrases that users declare match the “rhythm” or “tune” of TMNT. Rhythmically, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is more than just a random cluster of words. In fact, as I learned from my work with the Princeton Prosody Archive, it is trochaic tetrameter, or four consecutive trochees, each being a foot of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable.
Since I myself am not fully immersed in this specialist discourse, I thus find myself in a similar position to many of the Twitter users I explored; I do not know the prosodic background of trochees or of other technical terms. Because I approached the topic with unspecialized knowledge, I had a unique connection to the very thing I attempted to analyze, as my own perception was attuned to “lay” prosody. Although most people without formal training would likely not be able to identity TMNT as trochaic tetrameter, the meter, rhythm, and syllabic pattern of the phrase remain frequently discussed on Twitter—with almost no formal terms involved.
In this essay, I write a brief analysis of the unexpected locus of lay prosody on Twitter: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. By examining the form, content, and language used in these tweets, I have found that the colloquial prosody of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Twitter is propagated through visual cues and its connection to song. Ultimately, the predominance of this popular discourse subtly dismantles the primacy of Western “classical” literature in prosody, forming a contemporary cultural touchstone that challenges and extends the reach of prosody.
Though the Twitter commentaries on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles center around language and sonic patterns, visual imagery—specifically that of the TMNT logo—functions as an optic trigger for prosodic discourse. The TMNT logo likely holds little significance for viewers entirely unfamiliar with the franchise. However, the resemblance of a red stripe typically broadcasting “TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA” above the large green and textured letters spelling “TURTLES” lies in the memory of generations of people—both overtly and subconsciously. It is the deep connection between this imagery and the accompanying text or theme song that elicits its sonic memory within observers. Much like the way that memes function, with a specific image connoting a meaning or phrase because of its repeated use in that context, the TMNT logo—even with different words in its place—prompts a specific way of reading. Thus, unlike the many TMNT tweets with captions containing the words “tune” or “rhythm,” several posts solely contained an edited logo with the desired words to suggest a new TMNT-like phrase discovery. In fact, there is a Twitter bot named Wiki Titles Singable to TMNT Themesong (@wiki_tmnt) that “posts hourly Wiki Titles that you can sing to the TMNT song” (i.e. Wikipedia titles that consist of four trochees). All of their posts are merely an edited logo, such as the example below of “Closer (Joy Division Album),” with a link to the Wikipedia article . Without any critical explication of the rhythm they are highlighting, tweets of this nature reveal that the prosody of TMNT has an intense visual presence. A Twitter user may find themselves emphatically singing four trochees in their head without needing any worded cues to do so, suggesting that lay discourses on prosody do not even require words. Thus, an important pathway in which prosody emerges on Twitter through the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is via the associative power of visual imagery.
The attachment of a popular, recognizable melody to the words “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (i.e. the TMNT theme song) was a pervasive aspect of TMNT’s prosodic impact, such that reference to song was fundamental to its presence on Twitter. While several advanced search entries garnered results, including “teenage mutant ninja turtles” and “rhythm” or “cadence,” searching with the term “tune” provided the greatest output of tweets. “Tune” most often connotes song or melody, and, relatedly, users frequently wrote that they could “sing” a given phrase to the tune of TMNT. For example, user @ToxAudIsLife wrote “I sang, ‘solar power pocket watches’ in my head to the tune of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” . It is important to highlight this attachment to song in two visible ways. First, individuals seem to more often experience their TMNT phrase connection/discovery through song, such that they find themselves “singing” it or subconsciously coming to a realization through the tune. Secondly, the language in which they most commonly broadcast their discovery is rooted in song. Beyond the language used, though, the song itself exaggerates trochaic tetrameter through emphatic and staccato repetition. With a driving down beat on each first syllable, the theme song heightens TMNT’s rhythmic pattern and encourages the listener to hear (unbeknownst to them) four trochees. Its addition of pitch, syncopation, and melody complicates the prosody further. Importantly, both the song itself and the user’s experiences reflect that these tweets are modern demonstrations of the proximity between prosody and music, a connection that is apparent in the Princeton Prosody Archive’s inclusion of a “Music” editorial collection. As individuals discuss Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Twitter, they are most often simultaneously commenting on song; this essential link is a key facet of TMNT’s extensive collection of colloquial prosodic comments.
In analyzing the manner in which Twitter users most often discussed the ubiquity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles metric pattern, I found that their language was overwhelmingly suggestive of a subconscious, visceral experience. While some tweets just plainly state the user’s prosodic discovery—such as @Snurgling’s post, “You can sing ‘Blackburn Chamber Tubeless Floor Pump’ to the tune of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme”—many tweets contain commentary regarding the nature of such discoveries, its impact on the individual, and more . For example, @GoingMedieval wrote “I can’t believe that apparently if I read the words “super racist syrup mascot” my brain immediately starts singing it to the tune of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme,” referring to the Aunt Jemima syrup brand .
In a similar vein, in response to a headline “Hippie Snowflake Revolution,” @ItsJacobJ96 tweeted “Is it weird that my first thought is that this title/headline can be sung in the tune of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” . Other tweets included sentiments such as “I suddenly realized…,” “can’t stop saying this to the tune of teenage mutant ninja turtles,” or “I’ll never be the same [after this TMNT rhythm-related discovery].” The sense of immediacy and uncontrollability attached to these realizations traffics in similar professions of prosody’s “naturalness” or visceral understanding that characterized the prosody wars in the late nineteenth century and persist to this day .
I came across a relatively small number of tweets that implied there was work involved in matching a certain phrase to the meter of TMNT, though several posts illuminate a fascinating fervor surrounding this discourse. For example, @CookingWithCarl writes “I keep trying to say this to the tune of teenage mutant ninja turtles but it just doesn’t fit" .
Similarly, @amandamull posted in a tweet referencing conservative pundit Bethany Mandel’s outspoken opposition to the COVID-19 lockdowns, “yes folks I’ve done the research and you CAN sing ‘bethany mandel grandma killer’ to the tune of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song” . Whether or not these users are correct about their rhythmic interpolations, the more compelling truth is the fact that users like these are even debating the prosody of TMNT in the first place. They are thoroughly invested in the process and construction of such a discourse and generate passionate dialogue as a result. Even in the Twittersphere, in reference to a cartoon theme song from the 1980s, prosody remains a nucleus of debate surrounding pattern, song, and correctness.
“If we shadows have offended, / Think but this and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear” (5.1.440-443) . These famous lines of four trochees each belong to Puck’s concluding monologue in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a preeminent example of trochaic tetrameter in the Western literary canon. As I write about popular prosody on social media, I ask, then, why are these lines not the subject of intense Twitter discussion like that of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? In our mass media-centered culture, of course, entertainment such as television has often captured greater attention than sixteenth-century plays. However, the passion surrounding TMNT reflects a broadening of what discourses on prosody have traditionally included. That Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has become a cultural touchstone of sorts, rather than Puck’s lines of trochaic tetrameter, for example, implicitly dismantles some primacy of the Western canon. Discussion of a popular children’s cartoon can challenge the bounds of prosody in the twenty-first century in equally fascinating and relevant ways as, perhaps, the work of Shakespeare. Additionally, its popularity reveals that TMNT could be used as a bridge to introduce prosody to larger collections of people, such as in primary and secondary education. This popular, and maybe more accessible, prosody, is an exciting landscape for conversation. As noted in this essay, we can see instances in which the TMNT discourse mirrors aspects of historical prosodic discussions and ways in which it profoundly deviates. Because of this, it illuminates prosodic dialogue in a compellingly contemporary and historic manner. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles functions as a unique visual and sonic platform for linguistic discourse, and its cultural position presents an important challenge to traditional understandings of prosody and meter.
Response by Professor Meredith Martin
I love that Margaret’s essay ends with thinking about the ways that using something like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song could bridge the distance between more traditional (read: artificially stabilized) approaches to prosody and its more popular life in Twitter meme form. In fact, there are over 200 results for “trochaic tetrameter” in the PPA, and among contemporary scholars of prosody there are several who feel that, following the work of Derek Attridge, the four-beat line (whether or not it is in a perceived trochaic pattern—a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable—or iambic tetrameter—the opposite: unstressed-stressed) should link English verse to a longer history, versus the more popular story of the importance, after Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare, of “iambic pentameter.” So whether a line of verse has four or five “beats” or “stresses” (and I won’t begin to get into the controversies of what to call these) is something people debate. The fact that a bot (@pentametron) was already detecting “naturally occurring” iambic pentameter lines in newspaper stories reveals the popular argument that iambic pentameter is as natural to the English language as keys—a position repeated in several introductions to poetry. But Attridge’s position is equally strong, as he moves away from speech and toward song (or an idea of song) and beats, and so the musical aspect of the TMNT meme makes perfect sense to me as well. But an even more practical reason why the TMNT meme is popular might be possible. Quite outside of academic discourse, one of the most popular, and most memorized, poems of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, indeed, is also one of the most “American” (if one thinks of America as a troubling mix of beautiful multiculturalism and violent white supremacy, a country whose poetic traditions appropriate those of other cultural traditions and nostalgically project these onto an innocent, primeval past that takes the place of actual, bloody history): Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “Hiawatha.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wandered piping through the village starting as a comic in 1984 and then turned into a television show in 1988, revived in 2014. Schoolchildren memorized verses from “Hiawatha” over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Does trochaic tetrameter perform some kind of cultural memory? I don’t think so, really, but I do think that it is familiar for many reasons, and that when I teach prosody I often start by asking my students what is familiar. What is stuck in their heads? From there, we can usually trace a path between various advertising jingles, memorized song lyrics, TV theme songs, back to poems that the poets and readers in earlier centuries may have known, and then think about how what they may have known (whether it was in English or not—as often school children were memorizing in Latin) may have impacted what was easy to memorize thereafter.
Prosody is pronunciation and versification. Pronunciation belongs to anyone and everyone who pronounces language—out loud or in their heads. Versification is just the way you choose to talk about it. And the way you talk about it might alienate people who grew up listening to or reading different things than you did; this is one of the reasons that a more traditional or “classical” approach to prosody isn’t as valuable these days. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t historically crucial to know, especially if you are reading Shakespeare or Longfellow. But if you’re on Twitter, it shows that you are thinking rhythmically—that you are developing an ear, a practice of thinking and seeing and maybe even hearing a pattern over and over, and then testing whether other things fit into that pattern. You can call it “trochaic tetrameter”—that’s just a way some people will recognize the tradition that underlies the pattern (a tradition taken from the Greek by Latin and from the Latin by English)—but you can also call it “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” We’ll never stop recognizing patterns in language and the patterns will also always accrue historical meaning that we’ll need to understand if we want to understand the language of that moment.
Edited by Mary Naydan and Meredith Martin.
- Wiki Titles Singable to TMNT Themesong (@wiki_tmnt), “Closer (Joy Division Album),” Twitter, 5 Aug 2020, 12:01pm. https://twitter.com/wiki_tmnt/status/1291041676891324417.
- Sarah Lostha Game (@ToxAudIsLife), “I sang, ‘solar power pocket watches’ in my head to the tune of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Twitter, 28 May 2020, 9:27pm. https://twitter.com/ToxAudIsLife/status/1266179353404231681.
- Henry Wilkinson (@Snurgling), “You can sing ‘Blackburn Chamber Tubeless Floor Pump’ to the tune of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme.” Twitter, 7 July 2020, 2:48pm. https://twitter.com/Snurgling/status/1280574346797420545.
- Dr Eleanor Janega (@GoingMedieval), “I can’t believe that apparently if I read the words “super racist syrup mascot.” Twitter, 17 June 2020, 3:06pm. https://twitter.com/GoingMedieval/status/1273331077176799233.
- Jacob j (B-L-M) (@ItsJacobJ96), “Is it weird that my first thought is that this title/headline can be sung in the tune of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” Twitter, 3 July 2020, 6:51pm. https://twitter.com/ItsJacobJ96/status/1279186110002978822.
- Martin, Meredith. The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2012, 7. Accessed August 17, 2020. doi:10.2307/j.ctt7rtjs.
- Carl (@CookingWithCarl), “I keep trying to say this to the tune of teenage mutant ninja turtles but it just doesn’t fit,” Twitter, 4 June 2020, 10:11pm. https://twitter.com/CookingWithCarl/status/1268727035654004736.
- Amanda Mull (@amandamull), “yes folks I’ve done the research and you CAN sing ‘bethany mandel grandma killer’ to the tune of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song.” Twitter, 6 May 2020, 3:55pm. https://twitter.com/amandamull/status/1258123230151413760.
- Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library, 11 Aug. 2020. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/a-midsummer-nights-dream/act-5-scene-1/.