January 23, 2023

The Carpenters Take On Californian Accents

The "Oldie but goodie" soft rock/pop/middle-of-the-road band "Carpenters" seems to have been tinged by nostalgia since it began. Active from 1969 to 1983, the band was fronted by Karen Carpenter, a singer with a contralto voice as well as an underutilized drumming talent. Her brother, Richard Carpenter, was also in the band, and provided harmonies and occasional lead.

The siblings were late baby boomers, with Karen born in 1950 and Richard in 1946. They were born in Connecticut but grew up in Los Angeles, California. Despite this, they provide a comical attempt at imitating a Californian accent. When covering the song "Fun Fun Fun", they decided to pay homage to the original band (The Beach Boys) and their Californian roots by imitating some kind of 'surfer' accent. Richard takes lead on this song and gives us these deviations from his typical accent:

  • æ-tensing, where the sound 'an' and 'am' become diphtongs. Richard tries an exaggerated version: "Well she got her daddys car and she flew to the hamburger st[ɪa]nd now"
  • Just a line later, he forgets his commitment to the accent and uses a pure æ instead:

  • "Seems she forgot all about the library like she told her old m[æ]n now"
  • But he remembers by the next line that he's playing a character:

  • "Goes cruising just as fast as she [kɪan] now"
  • The song is abridged, so we cut to the final verse, where he shows us one more trick - u-fronting, or at least his attempt at it.

  • "We got a lot of things to d[ɪu] now"
  • There is, otherwise, not much to say about the Carpenters. Karen preserves the COT-CAUGHT distinction. This may be something she preserved from her New England uprising, as elder baby boomer Brian Wilson (of Beach Boys fame), who was born and raised in California, already has the merger.

  • "Can't laugh and I can't w[o]lk, finding it hard even to t[o]lk"
  • She also distinguishes between 'w' and 'whine' - the WINE-WHINE distinction - on Desperado:

  • "[h]wy don't you come to your senses"
  • This is an affectation, as she doesn't keep this consistently.

  • "You must know [w]at I'm going through"
  • Otherwise, there is little of sociolinguistic interest on the Carpenters' songs. They, especially Karen, stuck to the conventions of beautiful singing for their time. Noticeably, despite dipping their toes into rock, Karen doesn't affect a Black American accent to the extent most rock groups did. An example of that will be covered in a future post.

    December 16, 2022

    Cute Linguistics Gifts

    I find the holiday gift-giving season very stressful (and societally-mandated seasonal gift-giving in general). After watching several YouTube videos on gifts for specialized hobbies, I wondered what kind of linguistics gifts you could give someone. It's not a very materially-focused hobby, after all. So here's an attempt at something you could conceivably gift someone who likes linguistics which they could enjoy. None of these links are sponsored (though if that sort of thing doesn't bother you, let me know - I'm not against getting some kind of actual revenue efrom this blog).


    For the aspiring historical linguist in your life, "The Story of Our Language" by Henry Alexander is old (1960s), but is an accessible introduction to how modern English developed from Old English. It can be purchased very cheaply on the secondhand market.

    "Introducing Linguistics: A Graphic Guide" is a wonderful little intro that covers multiple subfields of linguistics and is pocket-sized.

    "Language Myths" by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill covers a variety of Linguistics 101 topics and myths like "In the Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare", "Maori is an inferior language because you cannot use it to discuss astrophysics," "kids are ruining English."

    John McWhorter's linguistics books tend to be aimed at a broad audience. Of the ones I've read, the closest I can think of relating to historical linguistics is "Words on the Move: Why English Won't—and Can't—Sit Still (Like, Literally)". I think it covers some aspects of language change.

    Deep in Linguistics Sauce

    Lingthusiasm is a podcast focused on linguistics. You can gift someone in your life a subscription to Lingthusiasm, if you know they're a podcast type. If you're not into podcasts, they still have you covered with linguistics paraphernalia. I own the 'liquids for your liquids' bottle. It's a simple, lightweight aluminum watter bottle with no fancy features, but the people at work always ask me what the symbols mean, and then I get to explain liquids to everyone. There's also one with glottal consonants on it, if those are more your style. I also have the mask, but I would not recommend it as a serious COVID mask - it is not fitted to the face so air escapes out the side, and the polyester jersey has a tendency to stick to your nostrils and make it hard to breathe.

    William Labov's Principles of Linguistic Change. This is a 3-volume set, but it's helpful for anyone interested in the variety of features that motivate language change. You can read it straight through if you're a maniac or just keep it as a reference work. If you know there's a particular subfield your friend is interested in, you can just buy one of the volumes (e.g. cultural factors is volume 3).

    If you're passionate about linguistics, what kinds of gifts would you consider thoughtful and fun? What about something for a younger person who's just getting into linguistics?

    November 7, 2022

    No Escape from Ameriphilia

    People who really love one country even though they live in another are nothing new. The Western world has seen bouts of Francophilia and Anglophilia, corresponding with the rise in power of France and England respectively. The popularity of anime and manga around the world have led to a particular form of Japanophilia, whose adherents are derisively called "weeaboos." But despite the power of the United States, we rarely hear anyone talk about 'Americanophilia'. There is no cutesy name for it. Wanting to be American is basically in the water.

    The lack of a name hasn't stopped people from commenting on it. The following song, 'Tu vuo fa l'Americano' (You want to play at being American) by Renato Carosone, lightheartedly mocks a Napolitan man who wants to drink whisky and soda, play baseball, and wear jeans with logos on the back pocket. Renato believes it all in vain - "Ma si' nato in Italy!" (but you were born in Italy!). The song is sung in the Napolitan dialect of Italian, making the local pride more evident.

    There's just one problem with this rejection of American values - the song itself is written in the genre of jazz, a distinctly American style.

    Apparently writing and performing your music in an American genre is fine, but American fashion and drinking habits are a step too far!

    Another Italian performer who cribbed from American influences was Adriano Celentano, famous in linguistics circles for writing 'Prisencolinensinainciusol'. This long-titled proto-rap is performed entirely in nonsense lyrics intended to sound like American English. While it's usually presented as a novelty comedy song, Celentano has always emphasized that the song is about the difficulty of communication. This is made clear in the (Italian-langauge) opening to the performance of the song on TV:

    There's been a rumor circulating that this song was made to make fun of the way Italians would listen to anything in American English. This is currently the top-voted comment on the most popular upload of the song on YouTube:

    DrLimp (2021): At the time english songs were getting great popularity in Italy, Italian singer Adriano Celentano wanted to prove that italians would love everything that sounded remotely english, so he wrote this, proving his point since it was very successful. The reason why it sounds so good even if it's gibberish is because Celantano studied phonetics theory to compose this.

    ...But in an interview with NPR, Celentano celebrates the American connection:

    Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang - which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian - I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.

    Side note: it is absolutely hilarious that he believes American 'slang' (referring to Black American English? this blogger also thinks so) is easier to sing than Italian, as Italian was traditionally considered to be the best language to sing in by English speakers. This being due to the prominence of Italian opera. It appears that the language of whichever is the most culturally powerful country is always, somehow, the easiest to sing in.

    Nevertheless, the fact that the song became popular enough to hit the top 10 in Italy and some other European countries shows that audiences were probably more receptive to the general sound of American English and the hypnotic beat than to the message of the difficulty of communication. Italian TV-watching audiences might have been aware that the song was about communication, since the school-themed show above was what propelled the song to popularity (per NPR), but I doubt record-buyers would know or care.

    What makes 'Prisencolinensinainciusol' sound American? There are many closed syllables: 'eyes', 'red'. There's the use of the retroflex approximant. The consonant and vowel inventory sounds about right. And the prosody is uncanny - I'm reminded of a combo of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The use of a funk background - another Black American genre - also provides the context. Would we still think it sounded 'English'-like if we didn't have the context to prompt us? Someone run the song through one of those AI background-removers and then place the vocal track on top of something entirely non-American-sounding and we'll see.

    Let's return back to Carosone and his jazzy plead to stop wearing hats tilted on side. Why can't we call the young man an Ameriphile, or an Americophile, or an Americanophile? (Yes, I've looked them all up, and it appears there's no standard.) I'd venture to say it's because American pop culture is so dominant worldwide (one could even call it hegemony) that one can't even point it out. Everyone has their limit as to what's too much American culture - Celentano seems to have no problem producing pseudo-American sounds, while Carosone will accept the music, but not the hobbies. I wonder what Carosone would say if asked why he decided to record this riposte in jazz. As a performer of traditional Napolitan music, as well as someone who has stepped into various diverse genres, he may have chosen jazz to show his flexibility as well as add an extra jab at the American-obsessed fellow. But hearing a jazzy song chide someone for Ameriphilia doesn't sound like an ironic twist. It doesn't even sound like much at all, so accustomed are we to American genres.

    If we might grant that Carosone may have intended a bit of irony or hypocrisy in choosing a jazz setting for the song, then the following cover of the song, 'Ty hochesh' byt' Amerikantsem' by Zhanna Friske, lacks any of this tension. This song comes from a New Year's Eve performance on television, New Year's being an important holiday in Russia. Many television programs will have performers come on and do covers and skits. This one centers on a man who rudely walks into an establishment and demands an 'Americano' coffee, at which point the waitress, Friske, asks him if he really wants an 'Americano'. This song is less about Ameriphilia replacing native culture and more about the false idea that the United States is a land of plenty, where sociopaths can become rich and step on their enemies (unlike Russia, of course). She instead portends that he'll end up fat, overworked, and disappointed at how ugly American women are. The man recants and chooses to drink tea instead.

    Meanwhile, the music is still stubbornly American. The genre remains jazz, but more of a Broadway take on jazz. She's dressed less like a waitress and more like a Bohemian showgirl. Her moves and backup dancers are obviously inspired by 40s-era Broadway shows. Once again, we have the curiosity of using American pop-cultural forms to decry American values. And if Carosone still has credibility as someone who made his career in traditional music, Zhanna has none of that as a pop star dabbling in various types of synth-pop. She's even embraced cosmopolitanism in her song 'Zhanna Friske' where she brags that the man of her desire will be "leaving in English with Zhanna Friske."

    Both attempts at criticizing Ameriphilia remain boxed in due to their small scope. If we take Zhanna's version seriously, then it's fine to enjoy American-style cultural artifacts so long as you do them within Russia and you don't get it in your head that the United States is in any way a better country than Russia. If we take Carosone's version seriously, then the problem is being too obvious and naked in your Ameriphilia - if you're going to enjoy American stuff, at least be prudent about it and don't do it all at once. Friske's version is more political where Carosone's is cultural, but both cede that mass media must take place, if not in the language of American English, then in the genre of American music.

    Am I reading too much into two lighthearted comedy songs? Yes, absolutely. But it's been on my mind for a while, this contradiction between a song making fun of Ameriphilia being, at the same time, in an American musical genre. It's like making a j-pop song about how silly being a weeaboo is. Only, not even then, because Japanese pop culture has nowhere near the reach that American pop culture has, that has allowed American pop culture to institute itself as a naturalized standard. It'd be more like if we lived in an alternate universe where 'weeaboo' wasn't a word, everyone listened to j-pop, but wearing kimono on the street was seen as gauche and taking it too far.