March 6, 2023

Please Mr. Postman, a Sociolinguistic Capsule

One of the more noticeable trends of pop music of the 60s and 70s was the popularity of covers, singing someone else's song. This practice has decreased in modern-day pop music for various reasons: the expectation that artists be 'authentic' and write their own music, as well as the loss of songwriting royalties for covering someone else's song are likely the two biggest contributors. So these covers from the mid-century represent a good opportunity to compare a sociolinguistic variable among different artists and see how they pronounce it.

The song I had in mind was Mr. Postman. It was first performed by the Motown girl group, the Marvelettes, in 1961. It was then covered by the English rock band, the Beatles, in 1963. It then got its third major cover more than a decade later by soft rock group Carpenters, in 1975. This makes it a fun look at how different groups interpret the same song.

The sound I wanted to investigate was the 'ay' sound, as in 'time' and 'I': /aɪ/. This sound is pronounced [aɪ] by white Americans and English people, but it was pronounced [aɛ] and [a] by Black Americans. White American southerners may also say [a]. These versions of /aɪ/ are called 'monophthongal'. This vowel sound was heavily copied by white English singers who desired the black sound found on Motown and blues records. On the other hand, it was used less by groups that wanted to sound 'mainstream' and 'whiter.' As such, it indexes 'blackness' in music. (You may ask why it does not index Southern-ness, but that is a topic for another article.)

We're going to look at how these three groups pronounce the /aɪ/ sound in this sound.

The Marvelettes

This all-black group from Michigan is the originator of the song, and therefore likely to have a lot of monophthongal 'ah's on there. Here is the tally:

aɪ = blue aɛ = pink a = yellow
lyric pronunciations
'Cause it's been a mighty long time (Whoa, yeah) [aɛ] [a]
Since I heard from this boyfriend of mine [a] [aɛ]
From my boyfriend who's so far away [aɪ]
I've been standing here waiting, Mr. Postman (Wait, wait for you) [a]
'Cause it's been a mighty long time (Whoa, yeah) [aɪ] [aɪ]
Since I heard from this boyfriend of mine [a] [a]
So many days, you've passed me by [aɪ]
You saw the tears standing in my eye [a] [aɪ]
By leaving me a card or a letter [a]
Yeah, since I heard from this boyfriend of mine [a] [aɛ]
Please check and see just one more time for me [a]
Don’t pass me by, you see the tears in my eyes [a], [a], [aɪ]
Absolute frequency Relative frequency
Total tokens: 20 100%
Total unambiguous [a]: 11 55%
Total monophthongized [aɛ]: 3 15%
Total [aɪ]: 6 30%

Though the singers in the group natively speak African American Vernacular English, you will notice they don't use the most monophthongal [a] all the time. This is to be expected, as the shape of the vowel is influenced by the consonants that come after it. They also use a more diphthongal 'ai' several times, especially in the word 'eye'. The diphthongal variants of /ai/ appear around 70% of the time.

The Beatles

lyric pronunciations
I been waiting a long long time [a] [a]
Since I heard from that girl of mine [a] [a]
From my girlfriend so far away [a]
I been standing here waiting Mister postman [a]
I been waiting a long long time [a] [a]
Since I heard from that girl of mine [a] [a]
So many days you passed me by [a]
See the tear standing in my eye [a] [aɪ]
By leaving me a card or a letter [a]
I been waiting a long long time [a] [a]
Since I heard from that girlfriend of mine [a] [a]
You gotta check it and see one more time for me [a]
Absolute frequency Relative frequency
Tokens: 17 100%
Monophthongal a: 16 94%
Diphthongal a: 1 6%

This one is stunning. Though the Beatles is a band of all white members from Liverpool, they have a higher rate of monophthongal /ai/ than the Marvelettes do! Additionally, they only use the pure monophthong [a] and the not the [aɛ] variant. [aɪ] is only used clearly in 'eye'.


Why’s it taking such a long *time* (Whoa, yeah) [a] [aɪ]
For me to hear from that boy of mine? [aɛ]
From my boyfriend so far away [aɪ]
I've been standing here waiting, Mr. Postman [a]
Why’s it taking such a long time (Whoa, yeah) [aɪ] [aɪ]
For me to hear from that boy of mine [aɪ]
So many days, you've passed me by [a]
You saw the tears standing in my eyes [aɪ] [aɪ]
By leaving me a card or a letter [a]
Why’s it taking such a long time? [aɪ] [aɪ]
Why don’t you check it and see one more time for me? [aɛ] [a]
Absolute frequency Relative frequency
Tokens: 16 100%
Monophthongal [a]: 5 31%
[aɪ]: 9 56%
[aɛ]: 2 13%

Soft rock band Carpenters is associated with middle-of-the-road music, stereotypically for older generations (in their time, for the Silent and Greatest generation). They use a much higher number of [aɪ] than the Beatles or Marvelettes do. Nevertheless, they do use a fair amount of monophthongal sounds as well, 31%. They prefer to use the sound on quick and unstressed beats, but it does get the spotlight on some longer notes: 'passed me ba-a-a-a'.


Perhaps the most astounding finding is that the Beatles used the [a] sound more than the Marvelettes. In Trudgill's study on the sociolinguistics of English rock bands, he found that they often did not mimick native patterns of (Black) American, which suggested that the singers were not sure of how to accurately copy them. It seems the Beatles picked up on the fact that the Marvelettes and other Black singers pronounced /aɪ/ more diphthongally, but they did not realize that they did not always pronounce it like that. Instead of going for the more middle-ground [aɛ] version, they sang the most distinct one with [a]. This could show a failure to imitate correctly, but it could also show a desire to show off the sound that was most 'different' from their own Liverpool English.

Another interesting finding is that the Carpenters used the [a] variant a third of the time. The Carpenters were recognized (and derided) as being music for old people afraid of new forms like rock and funk, so their consistent usage of [a] shows that by 1975, using it some of the time was considered unremarkable. The lead singer, Karen, gives it special attention on longer notes like 'one more time for me' and 'passed me by', suggesting it serves as sort of 'accent vowel' for specially marked passages.

The Marvelettes' own pronunciation shows the most varied approach, which is to be expected from native speakers. Having a closed syllable is the biggest trigger for a more diphthongal vowel ('time', 'eyes', 'mine'). As in the other variants, having a long note is also more likely to have the monophthongal variant.

I suspect that the Carpenters may not have heard the original version by the Marvelettes. For one, they copy some lyrical changes made by the Beatles: ('mighty long time' -> 'long long time' -> 'such a long time'), as well as excluding the 'pass me by, you saw the tears in my eye' lyric. Finding old records would have been much harder in the 1960s and 70s than it is today - old records were not always re-released and easily available. If this is true, then the Carpenter's version is based on imitating the Beatles imitating the Marvelettes. This is deliciously close to showing a certain pattern in American music: Black Americans create a new musical genre -> white English people or white Americans imitate it and exaggerate it -> white Americans tone down the 'blackness' to make it friendlier for musically conservative audiences. This also suggests that Karen Carpenter's decision to sing [a] in 'time' and 'by' was not influenced by Gladys Horton's original version, but both felt it more musically appropriate to use [a] in high-emphasis beats.

This is just a selection of three songs, and hardly representative of the variety that existed during the 60s and 70s, but they do happen to show a clear sociolinguistic pattern. I wonder what other songs we could find that exhibit interesting linguistic differences between covers, and whether they also share this pattern (white groups imitating black groups use [a] flatly, or increase usage of [aɪ]).

February 28, 2023

Why Can't 'a Wife' Walk Down the Street?

Ever since the sentence 'a girlfriend was walking down the street' appeared to me unbidden in a hazy late-night half-sleep, I've been trying to understand what makes certain relationship words sound so weird as the subject of a sentence. Consider:

  • 1a."I saw a boyfriend enter the store."

  • 1b. "A wife selected zucchini from the produce section."

  • 1c. "The dog chased a husband down the street."

My immediate thought is that these relationship words, girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband, need a pair to make sense. The sentences are immediately made more acceptable by adding on another member:

  • 2a. "I saw two boyfriends enter the store."

  • 2b. "A wife selected zucchini from the produce section and handed it to her husband."

  • 2c. "The dog chased a husband and wife down the street."

Compare also the words 'mother' and 'father'. Both of these need another member to make sense ('child'), but it is actually quite acceptable to use them by themselves, in the indefinite.

  • 3a."I saw a lonely dad at the playground."

  • 3b. "A mother was excitedly waiting in line for coffee."

Hmm, what if we compare with another relationship word, 'friend'?

  • 4a. "A friend entered the store."

  • 4b. "I saw a friend select zucchini from the produce section."

The effect is interesting - I read these sentences differently from the ones above. The implication is very strong that this is my friend, not somebody who is a friend to someone else and not me. Meanwhile, sentence sets 1 and 2 don't have the implication that the boyfriend, wife, or husband have any relation to me at all. While the feeling is uncanny, you do get the intended meaning, which is "somebody who is male who is in a committed relationship entered the store." If you try to force the same distant reading on the 'friend' sentences, you get the same quirky feeling.

I suspect part of it is custom - we almost never have need to refer to someone's paired-off status without mentioning the pair. On the other hand, people talk about the behavior of mothers and fathers separate from their children often. And to refer to a stranger as a friend of some unmentioned other person, but not you, is something we almost never need to do. Don't we assume, rightly or wrongly, that everyone is a friend of someone else?

This obviousness comes into play with 'daughter' and 'son':

  • 5a. "A daughter came into my store."

  • 5b. "A son selected zucchini from the produce seciton."

Everyone is someone's child, so this construction that foregrounds someone's status as a son or daughter is simply unneeded.

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.