July 29, 2022

Ace Linguist Interview on BBC Oxfordshire

I got the chance to be interviewed by Tom of BBC Oxford a week ago, and I wanted to share the conversation with you all! The topic at hand is mondegreens, or misheard lyrics. We share some of our favorite misheard lyrics and discuss why this happens.

Part one and part two available here.

Interview originally hosted at BBC radio Oxford


June 30, 2022

"Thees is love" and short 'i' lengthening

This is such a micro music linguistic trend that I have a hard time justifying writing about it, but I've now heard it from several different artists and feel compelled to include it here.

It's simple: take a word with a short i [I] sound, like 'bit'. Now replace that vowel with a long 'ee' sound [i], so it sounds like 'beat'. You don't have to go all the way to the [i] sound - you can be somewhere in between - but the end result sounds more like the long 'ee' than the short 'ih'.

The scant handful of examples:

  • Florence and the Machine. What kind of man loves like th[i]s?
  • Adele. Chasing Tables. "Th[i]s is love."
  • Natalia Kills. Television. "We'll never go to heaven but who needs to when you l[i]ve this good."

I had originally included these in my article on Indie Voice, but after some feedback, I decided to remove them since my examples leaned more towards pop and pop-indie, and I couldn't really say I'd heard them enough to justify calling it part of the Indie Voice cluster. But if it's not indie voice, what is it?

I have so few examples that coming up with any serious explanation isn't likely, but we can speculate. My immediate thought is that lengthening and raising the vowel in 'BIT' is something that many speakers of foreign languages do, because they don't have a short 'ih' vowel and the closest available one to them is 'ee'. It's common for Spanish speakers to confuse 'ship' and 'sheep'.

Singers can be influenced by singers with other accents, including singers who speak English as a second language. Marina Diamandis is one such example who sounds like she's imitating Greek or Spanish speakers. I also hypothesized that influence from jazz and bossa nova was part of the Indie Voice sound. If you want to use the fancy terms, these pronunciations are "linguistic resources" that singers can draw from when singing. Imagine listening to someone who speaks differently from you, hearing a pronunciation you find cool, and going "I'm gonna save that for later..." and putting it in a sort of phonetic palette. (hat tip to Lisa Jansen for introducing me to the "linguistic resource" concept in her book on pop and rock pronunciation.)

Now, here's the thing that's bugging me... the ship-sheep confusion isn't considered cool by most people. It's one of the most obvious signs that you have a foreign accent, and it's one of the thing second-language speakers of English focus on when trying to reduce their accent. On the flipside, it's one of the features that comedians like to exaggerate when mimicking a foreign accent. A quick example comes from the song "Illegal Alien" by Genesis, where Phil Collins attempts to imitate a Mexican accent:

  • "With a bottle of Tequila, and a new pack of c[i]garettes." - Illegal Alien, Genesis

One day, I'll do a little mini-dissection on "Illegal Alien," because wow does this song have some interesting ideas on what Spanish English sound like that. But I hope this gets the point across that this feature is ripe for mimicry and caricature.

Listening to Florence and Adele and Natalia, I don't really think they sound or want to sound foreign. In the words with the 'ih'-lengthening, the actual musical duration is also longer than the surrounding word. "What kind of man loves like thiiiiis?" "Thiiiiiis is love." "We'll never go to heaven but who needs to when you liiiive this good." Could it be easier to sing it by raising the vowel? This would be in contrast to the pop pronunciations of HAPPY with a short 'ih' at the end and HAPPY with an 'ey' sound at the end - singers claim that 'ih' and 'ey', which are lower in the mouth, are easier to sing than the 'ee' they replace.

Could be a slip of the tongue, but Florence repeats this pronunciation in every instance of her chorus, so that's a whole lot of slips of the tongue that made it to the final cut.

If imitation is out, and there's no clear phonetic or musical motivation, then we're left with the fuzziest reason of all - aesthetics. Is there some kind of aesthetic linked to pronouncing 'this' as 'thees' that has nothing to do with foreign speakers of English? The fact that these pronunciations only show up at certain parts of the song, instead of replacing every 'ih' throughout, suggests that they're sort of special. It could be a type of marking, bringing attention to these syllables by breaking our expectations of which vowel 'belongs' there.

This is still all speculation, but sometimes that's the fun stuff. Do you have any other examples like this, from other genres? What do you think is motivating this pronunciation?

May 31, 2022

"I Love An Anchovy" - The Millenial Generic

If you hear someone say "I love an anchovy," no context, do you assume they have have one particular anchovy that they love, or that they just love anchovies in general? And does this phrase sound normal to you, or unbearably young?

I'm not sure if it's the Baader-Meinhof effect, but lately the "I love a _" construction has been popping up everywhere in my life. I've even found it unbidden in my own speech, slipping from my lips to say "I love a weather report." My intuition tells me it's trendy, but it's always worth double-checking.

First, the construction itself - almost always in first person, more commonly the singular. A common example, "I love a red lip", means "I love red lips [for makeup]" or "I love a red lip [when I'm wearing makeup]." The difference between "I love red lips" and "I love a red lip" is subtle, but the latter one sounds more situational, like you like to use red lipstick often, while the former sounds like you're just a fan of red lips. I don't know if everyone feels this difference, but "I love red lips" feels like a stronger statement than "I love a red lip."

More broadly, the "I love a _" looks like a form of generic. Specifically, it's a construction about a kind of "general property" ("The Generic Book", Carlson, 1995). Compare:

  • John smokes a cigar after dinner.

This isn't about any one cigar, but about John's habit of smoking cigars. 'a cigar' is a stand-in for all the cigars John does smoke after dinner. It makes no further claims about cigars. It's common for generics in English to be singular nouns ("a cigar") or plural nouns ("John smokes cigars after dinner"). We can see a parallel in "I love a red lip" and "I love red lips."

Second, who's saying it? Anecdotally, mostly women, millenial-age or younger, and especially in the fashion and cooking worlds. I don't hear a lot of men using it, and if a man said something like "I love a mechanical keyboard," it would sound slightly feminine to me.

How old is it? It seems to date to around the mid-2000s. I've found it in 2007, in the book 'People':

"I love a red lip," says Heroes star Ali Larter, who often puckers up in the shade.

In 2009, a man who is definitely not a millenial assures a reader that anchovies are a great way to punch up a meal:

I love an anchovy. They lend a fabulous, penetrating richness to all sorts of dishes, from salads and pizzas to stews and roasts.

Twitter also has a fair amount of results for "I love a red lip" in 2009 and 2010, suggesting the construction was already common at the time. There are far more results now, but it's hard to know whether this is because the construction is more popular or more people are using Twitter: Twitter had 30 million monthly active users in the first quarter of 2010, 68 million in the first quarter of 2011, and 330 million by the first quarter of 2019 (via Statista).

The celebrity cook Alison Roman is a fan of this construction, using it frequently. She was born in 1985, making her the prototypical millenial woman who would use this construction.

You can't start with like, a dried soaked chickpea or bean. I love a canned chickpea, and I'm not afraid to say it.

Now why would a phrase like this appear if we already have a perfectly good generic in 'I love red lips' or 'I love anchovies'? I mentioned above that 'I love an anchovy' seems less intense and absolute than 'I love anchovies', so this gradation may have been a motivation for this innovation. There are other constructions that seem semantically similar to me, such as:

  • I love a (good) anchovy.
  • I love an anchovy (situation).

And as mentioned above, plural nouns and indefinite singular nouns are also used to represent a general property:

  • John smokes a cigar after dinner.
  • John smokes cigars after dinner.

It's not a big step to complete the parallel:

  • I love red lips.
  • I love a red lip.

There could also be an analogy with the following phrase, which is popular among millenial women and gay men.

  • We stan a [adj] queen.

So far, the construction seems pretty limited. As mentioned above, I almost always find it in the present tense first person. You could imagine forms like:

  • She loves a bold lip.
  • You know [that] he loves an anchovy.
  • I'm loving a kitten heel.

But it starts getting weird the more you deviate from it. These made-up sentences sound weird:

  • He loved an anchovy. (speaking of someone who's dead?)
  • Once I show you the proper technique, you will love a red lip.
  • I have loved an anchovy, but I'm over it/them now.

What's your experience with the millenial generic? Do you use this construction?

Works Cited