May 15, 2023

Blog Update

No post this month; it's been overwhelmingly busy in my personal life. I'm working on a relatively large project documenting three decades of sound change, and I've had a lot less time to devote to it recently. Some of this work has been listening to a lot of audio, and some has been programming tools to minimize the amount of work I need to do by hand. I hope to be able to release both the research itself and the tools.

Have a nice May! I hope to see you all in June. - Karen

April 10, 2023

Solenoid, silenoid, or cellunoid?

I come today with more questions than answers. The English language, it turns out, can support a wide variety of localized pronunciations for the same word, with little clear root as to where they come from and where they go. Today we'll be looking at a car part, the 'solenoid.' A solenoid is a "coil of insulated wire carrying an electrical current and having magnetic properties", which entered the English language in 1827 from French solénoïde (via etymonline). The standard pronunciation is /sɒlənoɪd/, 'soll-uh-noid', but I've found at least two alternative pronunciations.

Passing a current through the solenoid coil creates an electromagnetic field. Image via IQSDirectory.
An example of a red solenoid coil. Image via iFixit.

In the Beach Boys Song "Cherry Cherry Coupe" (1963), Mike Love sings about a car with doors that open with the 'cellunoid' [sɛljʊnoɪd] system. You may wonder how we know that this is supposed to be the same word as 'solenoid', beyond the general consonant contours being the same, and the clue is in the car door description - solenoids were used in technology that made doors 'pop' open without the need for car handles.

Door handles are off but you know I'll never miss 'em
They open when i want with the cellunoid system

We find an early reference to this in Volume 80 of "American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist" (1959). The same device is also advertised in Volume 57 of Playthings, with the same verbiage.

Volumes 31-32 of Gas Appliance Merchandising (1959) mention 'cellunoid valves' as self-evidently recognized car parts.

By the 1980s, the term appears to be falling out of favor. Some of the last references I can find to it are in "Adapting Work Sites for People with Disabilities" (1983).

This 1985 reference seems to be a metaphorical use by a psychotherapy patient (Understanding Human Behavior in Health and Illness.

And this 1998 hit is firmly in the world of literature (Five Fingers Review).

And so it seems that the cellunoid pronunciation and spelling has died out, having seen its peak in the late 50s and early 60s, and descending into obscurity by the 80s and 90s. It's not clear where this alternative pronunciation and spelling came from. It smells of being a trademark to me, but a search through the United States Patent and Trademark Office site didn't turn up any hits in patents or trademark registrations. In fact, trying to do so redirects me to patents and trademarks featuring the word celluloid instead.

Having hit the end of one mystery of history, let's start another. This is the pronunciation "silenoid" [sɪlənoɪd]. At first glance, it looks like a descendant of 'cellunoid'. The y-sound [j] in 'lyu' appears to have been dropped, meaning that the sound change called "yod-dropping" happened. It also looks like the 'eh' [ɛ] sound was raised to short 'ih' [ɪ]. I don't know if there's any sort of documented FELL-FILL merger, but English vowels tend to merge and change before L, as I've written in Pre-L Back Vowel Madness.

Unexpectedly, we have an early citation for 'silenoid' than we do for "cellunoid". The Journal of General Psychology Volumes 35-36 (1946) mentions the 'silenoid'.

Further research on "silenoid" is unfortunately complicated by the fact that "silenoid" is also used to refer to flowering plants from the "Silene" genus. This tantalizingly early example of "silenoid" (1915!) is in fact a reference to carnations (Contributions by the New York Botanical Garden).

While I couldn't find any later recordings of someone using 'cellunoid', I was able to find this pronunciations of "silenoid", thanks to the folks at the Smiley Smile forums: "I did check to see if the silenoids were working."

And a more modern example from Donut Media, with "fuel silenoid and NOS silenoid".

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]).