May 1, 2017

Oh Babih, Babay - How one vowel one hundred years ago changed how we sing

A couple of months Atlas Obscura published an article about the curious way 90s stars pronounced words like 'me' and 'baby' as 'may' and 'babay.' I was pleasantly surprised to see a non-academic outlet touch upon linguistic concepts in a way that was both accurate and easy to understand. I nevertheless felt like there was something missing in their account of this pronunciation - weren't they being too specific when talking about the “90s” pop phenomenon? Weren't there plenty of people who sang like this before the 90s? I decided to start looking into this.

As it turns out, things are rarely simple. Turns out there are two pronunciations: 'babay' [ɪi] and ‘babih’ [ɪ]. These two pronunciations don't just sound similar - they actually occur in similar places song-wise, and you can even hear both pronunciations in a single song!  What's the deal with that? What follows is my nearly hundred-year-long journey down the rabbit hole of recorded music to explain to you what is the deal with "babih" and "babay."