Search Ace Linguist

November 20, 2017

Rae Sremmurd Teaches Phonotactics

So you guys saw the mannequin challenge several months back, right? It's a video meme where participants freeze in place, as if they were mannequins. It's pretty cool looking when done well. For some reason, the song "Black Beatles" by Rae Sremmurd is supposed to play in the background. Now I was watching the Rap Critic's review of "Black Beatles" the other day when I noticed an interesting portion. The band had a clip where they showed the name written in IPA and explained how it was pronounced. "There's a silent h between the s and r," explains one of the members. The Rap Critic mocks them for this, saying that if they wanted to have an h sound, they should have written it in (0:31-1:12 in the video above).

However, their pronunciation of 'Sremmurd' with an 'sh' sound is not unusual if you know about how English works. We can use this band's name as an opportunity to explain the concept of phonotactics.

What is phonotactics? Well, you know how some people don't like when their peas and carrots touch but others are okay with all sorts of foods touching? Languages are much the same way. Every language has rules about what sort of sounds are allowed to be next to each other, and English is no different.

The important rule here is that English does not allow /sr/ as a consonant cluster at the beginning of a syllable. How many words can you think of (excluding foreign words!) that start with 'sr'? Not too many. This means that native English words are not going to have this series of sounds - in linguistic parlance, it is an illegal (not allowed) onset (the beginning of a syllable). However, sometimes circumstances arise that result in an illegal onset, and the English language has ways of dealing with this.

Take the word 'groceries.' It's normally pronounced 'grow-suh-reez' /groʊ.sə.riz/.

In quick speech, the schwa (the 'uh' sound: /ə/) in the middle (grow-suh-riz) can be dropped so that the whole word is now two syllables. But there's a problem: now there's a syllable that begins with /sr/: grow-sriz [groʊ.sriz] (?).

How does English fix that? Well, it looks for a sound that's close to 's' and that is allowed with 'r'. If you move your tongue back a little when making an 's' sound, you get the 'sh' sound (ʃ). Now 'shr' is totally acceptable in English: we have words like shrimp, shriek, shrink, shrapnel. The English phonological system is satisfied with this, and the end result is grow-shreez [groʊ.ʃriz].

Some people even extend this short version into the full version. They restore the schwa, but they do not change the 'sh' sound. This means you even have some people saying grow-shuh-reez [groʊ.ʃə.riz]! Britney Spears uses this form clearly in her song "Piece of Me": "while buying the grosheries."

That's not the only possible result. Here's a recent loan word, sriracha /srɪ.rɑ.tʃə/. As you can see, it has that 'sr' cluster at the beginning, which is a no-no. Some speakers' dialects fix the illegal onset by using the same process you get with 'groceries' above, resulting in shri-rah-chuh [ʃrɪ.rɑ.tʃə]. But others will instead use metathesis, which is when you flip two sounds around. Observe:

sri-rah-chuh [s.rɑ.tʃə] -> sir-rah-chuh [sɪr.rɑ.tʃə]

As you'll notice, the 'r' and the 'i' sound have traded places. Now the two offending consonants are no longer touching and harmony is restored. Note that since there was already an 'r' sound at the beginning of the next syllable (sriracha), the flipped r just blends into the 'r' that was already there.

* Some speakers DO say 'sriracha' [srɪrɑtʃə], but most English speakers find the consonant cluster a little difficult and may use one of the two pronunciations outlined here.

Let's look back at Rae Sremmurd. The name comes from taking 'ear drummers', writing it backwards, and pronouncing the result. There are no illegal combinations in the name, except for the 'sr'. The solution: pronounce it 'shr.', just like with groceries and sriracha. Rae Sremmurd explain it by saying there's a 'silent h', but that's actually the opposite of what's happening. A silent letter is a letter that's written but not pronounced. This is a sound that's pronounced but not written. In any case, the pronunciation of 'sremmurd' with an 'sh' sound is perfectly justifiable via English phonology.

Now Rae Sremmurd were apparently not content to just pronounce their name without explanation. They explain how to pronounce the name and even use some IPA... giving us /reɪ ʃrˈɪmɜrd/. Some interesting things:

The stress marker (') is wrong. The way the stress marker is placed, it looks like "reishr" is one syllable. It would be pronounced 'reyshr-IMMerd', when it's actually 'rey-SHRIMMerd'. The correct transcription would be /reɪ ˈʃrɪmɜrd/.

It's worth noting that despite the fact that it's spelt "Sremmurd," it's pronounced with an 'ih' /ɪ/ sound as opposed to 'eh' /ɛ/, and this is reflected in the IPA. The members of Rae Sremmurd have the pin-pen merger (when 'em/en' sound like 'im/in' instead of sounding different), and it's reflected in how they transcribed the name as "shrimmurd" and not "shremmurd."

Linguistic Nerd Note: The use of slashes would mean that the underlying form is actually /ʃrɪmɜrd/, instead of having /ʃrɛmɜrd/ be realized as [ʃrɪmɜrd] due to the pin-pen merger. There isn't a process in English that I know of where /ɛm/ becomes [ɪm], so per this transcription it would not be correct to pronounce it [ʃrɛmɜrd]. But! I have a feeling it would really be /ʃrɛmɜrd/, one realization of which would [ʃrɪmɜrd]. They should've used brackets instead of slashes to show this was a phonetic realization, not a phonemic one. A theoretical quibble, but one with actual implications.

They also mess up the explanation of the IPA. The 'line' is not related to the vowels; it's a stress marker. The 3 is not a 3, it's a backwards epsilon. I guess nobody really explained the IPA to them properly, or they didn't get it if it was explained to them. The IPA itself is a little wonky, so maybe whoever came up with it also did a weird job explaining it. Who did they get to do it, actually? Are there transcribers for hire?

So Rap Critic, while I may agree with your critique of the song, I do not agree with your critique of the name. They are perfectly justified in pronouncing it 'shremmurd' due to English phonotactics preventing the illegal onset 'sr'! I do agree with you that they have no idea what they're talking about with the phonetic transcription... because they don't. But that transcription wasn't even right in the first place, so whoever did that probably didn't know either. Let's make sure to be vigilant for weird IPA transcriptions in music videos!

No comments:

Post a Comment