December 7, 2018

Update - December 7, 2018

17008 words for NaNoWriMo! And that's not even counting the entire article I apparently lost! Bring on the confetti!


I wrote about Cardi B disliking her New York accent. Also, in response to some questions about why almost all the examples on my Indie Girl Voice articles were women, I wrote an Addendum on the Methodology to explain why that happened.

This week in tweets - fashion people destroy bound morphemes:

"aiaλu" is not actually "aialu" but "aiyau."

@anoniscoding created a programming language in Yoruba called Yorlang! Here's why that matters:

Finally, some fun with the pin-pen merger. Do "Nguyen" and "win" sound similar to you?

What's Cooking?

Getting permissions from Facebook to get my social media presence ~on fleek~ has proven to be an enormous drag. My next Dialect Dissection is also taking longer than I expected. I don't want to make more statements saying "expect this by this date!" because I inevitably end up not doing that, but my personal goal is to have the final Dialect Dissection of the year released this month. I'll be taking a short break from Dialect Dissections after that to start finding new examples to write about. There's going to be all sorts of content coming your way, from the micro-sized Tweets to more casual think pieces to the fully researched long reads.

December 6, 2018

Indie Girl Voice - An Addendum on the Methodology

I've had a lot of people ask me why most of the examples of indie voice in the Dialect Dissection: Indie Girl Voice are of women when there are plenty of men doing this sort of diphthongization as well. I made a brief mention of this in the methodology section, but I will expand on it here.

Unlike my Lana Del Rey, Ariana Grande, or Taylor Swift articles, where I had listened to either all or most of the singers' discographies before even beginning the project (and I definitely listened to the entire discography multiple times once I started the projects), I am not very familiar with either folk indie or pop indie music. The closest I get is the sort of indie-influenced pop music that reaches the mainstream, which is artists like Halsey. Moreover, this is the first Dialect Dissection that focused on a particular genre as opposed to a person. It's easy to find a list of every Taylor Swift song and to listen to all of them. There is no such list of "every indie pop or folk song since 2000", and it would probably take months (at a low estimate) of non-stop listening to get through the whole thing and do all the re-listens necessary to have an in-depth understanding of the entire genre of folk/indie music.

That is a moot point, however, as there is no such thing as a list of every indie pop or folk song since 2000. In order to find examples for the article, I had to either rely on the handful of pop musicians I listen to that are influenced by indie music like Halsey and Lorde, or I had to find examples from other people who were more familiar with indie music. I tried listening to playlists of "indie pop" and "indie folk" on Spotify but even these were not useful since, as mentioned in the article, "indie voice" is not just a linguistic phenomenon but a musical phenomenon - you don't need to perform any of the diphthongizations mentioned in the article in order to have indie voice, just sing gently with breathiness, vocal fry, or both, and in a limited range. This means my "listen to indie music playlists" method of finding examples of linguistic indie voice mostly resulted in examples of singers with breathy voice but no interesting phonetic features.

As a result, I turned to other people to find examples of "indie voice." I did Google searches for "indie voice," "indie girl voice," "indie guy voice," and "indie boy voice." By far the one with the most relevant hits was "indie girl voice." Both "indie guy voice" and "indie boy voice" gave few relevant hits and no usable examples. I wanted to use an early hit for "indie girl voice" in order to get an idea of what the origins of the style were, and the earliest usable hits was the forum thread from The Straight Dope. I got a lot of usable examples of "indie girl voice" from there. Unfortunately, the thread was targeted directly at indie girl voice and therefore there were very few examples of indie guy voice. This sample selection ended up biasing the results towards female singers. Other sites talking about indie voice or indie girl voice that I used as an example were this article by Kelly Hoppenjams (The Indie Pop Voice Phenomenon) and the Buzzfeed article Indie Pop Voice.

The one example of a male singer engaging in indie voice is Shawn Mendes, and that was an example that I found from the Buzzfeed article and Twitter. While there are definitely men who sing with a gentle, breathy/creaky voice, people do not seem to react as negatively to men using linguistic aspects of indie voice. This is probably an example of covert sexism. As Carrie states, vocal fry was not seen as a negative phenomenon when it was viewed as a "masculine" thing. When the perception of vocal fry changed and it became seen as "feminine," you start seeing an increase in negative references to vocal fry. I suspect something similar may be happening here, where "indie guys" who use the linguistic features of Indie Voice are simply ignored while "indie girls" who use the linguistic features of Indie Voice are considered "annoying." A look at the Straight Dope thread will reveal a lot of virulent hatred for this singing style.

I also mention that I named the article "Indie Girl Voice" because people know what "indie girl voice" is, whereas people I asked did not have a ready association of "indie voice" and the relevant linguistic features. Within the article, I introduce the term "Indie Voice" and use it from there on to refer to the linguistic phenomenon. Although my wish would be that "Indie Voice" caught on as a gender neutral descriptor of these linguistic and musical features, I know that "indie girl voice" will probably continue to be a recognized concept.

I do not like that the examples were heavily skewed towards women, which gives the false impression that the only man to ever use indie voice is Shawn Mendes. If anyone can recommend examples of linguistic indie voice by male singers, I would much appreciate it and would update the article to include them.

- Karen

December 4, 2018

Cardi B and "Sounding Uneducated"

I've written about accent prejudice before. Most stories about accent shame in the US that I've read come from one of three sources - African Americans feeling ashamed of speaking African American Vernacular English; white Southerners ashamed of speaking Southern American English; immigrants or people learning English as a second language who are ashamed of their foreign accent. But today while listening to "I Like It" on Spotify, I noticed that the little Genius annotation said that New Yorker, Cardi B, was embarrassed by what she sounded like. Hmm? I looked up the interview and here are the relevant quotes.

"And, you know," [Cardi] says anxiously, "I don't got the best English in the world, so sometimes I really got to ask somebody, 'Does this make sense? Would this make sense?' Because I will probably use the words…that they don't even supposed to go there."

[...] Cardi was raised bilingual in the Bronx. Her mother came to the United States from Trinidad as an adolescent; Cardi characterizes her English as "broken." Her father, from the Dominican Republic, speaks to his daughter exclusively in Spanish.

"Do you want to know something?" Cardi asks. "That's my biggest problem, that takes me a long time in the booth. I be trying to pronounce words properly and without an accent. Each and every song from my album, I most likely did it over five times, because I'm really insecure about my accent when it comes to music. In person, I don't care."

[Interviewer:] But people love that about you.

"No, like—it got to sound good. Like, for example: 'I'm turning you awhn,'" she says, hitting the word hard, the way a New Yawka who's walkin' heah might bang on the hood of a taxi while taking a bite out of a big apple. "I will say, 'turning you awhn,' not 'turning you on.' See, I give you an example. 'Turn Offset awhff.' There's that 'awhff.' Turn Offset off. Shit like that drives me insane."

She demonstrates a few other examples—"Get awhff me"—to illustrate the distance between her actual and her ideal. Listening to Cardi carefully practice the flat, wide vowels of a Coloradan weather woman is a little heartbreaking, in part because we're too late to stop her; she's already nailed them. Cardi knows people still want her to be the girl who turned them awhn, but to her, the thing that makes her sound different from her peers isn't charming—it's embarrassing. "It's a really bad pet peeve of mine," she says. "I can't help it."

Interesting example of being "afraid of talking wrong." She talks about growing up bilingual, how she feels more confident in Spanish than in English, and expresses shame at her New York accent. Particularly the "aw" diphthongization. I found this curious, because Cardi B may not sound like a typical New Yorker, but in her music I hear examples of the environment she grew up in - the light "l" favored by second-generation Spanish speakers, the use of "habitual be" from African-American Vernacular English, and the slightly rounded and non-rhotic "ar" vowel some New Yorkers use, so that her name almost sounds like "Cordi B". Her interviews and instagram and general persona appear to reveal someone who is unapologetic about who they are, where they came from, and what they had to do to get there. Yet she's saying that she doesn't like the way she says "awff"!

It's strange how a feature that some speakers grow up using can be a source of shame for them, yet other speakers will try to imitate that feature for some perceived credibility or even just fun. It's an example of the imbalance of power that comes in having a stigmatized accent. We don't hear a lot about stigma against having a New York accent, perhaps because the traditional New York accent is on the decline. But there was a study a few years back that showed that U.S. Americans considered the New York City accent to be one of the most unpleasant. Indeed, accents associated with the working class and racial minorities are ruthlessly mocked or considered "uneducated," such that aspiring social climbers end up removing any distinguishing features from their speech in the hopes of blending in. Cardi B is a millionaire making money in hip-hop, a genre that has historically celebrated the dialect used by working class African Americans. She is, by some accounts, the hottest artist of 2017 and 2018. She has no problem talking about how her work as a stripper lifted her out of poverty and she speaks openly about how her past in a gang, yet she admits that she re-records every song multiple times and is concerned about sounding "stupid."

November 13, 2018

Update - November 13

9741 words have been written for NaNoWriMo! It is pretty clear at this point I shall not be making the 50,000 word count. Last year I also failed to make the count. However, I think a personal goal of 15,000 is quite doable. I have written around 14 drafts of articles for Ace Linguist. That's a lot of pages!

Behind the scenes, I've been working on an app to help me manage the social media for this site. I like using Twitter to communicate with you all, but the truth is that when it comes to updating, I am pretty forgetful. Sometimes I've had to write the tweet for a new post days after the post comes out. Or just not written it at all, even. This is not great if you are counting on social media to give you updates for new Ace Linguist posts. This weekend I demoed an app that would automatically fetch blog posts from Ace Linguist and turn them into Twitter tweets. If you saw some strange tweets from me this weekend, my apologies - I was trying out the service. I am happy to say that the tweeting portion is complete. I am not going to debut the app yet because I would like to incorporate Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. Once it's done, I will put it on Github for you all to gawk at and hopefully other Blogger-users can get some utility out of it as well.


No new posts since I'm working on NaNoWriMo. I was going to begin uploading the files for a new Dialect Dissection but alas, Windows had other plans. I was on the edge of my seat because this is the update where some users reported losing their data.

If you live in a country with a gift-giving holiday season, now is a great time to start looking for gifts for friends! If any of your friends like books and have an interest in language, try finding a book from this list by Gretchen McCulloch at All Things Linguistic.

Finally, perhaps the coolest thing I've seen... MRIs of beatboxers making sounds not present in any known language.

What's Cooking?

I've been saying this for a month now but there is a new Dialect Dissection coming soon to a computer near you! Between NaNoWriMo, the automation software, and Windows updates, I haven't been able to work on it as much as I would have liked. I am gunning to have it out either late November or early December.

- Karen

November 2, 2018

Site Update - Nov 2

Dang, it's November already! That means it's got to be NaNoWriMo! I'm off to an okay start since I'm traveling this weekend.


The Dialect Dissection on Indie Girl Voice is still piping hot, so check that out! Yes, I talk about "banahnies and avocaydies."

If you would like to assist with Ace Linguist's hosting costs and research costs, you can help me out at Patreon or Ko-Fi. Whether you can or can't give, you are greatly appreciated!

On to the social media round-up. Probably my favorite thing I've done on Twitter so far is tracing the origin of a curious mistranslation in the Sonic Heroes manual. Fun fact - "feminisuto" (from "feminist" in English) in Japanese means something more along the lines of "chivalrous" or even "womanizer."

Merriam-Webster stepping up their game with this page to let you know which words first appeared in print the year you were bron.

I didn't make this one but I sure wish I did; a historical linguistics journey via Lana Del Rey.

What's Cooking?

I've actually got something like three different Dialect Dissections in the works right now. I'm expediting one of them due to, ahem, increased cultural relevance. I'm going to be working on these Dialect Dissections through November and posting them as they are finished.

Life has been a little hectic lately, so my apologies for not posting as frequently. I hope you all had a great Halloween! Let's move forward into November with zest!

- Karen

October 29, 2018

Site Update - Supporting Ace Linguist!

Hey! I hope you've been enjoying the latest Dialect Dissection about Indie Girl Voice. I've got some big news for you - Ace Linguist is now on Patreon and Ko-Fi!

To make a long story short, I am not really able to cover the costs for this website like I used to be able to. I can cover some basic costs like hosting, but buying books for the purpose of researching a single topic, like I did with the Founding Fathers article, is not going to be able to happen now. Currently, I would like to be able to cover basic costs and book costs so that not everything is coming straight out of pocket from me. I also have some loftier ambitions for the site, such as converting old articles to podcast and even video form!

If you are unable to donate, don't worry - I will continue to write articles that are freely available to everyone, and at my usual quality. Patrons would be able to see articles before they are published and see drafts or research materials that I use that I end up not publishing. Ace Linguist will not shut down if you are unable to donate - it would just be something if you wanted to show support for the site.

If you would like to make a recurring donation, find me on Patreon.
If you want to make a one-time donation, find me on Ko-Fi.

This year has been really exciting for Ace Linguist, and I've got more posts planned for everyone. Stay tuned!

- Karen

October 24, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Indie Girl Voice

Have you ever heard anybody complain about “Indie Voice”? That “indie singers all sound alike”? Have you ever seen a vine called "Indie girl introduces us to her kitchen" where a man wails “walcome to my keetchen; we have banahnies and avocadies”? All of these are related to the topic of this Dialect Dissection: Indie Girl Voice.

Indie Voice, also known as “Indie Girl Voice,” is not really one thing, but rather a series of interrelated phenomena that occur in different genres of music that have at one time or another been called “indie.” Since the aforementioned “bananhnies and avocadies” clip became popular, people have really started paying attention to it. Some good articles have been written on the subject by Kelly Hoppenjans, MTV, and most famously Buzzfeed. However, I wanted to go more in-depth into what the linguistic features that make up indie voice are, where they came from, and how artists as different as Joanna Newsom, Adele, and Selena Gomez can be accused of having “indie voice.”

Defining Indie Voice

Indie Voice can be broadly defined as a style of singing that is associated with several genres that have, at some point or another, been called "indie." Indie Voice is also known as "indie girl voice" because most of the people who use it are women. This is not surprising, as women tend to be on the vanguard of language innovation. The earliest reference online to "indie girl voice" that I could find was this thread from the Straight Dope, posted January 2, 2014.

Is there a name for this hyper-annoying singing style? I'd like to be able to more easily dismiss it.
It seems every indie/faux-indie singer-songwriter girl under the age of 30 is singing with a remarkably annoying, breathy voice with an unnecessary twang in it that is at times punctuated with scratchiness. They sing softly and every vowel sounds like "ow," as though the singer is suffering as much as I am every time I hear it. - MeanOldLady
Meiko wearing a ruffled blouse and playing a guitar

The poster gives some examples, almost all of them leading to folk pop songs. Other posters start replying, giving their agreement on how “annoying” the singing style is, and listing songs that they found to have this same style. Almost all of the songs linked to in this thread for the first year are folk songs. Many of these songs were released around 2013, and many of the posters report hearing these types of songs in commercials. This suggests that this Indie Voice was at peak saturation by 2013, but was likely swirling around for years before appearing in cat commercials aimed at baby boomers. We are going to call this variety of Indie Voice "Folk Indie Voice."

This type of indie girl voice doesn't seem to be quite what the "banahnies and avocadies" vine is making fun of. That vine came out in 2015, the same year that Buzzfeed wrote its own article explaining indie voice. Almost all the examples in the Buzzfeed article came out in 2015, but none of them sound like the soft, waifish folk songs that you hear about in the Straight Dope thread. They are instead more pop-oriented songs, with a stronger electronic influence. We are going to call this one "Pop Indie Voice."

Now that we've laid out the general boundaries of what Indie Girl Voice is, what are the specifics? There are multiple criteria that go into determining whether a given singer demonstrates "indie voice." You do not need to have all the criteria, and indeed very few singers will demonstrate all the features. The following are the most important. One of the features is musical: indie voice is associated with a limited tessitura. You do not get incredibly feats of vocal acrobatic with indie voice. Another clue is phonetic. Both types of Indie Voice make careful use of two types of phonation - creaky voice (also known as vocal fry), which results in a crackling noise, and murmur (also known as breathy voice), where the extra air results in an airy sighing sound. These two phonation types are located closer to the extremes of glottal closure (creaky voice) and glottal opening (breathy voice). You can hear both creaky and breathy voice at play in this relative latecomer to the indie voice game, Billie Eilish.

Billie Eilish - you should see me in a crown (2018)

"Count my cards, watch them fall, blood on a marble wall."

For the most part, the above features are sufficient to get someone accused of having "indie voice." Of course, the context of indie voice is important. Mariah Carey may sing with a breathy voice and limited tessitura on songs like "Touch My Body," but the genre of the song is r&b. Nevertheless, we could stop here and probably round up a lot of people who are considered to have Indie Voice.

However, there is an additional quirk to Indie Voice that makes it of interest to a linguist: both versions of Indie Voice have some particular recurring pronunciations. The most notable of these is diphthongization, which is when a single vowel is pronounced as having two vowels. The Buzzfeed article pays a lot of attention to this diphthongization. Moreover, people notice these pronunciations and post about it. That means this isn't some microphonetic detail you can only find with an acoustic analysis, but something that laymen listeners are pointing out on social media! We're going to dive into these pronunciations and see if we can't explain where they came from.

Quote from the Straight Dope member Wile E. It's not so much the breathiness but the mispronounciation of words that drives me nuts. Here's the lyrics. I must confess when I wear this dress, I feel like dancing the whole night with you, 'Cause you are the one I could see having fun with, Not just for the night but for the rest of my life,Doo doo doo... On 'confess' and 'this' she stretches out the 's' sounds so it sounds like she's a singing snake. Then 'dress' which normally rhymes with 'confess' is pronounced 'drey-ess'

If you want to get straight to the good stuff, scroll past this paragraph. For those of you who want the boring nerd details, my methodology was as follows: I listened to as many of the songs on the Straight Dope thread as I could, and also listened to the songs from the Buzzfeed and Kelly Hoppenjams article. If someone noted that a song had a distinct pronunciation, I tried to listen for that pronunciation in the song; if I heard it myself, I included it and if I did not, I left it out. I also included some songs that some informants told me were examples of indie voice (such as Halsey's cover of "Love Yourself") or potential progenitors of indie voice that I found shared characteristics with the other songs (Adele and Amy Winehouse). I also included a song that I do not consider to have "indie voice" overall but had a notable pronunciation that was very similar to another "indie voice" pronunciation ("What Kind of Man" by Florence + the Machine).

ADDENDUM: A lot of people have asked why most of these examples are of women. I have written a post explaining why most of the examples are women, even though there are men who do Indie Voice as well. If you are interested in learning more about the methodology and how it ended up biasing the result, please read the addendum and let me know your examples of men who have linguistic Indie Voice.

Features of Indie Voice

The transcriptions below will include both ad hoc spellings (e.g. "cheIst") and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions ([tʃɛɪst]).

  • /ʌ/ 🔊 → [a] 🔊 . The vowel in words like butt and STRUT is pronounced higher, like 'a' in Spanish. This is found in older varieties of Received Pronunciation (Wells 1982:291-292).
    • "This is lav [lav] bat [bat]" (love [lʌv] but [bʌt]) Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "Acting ap [ap]" (up [ʌp]) PomplamooseMusic – Single Ladies (2009)
    • "Lacky [laki], lucky me" (lucky [lʌki]) Kat Edmonson – Lucky (2012)
    • "You are not abav me" (above [əbʌv]) Allie Goertz – The Room Song (2013)
    • "You still hit my phone ap [ap]" (up [ʌp]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
  • Dipthongization. This is one of the most distinctive features of Indie Voice – turning monophthongs into diphthongs. These diphthongs are closing diphthongs – they go from a low vowel to a high vowel. The one exception is /ʊ/ → [ʊɪ].
      /ɛ/ 🔊 → [ɛɪ] 🔊 . The vowel in words like "dress" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    • "nearly put to deIth [dɛɪθ]" (death [dɛθ]) CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
    • "I must confeiss [kənfɛɪs], when I wear this dreiss [drɛɪs]" (confess [kənfɛs] dress [drɛs]) Meiko – Stuck On You (2013)
    • "I don't ever think about deIth [dɛɪθ]" (death [dɛθ]) Lorde – Glory & Gore (2013)
    • "Carves into my hollow cheIst [tʃɛɪst]" (chest [tʃɛst]) Halsey – Drive (2015)
    • "...My freIndz [frɛɪnz]" (friends [frɛnds]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
      /ʌ/ 🔊 → [ʌɪ] 🔊 . The vowel in words like "just" has a short 'ih' added to it at the end.
    • "Buit [bʌɪt] ships are fallible, I say" (but [bʌt]) Joanna Newsom – Bridges and Balloons (2004)
    • "I cannot ruh-in [rʌɪn] now" (run [rʌn]) Amy Winehouse – Wake Up Alone (2006)
    • "She's up all night for good fuIn [fʌɪn]" (fun [fʌn]) Daughter – Get Lucky (2013)
    • "I’ll be the wuIn [wʌɪn]" (one [wʌn]) Pitbull ft Kesha – Timber (2013)
    • "JuIst [dʒʌɪst] let me be" (just [dʒʌst]) Bebe Rexha – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (2015)
    • "...cold to the tuItch [tʌɪtʃ]" (touch [tʌtʃ]) Shawn Mendes – Stitches (2015)
    • " look that muitch [mʌɪtʃ]" (much [mʌtʃ]) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
      Other: /ʊ/ 🔊 → [ʊɪ] 🔊 , /ɑ/ 🔊 → [ɑɪ] 🔊 , /ɔ/ 🔊 → [ɔɪ] 🔊 . The vowels in "book," "spa," and "caught" respectively have a short 'ih' added on to them at the end. Note that "on" appears here with two different representations because the singers have different pronunciations.
    • "I just wanna look guid [gʊɪd] for you" (good [gʊd]) Selena Gomez – Good For You (2015)
    • "then you swore oIn [ɑɪn]" (on [ɑn]) MisterWives – Our Own House (2015)
    • "If you think that I'm still holding oIn [ɔɪn] [...] and baby I be moving oIn [ɔɪn]" (on [ɔn]) Halsey – Love Yourself (2016)
  • /eɪ/ 🔊 → [æɪ] 🔊 . This feature is also found in Cockney English (Wells 1982:307) and some Southern American accents.
    • "They were inflAEimed [flæɪmz]" (flames [fleɪmz]) CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
    • "That boy's got my heart in a silver cAEige [kæɪdʒ]" (cage [keɪdʒ]) Flight Facilities – Crave you ft. Giselle (2010)
    • "The rules of the gAEime [gæɪm]" (game [geɪm]) Grace Vanderwaal – I Don't Know My Name (2016)
  • R-Vocalization. Here, the r sound is replaced with an 'ee' [i] or 'ih' [ɪ] sound. This is unusual and not found in any accent that I am aware of.
    • "Even if it leads no-wey [noʊwɛi]" (nowhere [noʊwɛə]) Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "Never saw you befoi [bəfɔɪ] [...] let me show you the doi [dɔɪ]" Allie Goertz (before [bəfɔ:] door [dɔ:]) – The Room Song (2013)
  • /ɪ/ 🔊 -> [i] 🔊 . The lax 'ih' sound is turned into the tense 'ee' sound, so that words like "kit" sound more like "keet." This is a curious one: these singers do not have Indie Voice, but you can hear the Chrish vine has "keechen" as pronunciation of "kitchen," which suggests it is part of the Indie Voice.
    • "Moon speelin' [spilɪn] in" (spillin' [spɪlɪn]) Amy Winehouse - Wake Up Alone (2006)
    • "Thees [ðis] is love [...] I am in love weeth [wiθ] you" (this [ðɪs] with [wɪθ]) Adele - Chasing Pavements (2008)
    • "What kind of man loves like thees [ðis]?" (this [ðɪs]) Florence + the Machine - What Kind of Man (2015)
  • /aɪ/ 🔊 -> [ɑɪ] 🔊 . The first element in the diphthong in words like RIDE is pronounced lower. This can be found in London English (Wells 1982:308) and some New York accents.
    • "I've been so caught up in mah-y [mɑɪ] job" (my) Halsey - Love Yourself (2016)
    • "If love is a lie [lɑɪ]" (lie [laɪ]) Bebe Rexha - I Don't Wanna Grow Up (2015)
    • "Mai [mɑɪ] sister's friend" (my [maɪ]) Grace Vanderwaal – I Don't Know My Name (2016)

Origins of Indie Voice

Who started indie voice? I've seen a lot of people say that artists as diverse as Regina Spektor, Bjork, Kate Bush, and Connie Rae Bailey were the inspiration. These are post-hoc explanations by people on the outside talking about indie voice. I've done a cursory look at the musicians mentioned in this article to see if there was some musician that they all say influenced them, but there were no real recurring names. There are examples of indie voice without the distinct sound changes in 2005, which suggests that the singing style itself dates back to that time.

As for the sound changes, the earliest example of diphthongization happening in Folk Indie Voice back in 2004. This is a pretty isolated example - I had a hard time finding pre-2010 examples of Indie Voice sound changes, so these pronunciations may not have yet been common at the time. Some examples that do not have the Indie voice but do demonstrate the sound changes are from this period: Amy Winehouse and Adele. Taken as a whole, this period of Indie Voice has a lot less diphthongization, more STRUT-raising, and more /eɪ/ → [æɪ].

  • "Buit ships are fallible, I say, " Joanna Newsom – Bridges and Balloons (2004)
  • "moon speeling in / I cannot ruin now" Amy Winehouse – Wake Up Alone (2006)
  • "Thees is lav bat /no wey" Adele – Chasing Pavements (2008)
  • "Acting ap, drink in my cup" PomplamooseMusic – Single Ladies (2009)
  • "They were in flAEims / nearly put to deIth" CocoRosie – Lemonade (live) (2010)
  • "In a silver cAEige [AEi]" Flight Facilities – Crave you ft. Giselle (2010)
  • "Lacky lucky me" Kat Edmonson – Lucky (2012)
  • "Never saw you befoi/let me show you the doi/you are not abav me" Allie Goertz – The Room Song (2013)
  • "ɑi started to cry" Nataly Dawn and Lauren O’Connell – I Started A Joke (2013)
  • “I must confeIss, when I wear this dreIss” Meiko – Stuck On You (2013)
  • "Good fuIn" Daughter – Get Lucky (2013)

Around 2013 seems to be when Folk Indie Voice starts crossing over to pop music and creating its own thing, the Pop Indie Voice. As mentioned above, the voice becomes thinner and more spread out compared to the breathy, waifish Folk Indie Voice.

  • "I’ll be the wuIn" Pitbull ft Kesha – Timber (2013)
  • "Guid for you" Selena Gomez – Good For You (2015)
  • "Hollow cheIst" Halsey – Drive (2015)
  • "JuIst let me be" Bebe Rexha – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up (2015)
  • "Then you swore oIn" MisterWives – Our Own House (2015)
  • "TuItch" Shawn Mendes – Stitches (2015)
  • "What kind of man loves like thees?" Florence + the Machine - What Kind of Man (2015)
  • "Rules of the gaeim/mai sister's friend" Grace Vanderwaal - I Don't Know My Name (2016)

Explaining Indie Voice

Linguistically, there is no singular source of Indie Voice. A handful of these changes (/aɪ/ -> ɑɪ, /eɪ/ → [æɪ], /ʌ/ → [a]) appear in London English or Received Pronunciation. It is therefore possible that many indie singers were influenced by some earlier singer(s) from England who sang with their native accent. This explanation is complicated by the fact that these sound changes aren't unique to London English. /aɪ/ -> ɑɪ also appears in New York City English, and /eɪ/ → [æɪ] appears in Southern American English. The simpler explanation is that there was a single source for all three instead of each pronunciation coming from a different source.

The most distinctive feature of indie voice, the diphthongization, has no ready analogue in varieties of English. It does have an interesting pattern: diphthongization often happens when a single-syllable word is being sung in two syllables, and the second syllable is higher in pitch. Moreover, the consonants following the diphthongized vowel are alveolar consonants, near the alveolar ridge. The ‘i’ in these diphthongs is a close front vowel, meaning it’s near the alveolar ridge. It’s possible that this diphthongization developed as a side effect of trying to reach the higher note while staying on the same word and then moving to an alveolar consonants. The starting point of the diphthongs are almost all low in the mouth, meaning that the tongue would have to travel farther to get to the alveolar consonant. This may also explain the very unusual R-vocalization found in the “The Room Song” and “Chasing Pavements.”

It is notable that the diphthongization found in folk indie songs and early pop songs, to my ears, sounds subtler compared to the diphthongization found in the later pop indie songs. The "buit" from Joanna Newsom and "deith" from Lorde sound much less pronounced next to the "tuitch" of Shawn Mendes and the "guid" of Selena Gomez. The diphthongization may be something that became more exaggerated with time.

As for /ɪ/ -> [i], your guess is as good as mine.

Why Did Indie Voice Develop?

It's all good and well to document the history of indie voice and to note the sound changes associated with it. But I am certain many of you are still left with the question of why Indie Voice exists in the first place. Why do singers continue to sing in this style?

Some commenters, such as Kelly Hoppenjams and Rachael Lawrence, have suggested that Indie Voice is a matter of “trying to sound different” – the idea being that pronouncing things a little unusually will cause people to remember you, even if it is as “that singer who says guId.” The problem is that, as demonstrated by the fact that we can identify all these singers as Indie Voice singers, it doesn’t really help them stand out as much as it helps them blend into a style that already exists.

Perhaps the best way to understand Indie Voice is that it's really about fitting into the requirements of a musical genre. As mentioned above, some of the characteristics do appear in English English - we can speculate that some of these pronunciations may have originated with an English English singer, and then other singers copied that singing style. It bears repeating that the indie girl voice is a phenomenon restricted to singing, not speaking. Grace Vanderwaal, who was 12 at the time of this recording, can be heard speaking in General American before launching into her song.

If someone spoke like this, we would find it unusual because it does not correspond to any known variety of English. But when they come together in song, they form an immediately recognizable pattern that tells us what type of music the singer is trying to fit into. If you listen to and like singers with Indie Voice, you may be influenced by them and reproduce Indie Voice in your own singing. This is similar to singers who sing "babay" and "it's gonna be may". I doubt that pop singers singing "you're sweet to may" are consciously aware that they are doing these pronunciations or where they come from. It's just part of the register of pop singing at this point. The same seems to apply to Indie Voice. The exact origins of it may not be clear; trying to figure out why some changes stick and others fade away is, as John McWhorter says, the equivalent of trying to predict where bubbles appear in one’s soup.

Moving Forward from Banahnies and Avocaydies

Indie Voice is a divisive and distinctive style of singing, but it's been around in some form or other for 15 years. It would be interesting to see if this trend continues into the future, changes into something else, or disappears entirely. Moreover, what other distinctive registers can be found in music, which is more permissive of unusual pronunciations than regular speech? Understanding the trajectory of the Indie Voice helps us understand how new genre registers form in music, how quickly they are adopted, and what happens to them in the future.

Works Cited

  • Wells, John 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

October 12, 2018

Site Update 10-12


Another week has come and gone, but that just means we're getting ever closer to the next Dialect Dissection! Remember to check out the Founding Fathers article if you haven't yet. I also wrote up a casual post on Female Internet Communities.

I'm starting to use Twitter some more beyond just letting people know there's been a new post. It's a good format for observations I have that aren't long enough to be a post, but good enough for a Tweet. It's also a good way to let you all know about any cool linguistics developments. Here are some highlights from Tweets I've made recently:

Remember you can follow me on Twitter for Ace Linguist news and observations.

Looking at the Future

Notice how I'm using all these headers now? I'm trying to make the "blog updates" more structured and less "here's a link to articles I wrote, I'm alive, have a nice day!" I used to basically use "blog updates" so that someone who hadn't checked the site in a few weeks might get up to date on recent posts I've written, but there's a lot more you can do with a weekly post like this. Sometimes I will have big, ambitious plans for the future. Sometimes I will have nothing. Sometimes I'll just want to recommend something I read about. So let's go on to the future.

Accessible Linguist: I am looking into ways to make Ace Linguist more accessible to anyone using assistive technologies or who is otherwise disabled. This is kind of a wide scope, but for the first part I'm looking into adding 'alt' descriptions to all non-decorative images on the site. The second part, which is more challenging, would be making the site's markup more semantic. As a real stretch goal for the distant future, I'd like to have a style switcher for people who either need a more high contrast theme or people who need a dark theme for reading at night. I've gotten more comfortable messing around with Blogger's HTML.

Different Formats: As much as I love writing Ace Linguist, I recognize that nowadays the blog market is not quite the biggest one out there. I've had a lot of people ask me why I'm writing a blog in The Year of Our Lord 2018, and I always have to explain that it's not really a blog in the sense of a place where I talk about my daily life but more like the old idea of a "site" where people would write articles/pages on a specialist topic. Nevertheless, both blogs and sites have decreased in prominence, so I am looking into new ways to get the same content out to people. One thing I'm looking into is podcasts - a lot of these articles may actually work better in audio form, since you'll be able to hear every example. I would also love to eventually expand this site into video - making video essays was a very early goal of this site that I put on hold due to the realization that I (a) did not really know how to make videos, (b) had poor quality recording equipment, (c) did not have the expertise to make videos quickly enough to match the content I wanted to put out. I would still like to make videos, but it's really a future goal for Ace Linguist when I have some more time and funding.

Revising Old Articles: If you've looked around the site's old articles for some reason, you may notice that they are... a little strange. I've only seriously been putting out content for a year now, but my style and goals have changed a lot since then. A lot of the old articles are unfocused, or they have an inconsistent outline, or the style is bad, or the citations aren't up to my standards nowadays. I would very much like to revisit some old articles and change them around before immortalizing them in podcast form.

What's Cooking?

Next month is NaNoWriMo! That's National Novel Writing Month for those of you who aren't familiar. It's a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. If it sounds scary, it's not - I've done it multiple times before and reached the goal almost every time. Last year I decided to be a Rebel and write articles instead of a single unified document. It was the first time I did not reach my goal, but I did end up with a lot of articles that I could use for the site. I'm going to try again this year, but I will be doing more research beforehand so that I can spend less time in November researching and more time writing.

See you all next week!

- Karen

October 8, 2018

Female Internet Communities

I've noticed an interesting trend in female-centric internet communities, particularly beauty ones such as fashion and make-up. It is common for users to use the -ie diminutive to make a sort of colloquial version of a word. Some examples I've found are below:

  • lipstick > lippie
  • eyebrow dip > dippie
  • skinny jeans > skinnies
  • sunglasses > sunnies

Some other languages also have a trend of certain diminutives being considered feminine. Off the top of my head, in Russian turning 'spasibo' into 'spasibochki' (both mean thanks) is considered a very cutesy, feminine construction.

Gender differences can be found in all sorts of languages to a greater or lesser extent, but it's interesting to think about the way that gender differences can be found on the internet. For example, women are more likely to use emoji than men are, and men and women have different patterns of emoji usage.

Another female-dominated community is, unsurprisingly, the online mommy community. I've noticed that there is a jargon: LO is short for little one, which is an idiomatic way to refer to a child; DH is short for dear husband. Child and husband are basic familial terms, so it is interesting that these communities have come up with ways to make the terms more opaque to outsiders. The use of acronyms in particular reminds me of business culture, where initialisms are used liberally (mocked in the movie Officespace with "TPS reports").

Have you noticed any trends in how slang and jargon develops in female vs male dominated communities? How would it compare to mixed-gender communities?

October 1, 2018

10-1 Blog Update

Hello all! I hope you enjoyed my big post Dialect Dissection: Founding Fathers. It took nearly 2 years of work and a lot of books purchased on my end, so I was a bit nervous about releasing it into the world. I'm happy that the response has been positive and there has been a lot of interest in the topic!

Remember when, at the beginning of the year, I said it would be a good idea to post more often with smaller content? I ended up revising that in April where it became once a week. And after a few months of updating once a month, I had to admit that I was not feeling the once a week schedule. The idea was that more content was more desirable, but the statistics tell me, rather frankly, very few people are reading the short articles I write. Although I like some of them, they did end up being more rushed. I could not put as much polish into them as I would have liked. I also felt forced to come up with topics for the sake of writing about them. I enjoy working on a big post more than churning out middling linguistic content. However, I don't want to be beholden to a "one big post once a month" thing. Sometimes I want to make small observations without needing to source every single assertion. I've decided to create the casual tag for small articles that are observations as opposed to attempting to be seriously educational. Casual articles will invite more discussion as well. I will also post mini-articles occasionally - sometimes you just don't need a big ol' article to explain something. I will not make any promise more than that I will continue to update this website and will give you a post or failing that, a status update at least once a month.

If you want news or linguistic thoughts, you can find me on Twitter. Facebook will give you just the news if you prefer that as well.

September 19, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Founding Fathers

"What did the Founding Fathers sound like?" Plenty of Americans have Googled this question, and there have been more than a few attempts to explain what they sounded like to a general audience. However, these articles are usually of limited scope, pointing out only a handful of features, such as that Colonial English pronounced all its "r"s and therefore it sounded more like American English than British English. I can't blame them for not going more into detail. After all, Colonial English is more than two-hundred years old, and it's hard to document all of that when you have a strict deadline and word count. Listening to "Hamilton" and "1776," I found myself wondering - what did the Founding Fathers sound like?

Much to my surprise, it's very difficult to find anything on the English of the 18th century! Perhaps it's because all the dramatic changes already happened around two centuries earlier and the modern dialectal changes only really become traceable a century afterward (Beal 2002). Due to my difficulty finding a straightforward explanation of Colonial American English, I conducted some research and gathered it all together here for your reading pleasure. As far as I am aware, this is the only non-paywalled article that discusses Colonial American English in depth and with a general audience in mind.

Sources Used

The way this article is organized is as follows: I will describe a difference between Colonial American English (CE) and Modern General American English (GA). I will then either show you an example (if available) or give you a citation. The examples come from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and (in exactly one instance) John Jay - these men are commonly considered to be "The Founding Fathers" of the United States. An example from the poet Phyllis Wheatley is also used as a supplement. All the citations in parentheses can be found in full at the bottom of the article; links to the texts have been provided where possible.

Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet is one of the most important sources used here. Dissatisfied with the discrepancy between English spelling and pronunciation, he came up with a spelling - or orthography - that purported to represent speech as accurately as possible. There are no silent letters. New symbols were added for sounds. The values of old letters were changed. Some letters were removed altogether! His orthography is thus more predictable compared to our orthography. In his writings, he both described the value of each letter and gave samples of writing in the alphabet; this includes poetry and a letter exchange between him and a pupil of his. There are some minor inconsistencies between the poems and the letter exchange, but for the most part the alphabet is consistent. His alphabet was not used outside of his own writings. When quoting Franklin's writings in the phonetic alphabet, I will put his phonetic alphabet on the left and the modern orthography on the right.

Note that I did not describe every possible difference here. English in the 1700s was very diverse, and I am presenting a simplified picture here when the truth is that there were likely multiple competing forms at a time! Moreover, there are so many differences between Colonial American English and modern General American that this could easily become a fifteen page document if I described each and every one. This is not intended to be the most comprehensive source on Colonial American English - such a project would be beyond the scope of this blog and would require years of research, and this post has already been more than a year in the making! Instead, consider this a sampler, strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin, of what a speaker of English might have sounded like had they lived in Colonial America from 1700 to 1750.

Table of Contents

Sounds (Phonetics and Phonology)


Colonial English Consonants
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop/Plosive p b t d k g
Affricate tʃ dʒ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ h
Approximant l j ʍ w
Trill r

Let's start with something simple - consonants. One of the remarkable traits about English is that the consonant inventory does not seem to have changed radically over time. Words may change, and vowels certainly will, but the actual list of consonants is not dramatically different between dialects, or even over time. Overall, the consonant inventory of Colonial American English is not too different from the consonant inventory of modern American English. Some of the more notable differences are elaborated on below.

Wine-Whine distinction

Words spelled with used to be pronounced differently in English from words spelled with . For example, "whine" was pronounced with a sort of 'h' sound at the beginning, resulting in /hwaɪn/. This means it was different from "wine," which was just /waɪn/. This distinction has been disappearing over the last hundred years, with only a few English dialects preserving it today. Most English speakers pronounce "wine" and "whine" as /waɪn/. In Colonial English, the distinction was robust, as evidenced by Franklin's spelling:

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So huen sɥm Endիel, bɥi divիin kcɩmand,
So when some angel, by divine command
Uiⱨ rɥiziŋ tempests իeeks e gilti Land; With rising tempests shakes a guilty land

Notice that Benjamin Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet gives different transcriptions for "when" and "with". "When" is "hwen", which suggests that 'wh' was still preserved.

T-flapping hadn't occurred

T-flapping (pronouncing the "t" in words like "kitty" as a flap sound, [ɾ]), does not appear to have started yet. This one is more proof by absence of evidence, as none of the contemporary sources of the 18th century I found described t-flapping. By the early 20th century we already have t-flapping in American English, so it must have been present during the 19th century, but I have not found any evidence that t-flapping happened in Colonial American English. Wells implies that t-flapping is a post-1750 phenomenon, saying that up until 1750, American and British English were more or less similar, and that after that point began the now-distinctive differences between the two to develop. He lists “Tapping and T Voicing” under “Some American innovations” and after “The Great Divide” (1982).

Value of /r/ sound

The 'r' sound is contentious. Benjamin Franklin describes the 'r' as alveolar and “vibrating”. Unlike New York English and most Southern England varieties, Colonial American English was generally rhotic - 'r's after vowels were pronounced (though see the “Regional Variations” section below to see how non-rhotic varieties existed even then). However, we don't know what this post-vocalic 'r' sounded like. In General American today, 'r' after a vowel is an r-colored vowel, but in Scottish English, it's a flap or a trill. It's possible the sound was in transition so that you would have heard both.

Per Beal, the trilled version of /r/ still existed in the 18th century, but already a weakening had begun to a continuant in the preconsonantal and final positions. (Beal 2002 p163-164)


Words like 'due' (/dju/), 'Tuesday' (/tjuzdeɪ/), and 'new' (/nju/) used to be pronounced with a 'y' sound, or "yod." Most American dialects nowadays pronounce these words without the yod, resulting in "do" /du/, "toosday" /tuzdeɪ/, and "noo" /nu/ (Krapp 155). Curiously, Benjamin Franklin's transcription of 'new' would be pronounced "noo" [nu], showing that the loss of this 'y' sound was already beginning.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
And e nu hev’n in its feer Bɥzɥm իoz. And a new heaven in its fair bosom shows.


Colonial English Vowels
Front Central Back
Lax Tense Lax Tense
Close ɪ i ʊ u
Close-mid e ə o
Open-mid ɛ ʌ ɔ
Open æ ɒ
Diphthongs əɪ əʊ

Now it's getting interesting. Whereas the consonants remained mostly similar, the vowels changed quite a bit compared to General American. Vowels have been prone to mutation throughout the history of the English language, and it's no surprise to see that modern American vowels have gone through a lot of change from their colonial forebears. A lot of the differences between vowels aren't just a matter of substitution - some vowels are simply missing compared to General American, and some words had different vowels in them that Americans don't really distinguish today.

Here are some further comparisons of Colonial English (CE) vowels with British Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA). The word on the left is an example word, and the sounds say the vowel that will be used in the word depending on the dialect.

Full Monophthongs
Lexical Set RP GA CA
BATH ɑː æ æ
LOT ɒ ɒ
CLOTH ɔ,ɑ ɔ? ɒ?
DRESS e ɛ ɛ

Potential Diphthongs
Lexical Set RP GA CA
GOAT əʊ o
FLEECE i: i i
GOOSE u: u u

Full dipthongs
Lexical Set RP GA CA

Pre-R Vowels
Lexical Set RP GA CA
NURSE ɜː(r) ɜr ɜr?
START ɑː(r) ɑr ær
NORTH ɔː(r) ɔr ɔr
NEAR ɪə(r) ɪr ɪr
SQUARE eə(r) ɛr er
CURE ʊə(r),ɔː(r) ʊr,ɔr ʊr

Reduced Vowels
Lexical Set RP GA CA
LETTER ə(r) ər ər

All information here is supplemented by the evolution of English vowels throughout English language history.

/e/ and /o/ monophthongs

The vowels in "day" ([deɪ]) and "doe" ([doʊ]) are diphthongs in General American - they are composed of two sounds, gliding smoothly from the first to the second. This was not so in Colonial English, where these were "pure" vowels, or monophthongs (Beal 2002:97). To get the impression, imagine that the final element of the diphthongs in "day" and "doe" were chopped off. This would give us [de] and [do]. .

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains
[...] Riflekts iitի flcɩur ˇⱨat cɩn its bcɩrdɥr groz, [...] Reflects each flower that on its border grows

Benjamin Franklin places and with the rest of the monophthongs. His description of these vowels does not mention any change in the tongue position while making the vowels, and his diphthongs are made with two different vowel letters. (Note that the use of "long/double vowels" is inconsistent in Franklin's orthography.)

o – the first vowel naturally, and deepest sound; requires only to open the mouth, and breathe through it.
cɩ - the next requiring the mouth opened a little, or hollower
a – the next, a little more.
e – The next requires the Tongue to be a little more elevated.


In modern American English, words like "lot," "cot," "odd," "Ron," "bother," etc. have the same vowel as words like "spa," "palm," and "father:" /ɑ/ . This was not the case in Colonial American English, where words like "lot," "cot," "odd," etc. had a vowel that was made with rounded lips: /ɒ/. To try making it yourself, keep your lips round while saying 'spa'.

Words in the second set, such as "spa," "palm," "father", etc. had a different vowel entirely. This means 'father' and 'bother' wouldn't have rhymed! Most dialects of England still preserve this distinction, while old Boston and very old New York dialects are the only American dialects that pronounce them differently.

Krapp (141:144) suggests that turning /ɒ/ into /ɑ/, a process called LOT-unrounding, had already begun by the 18th century, though it was not common and was prescribed against.

We can see an example of this in Franklin's text. Franklin has his vowels in “short/long” pairs. “John” and “folly” have the “short” version of “awl” and “ball.”

Webster says “a in fall has its short sound in folly."

/ɑ/ sound

So what sound did they use in the second set of words above? The broad 'ah' /ɑ/ sound in words like "spa," "palm," "father", etc. does not appear to have existed yet (Grandgent 1899)! Franklin does not dedicate a sound to it in his alphabet, and uses the same symbol for "arm" that he does for "hat." This suggests that all these words had /æ/. This means "arm" would have sounded like [ærm] or [arm] (Krapp :50). Krapp notes that the broad 'ah' /ɑ/ sound was coming into existence and possibly existed as a variant at the time. This means that 'palm' and 'Pam' would have sounded the same in Colonial American English. By the mid 1700s, the /ɑ/ vowels appears to have finally appeared (Grandgent 1899, Wells 1982).

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
Kalm and siriin hi drɥivs ˇⱨi feuriիs blast; Calm and serene he drives the furious blast.

Notice how Franklin uses same vowel for "calm" and "blast."

Unrounded /wa/

Consonants sometimes influence vowels. For example, in modern English, 'war' sounds like 'wore' [wɔr] . Historically, it wasn't always that way - 'war' used to sound like 'wahr' [war] (Beal 2002:127). Over time, the 'w' before the 'a' made people start to pronounce the 'a' lower and back in the mouth, which turned it into [wɔr]. You can see an example of this in Hamilton's poetry, where he rhymes 'arms' with 'warms'. We know this is supposed to be a rhyme because his poem uses AABB rhyme scheme:

If present love [unlegible] face
Deny you to my fond embrace
No joy unmixed my bosom warms
But when my angel’s in my arms.
- Alexander Hamilton

Similarly, the poet Phyllis Wheatley uses AABB rhyme scheme, rhymes "war" with "air". (More information on the pronunciation of "air" can be seen in the "Regional Differences" section below.)

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign.
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
- Phillis Wheatley

/əi/ vowel

The "i" /aɪ/ sound as in "kite" had a lower starting vowel; Franklin equates it with the vowel in "about." It likely sounded like [əi]. Krapp suggests that there may have been some variability, so that there were some people saying [ai], some saying [ʌi], and some [ɑi] (p189). The last part of the diphthong was also higher than it is today. The colonial realization of this sound was closer to the sound that Shakespeare would have used.

Benjamin Franklin describes that the sound of “i” is actually a diphthong made of the sound he dedicates to ‘uh’ and ‘ee’, so ‘uh-ee’.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So huen sɥm Endիel, bɥi divիin kcɩmand, So when some angel, by divine command
Uiⱨ rɥiziŋ tempests իeeks e gilti Land; With rising tempests shakes a guilty land

Notice the same symbol used for "some" and "rising."

/aʊ/ as /ɔu/

The 'au' /aʊ/ sound in 'bout' was formed further back in the mouth compared to today. Franklin uses the symbol that represents either /ɒ/ or /ɔ/ for it, meaning it may have sounded like /ɔu/. This means that 'bout' would have sounded a lot like General American 'boat'.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains
[...] Riflekts iitի flcɩur ˇⱨat cɩn its bcɩrdɥr groz, [...] Reflects each flower that on its border grows
[...] fcɩr it cɩluaz cɩkɥrz hwen eni refcɩrmeիɥn iz propozed; [...] for it always occurs when any reformation is proposed

The /ɔ/ vowel is used for "foul," "flour," "border," and "always."

LINE-LOIN merger?

Krapp (p197) suggests that the /ɔɪ/ vowel of "choice" was not yet its own distinct category, and would have sounded the same as the vowel of "price," /əi/ . This means "line" and "loin" would both be something like [ləin]. Franklin does not mention the diphthong that today is /ɔɪ/ in his sounds.

SQUARE vowel

Many of the examples shown above give the impression that colonial English was straightforward, but Eighteenth century English was wildly diverse. This can be seen in the fact that I did not assign a single value for the vowel in words like SQUARE /skwɛr/. What is now the modern SQUARE /ɛr/ vowel seems to have been in quite a bit of flux, and could have had a higher realization as /er/ (Krapp:106-107). Franklin does not describe this vowel, although he does provide a transcription for the word "fair" below.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
And e nu hev’n in its feer Bɥzɥm իoz. And a new heav'n in its fair bosom shows.

Franklin uses in his phonetic spelling, the same value he uses for the vowel of “stains”. This would suggest [er].

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains

This is backed by Wells’s suggestion that the SQUARE vowel of English in both America and Britain was /er/ in 1750 (1982:212).

Note, however, that we have "air" and "war" rhyming in Phyllis Whealey's poem. "tears" and "cares" can be found rhyming in Thomas Jefferson's poem. More information on this pronunciation of SQUARE set words can be found in "Regional Variations."

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign.
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war, [wær]
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air [ær].
- Phillis Wheatley
Life's visions are vanished, it's dreams are no more.
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears? [tærz]
I go to my fathers; I welcome the shore,
which crowns all my hopes, or which buries my cares [kærz]
- Thomas Jefferson


Most dialects of General American pronounce words such as "marry," "carrot," and "carriage" with the same vowel sound as in "merry" and "Kerry" - /ɛr/. In Colonial English, "marry," "carrot," "carriage" etc. would have had a different sound: the 'aa' vowel of 'cat'. Observe how Franklin uses the <a> for "carriages [kærɪdɪʒ].

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
and iven dcɩun az lo az rods and huil karidիiz. And even down as low as roads and wheel carriages

CURE vowels

'ur' words like 'you're' and 'pure' consistently had the short 'u' /ʊr/, as in look, /jʊr/ and /pjʊr/. American English is in a process of pronouncing these words with /ɔr/

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
So ˇⱨi piur limpid striim, huen fcɩul uiⱨ steens So the pure and limpid stream, when foul with stains

"pure" spelled 'ur'. Compare with "perform", spelled differently:

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
And, pliiz’d ˇⱨ’ cɩlmɥitis cɩrdɥrs tu pɥrfcɩrm, And, pleas'd th'almighty's orders to perform

HORSE-HOARSE distinction

Words like 'horse' and 'hoarse' were distinct. 'horse' had a /ɔr/ sound, while 'hoarse' would have had a /or/ sound like in "oh" (Wells 1982:212). Nowadays this distinction is almost extinct in General American.

B. Franklin's Phonetic Alphabet Transcribed to modern English
Uɥrds in ˇⱨi kors cɩv tɥim Words in the course of time
And, pliiz’d ˇⱨ’ cɩlmɥitis cɩrdɥrs tu pɥrfcɩrm, And, pleas'd th'almighty's orders to perform

"course" with the mid-height vowel , "perform" with low height .

Lax HAPPY vowel

Nowadays, the final vowel in words like 'happy', 'baby', 'coffee,' etc. is pronounced with the same vowel as in fleece: [i]. In Colonial English, the final vowel in words like 'happy', 'baby', 'coffee', etc. is pronounced with the same vowel as in kit: [ɪ] (Wells 1982:165). Conservative varieties of Received Pronunciation and Southern American English still use this latter pronunciation. This phenomenon is also discussed in my article Oh Babih, Babay.

Example Audio

When you put all these changes together, the end result sounds a lot like how Shakespearean English does when pronounced! It also bears some resemblance to modern Irish English. As an example, I've prepared the following reading of a quote from the Declaration of Independence in Colonial English.

Text IPA
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

wi hold ðiz truθs tu bi sɛlf ɛvɪdɛnt, ðæt ɔl mɛn ær krietɪd ikwəl, ðæt ðe er ɪndɔud bʌi ðer krietər wɪθ sərten ʌnelienəbl rəits, ðæt əməŋ ðiz er lʌif, libərtɪ, ænd ðə pərsut ɔv hæpɪnɛs.

For a little bit of fun, I've also covered the song "My Shot" from the musical "Hamilton," also done in Colonial English. I had originally also planned to do a Colonial English version of a song from the musical "1776," but I could not settle on a song. Perhaps it can be added in a future revision of the article...

I've also added the explicit version as a lyric video on YouTube. The IPA is included here!

Regional Variations

Although British visitors to the colonies noted its "purity" of speech and "lack of idiom or tone", it seems unlikely that everyone in the colonies spoke the same variety. We know that certain parts of the colonies were settled by certain groups. It makes sense that those groups would bring the features of their particular region of Britain to America. Wells (1982) estimates that British English and American English had shared developments until 1750, when both varieties started to develop apart from one another. It also makes sense that, since travel between the colonies was rather difficult and the distance between them rather large, that they would begin to develop separately from each other.

There is some evidence for dialectal division when you look at runaway slave advertisements, which often described slaves on the basis of their accents. We have instances of slaves being identified as being "from Maryland or Virginia," having a "New England accent," and a "West Indies" accent, which suggests that these were distinct and recognizable varieties. Due to the paucity of information on other Colonial English dialectal regions, we're going to be looking at New England and the South.

New England

New England is the best-documented region of the early colonial period with regards to early dialectal variation. There were a lot of documents written by semi-literate people, and their naive spellings show some divergent features (Bailey 2015:29). Such a tradition was not strong in the Middle or Southern colonies, where documents were written in the standard English of the time, so it's harder to determine dialectal variation there (Krapp 1925).

There's evidence for non-rhoticity. It seemed to have existed alongside rhotic pronunciations, with some variation: "horse" was often written "hoss," and "George" was sometimes written "Geoge" (Bailey 2015:40). Bostonian Benjamin Franklin seemed to have used a rhotic pronunciation; his description of the 'r' sound in English in particular suggests a trilled 'r', and he does not drop the 'r' in his transcriptions.

Franklin's transcription does not include a way to represent the sound we now have in "father"; words like "father" rhymed with "gather" and "rather" for him. However, there were signs of what is called TRAP-BATH split in Boston. This means that words like "trap" were pronounced with /æ/ and words like "bath" were pronounced with /ɑ/. It's possible that the broad 'ah' sound was in circulation, but it had not been established as a separate phoneme in all varieties of English (Krapp 1925).

The South

First of all, Southern American accents as we know them did not exist. Many of the features we associate with the South are actually rather recent. For example, pronouncing 'ride' like 'rad' was not something that happened in the 1700s - it probably began in the mid to late 1800s (Bailey 1997,Source 1,Source 2, Labov, 2016). Some other features, like rhyming "pen" and "pin," may have started in the early twentieth century (Brown, 1991). This means an eighteenth century Southern accent would not sound like a twenty-first century Southern accent.

Don't take this to mean that there weren't nascent difference between the South and the rest of the country, though! Many of these differences have simply disappeared since. For example, a lot of words that are pronounced -eer /ir/ in modern English were historically pronounced /ɛr/ or /ær/ (Primer, 1887:90). For example, Thomas Jefferson seemed to rhyme "tear" (salt water from our eyes) with "care," meaning "tear" was likely pronounced something like [tɛr].

Life's visions are vanished, it's dreams are no more.
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears? [tærz]
I go to my fathers; I welcome the shore,
which crowns all my hopes, or which buries my cares [kærz]
- Thomas Jefferson

It's possible that this feature was also present in some other regions of the colonies. The poet Phyllis Wheatley was born in Africa in 1753, and sold as a slave to Boston merchants. Although her variety of English was probably influenced by Boston, note how she rhymes "war" and "air" in the poem below. Knowing that "war" would have been /wær/ at the time, this means it's likely she pronounced "air" as /ær/.

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign.
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war, [wær]
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air [ær].
- Phillis Wheatley

There's another phenomenon that is typical of very conservative Southern speech - palatal stops in words like "garden" and "cart" [kɑrt] so that they sound like "gyarden" and "cyart" [cart]. We may not have direct evidence for it in the 1700s, but it seems to have already existed by the 1800s, and is in decline by the 1900s.

We know at some point, big hub cities (most famously Charleston in South Carolina) in the south tended towards non-rhoticity (Mencken). Bailey (2015) reports that Virginians spoke non-rhotically. This feature later became emblematic of coastal Southern speech, and is moribund nowadays.

Words: Morphology, Lexicon, Spelling

Now let's look at everything other than pronunciation. For the most part the morphology, lexicon, and spelling of Colonial English should still be recognizable to the modern American. However, that doesn't mean that you won't find notable differences here! The differences here are a lot less systematic than the sound ones. Some of these differences are mostly used by a single Founding Father, while others are more varied. This simply reflects the fact that Colonial American English was fluctuating and, moreover, not yet standardized.

Negation without Do-Support

Most verbs in English need a "do" if you want to form a negative: "I do not/don't care," "I do not/don't know," "I did not/didn't need..." etc. Only a handful of verbs can form negatives without "do" such as "to be" ("I am not") and, in some varieties of English, "to have" ("I had not"). Making negatives without "do-support" is much more common in the past. "I know not" is still in common use, though now in variation with "I don't know." Occasionally other verbs are also negated with "not" directly.

“The rival you mentioned I know not whether to think formidable or not as there has been so great an opening for him during my absence.” - Thomas Jefferson
I cared not what I did if I could but get away from school, and confess to my shame that I sometimes play’d truant.” - John Adams
“What will be the consequence, I know not.” - John Adams “Yet I had not the same confidence…” - John Adams
"I think we need not fear geting a good price for his Mules when he arrives." - Alexander Hamilton

Non-standard Verb Forms

Standard verb forms are not set in stone (Krapp 261). You'll see the founding fathers use forms that nowadays would be considered non-standard. This is dialectal variation, not an "incorrect" form.

“The rats that had eat” – Thomas Jefferson
“Who told you that I reported you was courting Miss Dandridge and Miss Dangerfeild?” – Thomas Jefferson
“The language in which he sung” – Thomas Jefferson
"In a little more than a Year Mr. Marsh pronounced me fitted for Colledge"- John Adams
"About 10 the sun brake out." - John Adams
"I receiv’d your favour of Decr. 29.2 about 3 or 4 Days after it was wrote." - John Adams
"We cleaned ourselves (to get Rid of the Game we had catched the Night before)" - George Washington

V2 Word Order

V2 word order is a type of word order where the verb must come after the first constituent in a sentence. Modern English does not have V2 word order and instead has Subject-Verb-Object word order, meaning the verb must come after the subject. However, Old and Middle English had V2 word order, which began to disappear over time. There are remnants of this in Early Modern English and Colonial American English.

"At Colledge, a Clowdy morning, and in the afternoon, Came up a Clowd of thunder and lightning." - John Adams
"Whatever deficiencies there may be in them as to that matter, will I hope be supplied by the extract now enclosed." - John Jay

The Modern English versions would be "In the afternoon, a cloud came up of thunder and lightning" and "Whatever deficiencies there may be in them as to that matter, I hope will be supplied by the extract now enclosed."

Passive Ditransitive

A ditransitive verb is a verb that accepts a direct object and an indirect object. For example, in "She sent me a horse" the direct object is "horse," because that is the thing being sent, and the indirect object is "me," because it is the direction of the thing being sent. If we wanted to turn this into a passive construction, we would have to say "A horse was sent to me." However, this "to" does not seem necessary in 1700s English, as shown by John Adams's quote below.

"About three Weeks after commencement in 1755, when I was not yet twenty Years of Age, a horse was sent me from Worcester and a Man to attend me." - John Adams

Subject-to-Object Raising

In a sentence like "John wanted her to leave," it is interesting to note that "her" is not actually the semantic object of "wanted." What John wanted was not "her." What John wanted was her leaving. "Her" is actually the subject of "to leave." Some verbs in English allow for this sort of construction. Nowadays we don't really see this with the verb "to wish," but it seems to have existed in colonial American times.

He wished me to address the assembly” - Thomas Jefferson


One of the more interesting verb differences is that you can find examples of things like "I am come" instead of "I have come." This is preserving a distinction that used to exist in English - the difference between unergative and unaccusative verbs. Unergative verbs are verbs which describe actions that the speaker voluntarily started, like "I ran," "I jumped." Unaccusative verbs are verbs where the subject did not start the action themselves. These are verbs like "John died," "the vase broke," "Mary arrived." These are more like things that happen to the subject. In 1700s English, unaccusative verbs are marked by using "to be" as an auxiliary verb instead of "to have." This means you have examples like "I am fallen," "I am arrived" in the Founding Fathers' texts. This distinction still exists in French: je suis tombe vs j'ai travaille (I fell vs I worked). Nowadays most English speakers will only encounter this construction in the King James Version of the Bible with "Jesus is risen."

“Walker is just arrived.” - Thomas Jefferson
“I am become desirous” - Thomas Jefferson
are now become numerous” -John Adams


The subjunctive form was used a lot more often, especially by Thomas Jefferson. It's worth noting that the founding fathers were learned men, and their writing likely was not an exact reflection of their speech.

“whether the story we read be truth” - Thomas Jefferson
“if the painting be lively” - Thomas Jefferson
“or whether the whole be not fiction” - Thomas Jefferson

Lexical Items

Some words that aren't in currency anymore are still being used at the time, such as methinks.

"It requiring methinks a steady continued Consideration for some Time to become a Master of your Doctrine in all its Parts." - Benjamin Franklin


Spelling was also in flux. Honor vs honour, college vs colledge, public vs publick. This is clearest in the Constitution, where Pennsylvania is spelled "Pensylvania" (one n at the beginning). This isn't Hamilton making a typo - the spelling had not yet been settled. This is especially bad with commas and punctuation. Thomas Jefferson is fond of using commas where nowadays we would prefer a semi-colon or even just a period.

"Well I will shew you what it is to be a Farmer." - John Adams (pronounced ‘shoo’)
"in my own class at Collidge, there were several others," - John Adams
"His inattention to his Schollars was such as gave me a disgust to Schools, to books and to study and I spent my time as idle Children do in making and sailing boats and Ships upon the Ponds and Brooks, in making and flying Kites, in driving hoops, playing marbles, playing Quoits, Wrestling, Swimming, Skaiting and above all in shooting" - John Adams
"At Colledge, a Clowdy morning, and in the afternoon, Came up a Clowd of thunder and lightning." - John Adams


As was noted in the introduction, Colonial American English and eighteenth century English are woefully understudied. There were further points I was interested in researching, but was unable to find sufficient writings for. One was the extent to which dialectal differences from British English dialects affected the formation of Colonial American English. A paper I am unfortunately no longer able to locate suggested that almost all the settlers must have been from Southern England, since all American dialects have the PUT-STRUT split and most Northern English dialects do not. I wanted to include more comparisons to eighteenth century English English, but had to scrap this due to time concerns. A more in-depth study would mention that there were far too many lexical differences to include, and perhaps go more into detail about aspects beyond phonology. Finally, this article focused on just the first half of the 1700s. However, there is evidence that a distinct Colonial American English was already emerging in the 1600s. In other words, anyone interested in expanding on this field has plenty of room to look in.

Colonial American English represents a fascinating point in between Elizabethan English and our modern varieties of English. Although the primary point of this article is to note how American English has changed from colonial times to modern times, there are also many points of comparison with varieties of British English. Some of the distinctions that no longer exist in American English are still being made in Received Pronunciation, and some of the distinctions made in Colonial American English aren't being made at all anywhere! It's a wonderful example of how language is constantly changing. The change is not always radical, but over centuries it adds up so that we don't have an accurate understanding of what the American Founding Fathers would have sounded like in the popular imagination.

Works Cited

  • Bailey, Guy. 1997. When Did Southern American English Begin? In Englishes around the World: Vol.1: General Studies,British Isles,North America: Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach, edited by Edgar W. Schneider. Amsterdam:John Benjamins.
  • Bailey, Richard W. 2015. Speaking American: a History of English in the United States. Oxford Univ. Press.
  • Beal, Joan C. English Pronunciation in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Spences Grand Repository of the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Brown, Vivian R. 1991. "Evolution of the Merger of /I/ and /ε/ before Nasals in Tennessee" in American Speech Vol. 66, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 303-315.
  • Labov, William. 2016. "The Beginnings of the Southern Shift" in Linguistic Variation: Confronting Fact and Theory edited by Rena Torres Cacoullos, Nathalie Dion, André Lapierre.
  • Franklin, Benjamin. 1907. The writings of Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Macmillan company.
  • Grandgent, Charles Hall. 1899. "From Franklin to Lowell. A Century of New England Pronunciation." PMLA. Vol. 14, No. 2 (1899), pp. 207-239
  • Krapp, George Philip. 1925. The English Language in America. Century Co.
  • Mencken, Henry Louis. 1919. The American Language.
  • Primer, Sylvester. 1887. Charleston Provincialisms. Transactions and Proceedings of the Modern Language Association of America.
  • Wells, John 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Founding Fathers Materials and Miscellania