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December 26, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Lady Gaga

If you remember 2008 to 2011, you probably remember the unconquerable radio dominance of a singer called Lady Gaga. I remember not being able to listen to the radio without hearing "I'm your biggest fan, I'll follow you until you love me." I remember the first time I watched the music video for Bad Romance - on YouTube, where we now take online music videos for granted - and thinking it blew any other music video I'd seen out of the water. I remember being perched for any news regarding a new album. And in 2018, I stood in line to watch her act in "A Star Is Born." Whether you love her for her accessibly weird synth-pop, her casually avant-garde outfits, her phenomenal vocal chops - or whether you don't love her at all, Lady Gaga has left her mark on 21st century pop and doesn't seem to be leaving anytime soon.

Gaga once proclaimed herself too pop for theatre and too theatre for pop. While countless thinkpieces have been written about Lady Gaga's use of theatricality in relation to music, style, fame, videos, promotional strategies, etc. very few people have turned their eyes to looking at how Lady Gaga uses language. This Dialect Dissection will show how Lady Gaga constructs her image not just audio-visually and sartorially, but linguistically. While many of the previous Dialect Dissectees have purposefully used accent as part of their music and image, Gaga has consistently experimented with different sounds that aren't really part of a dialect. We are going to examine how she speaks, what she borrows, and what she invents.

A Brief Career Retrospective

If you are already familiar with Lady Gaga's career path, click here to get to the good stuff. If you are not, read on. Lady Gaga's first album was The Fame, which was released in 2008. It was part of a wave of albums (such as Britney Spears's Blackout, Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad, and Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor) that brought dance-pop music back to the forefront after a decade of hip-hop and r&b domination. She had a number of hit singles from this era, with songs like "Just Dance," "Paparazzi," and "Poker Face." This era featured her baby-sounding voice and a strong funk/disco influence on her music.

She re-released The Fame in 2009 with the addition of eight new tracks: The Fame Monster, which would also go on to be released as an EP. It was around this time that her music became darker, the costumes became wackier, and the media provocations became stronger. Her music videos were more focused and followed more in the paths of the "Paparazzi" music video - longer, with storylines and more avant-garde clothing. She ditched the baby voice and tan blonde look in favor of a more natural sounding voice and an ethereal look. This era was another success for her, with "Bad Romance," "Alejandro," and "Telephone" being major hits.

Born This Way was released in 2011, and was basically the entire energy of The Fame Monster, but more. She famously arrived in an egg for the Grammys. She experimented more with her lyrics and spoke about the importance of recognizing the essence of the creative process - what she called "honoring your vomit." Her hits included "Born This Way," "Judas," and "The Edge of Glory". The single "Marry the Night" failed to catch on, and was in some ways the first crack in her impenetrable pop shell.

After a two year silence, Lady Gaga released ARTPOP in 2013. This album took cues from the then-popular EDM (mostly electro house) and a stab at trap. She released had success with "Applause" and "Do What U Want", but the era found itself off track when Gaga and her manager Troy went their separate ways. The execution for this era was botched - a companion app for the album counted down to an event that never happened, the video for "Do What You Want" was never released, and after self-funding the music video for "G.U.Y," Gaga went silent. She had undergone a hip problem during the Born This Way tour, and the pain led her to self-medicate with drugs.

She then released a jazz album, Cheek to Cheek, with Tony Bennett, and appeared in American Horror Story as the Countess. She performed a well-received tribute to The Sound of Music. In 2016, she released Joanne, which was inspired more by Americana, country, and rock than electronic dance-pop. The first single, "Perfect Illusion," didn't perform to expectations, but after a critically lauded performance at the American Superbowl, "Million Reasons" became a hit. In 2018, she starred in the remake of "A Star Is Born" and played a part in writing and performing for the soundtrack. "Shallow", with Bradley Cooper, became an unexpected hit. Her career rebranding from zany dance-pop singer to talented triple threat appears to have gone swimmingly, finally fulfilling the prophecy foretold in the Paparazzi video: "We love her again!"


Lady Gaga was born in Manhattan to an Italian-American family and grew up in New York City's Upper West Side. Being a New Yorker is part of her identity - she talks about how she didn't have a driver's license due to New York City's subway system, and she says "All my friends call me Marisa [Tomei] when I get angry, because my New York accent just flies out of my body and I start smacking my gum." In the movie A Star Is Born, her character, Ally, has a father with a strong New York Accent. She has played characters with New York Accents. As such, it may come as a surprise that Lady Gaga does not naturally have a strong New York accent. She lacks one of the most distinctive features, which is the diphthongized vowel in words like talk, bought, or fought. In fact, she seems to have the cot-caught merger and pronounces "fought" like "fot", as can be seen in the video below.

The lack of this feature has resulted in some commenters saying that she actually has a Western or California accent (1, 2,3, 4). Although the strong diphthongization is not present in her speech, she does have other characteristics of a New York accent, and has purposefully employed a more exaggerated New York accent for effect.

  • Marry-merry distinction: She pronounces words like "marry" with the vowel of "mat" [mæt], resulting in something like "maarry" [mæri] 🔊. Meanwhile words like "merry" are pronounced with the vowel of "met" [mɛt], resulting in "meh-ri" [mɛri] 🔊. Most Americans do not distinguish between -arry/-erry words and pronounce them the same, as -erry. Brits and New Yorkers, on the other hand, do distinguish these words.
    • "The charm about you will carry [kæri] me through" - Cheek to Cheek, Cheek to Cheek (2014)
    • "If you love me, we can marry [mæri] on the west coast" - Americano, Born This Way (2011)
    She does not use this "aa" /æ/ sound in "Marry the Night" and uses the "eh" /ɛ/ sound instead. This may have been an attempt to downplay her New York-ness; she clearly says "maarry" in Americano. However, the hook in the song "Marry the Night" goes "I'm gonna marry the night [...] m-m-m-marry." The word "marry" is repeated many times in the song. "Marry The Night" was released as a single, which suggests that going with "Meh-ry the night" was a purposeful choice. We can't know for sure why she pronounced it like this on this song, but the change either made the word easier to sing ("marry" is on a high note), or made it more commercial by making it sound less "New York."
    • "I'm gonna marry the night... I'm gonna marry... M-m-m-marry [mɛri]" - Marry the Night, Born This Way (2011)
  • /ɑr/-/ɔːr/ distinction: New Yorkers pronounce the "-or-" [ɔr] 🔊 in words like "horror", "orange", and "Florida" as "ar" [ɑr] 🔊 , resulting in pronunciations like "harror", "arange", and "Flarida". Gaga uses this pronunciation in Bad Romance.
    • "I want your harrar [hɑrər], I want your design" - Bad Romance, The Fame Monster (2009)
  • /ɔ/ 🔊 → [ɔa] 🔊 : New Yorkers pronounce the vowel in words like 'bought' with a diphthong, like 'bwat' [bʊət]. In the demo of Bad Romance, she does use a very New York diphthongized vowel in "walk walk." Ultimately, this was removed in the final version of Bad Romance. Instead, she uses the more Californian pronunciation "wok" [wɑk]. She uses the Californian [ɑ] sound most often, but sshe also uses a conservative General American "aw" [ɔ] on occasion, such as in Dancing in Circles.
    • "Wuak wuak [wʊək wʊək] fashion baby" - Bad Romance (Demo) (2008)
    • "Wok wok [wɑk wɑk] fashion baby." - Bad Romance, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "Up awll [ɔl] night trying to rub the pain out" - Dancing in Circles, Joanne (2016)
  • /aɪ/ 🔊→ [ɑɪ] 🔊: The vowel in "eye" [aɪ] is pronounced using the more back vowel in "spa" [spɑ] so that you get "ah-ee" [ɑɪ]. This In "Boys Boys Boys," this is taken to an extreme and both backed and raised so that "twice" /twaɪs/ sounds like "twoice" [twoɪs].
    • "In the sailence [sɑɪlɪns] of the night" - So Happy I Could Die, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "You're just a pig insaide [ɪnsɑɪd]" - Swine, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "Drink my tears tonaight [tʊnɑɪt]" - Government Hooker, Born This Way (2011)
    • "Saw you twoice [twoɪs] at the pop show" - Boys Boys Boys, The Fame (2008)
  • New York æ-tensing split: This is a complicated sound shift in New York City English (Joseph & Janda 2010:325). It has two parts. First, the sound "aa" /æ/ is pronounced as a diphthong [eə] before voiced stops like /d/, /g/, and /b/. This means that "bad" [bæd] 🔊 becomes "beh-ad" [beəd] 🔊. The second part is that "aa" /æ/ is pronounced as a monophthong before nasals. This means that "mat" and "man" would have the same vowel, [æ] 🔊. Most American accents have a diphthong before nasals, so they would pronounce "man" as "meh-an" [meən]. Gaga noticeably uses the General American pronunciation "eh-an" [eən] 🔊 more in her album Joanne - perhaps to sound more relatable to listeners?
    • "You and me could write a bead [beəd] romance." - Bad Romance, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "Take off to the plaanet [plænɪt]" - Venus, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "Groove, slaam [slæm]" - Starstruck, The Fame (2008)
    • "Line up for the dance [dæns], yeah bring those fancy pants [fænsi pænts], you know there's disco in the air and hairspray everywhere." - Disco Heaven, The Fame (Deluxe) (2008)
    • "Can't blame a treamp [treəmp] for something he don't have" - Sinner's Prayer, Joanne (2016)
  • Non-rhoticity: "Dropping" the 'r' sound after a vowel is typical of New York English. Singing non-rhotically is very common among American singers, so I decided to only use examples from speech. Notice how instead of "parrrty" 🔊, Gaga says "party" as "pahty" 🔊 in the spoken word portion of "Hair Body Face," and how she says "eh-uh" instead of "aiRR" in "Disco Heaven."
    • "Did the pahty [pɑːɾi] room just see that?" - Hair Body Face, A Star Is Born (2018)
    • "Line up for the dance, yeah bring those fancy pants, you know there's disco in the air [ɛə] and hairspray everywhere [hɛəspreɪ ɛvriwɛə]." - Disco Heaven, The Fame (Deluxe) (2008)

Texas Girl, Real Strong

Lady Gaga does not make as extensive a use of Southern accents as Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey do, but she has also dipped her toe into using them in her music. Most fans noticed this starting in the Joanne era, which was less synth-pop compared to her prior albums and more Americana inspired. This coincides with the marketing campaign for the Joanne album as her most authentic yet. She also stated that she wanted to connect people:/p>

"What I really want to do is, I want to bring people together that wouldn't normally talk to each other, or hang out [...] Like somebody that listens to country music might think that they wouldn't be able to be friends with somebody that's really into art and dance music and avant-garde underground sounds".

Part of reaching out to "somebody that listens to country" seems to be dipping her toes into a Southern accent. This tactic has an unusual precedent: appealing to Southerners by adopting a Southern accent has been employed by U.S. American politicians. Lady Gaga did not straight up imitate a Southern accent like Taylor Swift, but she did forsake some of her other Gaga-isms and New York-isms. As mentioned above, she uses the General American "ean" [eən] instead of the New York City "aan" [æn], and uses General American "aw" [ɔ] instead of Californian "ah" [ɑ] or New York City "oa" [ʊə].

Gaga has also borrowed stray Southern pronunciations for dramatic or alien effect in other songs. These are not meant to sound folksy or appeal to the common people - instead, it sounds like she's doing them just because she liked how it sounded.

  • Southern pronunciations: In the country-rock inspired song "You and I" she uses a pronunciation of "guitar" with the stress on the first syllable, which is common among Southerners. She does not, however, pronounce it "gittar" but "guh-tar" - so this may be more of a stress-related Gaga-ism.
    • "With the gui-ttar ['gʌtɑr] humming" - You and I, Born This Way (2011)
  • Pin-pen merger: Most English dialects differentiate the the vowels in 'dress' [ɛ] and 'kit' [ɪ] when they appear before 'n' and 'm'. This means 'pin' /pɪn/ 🔊 and 'pen' /pɛn/ 🔊 sound different. In Southern accents, they sound the same, so 'pen' and 'pin' both sound like 'pin' ([pɪn]), and 'hem' and 'him' both sound like 'him' ([hɪm]) (Source). Gaga has used this twice, in two very different scenarios. Compare her baby-voiced used of "intinsive" in the Fame-era "Money Honey" with the folksy "sinse" used in Joanne-era "Grigio Girls."
    • "Make it all make sinse[sɪns]" - Grigio Girls, Joanne (2016)
    • "But my knees get weak intinsive [ɪntɪnsɪv]" - Money Honey, The Fame (2008)
  • Feel-fill merger: This results in the sound 'eel' /il/ being pronounced as 'ill' [ɪl], so that "feel" [fil] 🔊 ends up sounding exactly like "fill" [fɪl] 🔊. Gaga pronounces "real" not with the vowel "ee", but as "rill," with the vowel sound "ih".
    • "I can't wait to blaze for rill [rɪl]" - A-YO, Joanne (2016)
  • /aɪ/ 🔊 → [aː] 🔊 : In General American, the "ai" sound (/aɪ/) is a diphthong, meaning it's made of two vowels. In Southern English, it's one long vowel ([a:]). This means "ride" (/raɪd/) sounds a little like "rad" ([ra:d]) (Source).
    • "If I had a highway [haweɪ], I would run for the hills" - Million Reasons, Joanne (2016)
  • /ɪ/ 🔊 → [iə]) 🔊 : In General American, the short "i" sound like in "bit" (/bɪt/) is one vowel made with the tongue held loosely. In Southern English, it's a diphthong with the tongue held tensely. This means "bit" can sound more like "beeyit" ([biət]) (Source) Gaga uses a less strong version of this in Diamond Heart.
    • "Young wild American [əmɛrɪkɪən]" - Diamond Heart, Joanne (2016)
  • /ɔ/ 🔊 → /ɑɒ/ 🔊 : Words like "bought" /bɔt/ that have a low, back vowel instead have a diphthong that sounds like "baut."
    • "Texas girl, real straung [strɑɒŋ]" - Grigio Girls, Joanne (2016)
  • /æ/ 🔊 → [ɛ(j)ə]) 🔊 : In General American, the "aa" sound like in "bad" (/bæd/) is one vowel made with the tongue flat on the bottom of the mouth. In Southern English, it's a diphthong with the tongue raised a little, so it sounds like "beh-add" ([bɛəd]) (Source). Gaga uses a triphthong in "Government Hooker" for no discernible reason other than it sounded cool.
    • "Unless you want to be deyad [dɛjəd]" - Government Hooker, Born This Way (2011)

Other languages

In contrast to the American-focused Joanne, Lady Gaga's pre-Cheek to Cheek music drew heavily from European electronic music. She says Bad Romance was inspired by "German techno house" (Bryant, 2010) and Born This Way was inspired by "the industrial sound of German house music". After The Fame, Gaga switched from making cute bops to cultivating an image that was larger than life. Just as her success was international, so was her music. In fact, with Born This Way, she dared to go not just beyond nations but beyond our planet and started presenting herself as an alien being capable of saving us all with the power of love. Her use of non-English languages in her music peaked during Born This Way. This was exemplified by the song "Scheiße," which has a hook composed of fake German. After ARTPOP, which was both not as successful as Born This Way (though it still produced two hits) and was linked to a difficult emotional period, she dialed back the use of non-English languages extensively. Gaga mostly sticks to languages from the Indo-European family - Spanish, French, Italian from the Romance family and German from the Germanic family. Her sole usage of a non-Indo-European language is Japanese, and it is a background vocal in Government Hooker.

Her use of fake German in "Scheiße" is interesting, as it shows which features of German she finds most "Germany." She uses the diphthong "au" [aʊ] a lot, as well as the "sh" [ʃ] sound. The official transcription of the German gibberish in Scheiße doesn't match up exactly with what she actually says, but it is revealing in its own right. She includes the letter "ü", which is used in German, but does not pronounce it like a German would. She uses the "oo" [u] sound instead of "ü' [y]; this isn't strange as most English speakers have a hard time with the ü sound. She also seems to include some fake French in the lyrics with the inclusion of "monstère"- the actual French word for "monster" is "monstre."

She mostly switches to a foreign language for a complete sentence, as in Bad Romance, Bloody Mary, Government Hooker, and parts of Americano. However, she also mixes English and the other language in differing amounts. In Alejandro, we have "she hides true love en su bolsillo [in her pocket]," with the Spanish portion replacing the prepositional phrase "in her pocket." This echoes the opening line "she's got both hands in her pockets" but without repeating the word in English. In Americano, she says "If you love me, we can marry on a Wednesday, en un verano en agosto [in the summer in August]" with one prepositional phrase in English("on a Wednesday") and the other prepositional phrases in Spanish ("en un verano", "en agosto"). She switches from English to German in GUY, to interesting alliterative effect that works in German and English: "Fourteen, fierzehn, freihit [fifteen, freedom]." Perhaps my favorite is the use of French in "LoveGame", where the preposition "in" in English is replaced with "dans": "Dans the LoveGame." In real life, people who code-switch between languages usually switch between entire sentences, smaller phrases, or culturally important words, but they usually don't switch for a grammatical word like a preposition. It's jarring, funny, and a little strange.

  • "Mis canciones son de la revolución [My songs belong to the revolution]. Mi corazón me duele por mi generación [My heart hurts for my generation]. On a Wednesday, en un verano, en agosto [in the summer, in August]. In the mountains, las campanas están sonando [the bells are ringing]. Todos los chicos (chicas) y los chicos (chicas) están besando [ All the boys (girls) and the boys (girls) are kissing). I don't speak your, I won't speak your Jesús Cristo [Jesus Christ]. I don't speak your, I don't speak your Americano [American]." - Americano, Born This Way (2011)
  • "Je veux ton amour et je veux ta revanche [I want your love and I want your revenge]" - Bad Romance, The Fame Monster (2009)
  • "Je veux pas mourir toute seule [I don't want to die all alone]" - Bloody Mary, Born This Way (2011)
  • "I wish I could be strong without the scheiße [sh-t], yeah
    Ich schleiban austa be clair [ɪkʃ libɛn aʊsta bi klɛɐ]
    Es kumpent madre monstere, [ɪs kʊmpe madre monsteɹ]
    Aus-be aus-can-be flaugen, [aʊʃ bi aʊʃkabi flaʊgen]
    Begun be üske but-bair [bigon bi uske bot beə]
    Ich schleiban austa be clair, [ɪkʃ libɛn aʊsta bi klɛɐ]
    Es kumpent üske monstère, [is kompen uske monsteɹ]
    Aus-be aus-can-be flaugen, [aʊʃ bi aʊʃkabi flaʊgen]
    Fräulein uske-be clair [froɪlain wiʃə bi klɛɐ]" - Scheiße, Born This Way (2011)
  • "Io ritorne [I return]" - Government Hooker, Born This Way (2011)
  • "Dans [in] the lovegame" - LoveGame, The Fame (2008)
  • "Mi amore vole fe [my love requires faith], yay" - Born This Way, Born This Way (2011)
  • "She hides true love en su bolsillo [in her pocket]" - Alejandro, The Fame Monster (2009)
  • "Fierzehn, freiheit [fourteen, freedom]" - G.U.Y., ARTPOP (2013)
  • "Iku iku [I'm coming, I'm coming]" - Government Hooker, Born This Way (2011)
  • "Oi mi papito [oh, my daddy]" - Government Hooker, Born This Way (2011)

Being Gaga

Much like Lana Del Rey has her Lana-isms, so Gaga has her own idiosyncratic pronunciations that don't clearly line up with any dialect. Gaga enjoys experimenting vocally in her work, and isn't afraid to employ more unusual pronunciations for artistic effect.

  • Gaga likes to fully release stop consonants, including nasal stops - this makes it sound like she's adding an "uh" [ə] to words ending with a nasal consonant. I have been told by friends in theatre that this is a technique taught to musical theatre performers because nasal consonants are "low energy" and "harder to hear". I can't find a citation for this, but you can hear this pronunciation in Broadway singers.
    • "I think that I could be fine-a [faɪnə]. I think we'd have a good time-a [taɪmə]" - Mary Jane Holland, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "But ARTPOP could mean anything-a [ɛniθɪŋə]. I just love the music not the bling-a [blɪŋə]" - ARTPOP, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "Makes me want to screama [skrimə]" - Do What You Want, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "You're just a pig inside-a [ɪnsɑɪɾə]" - Swine, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "He can't read-a [riɾə] my poker face." - Poker Face, The Fame (2008)
    • "Look at him-a [hɪmə]" - Monster, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "I'll bring him down-a [daʊnə]." - Judas, Born This Way (2011)

    • You can listen to a musical theatre performer do the same thing in the following clip from the 2003 revival of "Little Shop of Horrors."
    • "My future's starting-a [stɑɹɾɪŋə] [...] that means more killing-a [kɪlɪŋə] [...] that means I'm willing-a [wɪlɪŋə]." - The Meek Shall Inherit, Little Shop of Horrors, Broadway Revival (2003)
  • /ɜr/ 🔊 → [ɜ] 🔊: Instead of pronouncing the "errr" /ɜr/ sound with an 'r', Gaga often uses a British 'euh' [ɜ] vowel instead, with no "r". "Herd" ends up sounding like "huhd". American singers sometimes adopt it in an attempt to "de-rhoticize" their singing - another singer who did this is Madonna. Rhotic vowels are subjectively considered "ugly" in the English singing tradition, so American singers often adopt non-rhotic pronunciations partially to avoid sounding "ugly." Noticeably, Gaga uses this pronunciation even when a British speaker would not - for example, in "insecure" a Received Pronunciation speaker would likely say "insekyo" instead.
    • "Beautiful, dirty dirty [dɜɾi dɜɾi] rich rich." - Beautiful Dirty Rich, The Fame (2008)
    • "I don't speak German [dʒɜmən]" - Scheisse, Born This Way (2011)
    • "The girl [gɜl] from the planet" - Venus, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "Behind the burqa [bɜkə]" - Aura, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "Salon's enough for her not to feel so insecure [ɪnsɪkjɜ]" - MANiCURE, ARTPOP (2013)

    • Madonna uses the r-less "er" in "Burning Up":
    • "You know you got me burning up, baby, you know you got me burning up, baby" - Burning Up, Madonna (1983)
  • /ə/ 🔊 → [a] 🔊. Pronouncing the unstressed "uh" sound [ə] with a stressed sound is unusual in English. She uses the Spanish "a" [a] sound, which does not exist by itself in American English. The result sounds instead like something from a Romance language. She also takes words that are pronounced with an "-er" and pronounces them non-rhotically (no "r" sound) as "uh" [ə], and then takes it even further by converting the "uh" to "a" [a]; this happens in "Government Hooker" (hooker > hookuh > hooka). Gaga liked using this a lot during the Born This Way era, but she began doing it during the Fame Monster with Bad Romance. Her use of it stopped after ARTPOP.
    • "Gaga, a-a-aa [gaga]" - Bad Romance, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "Government hooka [hʊka]" - Government Hooker, Born This Way (2011)
    • "Judas [dʒudas]" - Judas, Born This Way (2011)
    • "Heavy metal lova [lʌva]" - Heavy Metal Lover, Born This Way (2011)
    • "Aurra-a-a [ɔra]" - Aura, ARTPOP (2013)
  • /ɹ/ 🔊 → [r] 🔊. She pronounces 'r's as trills. This is another one borrowed from the Romance languages, and the trill and [a] are sometimes found together. She also uses the alveolar trill to imitate the sound of drums in "The Queen" (a quotation from the Christmas song "The Little Drummer Boy"), as an onomatopoeia.
    • "Rroma rroma-ma [roma roma ma]" - Bad Romance, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "Aurra-a-a [ɔra]" - Aura, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "Rrram-pa-pum-pum [rʌmpəpʌmpʌm]" - The Queen, Born This Way (2011)
    • "Roberto [roberto]" - Alejandro, The Fame Monster (2009)
  • Stress on the wrong syllable. This one also started in The Fame Monster and was ratcheted up in Born This Way.
    • "All my bu-BBLE [bʌ'bəl] dreams" - Speechless, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "Sometimes I want some RAC-coon ['ɹækun] or red highlights" - Hair, Born This Way (2011)
    • "When he comes to me, I am reaDY [ɹɜ'di]" - Judas, Born This Way (2011)
  • Overarticulation. Gaga fully pronounces consonants that normally are not fully released. This comes off as her emphasizing her consonants a lot. Another way that she does this is where instead of flapping "t"s (so "butter" sounds like "budder"), she pronounces them as complete aspirated "t"s ("buTTer").
    • "Free my mind, arT-poP [ɑrtʰpɑpʰ]. You make my hearT stoP [hɑrtʰ stɑp˭]." - ARTPOP, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "JupiTer [dʒupɪtʰə]." - Venus, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "I stand here waiTing [weɪtʰɪŋ] for you to bang the gong." - Applause, ARTPOP (2013)
  • Gaga likes grammatical fun. In "MANiCURE", she has a lot of fun with the syntax and morphology, adding a fake -en suffix to "care" to make it sound like a past participle, a la "eaten" and "broken". In "Hey Girl", she takes the phrase "one upping" and moves the "ing" from the "up" to the "one", creating "one-in' up". In "Venus", she says "worship to the land" - "worship" does not take a prepositional phrase, but her use of it here creates the image of worship moving directionally. In "Money Honey", the use of "intensive" in "my knees get weak intensive" is ambiguous - "intensive" could be modifying "weak" ("my knees get intensively weak") or it could be modifying "get weak" ("my knees intensively get weak"), which is a little unusual.
    • "She want be take caren of" - MANiCURE, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "We don't need to keep on one-in' up another" - Hey Girl, Joanne (2016)
    • "Worship to the land, the girl from the planet" - Venus, ARTPOP (2013)
    • "But my knees get weak intensive" - Money Honey, The Fame (2008)
  • Lady Gaga likes to emphasize her consonants, especially her "b" sounds. It's unclear exactly what she is doing articulation-wise in the clips below, but it sounds to me like she's using an implosive "b" (also known as the "cowboy b" by one researcher).
    • "He's the monster in my BED [ɓɜd]" - Monster, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "But we got no money! [...] BANG BANG [ɓæŋ ɓæŋ]!" - Beautiful Dirty Rich, The Fame< (2008)
    • "Glamaphonic, electronic, disco BBBaby [ɓeɪbi]" - Boys Boys Boys, The Fame (2008)
  • Reduplication. Although repetition at the phrase level ("can't read my, can't read my poker face") and word level ("Swine, swine, swine, swine") is very common in songwriting, repetition within the word is rarer. Gaga loves using repetition. Indeed, reduplication is one of her techniques for crafting catchy hooks. Although electronic "stuttering" and "skipping" is also found in her music, we are going to look at places where she herself sings every part of the reduplication. Repeating the first part of a word is her most common technique, but she also likes to repeat the final syllable as well.
    • "Pa-pa-pa-poker face." Poker Face, The Fame (2008)
    • "I'll follow you until you love me, papa-paparazzi." - Paparazzi, The Fame (2008)
    • "Va-va-va-va-va-va-va-va-vanity, va-vanity, va-va-va-va-vanity" - Vanity, Rhapsody Digital Single (2008)
    • "Ale-alejandro, ale-alejandro." - Alejandro, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "Ra-ra a-a-a, roma, roma-ma" - Bad Romance, The Fame Monster (2009)
    • "Judas-Juda-a-as" - Judas, Born This Way (2011)
    • "In the sha-ha-sha-la-llow, in the sha-ha-sha-la-la-la-low" - Shallow, A Star Is Born (2018)

A Star Is Born

I would be remiss not to mention her first starring role, "A Star Is Born." Lady Gaga is not just a performing artist, though - she was moved into acting and soundtrack writing with the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born” where she stars as Ally, the eponymous star being born. The core of the movie is contrasting a performing beginning her career - Ally - with a performer whose career is on the decline - Jackson - and how this affects their relationship.

There has been some research on previous versions of a Star Is Born and how the language of the “Ally”-equivalent character changes between when she is discovered by the Jackson-equivalent and when she becomes a star in her own right. The research by Dr. Nancy Elliott shows that the level of rhoticity changes between films, but also in the movie itself. Early versions show that the Ally-equivalent uses fewer and fewer final “r”s as she becomes more famous, while the Barbra Streisand version shows that the Ally character uses more “r”s as she becomes more famous.

In the 2018 version, my impression on watching the movie in theaters is that the level of rhoticity stays constant throughout the movie, with Ally using General American throughout the whole film. My impression was that she did not change her accent or language use during the movie. I also did not notice any usage of a “put on” accent in Ally’s country/rock songs. Gaga used a vocal technique similar to the one she used in Joanne for these songs, but without the scattered Southernisms. Her tone sounds harsher and she has a notable vibrato.

"Ah... I'm off the deep end, watch as I dive in..." - Shallow, A Star Is Born (2018)
"One, five, ten, lay a million on me before the end of this song. Young wild American, come on baby, do you have a girlfriend..." - Diamond Heart, Joanne (2016)

Ally’s pop songs, which are more synth-heavy, use a vocal technique more similar to the one Gaga uses in The Fame Monster and Born This Way. Her tone is sweeter and she suppresses her vibrato for a mostly-straight tone. There is no particularly large difference between the pop and rock songs in accent. Ally uses a consistent accent throughout. This may be because the focus of the film is less on Ally changing or becoming uppity, and more on focused on Jackson’s decline and perceived inferiority in his relationship to Ally. By using a consistent General American accent for Ally throughout, it reinforces that Ally has not changed as much as Jackson thinks she has.

"Trying to leave here, but you won't let me leave saying that if I care what they think, I'll never succeed..." - Hair Body Face, A Star Is Born (2018)
"Don't call my name, don't call my name, Alejandro, I'm not your babe, I'm not your babe, Fernando." - Alejandro, The Fame Monster (2008)


Lady Gaga began her career as a semi-satirical take on the vapid, blonde pop star. At her peak, Lady Gaga was trying to look and sound like an alien force. Her "comeback" as a vocal and acting talent has positioned her away from competing with the chart-toppers and is trying to cement her status as a talented legend. As she has moved between these different social spaces, so too has she moved between different vocal spaces, treating the vowel space as a palette to use and not as something to cling to rigidly. She has moved fluidly from one sound to another, bringing an unnoticed diversity to her performances.

As Lady Gaga prepares her follow-up to Joanne, I wonder what direction she'll move in. I doubt she'll go back to saying "BBBaby" and "ga-GAAA," but will she try something new out? Will she shed the fun Gaga-isms for a more conventional vocal approach? As a fan, I love seeing the way she uses and plays with language. But who knows where she'll go next? That's the frustration and the joy of Lady Gaga.

Works Cited

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

This article is out of date! Please read the updated version here!

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.

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Works Cited

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