August 15, 2018

I'm Back!

It's been a while, but I'm back! And officially able to dedicate more time to Ace Linguist. One thing I've been thinking about is maybe adding more opinion posts. Most of my posts are basically educational and attempting to be informative, but it may be interesting to talk about things that aren't entirely decided yet, or that are just kind of interesting. I enjoy making informative posts, but it's a constraining format at times.

- Karen

July 18, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Ariana Grande

It's time for another entry in the Dialect Dissection series! For those of you who are new, Dialect Dissection is a series of posts I make where I look at a well-known person with interesting pronunciation and grammar and use linguistics to explain why they sound the way they do. Past posts on the series have covered Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey. Since we've got Ariana's 4th album "Sweetener" coming out this year, now is as good a time as ever to discuss her!

A primer: Ariana Grande is a pop singer who got her start in musical theatre - she made her Broadway debut in the 2008 production of the musical "13." She broke into television as Cat Valentine on the musical Nickelodeon show Victorious in 2010. After a series of false starts and a scrapped musical direction, she established herself as an r&b-influenced pop singer with her debut album in 2013. She has since been a radio staple with hits like "Problem," "One Last Time," and "Side To Side."

Unlike our preview Dialect Dissections where we mostly looked at regional pronunciation, this time around we're going to tackle a different topic: why do many people find Ariana Grande hard to understand?


Has It Always Been This Way?

There is a recurring meme that Ariana Grande does not "enunciate" well. However, this meme is relatively new - having followed her career since 2010, I can find few references to her enunciation during her time as a musical theatre performer or on the songs she sang on for "Victorious." Indeed, up until 2013, few people paid attention to Ariana Grande's pronunciation. Her first single "The Way" faced a lawsuit where one of the similarities was "enunciation speed." A review from the New York Times for her album "Yours Truly" mentions her "gospel-singing enunciation" on one of the ballads. This blogger is the first reference I find to her pronunciation: "a little more enunciation would be nice."

Below are some clips of Ariana Grande songs that were recorded prior to 2013. Because these are just for comparison with her stuff from her officially released albums, I am not going to provide transcriptions for them. Some off-the-cuff observations I will make about these are that her voice is less breathy on these songs compared to almost everything that came afterwards, she is singing in a lower range, and her voice sounds less bright.

  • "Slow down, you crazy child - you're so ambitious for a juvenile" - Vienna
  • "Love makes me crazy, restless, dumb, and paranoid, but I'll take a chance on us and hope you don't destroy my heart." - You're My Only Shawty

One Less Problem Without You

You start seeing an increase in references to Ariana's "poor" enunciation come from after 2014. This was when she released her hit single "Problem" off her second album "My Everything." You'll start seeing a lot of articles referencing how many of her songs - including from "Yours Truly" - are "incomprehensible." This trend continues with her 3rd album Dangerous Woman (source) and 4th album Sweetener (source). It seems that "Problem," which was her biggest hit at the time of its release, brought more attention to her and was considered particularly hard to understand, which was then applied both retroactively to her past material and which hung over her on her future releases.

Rarely do any articles go into detail about what, exactly, makes her "incomprehensible." References to "slurring" are common, but most examples just try to guess whatever she's saying in a humorous way. We're going to go into individual lines and use phonetics to investigate what might be making her harder to understand. The following examples have been selected because they are unusual compared to her spoken English dialect. That is to say, she doesn't use these pronunciations in her spoken speech, so they are specific to her sung speech. They are also not examples of regional pronunciations - although some of these pronunciations exist in some accents, there is no accent that has all of these, nor does it seem likely that Ariana Grande is trying to imitate these accents.

We're going to format the below as such: audio files of Ariana will show her singing the problematic line once at normal speed, and then once slowed down to make it clearer what the unusual pronunciation is. The transcriptions will include both ad hoc spellings (e.g. "budda") and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions ([bʌɾə]). There may also be a discussion of what is going on.

  • Unexpected flapping. In America English, there are certain situations where you can turn a 't' into a flapped sound (e.g. better). If the 't' is right before an 'r', we do not expect flapping to happen. And yet she seems to be doing it here, probably because she's inserted another 'uh' after the 't'.
    • "Budda [bʌɾə] right here" (but /bʌt/ right here) - Almost Is Never Enough.
    • "The words don't ever come ouddaright [aʊɹə raɪ]" (out right /aʊt raɪt/) - Baby I
    • "Making sweeta [swiɹə] love" (sweet /swit/) - Hands On Me
  • Final consonant deletion/lenition: Ariana Grande often drops the final consonant of a word. If she doesn't straight up drop it, she may replace it with a glottal stop or just not release it.
    • "The words don't ever come out rie [raɪ]" (right /raɪt/) - Baby I
    • "Is it luh [lʌ]" (is it love /lʌv/) - Leave Me Lonely
  • Medial consonant deletion/gemination: This is a complicated one, but she often deletes consonants in the middle of a word. Sometimes she doubles the next consonant. If the consonant is an "n", she's likely to just nasalize the vowel instead, so "finally" becomes "fa-lly".
    • "Now you fa-lly [faɪlɪ] tell me how you feel" (finally /faɪnali/) - You'll Never Know
    • "When I try to explain it, I be sounding issane [ɪs:eɪn]" (insane /ɪnseɪn/) - Baby I
    • "When so easily you say gubbai [gʊb:aɪ]" (goodbye /gʊdbaɪ/) - Leave Me Lonely
  • Epenthesis: Ariana adds a schwa ("uh" sound) in the middle of a consonant cluster.
    • "Head in the c-louds [kəlaʊdz]" (clouds /klaʊdz/) - Problem.
  • L-vocalization: she pronounces syllabic or consonant-final /l/ as /w/.
    • "If it's even possibou [posibow]" (possible /possible/) - Baby I
    • "I've been living with devils and angews /eɪndʒewz/" (angels /eɪndʒelz/) - Why Try
  • Unusual vowel values. She often reduces or changes vowel values to something that you would not expect in General American.
    • "Ain't got no tihs [tɪz] left to cry" (ain't got no tears /tɪəz/ left to cry) - No Tears Left To Cry
    • "When I try to explain it, I be sonding /soʊndɪŋ/ insane" (sounding /saʊndɪŋ/) - Baby I

Any one of these individually wouldn't make her unintelligible, but when you have so many of these alterations in a song, the risk of unintelligibility starts increasing. Song is a special environment - your vocal cords are working harder than they do when you're speaking, you don't have prosody to help you out, lyrics are often subject to poetic license which makes their meaning harder to understand, and context is harder to get. This makes song a volatile environment where the more you encounter unexpected sounds, the likelier it is you will misunderstand what the singer meant to say.

Remember that Ariana Grande's pronunciation is quite different when she's speaking normally, so it's restricted to her singing. Not all singers are equally easy or hard to understand - musical theatre performers are expected to articulate for the audience because songs in musical theatre often advance the plot and understanding them is important. Ariana has a musical theatre background, having performed in 13, so what is going on?

Part of the reason appears to be tongue tension. You will find voice students and teachers mentioning that Ariana's vocal technique involves a lot of tongue tension (1, 2, 3, 4). Tongue tension, among other things, affects phonation: "The powerful musculature of the tongue exerts pressure down on top of the vocal folds, and in turn affects their mobility which will make general phonation, singing or speaking, not only sound strange, but feel strained."

Regional Pronunciation

Image of Ariana Grande with fan Ryan Keelan @ryankeelen at the Florida Panthers game

The following features have nothing to do with her enunciation, but are interesting examples of Ariana using some regional pronunciations. Ariana Grande is from South Florida, which is not a dialectally marked region. The only major dialectal features I notice from her are the cot-caught merger, which is becoming more and more common across the United States and therefore less noteworthy, and a use of 'clear' /l/ at the beginning of syllables.

  • cot-caught merger. Unlike dialects of English like British English and New York English, which use a low vowel in words like "caught," "ball," and "law," Ariana uses the same vowel as "spa" for all of these. This is called the "cot-caught merger" and is spreading all over the United States so that some speakers are unaware that anyone even pronounces "caught" with a different vowel! Notice how she rhymes "doll" with "all," which does not happen in non-merging accents. (And per the main songwriter Jason Robert Brown, she changed "about seven words," so perhaps this was her handiwork!)
    • "I'm no blow-up doll, no free for all [ɑl]" - Jason's Song (Gave It Away)
  • Clear L at the beginning of syllables. It is increasingly common in American English for all instances of the sound 'l' to be pronounced "dark", with the back of the tongue held high. The older pronunciation of this is for "l" at the start of a syllable to be pronounced "clear", with the back of the tongue held low. This is still common in the American South and regions with lots of Spanish speakers. Ariana uses clear "l" frequently - listen to all the "l" sounds in "leave me lonely."
    • "Leave me lonely" - Leave Me Lonely

Ariana loves r&b. To this end, she imitates certain features of African American Vernacular English.

  • ai-monophthongization. We've talked about how this is a Southern feature in the Taylor Swift article, but it's also a feature of African American English. ai-monophthongization is basically standard in the register of pop singing at this point in history.
    • "Be ma, be ma, be ma, be ma, be ma [ma] baby" - Be My Baby
  • lax-happy. This is another standard feature of the pop register. Read this article for a more in-depth look at this pronunciation.
    • "Greedy [gridɪ], ooh!" - Greedy
  • feel-fill merger: she sometimes pronounces 'eel' [il] as 'ill' [ɪl]. This means that "feelings" ends up sounding like "fillings." This merger is common in the South and in AAE.
    • "Our fillings [fɪlɪnz] will show" (feelings /filɪnz/) - Almost Is Never Enough

Now That We've Become Who We Really Are

Ultimately, Ariana's career has been impressive, despite these accusations. From television to radio, she's become a pop music staple and delivered great hits. Some speculate that her pronunciations may even be part of her charm, since they certainly don't seem to be hurting her sales. Whatever the case, her musical career has moved forward. Perhaps what really matters is her remarkable voice - and those Max Martin productions!

July 5, 2018

7-5 Blog Update

I've been doing a lot of work on future articles for the blog, and yet I cannot share them with you because they are not quite ready. Nevertheless, I'm just letting you all know that we've got both big and small articles coming for you all. I'm especially excited about one that I've been working on for a year and a half at this point. Oh yeah, that's how you know it's a big one. It's outside of the regular scope of a Dialect Dissection, but it's also pretty original. At the very least, I can tell you I have had a lot of trouble finding all this information anywhere else, which is why I had to put it together. The other big article is a regular Dialect Dissection that I will probably end up posting first.
I've seen some people linking to Ace Linguist from other websites and it makes me quite happy to see that a lot of people find this content helpful or interesting. Special thanks to the Lana fans that linked to me a week ago!
One thing I've been thinking about is changing the color scheme and layout of the site. I dislike that you cannot see the social media links in the mobile version, and I would like to add a link to be able to see stuff like the About section, and a list of all the articles I've written. The color scheme was fun at first, but it seems a bit too common nowadays, as well as perhaps not the mood I want for the blog. If you see the site layout mutate over the week, don't worry - it's me messing around.
- Karen

UPDATE: What's that?

It's in the mobile, too!

The sidebar has finally made its way to the mobile website! And what's more, now there's some extra navigation in there. About links you to the about page, which you've seen before. All Articles links to, well, all the articles written for the website, with a short description. It's intended to make it easier for you to find an article you've already read, or find a new one you want to read without having to trawl through the archives.

This was all done with no breaking of the desktop or mobile site... I'm quite happy about that. The color update will come another time.

- Karen

June 27, 2018

Classical Pig Latin

Have you ever heard someone say something like "ix-nay on the alking-way"? If so, you've heard some Pig Latin! Pig Latin is an argot or a language game. An argot is a modification of a language made to make it uninterpretable to outsiders. Pig Latin is a simple argot popular among English-speaking children.

The rules of Pig Latin are fairly simple:

  1. If a word starts with one or more consonants, take that consonant cluster and move it to the end of the word. Then add -ay to that consonant cluster. Examples: "pig" has the 'p' removed and moved to the back, then 'ay' is added: "ig-pay." "Strong" becomes "ong-stray."
  2. Otherwise, add "ay" to the end of the word. Example: "animal" does not start with a consonant, so it becomes "animal-ay."

You could actually boil this down to one rule: move any initial consonants to the end, and then add "ay." If there are no consonants, then there is nothing to move.

The simplicity of Pig Latin undoubtedly contributes to its popularity among children and even adults when they want to hide something. If you can't imagine a use by adults, think about a dog that recognizes the word "walk" to mean "we're going for a walk." The dog's owner wants to talk about going for a walk, but without exciting the dog. The dog's owner can say, "I think today's a good time to for an alk-way."

There are more complicated argots. One famous argot is Cockney rhyming slang. This is used among lower class Londoners speaking the Cockney dialect. Unlike Pig Latin, the rules for Cockney rhyming slang are irregular. You can vaguely boil them down to this:

  1. Take the word that you want to obscure and find a phrase that rhymes with it. For example, if you want to say stairs, you could rhyme it with "apples and pears."
  2. For maximum obscurity, remove the rhyming element from the phrase. In our example, we're left with "apples" as the slang for "stairs."

Cryptographically speaking, this is a lot harder to crack! If you hear someone say "take the apples," there's no way to be able to tell that they are referring to stairs unless the context makes it 100% clear. This means that you need to be on the inside from the beginning to understand Cockney rhyming slang.

Now I'm going to be honest - the entire point of this blog post on Pig Latin and argot was actually to show off my Pig Latin "translator". If you enter a sentence, it will translate it into Pig Latin. Check it out over here!

There's an annoyance when it comes to dealing with silent letters. For example, "honor" is pronounced /ɒnər/, no "h", in English. However, in writing, "onor-ay" is not quite as easy to decipher. Could you do "onor-hay" or "honor-ay"? Moreover, in American English the "h" in "herb" is silent, but it is pronounced in British English. The program makes no distinction and will treat initial-h like any other consonant. Perhaps a future iteration of the Pig Latin translator will be able to tell if a word has a silent 'h' in the beginning!

June 20, 2018

Where are the British Accents?

"People lose their accent when singing!" Have you ever heard someone say that? Here's the thing... it's a little bit nonsensical. Country music is an entire genre made by people with regional accents and whose regional accents can be heard. African American English speakers' accents can be heard (note not all Black Americans speak AAVE, so remember the distinction is for Black Americans who speak AAVE). how can someone ignore these?

What people really mean when they say people "lose their accent" is referring to the inability to tell that a singer is English from a song. Song is apparently a magical property that makes accents disappear (though only some accents, since Southern and AAVE accents are apparently unaffected).

The reality is that many British singers purposefully change their accents when singing. Listen to the One Direction boys:

Liam Payne confesses that bosses at record label Syco (owned by Simon Cowell) encourage them to nurture their inner Yank. He says: “I don’t think you can really sing in a British accent. I think it’s a bit hard and sometimes a bit forced. Singing is an imitation at the end of the day, it’s the way you put things across.”
Louis Tomlinson, 19, from Doncaster, “I think in certain music genres you can really tell when people are British, but in pop it’s not as easy to get it across.”
Harry Styles, 19: "I have a theory... I think it’s all on who you grew up listening to and who your parents listened to. So when you sing, you’re singing along with them. I think you just apply that and you have that idea of singing.”
Louis agrees: “It’s what music you sang in the shower and what you listened to when you were young.”
Zayn, 20, “What Makes You Beautiful would sound more indie with a British accent.”

Zayn's comment about "What Makes you Beautiful" sounding "more indie" with a British accent is interesting. There does not appear to be the same restriction on accents in indie music as there is in pop music, which demands either General American or a modified AAVE. You can find punk bands and indie rock bands (The Ting Tings) where the singer clearly has a British accent. Louis Tomlinson's solo material (Miss You) shows his regional English accent clearly. This should be enough to disprove the notion that singing neutralizes a British accent, because we can hear examples of it.

So why do so many British singers try to sound American? Has it always been this way? British rock and roll bands from the 1960s tend to do their best imitation of AAVE. These bands were hugely succesful and influential on future British musicians, who would listen to those same records and try to get the same sound. In this way there is a period of time where mainstream British artists downplayed their accent or copied another one.

In the 80s you had Kate Bush, who sang with her British accent. The Human League had a big hit with "Don't You Want Me."

Nowadays it seems more common - though still not universal - for British singers to keep their accents, or at least *a* British accent. Ellie Goulding sings in an English accent, but she used to have a different accent. Florence Welch keeps many notably English pronunciations (Kiss with a fist). Perhaps this is due to the increasing prominence of indie music. it's no longer bizarre to hear British accents in pop or rock music. British accents can even be found in rap. After decades of being ignored, British accents may yet return to pop music.

June 15, 2018

6-11 recap

The month of June has not been kind to this blog. As you can imagine, being in a full-time program trying to execute a career change takes up quite a bit of time! However, I'm not going to ignore this blog. That's why I'm uploading a short little article on Wednesday. I won't be able to update weekly for the time being, but I do want to remind my audience that I'm here and that this site is still active and being worked on.

On some non-blog news, I've recently gotten into podcasts as a result of a long commute. If you're interested in a linguistics podcast, I recommend checking out Lingthusiasm. It's fun and accessible to anyone. The episode I checked out was about the concept of "untranslatable words," which is an interesting one. If you're stuck in traffic, try it out! I'm also going to read the second book in Ada Palmer's Terra Nova series soon, "The Seven Surrenders." The first one talked a lot about language in society, so I'm expecting the second one to develop that further.

Thank you all for sticking with the blog. The regular schedule will return before long!

- Karen

May 30, 2018

Blog Update

I have some exciting personal news - I am now a full-time student studying programming! I'm very excited to be on this career path, not least because I've spent years messing around with HTML and CSS and being interested in programming but convinced that it was "too late" for me to start. (Note: it is not too late to learn programming; you don't have to be a 12-year-old genius to learn new things.) Part of the course involves HTML and CSS and I am already planning on using that to spruce up the site.

Now the flipside to this new knowledge is that the update schedule is going to be affected. Normally I posted Wednesdays, but recently I've been having some problems being able to post exactly on Wednesdays. Since my schedule is pretty intense now, I will have to be more flexible with the schedule. This means that I might post on Thursdays or Fridays instead of Wednesdays, or may end up taking more than a week to post and end up posting on Monday instead. If it's been too long, I will post an update to let you know that yes, this blog is alive and kicking.

I look forward to continuing with you all into this second half of the year and further developing this blog into a space for linguistics enthusiasts online.

- Karen

May 23, 2018

The Alveolar Trill

The alveolar trill, also known as the "rolled r," is a very recognizable sound. It is common in the languages of the world, but not present in American or British English.

The alveolar trill is a tricky sound to make. It is typically one of the later sounds children learn when speaking a language. To make an alveolar trill, you must hold your tongue near your alveolar ridge. Then you need to phonate. If the body of the tongue is stiff but the tip is loose enough, the movement of the air will cause the tongue tip to make contact with the alveolar ridge, bounce off, and then hit it again. These multiple contacts are what characterize trills. Trills require a good amount of muscle control of the tongue, which is why they are difficult to learn for children and adults alike. Some conditions, such as ankyloglossia (a "tongue-tie"), can make it exceptionally hard to produce an alveolar trill (Kummer, 2013). Surgery may help in these cases.

The alveolar trill and the alveolar tap have a special relationship - in Indo-European languages one can usually substitute for the other without changing the meaning of the word (Quiles, 2009). In Russian, it does not matter if you say 'para' with a tapped 'r' or a trilled 'r'. Both are acceptable. There are some languages, however, where this actually makes a difference in the meaning of the word. In Spanish, 'r' and 'rr' are different sounds: 'caro' versus 'carro.' This is only in the middle of a word. If you are starting a word, you use the trill, and if it's at the end of a syllable, you may use either. Basque and Armenian also make this distinction between 'r' and 'rr'.

There are varieties of English with alveolar trills. Historically, English used to have an alveolar trill, which appears to have turned into an approximant around middle English (source). Old varieties of Irish English and Scottish English have a trilled r.

Alveolar trills are used in music for non-phonemic purposes. For example, in English-language songs alveolar trills can evoke Spanish. Songs by English speakers in a Latin genre can have exaggerated alveolar trills as an exotic sound.

Some varieties of languages don't really use alveolar trills in everyday spoken language, but use alveolar trills in elevated speech like political rhetoric, theatre, or song. For example, Standard German uses a uvular fricative for its 'r' sound. But in Stage German or Bühnendeutsch, the 'r's are trilled instead (Mangold, 2005). In English Received Pronunciation, 'r's can occasionally be trilled (Jones, 2011). More generally in English-language classical music, singers may use a trilled 'r' instead of an alveolar r (Journal of Singing).

Alveolar trills can be used for aesthetic reason or emphasis. In some languages, they also have interesting associations. Alveolar trills in Japanese are associated with aggressive speech and violent characters.

Alveolar trills are hard to make, but certainly fun to perform. if you've seen any interesting or unusual instances of an alveolar trill out and about, post in the comments!


  • Kummer, Ann W. (2013). Cleft Palate & Craniofacial Anomalies: Effects on Speech and Resonance, p 237.
  • Quiles, Carlos (2009). A Grammar of Modern Indo-European
  • Mangold, Max (2005), Das Aussprachewörterbuch
  • Journal of Singing: The Official Journal of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, Volume 62, Issues 1-2. p.67 "The three allophones of /r/ are included because all are employed in singing: [r], [ɾ], and [ɹ]."
  • Jones, Daniel (2011). Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary

May 9, 2018

Yanks Posing as Brits

I always find it jarring when an American artist suddenly adopts a British pronunciation in their songs. Since the General American accent is almost the neutral standard of pop music, purposefully switching to a non-neutral and non-American accent accent stands out.

Sometimes Americans will use a British pronunciation for rhyme. Notice how Lana has a three-part half rhyme with cinnamon, livin' in, and vitamin... which wouldn't work with american vie-tamin. The British pronunciation of it, however, uses a short 'i', so you'd get 'vit-tamin', which fits the rhyme.
Lana Del Rey: Radio
"Now my life is sweet like cinnamon [sɪnəmɪn]
Like a f-ckin' dream I'm living in [lɪvɪn ɪn]
[...] Pick me up and take me like a vit-tamin ['vɪ.tə.mɪn]
Cuz my body's sweet like sugar venom"
Taylor Swift uses the British pronunciation of "Jaguar," which has three syllables, to fit the stress scheme of her song "King of my Heart." The stress falls on "exPENsive CARS" and then we have "the JAG-u-ARS." The American pronunciation has only two syllables (jag-war) and would not fit. Bonus - the song appears to be about her English boyfriend Joe Alwyn, so it's a subtle hint at who she's talking about.
Taylor Swift: King of my Heart
"All the boys, and their exPEN-sive CARS
The Range Rovers and the JA-gu-ARS ['dʒæ.gju.ɑrz]"
Sometimes it seems to be for aesthetic reasons entirely. "Salvatore" is about loving an Italian man, but Lana briefly uses an English broad-A pronunciation of "cahn't" in the bridge:
Lana Del Rey: Salvatore
"Can't [kɑnt] you see, you're meant for me"
Emilie Autumn's concept album "Fight Like A Girl" is partially set in Victorian England, and she affects a very posh English accent for some of the characters. One nameless character is given an outrageous Cockney accent.
Emilie Autumn: Girls! Girls! Girls!
"How big is a lady's brain [ bræɪn]?"
Sometimes American singers don't really understand how English accents work, such as when Emilie rhymes "thought" and "not" in "The Key." In Received Pronunciation, "thought" and "not" do not rhyme.
Emilie Autumn: The Key
"Retreat they do at once, without a second thought [tɑt]
They only know that we were free and now we're not [nɑt]"
Do you have examples of singers pronouncing words in an accent that's not their own for the sake of rhyme/stress or mood?

May 3, 2018

Pre-Velar Raising

One of the tenets of phonetics is that sounds don't happen in a vacuum - the sounds that come before them and after them influence them. We can see a clear example of this in English with velars.

First off, velars are sounds made with the back of the tongue making contact with the soft palate (back part of the roof of your mouth). In English these sounds are 'k', 'g', and 'ng.' When you make these sounds, the back of your tongue moves up. There is a phenomenon called "velar pinch" which means that as your tongue approaches the back of the mouth, the formants (resonances in your voice) change. Formants are basically the identity of a vowel - you can tell vowels apart by looking at the formants. The process of moving the tongue up and back changes the formant to something like 'i'.

Making the 'ng' sound.

This has an effect on some English dialects. For example, let's look at the word 'rang.' In many dialects of english, this is [ræng]. But in some dialects it's [ræɪng] or even [reɪng], so that it almost sounds like 'rain.' It seems these dialects have been affected by the velar pinch. Some examples of this can be seen in rhymes:

And like a stallion racing the rain
You rode on the back of my bike
I knew from the song that you sang
- American Money, - Børns

In dialects where this velar pinching doesn't happen, this half-rhyme doesn't work. They do, however, have other rhymes available to them. In the below meme, you'll see a pun is made based on 'mango' and 'man go.' In Indian English, they are both [maŋgo]. In my dialect, 'mango' is [mŋgoʊ] (may-n-go) and 'man go' is [mŋgoʊ] (meh-an-go), so this pun doesn't work.

An Indian actress is eating a mango while surrounded by mangoes. Text: 'It's mango season, babes! If he's sexist, racist, queerphobic, casteist, cableist, classist, OR fatphobic, you better let that MAN GO'

Another example is words ending in 'ing', such as 'king.' Traditionally these words use a short 'i' like in 'kin' [kɪn], but a large amount of American English speakers diphthongize it to [ɪi], and Western American English speakers may even turn it to [i] entirely, so that 'king' sounds like 'keen' as opposed to 'kin.' The difference is subtle, so I recommend saying 'kin' + ng and 'keen' + ng to notice the difference between your tongue and how they sound.

Now these two prior examples are before nasals. Nasals complicate things and tend to change vowels as well. How do we know it's not the nasal that's causing it? Partly because you don't see this before other nasals. Americans can say [ræn] for 'ran', or they may 'break' the vowel into [rɛən], but they won't say 'rein' for 'ran.'

More proof that the velar element is to blame can be found in looking at velar consonants... specifically our friend, 'g'. Now 'g' is actually a bit of a difficult consonant to pronounce because it requires a pretty precise coordination of the vocal cords, tongue, and soft palate to be executed well. Many languages do not even have a 'g' and just have 'k', which is easier to say. We can see similar shenanigans happening before 'g' in Western American dialects, which may pronounce 'rag' /ræg/ as [ræɪg] or even [reɪg], famously rhyming it with 'vague' [veɪg]. This also happens with words with an E sound, like egg [ɛɪg] and leg [lɛɪg].

An astute reader may notice that not all vowels seem susceptible to the velar pinch. All the vowels we've looked at: /æ/, /ɪ/, /ɛ/, are front vowels. /æ/ and /ɛ/ are specifically low front vowels. They are made with the tongue pushed to the front of the mouth. This means when you go to make that 'g' or 'ng' sound, the sound has to travel a greater distance to reach the soft palate. This means there's more of an opportunity for shenanigans to happen... like a phantom [ɪ] sneaking into your pronunciations.

Why are only some dialects affected by this velar raising? It probably has to do with microdetails like the exact type of 'g' and 'æ' used by these dialects, as well as their other vowels, vowel length... but we could not have predicted that this would have started happening. Indeed, most dialects of English do not have this raising. Trying to figure out which change is going to happen, stick, and spread is, in the words of John McWhorter, like trying to predict where bubbles are going to appear in your soup. If we could do it well, we could chart out the course of the future English language! But we don't quite have that level of understanding. What we do know is there are changes happening now and they're happening in a pattern. It's a great example of how sounds are affected by their neighbors and the time it takes to reach them.

April 27, 2018

4-23 Recap

Another week coming to a close. This week we took a look at language choices in pro-pop music. A specific topic, yes, but don't let that stop you from checking it out... it just goes to show that the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.

I think it's been about three months since I started Ace Linguist, and I'm pretty happy with how it's going. I had some worries that I wouldn't be able to dedicate myself to it, but I've been able to post some material every week. This once-a-week schedule is definitely much more sustainable than the twice-a-week one I tried to adopt in January. These things just take time!

I haven't given you any big articles recently, but that doesn't mean they're not being worked on. I have three music-related ones in the popline and one that is actually *not* related to music. How's that for a change!

- Karen

April 25, 2018

Language of Poptimism

I just want to talk about an interesting, early piece of "poptimism" in a sense. (Poptimism is "the belief that pop music is as worthy of professional critique and interest as rock music." Source). It's a song called "I Want To Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune" by George M. Cohan. George M. Cohan is one of those revered Tin Pan Alley-era songwriters that rock fans scoff at and pop fans forget. He was also apparently very proud of his Irish heritage.

There's a recording of "I want to hear a Yankee Doodle tune" done by George Cohan. Please note that the notion of a songwriter singing their own songs was not common in his time. Singing and songwriting were very different professions whose skill sets rarely intersected. You'll occasionally find composers singing their own songs, like Cole Porter doing the full version of "Anything Goes." It's not common.

There's three things about this song that are incredible. First, it's basically an early poptimist anthem. Seriously! Poptimism hadn't been invented yet, but we've had a lowbrow / highbrow distinction for as long as brows have been low and high. This song comes down squarely on the side of "lowbrow is the way to go-brow."

It's really clever
And lasts forever,
You hear it once, forget it never,
For now we are coming to hanky, panky, popular melody days.

That it's the music, there's no doubt of it.
Cut all the cheap cadenzas out of it.
Music to please the gang
With plenty of biff and bang;

Music that all the children hum a bit,
All the composer's glories come of it.
It's so ringing,
That's what is bringing
The popular melody craze.

Moreover, he's not just saying that the "popular melody" should be appreciated on its own merits for its emotional qualities and catchy tunes, but he puts down classical music as "pretentious" and a "pain." Change the lyrics around and this is indistinguishable from a modern day pop forum calling indie music pretentious and tuneless.

I've always hated
That overrated
Pretentious music, complicated,

And compositions
That have conditions,
And intermissions that please musicians.

It's hard to hear it, or just be near it,
Upon my word I always fear it,
For I'm the original cranky, Yankee popular melody fool.

Give me a tune that's worth a listening,
Give me a tune that's worth a whistling.
I want a Sousa strain
Instead of a Wagner pain;

Give the trombones a chance to blow in it,
Give me a dash of rag and go in it.
What I'm stating
Is advocating
The popular melody school.

By the way, he's mostly... speaking through the melody, isn't he? There's no real melody in the verses. Try playing it on the piano and you'll see what I mean. Instead, he's using complex rhyme schemes and a chanting... Now I'm not saying George M. Cohan invented rap, but!

We're not just here for poptimism, though. George M. Cohan is going a step forward and saying that liking popular music is patriotic compared to all that highbrow stuff. This element of poptimism has been lost to the ages as pop music has stopped comparing itself to classical music and instead started comparing itself to rock.

For I'm the original cranky, Yankee popular melody fool.

I want to hear a Yankee Doodle tune,
Played by a military band.
I want to hear a Yankee Doodle tune,
The only music I can understand.

Oh! Sousa, won't you write another march,
Yours is just the melody divine.
You may have your William Tell,
And Faust and Lohengrin as well,
But I'll take a Yankee Doodle tune for mine.

He's so darn American that he cannot even understand non-American music. American music is Sousa marches and ragtime. Meanwhile, classical music is made by Germans like Wagner (composer of the opera "Lohengrin") and Italians like Rossini (who wrote the William Tell overture). Pop music is even militarized - he specifically wants it played by a military band. The modern poptimism debate is nowhere near this level of upping the ante.

So we've got early poptimism, poptimism = patriotic. but here's something more. George M. Cohan was born in America. His parents were born in America. His grandmother was born in America. Yet he's got this sort of... Irish accent on this recording. Notice how he pronounces "I" as "uh-ee" [ʌɪ] instead of [aɪ], and sometimes he rolls his 'r's [r]. The Irish were sort of a big deal as the new immigrants in town that the naturalized folks feared.

The origins of this song are unclear. The record with this performance on it lists it as being from mother goose, yet there are no examples of this song being in the list of musical numbers done in the show. One source, "Off Broadway Musical" (Off Broadway Musicals, 1910–2007: Casts, Credits, Songs, Critical Reception ) is skeptical of that origin: "possibly mother goose". Songs were written for characters in musicals, meaning that the "songwriter's intent" is very different from the modern songwriter's intent.

His choice to perform this song with an Irish accent underscores a few things: this character is sufficiently close to Ireland as to still have an Irish accent and is either a recent immigrant or the children of recent immigrants; they were very likely working class.

He combined this with a "poptimist" anthem with strong patriotic overtones. What is this saying? We're hearing an immigrant talk about how much he loves popular music, patriotic music. This song, in a way, positions the working class immigrant consuming self-described "trashy" music as more patriotic and American than the middle class consuming operas by foreign-born composers.

Nowadays the 'elite' music tends to be made in the same country as the 'pop' music, or the 'pop' music may even be foregn. either way, Americans are no longer arguing that *their* music is better because now their music is both the cultural lowbrow and the highbrow. classical music has been pushed to the fringes of cultural acceptability, relegated to a position as an arcane art enjoyhable only by learned folk instead of having the mass popularity it enjoyed during Cohan's time. It's not even in the picture, though many classical music fans undoubtedly still hold the position that their music is superior to hanky-panky popular melody days. it's a sign of how the music world has changed - and curiously, how language was used to do so.

Another piece of poptimism pits what may be called the 'rockists' of the day with an upstart 'poptimist.' The 'rockist' comparison is llabored - the "olden" music, parlor music, was never supposed to be particularly high class. Yet compared to the new generation of music, it seemed more sophisticated and worth protecting and took on an air of importance (hmmmmm, have we seen this play out before with other genres that lose their 'pop' status as a new genre comes into town?).

Note: the original song uses racial slurs. Just letting you know.
"The different lays of nowadays all set my brain a-whirl
they're not the kinds of songs they sang when mother was a girl
your spoony rags and c---- drags all made my poor heart ache
bring back the rhymes of olden times and just for old times' sake"

We briefly discussed the way this singer is dialectally coded. Her singing style is reminiscent of operatic singers, as most popular singers back in "the day" were trying to sound like classically trained singers. (most of them were not classically trained singers. You need real training to be a classical singer.). She rolls her r's even after a consonant: brrrain. She uses happy-laxing, which would have begun falling out of favor around this time.

The poptimist is Billy Murray, an early star of recorded music. He's also Irish (lots of Irishmen in early recorded american music).

"I don't care for your long-haired musicians with their classy melodies
THey're all full of high-tone ambition but their music doens't please
Give me something snappy and popular the king that d-kies play
lots of rhythm and I go with 'em and that's why I say"

"Won't you play a simple melody, like my mother sang to me?
One with good old fashioned harmony - play a simple melody."

"Oh you musical demon, set my honey a-dreamin', won't you play me some rag?
just change that classical nag to some sweet musical drag
If you will play from a copy of a tune that is choppy
you'll get all my applause
and that is simply because
I want to listen to rag."

Billy Murray also uses a sort of sing-talking in the beginning of "I don't care..." "They're all full of..." He uses an [i] sound for sure. There are no theatrical sounds here, no artificially rolled 'r's. Billy targets "that classical nag" and "high-tone ambition" (in other words, pretension!).

So we have three examples of rockism v poptimism being represented by different accents. The proud patriot immigrant who listens to authentic American music, the wannabe-opera/parlor singer, and the breezy ragtime enthusiast with questionable racial ethics. But how about something a little modern?

When rock and roll started getting national attention, the moral panic started about how bad this music was. Chuck Berry wrote "roll over beethoven," which is a more aggressively poptimist song. Instead of defending rock and roll, it goes on the offensive and dismisses classical music as irrelevant.

Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

His "rock and roll" also chides people who play jazz too fast, which results in it sounding "like a symphony" - another jab at classical.

I have no kick against modern jazz
Unless they try to play it too darn fast
And change the beauty of the melody
Until it sounds just like a symphony

Curiously, there are many songs about rock and roll and how great it is, even after rock and roll as a genre was effectively dead. Many of these songs use the same type of "rock music accent". Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" uses features from AAVE (hence why "long time" sounds like "lawng tam") but Robert Plant is from England. Chuck Berry's native accent is being used in these celebratory rock songs, and has in fact become a standard register for rock/pop in general.

Comparatively, pop music, which is more amorphous in nature, has few songs extolling its own virtues. New genres like electronic music and hip-hop don't engage in the same sort of "destroy the leader" song. Electronic music is usually instrumental or "conceptual," and a lot of it is underground. Hip-hop doesn't really try to attack other genres. Perhaps because hip-hop is so sample-centric, any genre is fair game for being used in a future hip-hop song.

Only pop song about pop music I can think of is by Poppy, and it's very ambivalent about the value of pop music. the chorus expresses this particularly:

Pop is when you hear a song
And cannot help but sing along
It's when you hate it but you still appreciate it
Pop belongs to everyone (oh oh)
Pop is on the radio
And who decides we'll never know
Somebody told me I should follow where the money goes

Pop is enjoyed by everyone, but the enjoyment is forced or laced with annoyance. It's also not democratically decided. Poppy displays no particular regional features. the conceit of the album is that she's some sort of virtual or created pop star, and the idea that "pop belongs to everyone" suggests that a virtual pop star should be "neutral." it's distinct from Cohan's irish wailing or Robert Plant's affected AAVE-isms. perhaps the reason we have almost no self-congratulatory pop anthems is the same reason pop mostly shies away from regionally-colored accents: pop is so amorphous, so attempting to be "timeless," that it's ultimately impossible to describe other than by saying what it's not. With "poptimism" becoming a real way of critics looking at music and artists calling themselves pop, perhaps pop may eventually gain an identity other than "popular music that doesn't neatly fit into another popular music genre." Perhaps we can have the return of Irish songwriters too?

April 18, 2018

But who am I?

I've been running this website in some capacity or other for over a year now and I still haven't made a proper "about" page for the site. Who am I, anyway? I could just be a jellyfish in a trenchcoat combinatorially generating linguistics concept for you. Well, the jig is up. Here's a nice, proper page on what Ace Linguist is and what I do. (I considered calling this Ace Linguist: Exposed! but that just didn't have the right ring to it.) I finally got a dedicated e-mail for the site there, so if you've been dying to send me an e-mail, this is your golden hour.

April 13, 2018

4-9 Recap

A good week! We got the new domain up, We talked about unusual conjugations in song lyrics. I created a new Instagram, @acelinguist, so that you can get more linguistics-related content. If you still want to follow my old instagram, it is still available here; I'll still post food pictures and cross post some linguistic stuff as well.

- Karen

April 11, 2018

Can You Conjugate

Just like "A Case of Pronoun Misuse," we're going to look at verbs today! I want to make a note - not all dialects of English have the same conjugational patterns. African-American Vernacular English, for example, has its own conjugational pattern. Some English creoles also have different conjugational patterns. Different conjugations are not strange between dialects. We are not going to look at people who natively speak these dialects. We are going to look at people who are using non-standard forms for the sake of sounding cool or rhyme or some other reason. Got it? No dialect shame here.

"Now that I've become who I really are." - Break Free, Ariana Grande

There exist dialects where you can say "I is." I am not familiar with any dialect of English where you can say "I are." This lyric was written by Max Martin. The "are" appears intentioned to rhyme with "heart." This lyric was mocked for its ungrammaticality. Perhaps Max Martin had witnessed the "I is" construction before and thought that meant any conjugation of "to be" will do. More likely he just didn't care, since Ariana complained about it to him and he told her to sing it anyway. This is an example of ungrammaticality to force a rhyme - two things people really don't like.

"I overthink your p-punctuation use - not my fault, just a thing that my mind do." - The Louvre, Lorde

Another rhyming one, but this one also is vaguely set up for with the whole focus on language subtleties in "I overthink your punctuation use."

"I don't care who you are in this bar it only matters who I is." - Blah Blah Blah, Kesha ft. 3OH3

Here's one that's copped from AAVE. "I is" is a standard conjugation in AAVE, and you can find it in songs that are attempting to... portray... AAVE, like "Porgy, I Is Your Woman Now." 3OH3 are from Boulder, Colorado - this is not their native dialect. It looks like they're copping AAVE for the assonance (di,shi,is).

"You are the question and the answer am I." - Shadow Dancing

This one's very interesting. Now you would expect "and the answer is me," but remember that in high English, "to be" is sort of an equivalency verb. There is no object - both are subjects. "The answer am I" therefore shouldn't be a strange construction if you follow logic, but by now we should know that logic and language only rarely hang out in the same circles together. See, in English we also have a strict word order where the subject must precede the verb and the verb must agree with the object (there are exceptions - for example, the "there is/are" construction). If "to be" agreed with "the question," we would get "The question is I." "Is I" sounds pretty bad to me, though. "Am I" would make sense if "The answer am I" were a scrambled version of "I am the answer" (and "the answer am I" is perfectly acceptable in other languages), but English doesn't really allow that kind of scrambling. Who are we to stop Andy Gibb from using old-fashioned constructions, though?

"Don't matter who you are, just love me the way I are." - The Way I Are, Bebe Rexha

Another case where it looks like they're trying to mirror a prior prhase. "you are" & "I are." The "are" might also be a long-term rhyme with "part" one verse back.

April 9, 2018

Welcome to!

My surprise for all of you was a little delayed, but it's here... the domain is live! No longer do you have to remember whether I'm on blogger or blogspot or if they're the same thing. It's a small change, but I'm happy to be able to take this step in moving the site forward. From now on, your bookmarks should redirect to Don't worry, that's not a phishing scam. I'm working on getting the HTTPS availability as well, so you can be doubly sure that this is not a phishing scam.

More content is on the way, and more behind-the-scenes changes going on to make posting easier. I'm quite happy to have been able to post weekly for around a month now. I think this is a better pace of production than the prior bi-weekly schedule. 2018 is looking good for Ace Linguist! :) Thanks to all of you for your support.

- Karen

April 6, 2018

4-2 Recap

This week I posted about the logic behind Pokemon names. If you are interested in Pokemon Onomastics (the study of proper names), the Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies is holding a conference on Pokemon Onomastics at Keio University May 26 to May 27! You can find more information here.

- Karen

April 4, 2018

Behind the Name

One of the basic notions of linguistics is that the sounds of words are not related to the thing being represented. For example, "cold" is made of [k] [o] [l] [d]. Do any of these sounds inherently have anything to do with low temperature? They do not. This is the case for most words. Nevertheless, it appears that when we name things, the sounds we choose are not entirely arbitrary. A famous linguistic experiment had people choose names for a round shape and a pointy shape. They offered two choices - 'bobo' and 'kiki.' It was significantly more likely that the round shape would be called 'bobo' and the pointy shape 'kiki.' We would expect it to be equal if the qualities of the sounds had nothing to do with what they represent.

One interesting correlation between names can be found in this paper prepared for a Pokemon Onomastics conference. Pokemon is a Japanese series of video games based around collecting creatures. Onomastics is the study of names. This paper posited some interesting things. In Japanese, voiced obstruents (that is, sounds like 'b','g','d',''j', where airflow stops momentarily while you're making the sound and your vocal cords vibrate) are associated with size and heaviness. The authors found that larger Pokemon and more evolved Pokemon were more likely to have more voiced obstruents. They also found that the number of mora (the way Japanese words are split up into syllables) correlates with evolution stage and size.

The authors only looked at Japanese Pokemon names, not English ones, but some Pokemon names are taken straight from the Japanese into the translated language. Pikachu is the same in Japanese and English. We can see some of these effects at play here. When the second generation of Pokemon games was released, they added a 'baby form' of Pikachu, which is a smaller, weaker Pokemon that 'evolves' (essentially metamorphizes) into Pikachu. They called this 'baby form' Pichu. We can see that they 'babyfied' Pikachu's name by taking away the middle syllable and making a smaller name.

I was reminded of a similar phenomenon in the naming of black magic spells in the Final Fantasy games (a role playing game based on science fantasy). The basic name for the lightning spell is Thunder (sanda), then the level two version is Thundara (sandara), level three is Thundaga (sandaga), and level four is Thundaja (sandaja). This pattern of "word," "word+a," "word+ga," and "word+ja" holds true for other elemental spells as well, such as Water and Fire. It's a single data point, but it's interesting that the morphemes for the highest levels (the third level is the highest one in some of the games, such as Tactics Advance) follow this correlation and have voiced obstruents.

This is a pretty cool study overall, mostly because it validates the idea that you can figure out what it is that makes a name sound cool or cute or small. So far they've only done it with Japanese Pokemon names, but perhaps some enterprising scholar can do a similar analysis for other language names. The "voiced obstruent = bigger" connection is noted as a Japanese phenomenon, so it may not hold in English or other languages, but I'm certain there are similar iconic sounds.

March 30, 2018

3-26 Recap

Happy Good Friday, to those of you who celebrate! This week we updated the Glottal Stops page to tackle the question of whether glottal stops are bad for your voice. I also read an interesting article about how Spotify is changing song titles. I've already discussed this topic myself in "Why Are Song Titles So Weird Nowadays" and "A Quick Taxonomy of Album Titles". If you have any thoughts on the matter of how titles are changing, sound off in the comments below!

March 28, 2018

Glottal Stops - Updated!

As promised last week, I've expanded the glottal stops page! Now there's a section on whether glottal stops are harmful to one's voice. You can read more about that here at the glottal stops page.

March 23, 2018


Good morning, and happy Friday! This week we looked a little bit at glottal stops, what they are, and how we use them. This week has been pretty busy and next week is going to get busier, so next week I plan to expand a little more on the glottal stops, with audio, some video, and also a discussion on whether glottal stops are actually bad for your voice.

In unrelated news, I had a terrible headache for three days straight! I've had headaches last two days before, but three days is definitely a new one. If anyone knows any good headache prevention tactics or pain management strategies, I'd love to hear them. Hoping next week isn't like this.

- Karen

March 21, 2018

Glottal Stops

Have you ever heard of a glottal stop? Probably not. But it's very likely that you have heard a glottal stop, since they are actually very frequent in English. You've probably never really noticed them, or just taken them for granted, but glottal stops are actually important sounds in the languages of the world, and often used creatively. Let's talk a little bit about glottal stops today.

If you've seen my IPA page, you'll know that a stop is what happens when you have a build-up of air that is suddenly released. The "glottal" part tells you that this is formed by the glottis, also known as the vocal cords. In a glottal stop, the vocal cords close, air builds up behind them, then the cords open quickly, resulting in a burst of air. It can be hard to hear the glottal stop, but think about the exclamation "uh-oh!" There's a sound between the "uh" and the "oh", isn't there? The two vowels don't flow seamlessly into each other. That sound in the middle is a glottal stop! The symbol for a glottal stop is ʔ.

But wait, there's more! In English, if you start a sentence with a word that starts with a vowel, there's a very good chance that that vowel will be preceded by a glottal stop. It's not uncommon at all for words with vowels at the beginning to have a glottal stop before them. If you speak American English, words like "button" and "mountain" have a glottal stop in them. "bu-n" [bʌʔn] and "moun-n [maʊʔn]." Some varieties of London English have Ts in the middle of words turn into glottal stops, so you have "bo-l" instead of "bottle." In most varieties of English, words ending in a vowel and then a stop have a glottal stop before the stop. This is known as "glottal reinforcement." To wrap up our list of examples, if you have a hiatus - when one word ends with a vowel and the next starts with the same vowel - a glottal stop can be used to break up that hiatus. So if you say "the eel" [ði il], that can be realized as [ði ʔil].

Some languages take glottal stops to the next level. They include glottal stops in their phonemic inventory. This means that glottal stops are considered sounds like "t" or "s" or "p" and words can be distinguished based on whether they have a glottal stop or not. This includes languages like Persian, Arabic, and Hawaiian.

Examples of Glottal Stops

Because glottal stops are not phonemic in English (it is not a sound in English the way it is in Arabic), most people are not aware of what they are or what they are called. Nevertheless, glottal stops are often used for effect.

In the movie "The Social Network," Mark Zuckerberg is fooling around during a business meeting. He's making some clicks (we'll talk about clicks in a different post). The client asks him what he's doing. Mark shrugs and says "some kind of glottal stop." Unfortunately, not a single one of those sounds was a glottal stop. It is still interesting to note that they chose to have him say "glottal stop" - did it sound cooler than "lateral click?" Did someone confuse a click with a glottal stop? Did the actor not understand how to make a glottal stop and just make clicks instead? This is a minor goof that has bothered me since I first watched this movie.

There are plenty of pop songs where a series of vowels separated by glottal stops constitutes the hook. You have Singles Ladies' "whoa-uh-oh, wuh-uh-uh, wuh-uh, oh, wuh-uh-oh" and Bad Romance's "ra, ra, a-a-a."

Sometimes glottal stops appear in unexpected places. In a live performance of "Wake Me Up When September Ends" from the live album "Bullet in a Bible," the lead singer of Green Day says "as my memor-y [mɛmɝʔi] rests." This is a pretty odd place to put a glottal stop, right in the middle of a word like that. He says it both times the line comes up as well. Oddly enough, he does not do this on the studio recording of the song.

Are Glottal Stops Harmful?

If you're a singer or an actor, you may have heard a vocal coach say that glottal stops are actually harmful for your voice. Here is an example of this attitude:

In drama school, however, I was told that glottal stopping was bad bad bad. My voice and speech teacher warned of the dangers of glottal stopping. “It can shred your voice,” he said. “It’s the worst thing you can do to your vocal cords.” In fact, he rarely referred to it as a glottal stop, but rather applied the scarier-sounding term, Glottal Attack. Yikes! And my voice and teach professor wasn’t alone among those in the voice and speech training community. Here is what renowned vocal coach Patsy Rodenburg has to say about the matter in her The Actor Speaks: "A compromise is necessary if the accent has qualities in it that can damage the voice … certain constrictions naturally present in some accents, could produce vocal abuse; glottal attack, for instance. You could speculate that native speakers of these accents have adapted sufficiently not to suffer this abuse." (Source)

A glottal onset bursts open the vocal folds, creating an almost grunt-like noise before the sound of the desired note. A glottal onset leads to a pressed sound (“pressed phonation”). Continued use of a hard glottal onset at high dynamic levels can potentially harm the vocal folds. (Source)

Is there any credence to the notion that high-pressure glottal stops can harm the vocal folds? First, notice that they are being specific. They are talking about glottal onsets (this is probably what "glottal attack" is referring to, since "attack" refers to the beginning of a sound wave). If you'll look back to our example about vowels, in English phrases starting with a vowel often begin with a glottal stop. This is what they are referring to. Glottal stops at the ends of words ("but"), or in a medial position ("button"), are unlikely to have enough pressure behind them to have a singing teacher worry that they would hard one's voice.

Ben T. Smith at Dialect Blog suggests that the reason vocal coaches discourage the glottal stop is due to classism. Working class South English accents, such as Estuary English, use glottal stops more frequently compared to standard varieties of English like Received Pronunciation. Smith suggests that distaste towards stigmatized accents is more to blame than any actual risk of vocal harm. He also notes that many languages all around the world use glottal stops regularly in multiple positions and have rich singing traditions. Arabic is a noteworthy one, as there is a long Arabic singing tradition and varieties of Arabic use the glottal stop. As far as I know, there is no epidemic of Arabic singers experiencing damaged vocal cords due to glottal onsets.

We shouldn't dismiss the notion entirely, though. Air coming in at high pressure puts strain on the vocal cords, and that is known to be harmful. It is not inconceivable that repeated use of very harsh glottal onsets at a high dynamic level (that is, loud volume) could contribute to vocal cord damage. Glottal onsets on their own, though, should not be any reason to worry.

Some vocal coaches worry about the quality of the glottal onset sound:

The ‘trick’ to executing an effective and healthy glottal stop is very much like that for staccato notes. Glottal adduction cannot be overly firm and the subglottal air pressure cannot be too high, or else the glottal stop will be ‘sluggish’ (instead of crisp and rapid) and the sound will be explosive and harsh. In other words, the throat must remain ‘open’ (rather than constricted and hyperfunctional) and the breath must be held back slightly with the inspiratory muscles (rather than forced out rapidly).

The singer first needs to develop consistent balance in the onset (‘attack’) of sound before attempting glottal stops. This can be accomplished through simple onset-release exercises performed on single notes, use of the ‘inhalare la voce’ [...] concept and the appoggio (the inspiratory hold whereby subglottal pressure is kept lower by resisting the premature ascent of the diaphragm). Work on staccato is often a logical next step. (The glottal stop requires a slightly longer and firmer glottal closure and closed quotient of the vocal folds than staccato, which in turn generates higher subglottal pressure, but both skills require control and balance between glottal adduction and the breath pressure.) (Source).

It is true that not all stops are created equal. Sometimes when we make a stop, we release more air compared to other times. Other times, less air is built up and it is released more weakly. The folks at "SingWise" are not suggesting that the issue is that glottal stops will ruin your voice, but rather that "poorly performed" glottal stops are stylistically undesirable for a singer.

Overall, the average person has no reason to worry about glottal stops ruining their voice. There are different reasons for avoiding them, like wanting to avoid stigmatized features of an accent or avoiding "sloppy" sounds when singing, and under unusual circumstances - like singing at high volume with poor technique and a lot of air pressure - it's possible that glottal stops could harm your vocal cords. If you are a singer or an actor, work with your vocal coach to use less high-intensity techniques to project your voice. Otherwise, carry on!

Note: I do not have access to medical journals (indeed, I have limited access to academic journals in general), so if you are aware of any scientific studies on the effects of glottal stops on the vocal cords in different situations, I would greatly appreciate any links in that direction.

March 16, 2018

3-12 Recap

Hello! A lot of behind-the-scenes work this week into making the site better. Some very interesting progress on the domain name side of things. :) And general management tools that should make it easier to schedule posts and update social media. We talked about the pronoun thou and how it's used in music this week. Our big post of the moment is still the Lana Del Rey Dialect Dissection, so check that out if you haven't yet!

We've also changed the Twitter situation around, in case you're still following the old Twitter. The new Twitter is @acelinguist. Follow to keep up with updates and news!

I'm floating around an idea to update some of the posts I've done in the past. For example, I think my post on pronouncing woman as wuh-man would really benefit from some audio, and other posts would benefit from pictures and video. Not to mention, several of these pages can be expanded upon as well. I'll keep it on the same page as well, because I do dislike it when blogs spread out content and updates over ten different pages.

See you next week!

- Karen

March 14, 2018

The Marvelous Thou

Thou! Has there ever been a pronoun as misunderstood as thou art? Thou standst in the midst of time, refusing to budge even when the rest of the language has abandoned thee. Thine admirable qualities, thy quaint sound. Thou, we love thee. "Thou" is a pronoun in English. Was a pronoun in English. Most people don't really use it anymore (but there are exceptions, as we'll see later!). We're going to take a look at how "thou" continues to be used in modern music and other media.

Religious Thou

Most usage of "thou" in songs appears to be religious. This is a carryover from the use of "thou" to address God in the Bible. Remember that "thou" used to be the *intimate* pronoun, like "tu" in Spanish/French or "du" in German (as it was translated into those languages). As people stopped using "thou" in real life, the only place people encountered "thou" became the Bible, and so its role reversed completely from "non-formal, intimate" to "most serious and respectful." Whence the usage of "thou" to address Sith lords in Star Wars. (Quakers kept using "thou" for a while as part of their idea that we're all equals and really we shouldn't be elevating some people with special pronouns. In America, Quakers ended up using the form "thee".)

Thou as marker of Medieval England

"The lair is deep within. Will thee accompany me?" - Frog, Chrono Trigger

Chrono Trigger is a video game where you travel in time. Among the characters you meet is a frog, named Frog, who is also a knight and speaks in vaguely Shakespearean English. Unfortunately they misused "thou" completely here. As we've seen above, "thee" is the accusative form. You can't say "Will him accompany me" in standard English! So first off, that should be "Will thou accompany me?" And if you really want to be accurate, "thou" has its own conjugations. The conjugation for "will" is "thou wilt," meaning the actual correct form of this is "Wilt thou accompany me?" I don't think this is a case of them thinking the correct form will scare people off - I think they just didn't do the research and figured it was a kid's game and who would care.

I would like to make a note that there is one group of English speakers that used "thee" as the nominative - Quakers, who used "thee" for religious reasons (why "thee" and not "thou" is open to speculation) ( I have very deep doubts that Frog the talking frog medieval knight is actually an 18th century Quaker, not least because Quakers are pacifists and Frog has a variety of physical attacks he can inflict on enemies. If anyone wants to make this argument, though, I'd be open to hearing it. ;)

The people who still use thou

Some dialects of English, incredibly enough, still use "thou" to this day! Most of them have changed it a little to be "tha". Alex Turner, lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys, is from Sheffield and uses "tha knows" fairly frequently. He even adds it to songs live, which results in people googling "why do they say tha knows?"

"Watching the people get lairy is not very pretty, I tell thee" - I predict a riot, Kaiser Chiefs

"Well, time tastes bland when she's not around
And you'd sit and you'd sink and approach the brink
Before she showed you how to shake love's steady hand, tha knows" - The Blond-O-Sonic Shimmer Trap, The Arctic Monkeys

Rhyming Thee

My favorite use of "thou" is a very practical one. Wouldn't it be great if "me" and "you" rhymed? Seriously! How many pop songs talk about "you and me," or maybe thrown in a "he"? You could have a three-pronoun rhyme! What a love triangle this would be! And think of all the words that end in -ee, too! Not that rhymes ending with -oo are lacking, but we could have a fourway rhyme of he, me, tree, and ye! But unless you speak a dialect with the pronoun "ye", this is not a reality for you. Instead you have to rhyme "you" with "blue" or "too" or even "shoe."

Now I've often wondered, why don't songwriters use "thee" to rhyme with "me" or any other -ee word for that matter? They have no problem rhyming "lane" with "again" (even when they're American and this pronunciation doesn't make sense). They will use non-standard forms like ain't and make up conjugations. Why does the humble "thee" get ignored? I suppose it just sounds too old-fashioned. But that doesn't mean others haven't thought as I have.

"For when you are crazy
I'll let you be bad
I'll never dare change thee
to what you are not." - Terrence Loves you, Lana Del Rey

Using "you" and "thee" in the same sentence! Shakespeare would be proud of such inconsistency in thou/you usage.

Th'art cool!

"Thou" truly is a marvel, because it's the little pronoun that just wouldn't stop. It's been five hundred years since it's been used en masse, yet it's been preserved in literature and dialect and from there we've given it a new luxurious life as The Pronoun of Ultimate Respect. Language tends to move forwards, not back, and so it is unlikely we will ever see a revival of thou. But forwards doesn't always mean erasing - it can mean re-purposing. "Thou" has been repurposed within dialects as "tha" and between dialects as a marker of Northern English heritage. Wow, thou!

March 12, 2018

New Twitter!

Hey everyone! I made a Twitter dedicated to the site instead of using my personal one. You can now follow me at @acelinguist now for news about the site or related to linguistics. If you liked my other Twitter, you can still find me here.

Planning to make an Instagram next, and that's the last social media update for now. :) Make sure to follow for more news!

March 9, 2018

3-5 Recap

Hello! Sorry for no recap last week; I was traveling without access to internet. For better or worse, I don't have any vacations up ahead, so you don't need to worry that I'll leave you without recaps for the moment being. ;)

I normally post a lot of articles about sound and how people pronounce things. I decided to switch it up this week and look at a little at words and how they work in a sentence. In A Case of Pronoun Misuse, we looked at how songwriters use "case" in pronouns for the sake of rhyme, analogy, or even humor. If you have no idea what "pronoun case" is, all the more reason to check it out. Your English teacher will appreciate it later.

On the non-content side of things, I've thought about changing my Twitter. At the moment I linking my personal Twitter, which means that there is a lot of tweeting there that is not related to this website. I've thought about linking a Twitter for Ace Linguist instead so that people can just get Ace Linguist-related news or content without having to listen to my prattling on and on about how much I like Purity Ring's production (by the way, I just listened to "Shrines" and I can't believe it's from 2012... this production is lovely!). And for those interested in my prattlings, I will link my personal Twitter in the Ace Linguist Twitter. I think this will make it more obvious what the focus of the Twitter is.

My Instagram is also currently my personal Instagram. I am not sure if there is enough content to make a pure Ace Linguist Instagram, but I will consider it for those of you who like Instagram.

March 7, 2018

A Case of Pronoun Misuse

Pronouns are the only words in the English language to have retained case. Case is a marker for the purpose a word is serving in a sentence - is it the subject of a verb (the nominative case) or the object of a verb (the accusative case)? Some languages, like Russian, mark case on every single word. English used to be like this way back in the 1300s, but things have changed a little since then and now the only remnants of case are on our pronouns. As a result, there's confusion over how to use pronouns and their case.

Let's look at our pronouns. The nominative case is in the left column and the accusative in the right column.

Nominative Nominative Example Accusative Accusative Example
I I like pie. Me The cops arrested me.
You You can dance. You Johnny liked you.
He Will he go to work? Him She gave him a soda.
She She said she wanted cereal. Her The news bothered her.
We We can do anything. Us Stop telling us about that new song.
They They aren't helping out. Them When do we tell them to go home?
It The computer, it's not working. It I spilled soda on it.
Thou (obsolete) Thou art a happy man. Thee I love thee.
Who That's the woman who likes pie. Whom That's the woman whom the cops arrested.

You'll notice that not every pronoun even has a distinct accusative case. You and it are the same no matter what you do. I've included "thou" in there as a comparison. We don't exactly use "thou" much nowadays, but "thou" functions exactly like other pronouns with regards to case.

So many people are confused about "X and Y" constructions. There's a lot of people thinking that you can never say "and me," or that it's ungrammatical to start a conjunction with I (*?I and he went to the store). There's no real reason for that second one other than stylistic preference, and the first one is a misunderstanding of how cases work.

Todd: We have unfinished business, I and he.
Scott: He and me.
Todd: Don't you talk to me about grammar!

This misunderstanding is capitalized upon in this scene from Scott Pilgrim where Scott "corrects" Todd's grammar. The problem is that Scott's version is actually worse. In colloquial English, you could say "him and me" in this context. In standard English, "he and I" would be preferred. "I and he" is odd, but the case fits. "he and me" mixes case together, which doesn't really work! Perhaps Scott speaks a variety of English where case in conjunctive constructions like this is completely optional and arbitrary or it has to rhyme or something.

Now that you know the standard for joining two pronouns with "and" (and knowing that these are just formal rules and aren't present in colloquial English), you're ready to understand what's off about the following three songs.

Him and I

"Cross my heart, hope to die
To my lover, I'd never lie
He said "be true", I swear I'll try
In the end, it's him and I." - Him & I, G-Eazy ft. Halsey

We should expect "it's he and I" per prescriptivist rules and "it's him and me" or "me and him" by common usage. Here it's obvious that the "I" was chosen to rhyme with try/lie/die. The "him" is interesting: "Him and me" would be acceptable in colloquial English (though it wouldn't rhyme). Perhaps "It's he and I" sounds too formal in this situation. "Him and I" won't win you any points from a strict English teacher, but it serves the rhyme and doesn't sound too stilted.

About You and I

"Something about my cool Nebraska guy
Something about, baby, you and I." - You and I, Lady Gaga

Usage of the nominative case in an object position... for the use of rhyming... Lady Gaga, what won't you do? When you put a pronoun after a preposition, that pronoun has to be in the accusative case. If we changed the song to remove the "you," the correct form would be "Something about me," not *"Something about I." Nevertheless, a lot of people are using "you and I" even after prepositions nowadays... people like Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama.

Don't Run We

"We run things; things don't run we.
Don't take nothin' from nobody." - We Can't Stop

I remember this line being mocked and derided back when it came out in 2013. It's using ungrammatical constructions to force a rhyme - two sins of songwriting! But I must defend this one because I think there was a second effect of using the wrong case here. By using the nominative, they create a reflection: "We run things" vs "Things (don't) run we." Were it "things don't run us," you would lose that economy of words.

Can you think of any other cases where somebody uses an unexpected pronoun case? What's your opinion on this sort of creative liberty? Sound off below!

The Girl From Ipanema

"But each day, when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at he."

- The Girl From Ipanema

Miley Cyrus is actually not the first one to use the nominative case in an object position. The original recording of "The Girl From Ipanema," from the album Getz/Gilberto and sung by Astrud Gilberto, uses the same construction for rhyming reasons. In case you think she's actually saying "him," I've included the live video. Notice her lips don't close at the end of "he," meaning she's saying "he" and not "him." The English lyrics were written by an American lyricist, Norman Gimbert, so it sounds purposeful as opposed to being a mistake on the singer's part.

March 1, 2018

Audio Update!

If you use an iPhone, you may have noted that the sound clips for the Lana article weren't working last week. Good news - they should be working now! Check out the Lana Del Rey Dialect Dissection now. If you're still encountering issues, please leave a comment and describe which version of iOS you're using and exactly which sound clips aren't working. Thank you for your patience!

February 28, 2018

The Logic of Mondegreens

Anyone who has ever listened to sung music has probably run into the situation where they either mishear the lyrics or don't understand them at all. Most people don't know that there is a technical name for misheard lyrics - they're called mondegreens, from a story of someone who misheard the lyric "and laid him on the green" as "and Lady Mondegreen."

Some researchers, like Steven Pinker (1994), have noted that many misheard lyrics tend to be pretty weird. One of my favorites is mishearing Kesha's "Cannibal" as "Cat nipple." Perhaps it is only the weirder mondegreens that we remember, since mundane mondegreens where one word is off aren't interesting. A recent example comes from "I Write Sins, Not Tragedies." "I chime in with a 'haven't you people ever heard of closing a goddamn door'" is the lyric in the lyrics booklet, but many people - even the singer, Brendan Urie - sing 'closing the goddamn door.' (Worth noting that many lyrics booklets have incorrect lyrics, but let's assume for the sake of argument this one is correct). Both are grammatical, both make sense, and the difference is literally a matter of changing an indefinite article for a definite article. This isn't going to get mythologized like "the cross I'd bear" turning into "the cross-eyed bear."

Humorous mondegreens are so popular that there was a brief trend of making misheard lyrics videos around 2007. The first one here is from Nightwish, a band where the singer speaks English as a second language and also uses operatic technique, which further distorts understanding. The second is from Evanescence, whose singer is a native English speaker who doesn't articulate clearly. Some of these mondegreens are clearly a result of someone trying to find a misheard lyric for the sake of filling in the video, but many of them are very plausible.

Mondegreens have many causes. Let's take a look at a couple of the causes.


This is one of the most common causes of misheard lyrics - when two sound sequences simply sound the same. In this case, the problem is not that someone mishears the sounds themselves, but that they "decode" it incorrectly. One of the most famous examples of this is from a Jimi Hendrix song. "Excuse me while I kiss the sky" is misheard as "excuse me while I kiss this guy."

Let's look at the sequence that's giving us problem, the one that should be "the sky." We're going to show the sounds all together here, since there are no pauses when Jimi makes this sequence (and we don't use pauses between words in normal speech, either).


Jimi intended us to hear word boundaries between ə and s:

/ðə skaɪ/ "The sky."

However, think about the phrase "this guy." First of all, it is more common to hear about someone kissing a person than an inanimate concept. When we hear and understand "kiss," our brains are primed to hear other words that we commonly hear with "kiss." We are more likely to hear "guy" than "sky."

"But isn't there a short 'i' in "this"? And there is a 'g' in guy, not a k!" Well, not precisely. Unstressed syllables in English have a tendency to move towards the schwa (the sound in about). In stressed position, "this" would indeed have a short i. In an unstressed position, it's not inconceivable that it would move towards a schwa, especially since 'i' is already a lax vowel.

As for the 'g' in 'guy'... what if I told you the 'g' in 'guy' and the 'k' in 'sky' are the same sound? Seriously! Try saying 'sguy.' Does it not sound just like 'sky'? In English, what differentiates the 'voiced' and 'unvoiced' members of a stop at the beginning of a syllable is not actually 'voicing' (there is some in the 'voiced' stops, but very little), but aspiration - the breath that comes after the stop. This is why Guy and Kai sound different. However, when you have a consonant cluster with an 's' in front of a 'voiceless aspirated' stop, there is no more aspiration. The 'k' in 'sky' and 'Kai' are not exactly the same sound. The hypothetical lyric "Excuse me while I kiss this Kai" is therefore actually less likely to be misheard as 'guy' because our brains hear the aspiration and excludes the sounds that it could be. The 'g' sound is never aspirated. It is therefore trivial for the brain to hear "ðəskaɪ" and interpret it as:

/ðəs kaɪ/ "This guy."

Jimi seemed to be aware of this homophony, as he played around with it in live performances, miming a kiss towards another band member.

Assimilation & Coalescence

This post was inspired by someone complaining about the Lana Del Rey song "Swan Song." The opening line goes "put your white tennis shoes on and follow me." They were complaining that she pronounced "tennis shoes" as "tenishoes" as opposed to keeping the 's' distinct. This was probably not helped by the fact that the stress fell on the second syllable of "tennis" in the song, while in spoken speech it should fall on the first syllable. This made it sound like "ten issues" as opposed to "tennis shoes." (Unfortunately I can no longer find this post, but this person is not the only one to have misheard this line.)

What this person was complaining about is assimilation. This is a process where one sound changes to sound like a similar sound near it. 's' and 'sh' are both coronal sibilant fricatives. The difference between the two sounds is one of a few millimeters - 's' is made on the alveolar ridge, and 'sh' is a post-alveolar, made slightly behind the alveolar ridge. The 's' changes to become another 'sh'. When you have two sounds that are so similar next to each other, it can actually become difficult to make the sound (articulation) and to understand the sound (audition). Assimilation is therefore a common phenomenon in languages. It is rarely an issue for native speakers who already know what the words sound like and whose brain compensates for assimilation. It is more likely to impede comprehension in people who are second-language speakers, since they are still learning to understand the ways that words change in context in the second language.

If you'd like to explain the phonetic and phonological processes that go into some particular lyric you misheard, send in your misheard lyrics! I can put them in some kind of recurring segment explaining misheard lyrics.


  • Steven Pinker (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow. pp. 182–183