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January 25, 2018

More than a WUH-man

So I was listening to one of those easy listening stations at the grocery store when I noticed something. They were playing "Margaritaville" by Jimmy Buffet, the chorus of which goes "some people say there's a woman to blame." I noticed that the singer didn't say the first syllable "woman" /wʊmən/ using the same vowel in book /bʊk/, but with a vowel that was closer to 'uh' in 'one' /wʌn/. If you'll look at a chart of where vowels are made in the mouth, you'll notice that /ʊ/ is high up and in the back. /ʌ/ is in the back, but it's much lower. It sounds like the singer of "Margaritaville" was therefore lowering the 'oo' vowel.

There are weird one-off pronunciations in many songs, but the thing is I swear I've heard it before. For one, I'm pretty sure this is an existing concept. I swear it's called "FOOT-lowering." If you're wondering why the word "FOOT" is there, it's because "FOOT" is a word that happens to have the vowel we're talking about (/ʊ/) and isn't easily confused for a different word. Googling FOOT-lowering doesn't get you anything about linguistics but rather about recovering from injuries. My recollection is that it's found in Southern dialects, but I haven't had much luck yet.

Off the top of my head, the songs I can think of with this pronunciation are "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman" by Dr. Hook and "More Than a Woman" by the Bee Gees. All three of these songs have something in common - both of them have the stress fall on the 'wo' part of 'woman.' "Margaritaville" and "More Than A Woman" also have the high note on the 'wo' part. We know from past articles that stress and pitch can result in singers changing a vowel's place to be easier to sing. It seems that our twin suspects of stress and pitch, combined with pop music's penchant for borrowing features from Southern and African American Vernacular Dialects, might be to blame.

But here's the rub - this usage seems to be restricted to the 70s. "Margaritaville" was released in 1977. "When You're in Love With a Beautiful Woman" was released in 1976. "More Than A Woman" was released in 1977. While I feel like I've encountered other examples of this phenomenon, they've been songs from the 70s. Not the 60s or before, not the 80s or after. Is this a short-lived trend that caught fire in the mid-70s? Is it possibly related to the peak of disco music (only "More Than A Woman" can conceivably be called disco, but I think the Bee Gees used this pronunciation on other disco-era songs)? Why did it drop off so suddenly? This is one of my Unsolved Linguistic Music Mysteries (that could surely have a better name).

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if you can comment on the difference -if any- in the pronunciation of "woman" in the version of "More than a woman" performed by Tavares in 1977, which was also featured in the movie Saturday Night Fever. Here's a link