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.

Homophones

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).

[ðəskaɪ]

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.

References

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

February 23, 2018

Feb-19 Recap

Hey guys! This week we debuted the long-awaited Dialect Dissection for Lana Del Rey! We also had some content from recent news when we looked at the linguistic oddities behind Ferfie's National Anthem performance. We're switching to a style where I update once a week instead of twice a week, since twice a week doesn't leave enough time to develop these articles. Nevertheless, if there is something timely or interesting that happens and I can get an article out quickly, I'll update out of schedule like with the Fergie article. I will keep the Friday posts coming to discuss site-related updates or other news.

Some of you have told me that the audio files are not playing in iOS. From what I can tell, this issue is being caused by the files being uploaded as ogg vorbis files, which iOS does not natively support. I will have to do further testing to make sure that this is the reason, but I intend to have this fixed as soon as possible so my iOS-using viewers can also listen to the sound clips.

Thanks to All Things Linguistic, I found this phonetics-themed playlist on Spotify. The idea behind it is very cool - using song titles that describe terms in phonetics - and I started wondering if there were other playlists like this. Back in May I made a playlist of songs contrasting happy-laxing, happy-tensing, and happy-breaking.

Thank you all for your support! I'll see you next week! - Karen

February 22, 2018

Fergie's Fearsome Fonetiks

By now a lot has been written about American singer Fergie's performance of the National Anthem at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game. There were many reasons it was so poorly received: her tone was uneven; her pitch was shaky; it sounded like she was trying to channel Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy. I'm not going to focus on the singing technique or other interesting musical choices. I'm going to look at Fergie's pronunciation because it was also strange and unexpected. Others have noted that she's not really committing to enunciation, but I'm going to explain to you what she's doing linguistically and why it's weird.

Expectation: By the dawn's early light [laɪt]
Reality: By the dawn's early lie [laɪ]

The first notable pronunciation choice we come across is Fergie not singing the "t" at the end of "light." This is called consonant deletion, and it's going to be a recurring theme in this performance. "T"s at the ends of words are common victims for consonant deletion in singing, because word-final "t"s aren't strongly pronounced in modern English. This is probably the least egregious violation of expected pronunciation we're getting from Fergie tonight.

Expectation: What so proudly we hailed [heɪld]
Reality: What so proudlay way haiw [heɪw]

Fergie makes the interesting decision to break the 'ee' /i/ sound at the end of 'proudly' and 'we' into a diphthong that sounds like 'ay' [ɪi]. This makes a lot of sense as an artistic decision if you're trying to sing a modern pop song, but national anthems are generally treated with a bit more gravity than that. To wrap up this sentence, she doesn't actually say "hailed" or even "hail," but "haiw" [heɪw]. She both deletes the [d] at the end of "hailed" [heɪld] and turns the 'l' into a w, a process called l-vocalization. Either one of these probably could have gone unnoticed alone, but she used both of them at the same time, resulting in a bizarre pronunciation.

Expectation: Whose broad light and bright stars [stɑrz]
Reality: Whose broad light and bright stocks [stɑks]

I have no explanation for this one. It sounds like she was using an r-less (this is called non-rhotic) pronunciation of "stars," so it would sound like "stahhs" [stɑz], but where that "k" sound came from, I have no idea. I thought it might have been a skip in the audio, but the accompaniment doesn't seem to stop. It sounds like she misremembered the lyric and substituted a word that sounded similar.

Expectation: through the perilous [pɛrəlɨs] fight,
Reality: through the peruh-luhs [pɛrɐlɐs] fight

Instead of using a schwa [ə] (the 'a' sound in 'about') or an unstressed 'ih' [ɨ] (like roses), she uses a sound that's stronger. I'm not entirely sure what she's using, but I am sure that it has too much weight. The stress on "perilous" is on the first syllable. As a general rule, in English unstressed syllables use unstressed vowels. She went outside of the unstressed vowels set and as a result, her "perilous" sounds odd. She's basically giving each syllable an equally strong vowel.

Expectation: O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming[strimɪŋ]
Reality: O'er the reemparts we watched were so gallantly striming [strɪmɪŋ]

The 'a' sound in "ramparts" is often realized as a diphthong in American English. Instead of being a pure vowel like in "rat," it's more like if you took the vowel from "meh" and the vowel from "uh" and put them together to get "eh-uh." Now some people take the first portion of that diphthong and use a sound that's more like "may," so you have "ey-uh." Fergie goes above and beyond - literally - by overshooting the vowel and instead sounding like she's saying "reeamprats." She's also doing something bizarre on "streaming," where she uses a lax vowel like "ih" instead of the expected "ee." You can't hide behind dialects for this one, because as far as I know this isn't found in any major American dialect.

Expectation: Gave proof [pruf] through the night [naɪt] that our flag was still [stɪl] there:
Reality: Gave proo [pru] through the nigh [naɪ] that our flag was stiw [stɪw] there:

This is the one that got me when I was watching the video: Fergie straight-up doesn't say the final consonant in "proof," or "night" for that matter. You can try listening for the "f" in "proof" as much as you like, but you're not going to find it. Consonant deletion in "night" wouldn't be too strange because "t"s at the end of words in English are weakly articulated. Not saying the "f" in "proof," though, is bizarre, since "f"s are not prone to being deleted. To wrap it all up, she's also doing some l-vocalization in "still" so that the "l" sounds like a "w" to get "stiw."

Now some degree of deviation from vowel norms is normal when singing. After all, I have dedicated a whole series to the ways that singers use pronunciations that are not theirs in order to achieve an artistic goal. Fergie's mistake was that she just made too many odd choices. In tandem with the over-singing and poor technique on display, as well as the unusual jazz (???) backing for the anthem, it all worked together to bring this performance over the top into the list of infamous performances of the American National Anthem.

February 21, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Lana Del Rey's Chameleon Voice

“My mother told me I had a chameleon soul, no moral compass pointing due north, no fixed personality; just an inner indecisiveness that was as wide and as wavering as the ocean.” - Ride

If the previous Dialect Dissection on Taylor Swift was a case study in how accent can be used to match genre and connect with an audience’s expectations, Lana Del Rey’s dialect dissection is going to be a case study on how accent can be used as something more personal, a palette one can draw from. Since Lana began singing in 2005, she’s explored different musical identities, trying them on and moving on as quickly as she started. Critics’ rejection of her in 2012 led to her pulling back from the mainstream, and she's stayed content hovering in the periphery of popularity. Her chameleon soul has also expressed itself via her chameleon tongue, fully inhabiting whatever aesthetic she’s trying to channel.

For the uninitiated: Lana Del Rey is the stage name of Elizabeth Grant, an alternative pop singer who was born in New York City, grew up in upstate New York, moved to New York City to start her music career, and currently resides in Los Angeles. She’s been making music since 2005, most of it never made available to the public (with a few exceptions, like an early studio album “Lana Del Ray” (sic) ). She started out with acoustic singer-songwriter material and then worked with producers and songwriters on genres from bubblegum pop to blues to urban material. A lot of this material leaked and is available through YouTube. Her major label debut, “Born To Die,” was a unique album combining hip-hop beats with cinematic strings and melancholy mood. It launched her into the public eye but also won her backlash from critics who viewed her carefully manicured aesthetic as a studio concoction. She's continued making music since, to increasing critical acclaim.

Lana’s accent shenanigans are not limited to just using distinctive features. She’s often conscious about using these features herself, someone else using them, or combining them with certain imagery. This ties together the accent with the lyrical imagery and the music. Lana is known to have a love of recurring phrasing and imagery (little red party dresses, pale moonlight, daddies), and she also likes to talk about location. Accent seems to be one of the tools she uses to craft each song universe. Instead of looking at this by period, like I did for Taylor, I’m going to look at the different uses each accent serves in the Lanaverse.

It’s the Voodoo, Mississippi South

The very first material we have from Lana is a folk album credited to "May Jailer," made in 2005. The first shock is the difference between her maximalist "Born To Die" sound and this bare bones guitar accompaniment. The second one is that she in and out of a Southern accent on these songs, something she never does on her released work. Many folk and folk-revivalist singers put on a Southern accent, with a famous example being Minnesotan folk singer Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan. Lana's motivation here seems to be genre-motivated, but unlike Taylor Swift, she's not committed to the accent. She uses a smaller range of features. It's noticeable that she uses the ai-monophthongization pretty rarely, as this is actually one of the defining features of what is called Southern American English.

After the professionally-recorded 2005-2006 era songs, we get a change in style. Some of the following songs were recorded as laptop demos and made with an extremely simple finger-picking pattern on the guitar. Others were professionally made with producers in the studio. She uses a variety of stage names, but she often goes by Lizzy Grant. What's interesting is that as her sound moves away from "singer with a guitar," her accent still lingers on Southern features.

By 2008, Lana had come up with the name "Lana" and wanted to use it. She released an EP in 2008 called "Kill Kill," but still under the name Lizzy Grant. She spent the next two years recording what would become her full-length debut album, "Lana Del Ray". This artistic period is noticeable for featuring an interest in Americana and white working class aesthetic. She talks about trailer parks and American states. Her use of a Southern accent no longer has anything to do with genre expectations and instead deals in associations with the people who actually speak it. This continues from her early themes in the "May Jailer" songs, that of problems encountered by normal people.

  • /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). This is one of Lana's most commonly used Southern features.
    • "Another night I'm waitin'." - Next To Me, Sirens (2005)
    • "The record spins." - Methamphetamines, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2006).
    • "And I will." - Oh Say Can You See, Lana Del Ray (2010).
  • /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).
    • "My mean daddy." - Pretty Baby, Sirens (2005)
    • "I'm in the back doin' crack." - Boarding School (live), Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
  • /ɔ/ 🔊 → /ɑɒ/ 🔊 : Words like "bought" /bɔt/ that have a low, back vowel instead have a diphthong that sounds like "baut." (If like me, you rhyme bot and bought, then ‘bought’ will probably not have the [ɔ] vowel but the [ɑ] vowel so it sounds like [bɑt] 🔊. Instead, think about the vowel used in ‘bore’, without the ‘r’.)
    • "I don't know why it is that I wanna stay." - Fordham Road, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2005)
  • /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])
    • "High Christmas lights [...] I said yes Bill, I will." - Trash Magic, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2007)
    • "You look like a Florida Native." - Elvis, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
  • Lana uses a lot of zero-morpheme forms (that is to say, they do not have the -s they would have in Standard American English).
    • "There's a place on Valentine that still charge ninety cent." - Fordham Road, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2005)
    • "Hear the way that he moan." - Money Hunny, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2005)
    • "Fifty baby doll dress for my I do. It only take two hours to Nevada." - Yayo, Lana Del Ray (2010)
  • She also uses other non-standard grammatical forms, like "done" as a past-tense marker and "was" as the past-tense conjugation of "to be" for "you."
    • "I done known a hoodlum and you don't pass the test." - My Momma, May Jailer (2005)
    • "My momma wouldn't say you was a good boy." - My Momma, May Jailer (2005)
  • She does not limit herself to just using a Southern accent, but also talks about other people who have Southern accents, and invokes Southern imagery liberally:
    • "You look like a Florida Native. 'Are you,' I said, at the rate of slow molasses, 'from the State of Vermont, with a Southern drawl?'" - Elvis, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
    • "Dance at night back in Alabama." - Pin-Up Galore, Unreleased - Lizzy Grant (2008)
    • "It's the voodoo Mississippi south." - Raise Me Up (Mississippi South), Lana Del Ray (2010)

"Lana Del Ray" has a subtitle - AKA Lizzy Grant. She was beginning to transition professionally to her new stage name. After the album's short release in 2010, she was being shopped around to various producers and produced a diverse and often poppy body of work. After she committed to Lana Del Rey as a stage name, her use of Southern accents drops precipitously. She was moving from simple songs about a sweet trailer love to larger than life topics like honoring the love of your dead mafioso sugar daddy. Her Southern accent period coincided with "real" topics about "real" people trying to get by, make their relationships work, and also find meaning in a lonely universe. As her work became less grounded in a reality most people could relate to, it rejected the Southern accent.

Tawkin’ Bout My Generation

Lana also likes to use a New York City accent in her music. Now let’s clear something up - Lana Del Rey does not natively speak with a New York accent. Listen to any one of her interviews and you’ll be hard pressed to hear any of the distinguishing features associated with the region. This is unsurprising because she grew up in Lake Placid in upstate New York, not New York City. Lana certainly identified with New York City though, being that she was born there and she started her music career singing in Williamsburg and other hip locales. She didn't use this accent in the beginning of her music - she starts using it around 2010-11, which is the time when she's transitioned to going by "Lana Del Rey" as opposed to "Lizzy Grant."

One of the key elements in when Lana starts dropping "oall" into her songs is another recurring theme she talks about - gangsters. New York accents are associated with mobsters, due to the proliferation of the Italian mafia in the city. While one of her earliest songs ("For K" or "Drive-By") deals with the topic of a loved one going to prison, she starts romanticizing the idea of being in love with a gangster in 2010, around the same time she starts using these New York pronunciations and commits to calling herself "Lana Del Rey." A Southern accent would have been out of place here since there isn't any connection between the mafia and the American South, and Southern accents bring to mind images of a rural, friendly area - quite the opposite of city-smart wise-guys. For the most part, Lana still sticks to her General American accent, but she doesn't hold herself back from slipping in some features that show her character's allegiance to mobsters and big city life.

Curiously enough, she really ramps up her usage of the New York accent in Ultraviolence, which was based around the idea of a West Coast sound. "Shades of Cool," "Brooklyn Baby," and "Fucked My Way Up To The Top" all make use of it. Honeymoon uses it to a lesser extent in "High by the Beach" and "Terrence Loves You." Lust For Life, a mostly accent-free album, abandons the "doag" and "oall" in exchange for the subtler "paa-radise" in "Get Free."

  • /ɔ/ 🔊 → [ɔa] 🔊 : The sound in words like 'bought' sounds more like 'bo-at.' New Yorkers also expand this sound to appear in words that it wouldn't in other accents, like dog and boss. (If like me, you rhyme cot and caught, then ‘caught’ will probably not have the [ɔ] vowel but the [a] vowel, like 'spa'. Instead think about the vowel used in ‘bore’, without the ‘r’.)
    • “Use your one phone call on your ex-girl, boo.” - TV In Black & White, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • "You can be the boss, daddy, you can be the boss [...] sick as a dog [...]I tried to be strong but I lost it [...] a fire in his eyes, no I saw it." - You Can Be The Boss (live), Unreleased, Lana Del Rey. (2012)
    • "White bikini off with my red nail polish." - Off to the Races (live), Born To Die (2012).
    • "Caught up in the game." - Blue Jeans, Born To Die (2012).
    • "And when he calls, he calls for me [...] he calls for me" - Shades of Cool, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • "Talking 'bout that newer nation." - Brooklyn Baby, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • "Life is awesome, I confess." - Fucked my way up to the Top, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • "The truth is I never bought into your bullshit." - High by the Beach, Honeymoon (2015)
  • In British English, the sounds /ɛ/ and /æ/ remain distinct before the 'r' sound. This means words like merry, Kerry, and America [ɛr] have the same vowel as in 'met' 🔊, while marry, carry, and pharaoh [ær] have the same vowel as in 'mat' 🔊. Most Americans use /ɛ/ for all of these words. The Northeast, and especially New York, preserves this distinction wholly. Observe how she says paradise, which is the word she most uses /ær/ in.
    • “Take me down to paradise.” - Paradise, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • “It’s like a dark paradise.” - Dark Paradise, Born To Die (2012)
    • “And all my birds of paradise.” - Get Free, Lust For Life (2017)
  • Lana identifies with New York City. There is no shortage of references to New York City in her songs.
    • “Everybody knows - they call me Brooklyn baby” - True Love on the Side, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2010)
    • “I’m a Brooklyn Baby” - Brooklyn Baby, Ultraviolence (2014)
    • “I'm your little harlot, scarlet, queen of Coney Island.” - Off to the Races, Born to Die (2012)

Crazy y Cubano Como Yo

Lana has not been content to stick to English - she’s also dabbled in foreign languages. Spanish is the foreign language she uses most, probably because she seems to speak it pretty well and she claims to have done volunteering work in Spanish. She says she came up with the name "Lana Del Rey" because she was in Miami a lot and hanging out with Cubans, and the name "reminded her of the glamour of the seaside." This Cuban relation could explain why, on "West Coast," she says "he's crazy y Cubano como yo [and Cuban like me]" - although she's not Cuban, so the line is still unusual. This is another case where she may want to bring a certain city image to life - there are plenty of Spanish speakers in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. She even portrays some sort of Hispanic gang in her film Tropico.

She uses Italian in one song, "Salvatore." It appears to be about her then-boyfriend Francesco, an Italian photographer. She has French on some of her songs (though she doesn't actually say the French herself in most of them) like "Moi Je Joue" and "Carmen," and uses a French pronunciation of "Jean-Paul Gaultier, Versace" in "Breaking My Heart." A common thread in her foreign language use is that it's limited to words that are easy to decipher for English speakers, especially Americans who may have taken Spanish as a second language at some point in school. Like with her New York accent, she chooses the most recognizable features or words and peppers her songs with them.

Translations for the below will be given in brackets.

  • "Lights, camera, acción [action]." - Put Me In A Movie, Lana Del Ray (2010)
  • "I can speak Spanish, you can sing for the neighbors." - Back to the Basics, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
  • She's done the monologue from Carmen in Spanish in live shows.
  • Yo soy la princesa [I am the princess], comprende mis [understand my] white lines.” - Ultraviolence, Ultraviolence (2014)
  • “He’s crazy y Cubano como yo [and Cuban like me].” - West Coast, Ultraviolence (2014)
  • Cacciatore [hunter] [...] ciao amore [bye, love]” - Salvatore, Honeymoon (2015)
  • "Lights, camera, acción [action]." - High By The Beach, Honeymoon (2015)

Lana-isms

Lana has many features that go into her unique sound, but don't tie back neatly to a single dialect. These little ticks are affectionately referred to here as Lana-isms. Some of these are related to making sure a word fits into the song's meter. Others are trying to evoke a certain image, like hip-hop or Hollywood. Some do double duty and perform both those functions. There are also some lexical items she uses frequently, which she's become famous for (party dress, diamonds, the pale moonlight, etc.). These are interesting because they don't seem to be cribbed from one singer or style in particular, but rather have been accumulated over the years as she became exposed to new influences. They are consistent with her use of foreign languages and New York City English in that she avoids using them throughout an entire song and instead uses them at key moments. This makes them more noticeable and stand-out.

  • Inserting vowels in the middle of words, a process called Epenthesis. Lana likes to insert a neutral 'uh' sound /ə/ in the middle of words so that they can fit the meter of the song, or use a spelling pronunciation ("different") to add an extra syllable. One interesting example below is the "Hit & Run" one, where the demo is missing the 'uh' sound but the final version has it. There's a variation where she instead stresses part of a diphthong (Saigon) or adds a sound that appears in the spelling but not the pronunciation (ovation). She has more dedication to fitting the meter than she does to the standard syllable structure of a word, which shows the extent to which she is willing to "color outside the lines" to achieve a certain aesthetic effect.
    • "You got a diff-e-rent story." - Wait, May Jailer (2005)
    • "Give me a standing ov-a-ti-on." - National Anthem, Born To Die (2012)
    • "You have to live life deadly / Together we'd be dead-a-ly." - Hit & Run (Demo & Final), Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2010)
    • "Mary swaying soft-a-ly." - Body Electric, Paradise (2012)
  • Lana has a preoccupation with old-school Hollywood glamour. A lot of this is expressed in terms of reference to icons like Marilyn or California, but some of it appears in how she speaks as well. She uses a three-syllable pronunciation for 'diamonds' instead of a two-syllable pronunciation; this pronunciation is an older one and can be heard in classic Hollywood films. Her use of 'daddy' is likely influenced by old films as well - see here for further details. She even briefly fakes a Transatlantic accent in one of her songs, dropping her 'r's and using a high [ɐ] sound in words like 'love' and 'above' - all wrapped in an old-timey microphone filter. She's name-dropped Hollywood icons before 2010, but these pronunciations all appear after 2010.
    • "Do you think you'll buy me lots of diamonds?" - National Anthem (Demo & Final), Unreleased & Born to Die (2010 & 2012)
    • "If you should go before me then know that I've always loved you - there's no one above you, baby." - Hollywood's Dead, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • "Diamonds, brilliant [...] like diamonds." - Young & Beautiful, The Great Gatsby Soundtrack (2013)
  • Lana uses a lot of hip hop slang, but she does not affect an African American Vernacular dialect. Her rapped lines are instead done in her General American accent. The number of hip-hop references she makes increases after 2010, once she retired the whole Lizzy Grant aesthetic.
    • "Salvatore, you can def' be my baby boo." - Backfire, Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2010)
    • "Dope... that's sick." - Unreleased - Lana Del Rey (2011)
    • "You're so fresh to death and sick as cancer. You were sorta punk rock, I grew up on hip-hop." - Blue Jeans, Born To Die (2012)

Out of the Black, Into the Blue

There's an interesting shift in Lana's use of accent. Her early career as a folk singer featured a more or less constant use of a type of Southern accent. She kept this accent at the start of her jazzy/surf-rock period when she went by some variation of Lizzy Grant, but it started to decline in frequency. We know "Lana" as a name was on her mind by 2008 because it comes up in a song of hers, but she starts going by Lana more in 2009. After that period, her musical style changes and is based more on electronic instrumentation and even upbeat pop sounds, while her lyrics become more cinematic. By 2010, when she's recorded demos for Born To Die, she's already started using parts of a New York accent and some Lana-isms like the hip-hop slang and the old-fashioned pronunciation of "diamonds." She made special use of the New York accent on Ultraviolence, but by the time she released Honeymoon and Lust For Life, she was starting to leave the choice accent bits out.

Lana is famous for cultivating a very particular aesthetic, one that is mostly visual and lyrical. I would argue that part of this aesthetic is also dialectal. Being that she is not from the South, did not grow up in New York, is not a native Spanish speaker, and is not a film star from the 1950s, her little appropriations would be hard to explain using the argument that she actually speaks all these variants. They only have a vague connection to genre - sure, folk music can be associated with the American South, but surf rock? What genre is a New York accent associated with, show tunes and 80s hip-hop? It's clear that she's lifting from other accents to take advantage of the existing associations they already have. In doing so, she's created a linguistically diverse oeuvre and carved out a voice for herself in a competitive market. Like Taylor, she's learned you don't have to be Southern all the time, but Lana has instead operated outside typical genre. Some people may find her schtick repetitive, but it is unmistakably hers.

February 16, 2018

Feb-12 Recap

The end of another week! I apologize for the relatively skimpy content this week. I got sick one week and unexpectedly fell behind on my content production quota. This particularly bad cold has made me realize that a biweekly update is not very feasible to maintain with my current life conditions. With that being said, I am switching to updating once a week. I haven't fixed the date yet, but right now I am going to aim for Wednesday. I will continue doing Friday posts, only they'll probably change from being "recaps" (since there's only one post to recap) to general updates on the blog. I'll continue to comment on general linguistics news (and any interesting musical observations as well!).

This week I included a sneak preview of a research vein I'm looking at, the intertwined origins of Max Martin and "babay." I also gave you all a very superficial introduction to some interestingly named syntactic jargon.

I do have some good news for you all: all the audio clips for the next Dialect Dissection are ready! To make up for this week's lack of content, I hope to bring you the next Dialect Dissection next week. I'm very excited about this one because it's on one of my favorite singers.

I'll be with you again next week - hopefully healthier this time.

- Karen

February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day!

Hello to all my readers! Whether you're celebrating a romantic relationship, a friendship, or your own independence, I hope you have a lovely Valentine's Day. Here's a meme I made for my alma mater's linguistics club back when the first Fifty Shades movie was coming out:

"What is this filth you've published here?" Fun fact - all of these terms are totally real and used in syntax all the time! Domination is one of the most basic relationships in syntax. Binding is another centrally important one, and it was especially important in the 70s when "government and binding" theory was all the rage. I think every intro to syntax student has sort of chuckled at how these terms sound kinky today. They weren't exactly making movies like Fifty Shades back in those days, so it's not like they were watching out for the optics.

Syntax has other terminology problems to worry about. For example: a "verb phrase" is abbreviated as "VP." But at some point, someone wanted to have something else that started with "v" to have a phrase. The solution was to make the "v" lowercase and call it... "little v." Another interesting terminology choice is "probe," which has a specialized meaning in syntax but is also used in papers to talk about, well, probing for something. Authors sometimes have to clarify what type of "probe" they mean.

If this all sounds like pretty poor naming, that's because it is. I'll leave you with another image made for my old linguistics club. Remember to always practice safe syntax!


February 12, 2018

January 12 - Sick Day

Hey! You may have noticed there was no post today. That's because I contracted a cold over the weekend that left me feeling pretty bad. Unfortunately I was not able to write up a post in time for today. I'm quite sorry about that, and I'm looking into options to have back-ups in case I am unable to post on time.

If you'd like a heads-up on what I'm working on, I found an interesting lead for a future article. If you'll remember the article on happy-laxing ("happih") vs happy-breaking ("happay") I did ("Oh Babih Babay"), my conclusion on where happy-breaking came from in music was that Max Martin basically started it. I admit I wasn't fully satisfied with this explanation, because it left the question of where Max Martin got it from in the first place. Sure, he could have made it up entirely, but that's not quite satisfactory. There has to be something else to it. I found out an interesting tidbit that he sings all his demos himself and then asks artists to sing them just as he sings them. If that's the case, then it explains why songs linked to him have that feature - he himself is doing it, not just asking artists to do it. But where he got it from is the real question, since this feature is very rare before the 90s. There's further research to be done on this, but I think we're getting closer to definitively finding out where happy-breaking comes from in pop music.

Progress has stalled a little on the Dialect Dissection, mostly with regards to getting all the audio clips. The writing is mostly in place. If you want further hints on who this dialect dissection is about, let me tell you that this singer has been in the news recently, but not for the most positive things.

I hope you all have a great day, and make sure to protect yourself from sickness! If you're in a place that offers a flu vaccine, get a flu vaccine! Stay at home if you're sick so you don't spread it to others! Your health is important! I'll be back next time.

- Karen

February 9, 2018

Feb-5 Recap

Happy end-of-the-week! Firstly, I'd like to welcome new readers who have come here through Twitter and found my Taylor Swift Dialect Dissection. I have received many kind comments from you about the article, so thank you very much for that. If you liked that, hang around: I have another dialect dissection coming soon. I also post about the intersection of linguistics and music in general (sometimes I cheat and look at other media, too), so if that's your cup of tea, we got the whole kettle.

If you're in the United States, your conversations this week have likely been dominated by the Superbowl and the Eagles victory. Maybe you've also talked about Justin Timberlake, who promoted his new album Man of the Woods at the Superbowl. My dad was surprised that Justin Timberlake was still making music. "Wasn't he popular in the 90s?" Yes, he was, and the 2000s, and spectacularly enough into the 2010s with 20/20 Vision. Those of you who've followed this blog for a while will remember that Justin Timberlake's performance on "It's Gonna Be Me" (or should I say, "It's Gonna Be May") was the inspiration for the first long read for this post, "Oh Babih Babay." It's always incredible to see such a long-lasting career, especially when the music industry is so vicious and youth-centered.

We briefly discussed the topic of accent discrimination on Monday. Now accent discrimination and how we perceive people with certain accents is a huge topic that could have several long reads - this is just a little introduction to the way that accent affects people in the courtroom.

For the portion of my audience that doesn't know what those funny letters I keep using my articles are, I've made a post about the International Phonetic Alphabet and how to learn it. One of my long-term goals is to make a reference section for those of you who aren't coming to this site with prior linguistics knowledge. Don't worry, I got you. For those of you who do know about this stuff already, I won't ever post more than one reference post a week. Remember, we were all once little linguistics babies.

The next Dialect Dissection is going very well, and I fully expect to have it up next week! If you want some hints as to who it's going to be about, perhaps check out my Twitter or Instagram for hints... If you'd like to know what I'm up to and working on that's not big enough to merit a mention in the recap, I recommend following me on your social media platform of choice.

Thank you all for another week, and I'll see you on Monday!

- Karen

February 7, 2018

Crash Course - International Phonetic Alphabet

If you're confused about what those funny symbols I use in my Dialect Dissection articles are, worry no more. I've written up a crash course to learn the IPA. It's focused on decoding the names of sounds in the IPA so that you can look at the chart and learn the sounds yourself. I personally found learning the IPA to be empowering in a way - once you know the 'recipe' to making each sound, nothing but practice is stopping you from being able to make that sound.

This page is definitely a crash course. One thing I'd like to do in the future is to make a longer tutorial to learning the different sounds of the IPA, how to practice them, resources you can use, etc. Basically, an elaborated version of what's in the crash course. Ideally it would involve video since some of this stuff is really best explained using video. That would be a long work in progress, though, so far now I recommend checking out the crash course.

For those of you who already know the IPA, apologies! I'm trying to make this site accessible to both people already familiar with linguistic concepts as well as laymen, so sometimes I will make reference pages about topics that may be obvious to you but not so easy for someone just learning about this stuff. Don't worry, I'm not going to spend the next couple of weeks pumping out reference articles. In the meantime, those of you prior IPA fans may be interested in checking out some IPA scarves sold by All Things Linguistic. I promise, I'm not a shill for her - just excited.

February 5, 2018

Accent Matters

A friend of mine from New York shared a post on Facebook that read, "Don't ever underestimate New York ladies!" If you hadn't watched the rest of the movie, you'd get the impression that this scene is about a woman being underestimated as stupid, partly due to her thick New York accent. The turnaround comes when it turns out that she is actually extremely knowledgeable, and without having to compromise her identity or hide her origins. Considering that the friend who shared this has a New York accent, I wondered if this may have been relevant to her.

Unfortunately, having a non-Standard accent can have real consequences in the courtroom. All Things Linguistic posted a link to a video on the consequences of lack of accent-awareness. In short, people with non-standard dialects can find that their deposition is not accurately represented in text because the court reporter was not familiar with their accent. This is an egregious example of how speakers of non-standard dialects can find themselves let down by the system they live in. Even if their speech is accurately represented, they still have to overcome prejudices which can affect how they are viewed.

The unfortunate reality is that people are more than willing to judge someone by their accent. "Accent discrimination" by itself is unlikely to happen; when someone is discriminated because of their accent, it's more because of what their accent means about them. Someone with a strong New York accent could face prejudice because an employer could assume they are rude and uneducated. Someone with a Southern accent could find that people are less likely to take them seriously because they are assumed to be uneducated hicks. If you speak African American Vernacular English, even at the most formal register, you can still end up discriminated against and being discounted for racist reasons. The same goes for Chicano English. And all this is just American-specific - every language that has multiple dialects will allow for this.

Rachel Jeantel, 19-year-old star witness for the case, testified for six hours in her Haitian-influenced version of AAE (she is trilingual, also fluent in Spanish and Haitian Creole) about the night of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Jeantel was on the phone with Martin in the minutes immediately before Zimmerman shot and killed him, making her testimony uniquely valuable. Jeantel was widely criticized on social media and in the comments sections of online news outlets for her speech and demeanor, derided as uneducated and untrustworthy, and incorrectly portrayed as illiterate after she struggled to read a handwritten cursive note in court. Rickford and King, citing evidence that Jeantel’s testimony was not mentioned in the more than 16 hours of jury deliberation, argue that jurors acquitted Zimmerman because they could not “hear, understand, or believe her.” “Her crucial testimony was dismissed as incomprehensible and not credible,” they conclude. (Source)

What can alleviate this? As per the above video, having access to interpreters or court recorders who are familiar with non-Standard varieties is important. In the United States, there have occasionally been calls for African American English interpreters in response to testimony by AAE speakers being dismissed as incomprehensible. There are arguments for and against having dedicated interpreters - I recommend checking that article out to see them in detail.

Part of the reason I focus so much on accent and dialect is because I want people to understand that speaking a different dialect is not a marker of low intelligence, nor does it say anything about your character. All it says is something about where you grew up. Mocking someone for happening to speak a dialect that is farther from the Standard is unfair. For dialects that are especially different from the Standard, learning the Standard can require as much effort as learning a different language. There needs to be more understanding of how dialect and accent works. Otherwise, we will continue to fail and unfairly penalize people who speak a different dialect.

February 2, 2018

Jan-29 Review

Man, how about those Grammys, huh? No? Okay, let's move on to the topic of the blog. Much to my disappointment, I could not end up finishing the next Dialect Dissection article in time for you all this week. You can definitely look forward to it next month. In reality, it's probably unrealistic to expect anything less than a month in-between Dialect Dissections. Luckily this one was already half completed and is on its way to being finished. A lot of progress has also been made on the other long-form article (still a surprise).

Firstly, a continued thanks to everyone that's reading! I'd like to extend a special thank you to Neal Whitman of Literal Minded for retweeting my Taylor Swift article! Literal Minded is one of the best examples of a linguistics blog that still reaches out to laymen out there. I highly recommend checking it out; his post on "a-yo" is a lot of fun and uses plenty of music examples.

This week saw my continued fascination with how song titles have changed nowadays. Of particular interest to me is the process for picking song titles that appears to have little rhyme or reason to me. What's the deal? Is this some streaming-influenced development? We also talked about another song title, Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You." This song title is pretty interesting to me as someone interested in English dialects. It's one of the more personalized aspects of the song.

Some important news: the Tumblr is now live! The Tumblr will focus on finding funny or interesting linguistics-related material and providing commentary. If you want to keep up with new articles from this blog, I will also post updates on the Tumblr to let you know when new posts come around. Follow to make sure you never miss a post! ;) The Facebook is still a work in progress. That one will be updated a little less frequently than the Tumblr, but if you prefer Facebook as your news feed, I'll still have you covered.

I've also decided on Monday and Wednesday as definite update days, with Friday as the recap day and Tuesday and Thursday as optional update days for if I just have too much time-sensitive stuff to post in a week. If you've been holding off on subscribing because you're tired of the emotional strain of following blogs that never update on a schedule, you can trust me not to let you down. ;)

Personal news: I saw Lana Del Rey in concert and let me tell you, she's just the sweetest. It was a trip hearing her say words like "Floridian" and "Miami" and "daddy" live. I probably won't do General Admission next time, though, because I am utterly exhausted in a way I did not know it was possible to be from a concert. I also think I overheard some pop music fans because who else would say "she invented sitting" and "queen of swings" (actual quotations)?

I'm looking forward to seeing you all next week. Have a lovely weekend!

- Karen