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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.

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!