Search Ace Linguist

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.

- 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.