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July 18, 2018

Dialect Dissection: Ariana Grande

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

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

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


Has It Always Been This Way?

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

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

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

One Less Problem Without You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the big reasons that Ariana may be pronouncing word is that she is changing their syllable structure. Let's say C stands for consonant and V stands for vowel. The changes seem to be trying to make words fit into a CVCV syllable structure, with as few consonant clusters as possible and eliminating final consonants. This is why she inserts an 'uh' sounds in "butta right" - the consonant cluster resulting from "but right" changes from CVCCVC to CVCVCVC. Adding the 'uh' broke up the series of consonants. The gemination also simplifies a consonant cluster from two different sounds to two of the same sound. L-vocalization and final consonant deletion result in the coda, or last part of a syllable, being a vowel instead of a consonant: CVC becomes CV. Consonant clusters tend to be harder for singers to sing, so Ariana's singing register involves changing and opening up the syllable structure - often resulting in the listener not knowing how to "put it back together," so to speak.

Regional Pronunciation

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

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

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

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

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

Now That We've Become Who We Really Are

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

July 5, 2018

7-5 Blog Update

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

UPDATE: What's that?

It's in the mobile, too!

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

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

- Karen