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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!


  1. i love ari and this article!

  2. It's bizarre how many of these "techniques" are entirely familiar (and even desirable?) in music but would sound ridiculous in conversational speech. Do Regina Spektor next!

  3. Thank you for this in-depth and insightful article! As someone who loves pop music and have noticed these trends but could never put them into words, I am so glad to learn and have a linguist really lay down some of the theory and concepts behind the voices of my favourite singers. You clearly really know what you're talking about, thank you for the clear effort and research into Ariana Grande's mannerisms

  4. I'm not generally a fan of hers, but I heard a song on the radio that I couldn't stop singing. I thought the lyrics were saying "break your neck" in a savage kind of break up way. Haha...then someone pointed out she was saying thank you, next.

    Then I realized all of the songs I couldn't understand were hers and now I'm here. 😁

  5. what do you think of when she adds a larg consontant like in "my one" of god is a woman?
    Sounding like "mah uaNNNN"
    thanks, great articule.
    Love, xo

  6. what do you think of when she adds a larg consontant like in "my one" of god is a woman?
    Sounding like "mah uaNNNN"
    thanks, great articule.
    Love, xo

  7. I just noticed another thing/error if you want to call it such. When she sings the word "free" like in the song Break Free, she sounds like she's saying "fwee". No offense, but I have a 4 year old who speaks better as far as pronunciation is concerned. I thought maybe Ariana just had speech issues, but now it almost seems like she's doing this all on purpose. Hmm...🤔

    1. Not only does she sing fwee, she also sings "bweak" instead of break.

  8. Btw, love this article. Very well written. Glad I'm not the only one who noticed her bizarre speech patterns.

  9. This was a very interesting article to read, because I was watching her documentary and I couldn’t understand a word she was singing, and it was driving me crazy. That’s when I decided to look up if I was the only one who can’t understand her, and it turns out I’m not

  10. Great article and well dissected. Could auto-tune be helping with the change of pronunciation at all or at least blur the lines a bit more than they already are. I know she is using R&B and rap stylings but she can be downright inarticulate when she sings. I am happy to know I wasn't the only one that couldn't understand what she sings. I love when they subtitle the lyrics in her vids - and the words/titles don't even seem to match up half the time. Actually the work you have done isn't just good, it is great and so precise. Thank you for taking the time to do this and for making a few of us know they we weren't crazy, she can't enunciate while she sings.

  11. Great article! Maybe I missed it, but curious where her vocal range plays into this.

  12. the bit about the CVCVCV was very interesting and definitely explains a lot of the enunciation issues i've noticed!

  13. She is clearly imitating a Mexican-American accent. This accent has all the sounds you listed and a little more. It's listed in Wikipedia as Chicano English accent. It's noted for its nasally, soft l, intonation (notably Asiatic feature). Ariana buzzes and hums in this specific accent way. And her sort tan and surgeries add to her look. It's cultural appropriation and she is getting away with it mostly because there is no young Mexican American starlet out there. She is taking her place.