July 1, 2019

July 1 Site Update

Hello! Just wanted to let you all know that I'm alive and kickin'.

The modern expectation for constant content posted weekly, daily, or multiple times a day means that if a site takes a while to update, it can seem dead. I myself sometimes fret over whether I need to pump out more constant content.

But my goal isn't to compete with sites that are bringing you content all the time. My goal is to produce novel research on understudied linguistic phenomena - and that's not beholden to any schedule. I can spend months researching a topic and only find the lynchpin tying it all together at the very end, in a completely unexpected way. If I had given myself a goal to produce a Dialect Dissection every month, for example, I would miss out on so many important things to include.

That being said, since I have also let the Twitter take a break, I figured I should post on here to reassure everyone that there is new material coming. I've been trying to take a break from social media for typical time consumption reasons, but if I don't use Twitter as much, I have to communicate with you all somehow.

I'm planning on doing the first major rewrites of (a) older articles that I did when the site's focus and style wasn't clearly established and (b) articles that I have since found important connections and which require more than a cursory update to explain. Although you may think that rewrites should come faster than new articles, there is enough new information in them to make them take as much time, not to mention that figuring out how to incorporate the old material in there is a challenge in and of itself.

I would like to thank the regular site visitors that have left comments on my posts - I love hearing from you all! And anyone who's decided to give this humble site a read - another thank you to you.

There is more to come in 2019 for Ace Linguist, so stay tuned!

- Karen

June 3, 2019

Because You Just Told Me - Presupposition in Fiction

I’ve been listening to Lingthusiasm episodes over again and hit upon the presupposition episode. If you haven’t heard it yet, you should check it out (or read the transcript if you’re not a fan of podcasts).

What’s a presupposition

A presupposition is an implicit assumption about the world that is taken for granted in an utterance. Presupposition is an important concept in pragmatics, semantics, and philosophy (a lot of the work that has been done on presupposition has actually been done by philosophers as opposed to linguists). We presuppose many things all the time, because actually having to state every single thing in a sentence that exists would take a long time.

“The sheep are grazing.”

This sentence presupposes that there are things, sheep, and that they are capable of doing an action, such as grazing. This seems obvious, but if you change this…

“The matriniax are grazing.”

This presupposes we know what a matriniax is. Do you know? I don’t know either. In this case, we would have benefitted from a prior description of what a matriniax is. As it stands, we can’t really understand this sentence except for that there is a thing, a matriniax, that there are many of them, and they are capable of grazing. The nature of matriniax is unknown to us.

There are plenty of words and grammatical situations that trigger presupposition. Wikipedia has a pretty good list.

As an example of the philosophical interest of presupposition, think about what it means for a presupposition to be false. The most famous example is “The King of France is bald.” There is no person alive right now who can be called “the king of france.” Does that mean that this sentence is false? But if this sentence is false, then that means that “the kind of france is not bald” must be true, and that sentence cannot be true because there is no king of France. Some philosophers say that a negative presupposition results in a statement without a truth value - a statement that is neither true nor false.

Using Presuppositions for Effect

One thing McCulloch mentions is presupposition in the Lizzie Bennet diaries, where Lizzie’s sister pretends not to have watched an episode of Lizzie’s diary. Lizzie asks, “you just want to know about Darcy’s letter, don’t you?” Darcy’s letter was mentioned earlier. Lizzie’s sister says “No I don’t!” which outs her as having watched Lizzie’s diary - there’s no way she would know about Darcy’s letter otherwise. Outed by presupposition.

This is a pretty popular technique in fiction. TV Tropes has a page dedicated to the trope, although they do not mention how presupposition plays into it. Presupposition in media can be used for dramatic effect for one character to verify knowledge by presupposing it.

Some additional examples: in the musical Legally Blonde, Elle is part of the defense team of Brooke Wyndham, who has been accused of murdering her husband to run away with her poolboy. Elle suspects that her poolboy is lying about having been amorously involved with Elle because she thinks he’s gay. Her colleague Emmett decides to prod him by asking him, “And your first name again is?” with the poolboy responding appropriately, and then asking “and your boyfriend’s name?” and the poolboy replies “Carlos,” shocking everyone. Emmett presupposes that the poolboy had a boyfriend, and the poolboy absentmindedly confirms his presupposition instead of challenging it. This reveal leads Carlos to show up and declare that the poolboy is indeed gay, and has never been involved with any woman.

In an actual courtroom, presuppositions can be dangerous. Presuppositions can be used to create loaded questions, such as “when did you stop smoking?" which presupposes that smoking - of a legal or illegal sort - must have taken place. The defendant, if they have never smoked before, must make the clarification: "I have never smoked."

Villains can also make use of presupposition. One of my favorite examples is from Sonic Adventure 2. Tails and Sonic were offering a fake Chaos Emerald to Dr. Eggman, who was trying to collect all 7 for nefarious purposes. However, Dr. Eggman imprisons Sonic as he's approaching, and he states, “You didn’t think you could fool me with that fake chaos emerald, could you?” Tails, believing he’s been caught, asks “how did you know that was fake?” Sonic tries to get Tails to stop, but it’s too late. Dr. Eggman replies, “because you just told me, fox boy!” Here presupposition is used to confirm information that one is not certain about - as in Legally Blonde where the poolboy could have been gay or European, Dr. Eggman knows that there is a fake emerald, but he wanted to confirm it was fake, likely to rub it in their faces.

Note: volume increases a lot in the second half of the video.

May 27, 2019

The Colt-Cult merger?

I was once at a dinner party with some colleagues, and a co-worker of mine was explaining to another co-worker a story they had heard about the eclipse which had happened in 2016.

A: It turns out that they were actually in a cult.

B: A colt? Like a baby horse?

A: No, not a colt, a cult, with a leader.

B: Oh, you mean a cult!

What had happened in this exchange? Co-worker A pronounced 'cult' as [kolt], with a vowel similar to 'cold' [kold]. But B pronounced 'cult' with a low, unrounded vowel: [kʌlt], with the vowel of 'cut' [kʌt]. Moreover, co-worker B pronounced 'colt' and 'cult' differently: [kolt] and [kʌlt], while co-worker A pronounced the same: [kolt]. This is an example of a new merger I'm tentatively calling the 'colt-cult' merger (although I've also seen it called the hull-hole merger). This is when /ʌl/ and /ol/ merge to /ol/, so that words like 'colt', 'cult', 'hull', and 'hole' all have the same [o] vowel. The realization of the 'ul' vowel can be lower, so "culled" would be [kɔld] (and similar to old American 'called').

This seems to be a merger that happened on the phonological level, because before I started reading about English dialectology, I had no idea that "cult" and "colt" were supposed to have different vowel qualities. Perhaps "cult" had a slightly lower vowel, but to me they were similar enough that you could make a pun out of it. I recall watching an episode of Bones where the protagonist, Temperance Brennan, very clearly said "skull" [skʌl] with a low, back, unrounded vowel, and thinking that was odd. It turns out, historically, the odd one is me.

There are some particularities to this. All the people I know with this merger speak American English, but it's not limited to any region. Co-worker B was from Pennsylvania, whereas I am from Florida. The Americans I've met who have this pronunciation pronounce /ol/ without a diphthong. This is in contrast to /o/ anywhere else. This means "go" has a diphthong but "gold" has a monophthong.

While there are many historic vowel changes before /l/, this merger seems to be on-going because there isn't a lot of research or awareness on it. Information on it includes this uncited quote from Wikipedia, but about English English: "The hull–hole merger is a conditioned merger of /ʌ/ and /oʊ/ before /l/ occurring for some speakers of English English with l-vocalization. As a result, "hull" and "hole" are homophones as [hɔʊ]." The realization of this merger would certainly be quite different from the American one, because the American one retains /l/ in both situations. Labov, Ash, and Boberg's he Atlas of North American English (2006) also mentions that this is a merger in American English that might require more attention in the future, but don't discuss it in depth otherwise.

Wild Speculation on where it came from

Alright, so here comes some wild speculation completely off the top of my head on why this is happening. Don't quote me on this, because these aren't developed ideas. This is just some fun free association to think about what other sound changes might be related to this merger.

One interesting commonality between co-worker A and I is that we both have the cot-caught merger. This means that we do not use the [ɔ] vowel in words that used to have it, such as "bought", "caught," "caller", and "law." We instead use the [ɑ] vowel and put those words in the same category as "bot," "cot," "coller," and "la." If you are a North American and you also have the cot-caught merger, then you may not be familiar with which words have the /ɔ/ sound or what the /ɔ/ sound even is. [ɔ] is pronounced much lower and backer in the mouth than [ɑ] - I find it helps to imagine you're an aristocratic British man or some other character from Downton Abbey, and saying "law" with as low a vowel as you can muster. As a rule of thumb, words spelled with 'aw' (law, caw), 'au' (caught), and -all (ball, all) tend to have the /ɔ/ sound. Now, we are especially interested in the ones with an /l/, so words like "ball" and "caller." While there are many words with /ɔl/, there are relatively fewer words that are pronounced /ɑl/. This list from Wiktionary shows the dire state of words that rhyme with 'oll'. (Note that this excludes words that also have the 'oll' sound like 'acknowledge'):

  • boll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • coll
  • doll
  • gnoll
  • knoll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • lol
  • loll
  • moll
  • noll
  • pol
  • poll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • quoll
  • troll (in some pronunciations; see also -əʊl)
  • vol

This means that the cot-caught merger doesn't introduce as much ambiguity before /l/. Perhaps there might be some confusion between 'caller' and 'collar,' or 'mall' and 'moll,' but overall it's not the biggest deal. A curious result of this is that I've noticed that a lot of Americans who otherwise have the cot-caught merger will still keep [ɔ] before 'l'! So they'll pronounce 'caught' and 'cot' with the same vowel [kɑt], but 'all' will have a different vowel [ɔl]. And this vowel is normally a little higher, so it's [ol]. And then the kicker comes where words which used to have 'oll' start being pronounced with [ɔl]. This is anecdotal, but I've been told that there are people who pronounce 'acknowledge' as [əknɔlədʒ]. For some folks then, /ɔl/ is spreading and covering areas that used to be /ɑl/. (I do not have this pronunciation.)

So now we have /ɔl ~ ol/ as a strange special category. Some Americans still distinguish between "caller" and "collar" while having the cot-caught merger, but what about 'call' vs 'coal'? I haven't had the opportunity to ask yet, but it would be interesting to wonder if these people who keep /ɔl ~ ol/ might merger 'call' and 'coal'. And if that's the case, might the absorption of 'cult' and 'hull' into /ɔl ~ ol/ be related? The 'uh' /ʌ/ vowel is otherwise safe in American English, but remember that strange things happen before /l/. If 'call' might be re-analyzed to be part of the same lexical set as 'coal', perhaps 'cull' might be being moved in that direction as well. Why, I'm not entirely sure from a theoretical basis. And this probably doesn't even describe the majority of people with the 'colt-cult' merger. For the record, I pronounce all /ɔl/ words with /ɑl/, so this doesn't describe me. But it seems that something is happening where words are moving between the COAL, CALL, and COLLER lexical sets, and now the CULL lexical set is joining the game.

Now that this wild and unfounded speculation on my part is done, I would love to hear if you all have any ideas on what is phonologically motivating this change. Is it related to the cot-caught merger? Are there people without the merger who still merge 'colt' and 'cult'? Are you aware of any research relating to changes in back vowels before /l/ and how it could apply to this situation? I would love to hear!

May 14, 2019

Dialect Dissection: Marina and the Diamonds' Aspirations

Marina, formerly known as Marina and the Diamonds, is a Greek-Welsh indie pop artist. You may have seen her in any number of 2012 Tumblr and Pinterest posts with a heart drawn on her cheek and wearing vintage-inspired styles, much like another alternative starlet. Although she's always been more popular in her native United Kingdom than in the United States, she is still a favorite player in the indie pop sphere. She is known for her witty lyrics, diverse production, strong aesthetic element, and most relevant to us, her immediately distinguishable style of singing.

Marina doesn’t have a well-known, persistent feature associated with her like Ariana Grande’s pronunciation or Taylor Swift’s adopted Southern accent, but she does have some interesting features that should interest fans and linguists.


Marina Diamandis was born and raised in Wales. This may be why so many people think her accent is Welsh (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). However, listening to her interviews, her accent sounds more London than Welsh. Indeed, others have noticed no trace at all of a Welsh accent in her speech. Per her own words, Marina says she used to have a Welsh accent that she lost:

Marina has never spoken at length about her accent, although she seems to feel some affinity with East London:

Interviewer: You’ve always been so vulnerable with the fans, like with the "FAQin Hell" sessions.
Marina: Does that translate in America?
Interviewer: Well, you guys have the accent, and we don’t!
Marina: Because in the U.K., it’s very, like, East London and kind of cockney to be like “Oh fackin’ hell!” But over here I didn’t know! I never even thought about how that might not actually work!

Unlike other English singers who purposefully hide their English accents in their music, Marina freely uses English English pronunciations in her music. Let's take a look at where these features appear.

  • Marina uses a short “o” [ɒ] sound in words like "orange," "forgot", and "gone." In other words, she does not have the FATHER-BOTHER merger like Americans, who instead use an 'ah' vowel for "forgot" and "gone" and the 'aw' vowel for "orange."
    • “That you are a horror [hɒrə], you're just as horrible [hɒrɨbl] as me” - Horror Pop, Mermaid vs Sailor (2007)
    • “Tall, tan, hot [hɒt], blonde [blɒnd] called Anya” - Hollywood, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • Orange, orange [ɒrɨndʒ]” - Orange Trees, Love + Fear (2019)
  • Non-rhotic "-ER" vowel. Marina often uses the [ɜ] vowel in words with an 'er' sound like 'girls', 'dirty', and 'birds.'
    • Girls [gɜlz] are not meant to fight dirty [dɜɾi]” - Girls, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • “I envy the birds [bɜdz] ... so purposefully [pɜpəsfʊli]” - Handmade Heaven, Love + Fear (2019)
  • Marry-vowel. Marina uses the 'aa' [æ] vowel of TRAP for words like 'marriage', 'guarantee', and 'paradise'. In other words, she does not have the MARRY-MERRY merger. This is in contrast to most Americans, who pronounce all these words with 'eh' [ɛ] vowel of SQUARE.
    • “Will that guarantee [gærənti] you a win?” - Mowgli’s Road, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • “Underneath it all, we're just savages hidden behind shirts, ties and marriages [mærədʒəz]” - Savages, Froot (2015)
    • "It's paradise [pærədaɪs]" - Handmade Heaven, Love + Fear (2019)
  • COT-CAUGHT distinction. Marina uses a o-like vowel [ɔ] similar to the one in the word CORE for words like 'thought', 'walk', and 'bought'. This is in contrast to most young Americans, who use the 'ah' [ɑ] vowel like in SPA for all these words, resulting in these words sounding like 'thot', 'wok', and 'bot'.
    • "Caught [kɔt] me cold so they could cut" - Rootless, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • “Baby you know what I'm talkin' [tɔkɪn] about [...] That chain of thought [θɔt] that followed me” - Forget, Froot (2015)
    • “[...] can't be bought [bɔt] or sold” - Gold, Froot (2015)
  • TRAP-lowering: In TRAP words like 'happy' and 'branch', Marina uses the [a] vowel instead of the [æ] vowel. This is used in Modern Received Pronunciation as well as in Welsh English.
    • "I never knew you had [had] such a dirty mind" - Hermit the Frog, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • "Are you satisfied, are you satisfied? [satɨsfaɪd]" - Are You Satisfied, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • Happy [hapi]” - Happy, Froot (2015)
    • "But in this handmade [hanmeɪd] heaven, I come alive. Bluebirds forever color the sky" - Handmade Heaven, Love + Fear (2019)
  • PRICE-backing. Marina pronounces the 'ay' vowel of words like PRICE further back in the mouth, so that the first part of the sequence sounds like the vowel in SPA: 'oi' [ɑɪ] or [ɒ̟ɪ]. She uses this vowel in her speech ("the creating it was quite noice"). This is a feature of Estuary English.
    • “I hoped you were a gemini [dʒɛmɪnɑɪ]“ - Horror Pop, Mermaid vs Sailor (2007)
    • “Easy to be sleazy when you've got a filthy mind [mɑɪnd], you stick to your yoghurts I'll stick to my apple pie [pɑɪ]“ - Girls, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • “Meant for a wedding toast to the bride [brɑɪd]“ - Shampain, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • “Baby I am plump and ripe, I'm pinker than shepherds delight [dilɑɪt]” - Froot, Froot (2015)
    • "But in this handmade heaven, I come alive. Bluebirds forever colour the sky [skɑɪ]" - Handmade Heaven, Love + Fear (2019)
  • Variable TRAP-BATH split. Words like "glass" are pronounced with the 'ah' [ɑ] vowel of SPA, and not with the 'aa' vowel of TRAP. However, Marina exhibits variability with this feature. In the same song, she'll pronounce "glass" with the SPA vowel as well as the TRAP vowel!
    • “When my heart just burst like a glahss [glɑs] balloon [...] We broke our glaass [glæs] balloon.” - Hermit the Frog
    • "I feel I've been riding up the wrong path [pɛæθ] but I'm gonna make sure I get the last [lɛæst] laugh [lɛæf]" - Girls, The Family Jewels (2010)

It is interesting that Marina clearly keeps a substantial amount of English English characteristics compared to major British acts, who Americanize their singing. In this way, she is more similar to The Beatles than to One Direction. Where the Beatles caught flak for continuing to use their Liverpool accents in their music, the members of One Direction were instructed to sound more American. One of the members of One Direction, Zayn Malik, made an interesting comment: "[Our song] 'What Makes You Beautiful' would sound more indie with a British accent."

Although Marina has always had ambitions of fame, she operates in the indie pop sphere, more comparable to Lana Del Rey or Florence Welch than Lady Gaga or Rihanna. The acceptable register of pronunciation for indie pop is much less strict than a genre like rock or mainstream bubblegum pop. Marina's decision to continue using her English accent is barely commented upon, and herself has not really discussed it. Perhaps, as with the 'FAQin Hell' joke, she may simply have never considered that it would be a problem. The world of pop music has become a little more linguistically accommodating.


Keeping her English accent isn't even the most linguistically notable thing about Marina, however. There is definitely something different about her pronunciation that many people have picked up on. Most people see that she's Welsh and therefore assume that any unusual pronunciations from her are because she's Welsh:

“Primadonna” had every girl wanting to put ribbons in her hair and heart on her cheek just to dance in front of a mirror with her friends, putting extra emphasis on the facial expressions and really enunciating the words with the most Marina-esque Welsh accent. Trust me, I know from experience. - (source)
She uses her Welsh accent and mezzo soprano range to good effect, switching between a powerful, heavy sound to a breathier, more feminine one effortlessly within the same song, giving the dramatic impression of different ‘characters’ or voices. - (source)
“I Am Not A Robot” is this weeks single and puts the vocals of lead singer Marina front and center. Her ability to own a song is displayed in the song as she gives us a taste of her unique Welsh accent. - (source)
She has a husky welsh accent and a very dirty laugh. - (source)

But Marina does not have a Welsh accent. A listen to her interviews is enough to show you that she has never had a Welsh accent while she's been producing music. By her own admission, she does not have a Welsh accent. (If you still think she has a Welsh accent, I encourage you to find a list of Welsh English features and point out which ones she has! There may be some lesser known features that are missing from most descriptions of Welsh English.) And although Marina's choice to use her South England accent on her music does distinguish her from American and Americanized peers, she is far from the only singer to keep her English accent - compare Ed Sheeran, who uses his local English accent, sounds nothing like Marina, and who nobody has accused of being Welsh. What's going on?

The reality is that Marina has a lot of idiosyncratic pronunciation choices that do not belong to any one accent in particular. Some of the features may be found in one accent, some in another, but there's no accent that collects all the following features together. Although I have always heard some of these in her first two major albums, The Family Jewels and Electra Heart, the first time I really noticed them was during her Froot era, where she seemed to have ratcheted their usage up. Now in the Love + Fear era, she has gone down again.

The following is a list of notable pronunciation choices that do not neatly belong to South England English, General American English, or Welsh English. Some of these features can be observed even in her independent 2007 EP Mermaid vs. Sailor, showing that these are features she has long used when recording. Don't be intimidated by the length - it's mostly a lot of examples!

  • De-aspiration.
    The English consonants “p”, “t”, and “k” are voiceless, meaning your vocal cords don’t vibrate when you make them. But they are also aspirated, meaning that there is a little puff of air that comes out after the consonant. You can test this by holding your hand in front of your mouth and saying “Poe,” “tee,” and “kay”. Whenever these consonants are at the start of a stressed syllable, they will be aspirated.

    Marina and the Diamonds has an interesting vocal tic when it comes to these consonants. She likes to lessen the amount of aspiration, or even remove the aspiration entirely. When you remove the aspiration from these consonants, they can sound “b”, “d,” and “g” respectively. Notice how the way she sings “my life is play” sounds like “my life is a blay.” She doesn’t do this all the time, but she does it consistently enough to make it a Marina-ism. This pronunciation pattern is noticeable in Indian English and varieties of English spoken by people whose native language doesn't have aspirated consonants(e.g. Greek, Spanish, Russian, Arabic).
    • “Musical c-ac-ophony [k˭ak˭ɒfəni] let insy-winsy spider free” - Seventeen, Mermaid vs Sailor (2007)
    • “Can’t let your c-old [k˭old] heart be free” - Obsessions, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • “My life is a p-lay [p˭leɪ]” - The State of Dreaming, Electra Heart (2012)
    • “And I'm sad to the core, core, core [k˭ɔ]... take a p-icture [p˭ɪtʃə] I'm with the boys ... Anything for the c-rown, c-rown, c-rown [k˭rɑʊn]” - Primadonna, Electra Heart (2012)
    • T-ough [t˭ʌf] to t-alk [t˭ɔk] to” - Starring Roles, Electra Heart (2012)
    • “I’ve seen seasons c-ome [k˭ʌm] and go from winter [wɪnt˭ə] sun to [t˭u] summer snow. This ain't my first t-ime [t˭am] at the rodeo.” - Froot, Froot (2015)
    • “It's a p-ower, it's a p-ower, it's a p-ower [p˭aʊwə] move” - Better Than That, Froot (2015)
    • “I even c’ried [k˭raɪd] but I never meant it.” - Blue, Froot (2015)
    • “I love that he pret-ends [prɪt˭ɛndz] to care […] I was born to be the tort-oise [tɔt˭ɔɪs]” - Forget, Froot (2015)
    • "But in this handmade heaven, I c-ome [kʌm] alive. Bluebirds forever c-olor [kʌlə] the sky" - Handmade Heaven, Love + Fear (2019)
    • "All of the money in this t-own [t˭aʊn]" - Karma, Love + Fear (2019)
    • "Other p-eople [p˭ipl] wanted to hurt me" - Soft to be Strong, Love + Fear (2019)
  • Very Back U. While modern London English has a fronted 'u' vowel that sounds like 'ew'[ʉ], Marina likes using an exaggeratedly backed 'u' [u] sound. This is a feature that might be inspired by Welsh English, which uses a back 'u' [u] (Wells, 1982). Greek also uses a back [u].
    • "I'm rootless [rutlɛs]" Rootless, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • "Who [hu] are you [ju] to tell me" - Hypocrates, Electra Heart (2012)
    • “Like froo-oo-oot [frut]” Froot, Froot (2015)
    • “Oh yes she did yes she did what she wanted to do [du] ... But you [ju], you [ju] can do better than, you can do better than that” - Better Than That, Froot (2015)
    • “I'll ruin, yes I'll ruin [ruɪn] you, I'll ruin... [ru]” - I’m a ruin, Froot (2015)
    • "You don't own me, but I can cut you loose [lus] ... cuz it's all about you ... you [ju]" - You, Love + Fear (2019)
  • MOUTH-backing. Marina uses a vowel in words like "down" [daʊn] with the tongue pulled further down and back, [ɑʊ]. This pronunciation can be found in Multicultural London English.
    • "Going up, going down down down [dɑʊn] ... When the lights, they went down down down [dɑʊn]" - Primadonna, Electra Heart (2012)
    • "You're only sorry when you're coming down, down, down [dɑʊn]... you carried on without a doubt [dɑʊt]" - Karma, Love + Fear (2019)
    • "I wanna change, but I don't know how [hɑʊ] ...people look so lonely with eyes turned down [dɑʊn]" - Just Too Afraid, Love + Fear (2019)
  • Voiced /d/. In English, the consonants 'b', 'd', and 'g' are often unvoiced and unaspirated. This is in contrast to 'p', 't', and 'k', which are unvoiced but aspirated. Marina likes to use a /d/ that is clearly fully voiced. She sometimes keeps the full value of /d/ even between vowels, instead of using a flap. While not flapping is normal in British varieties of English, using a strongly voiced [d] at the start of a syllable is not.
    • "Going up, going down down down [dɑʊn] ... When the lights, they went down down down [dɑʊn]" - Primadonna, Electra Heart (2012)
    • "Murder lives forever and so does war" - Savages, Froot(2015)
    • "It's paradise [pærədaɪs]" - Handmade Heaven, Love + Fear (2019)
    • "I wanna change but I don't know how, people look so lonely with eyes turned down" - Too Afraid, Love + Fear (2019)
  • Marina pronounces "-or" words with a diphthong "o-a" [ɔə] instead of a pure vowel "aw" [ɔ]. This is reminiscent of the way that New York English speakers pronounce words with an 'aw' sound. It is also found in some varieties of Welsh English (Wells, 1982).
    • "Waking up too early in the morning [mɔənɪn] ... Auntie Emy was a medium, oh she worked the Ouija board [bɔəd]" - Daddy was a Sailore, Mermaid vs Sailore (2007)
    • "Every day is a chore chore chore [tʃɔə]" - Primadonna, Electra Heart (2012)
    • "Gotta be lookin' pure [pjɔə], kiss him goodbye at the door, and leave him wanting more [mɔə]" - How to be a Heartbreaker, Electra Heart (2012)
    • "Give me good and pure [pjɔə]" - Blue, Froot (2015)
    • "Survival of the fittest, rich against the poor [pɔə]" - Savages, Froot (2015)
  • Most varieties of Welsh English like using a light [l] made with the tip of the tongue. London English uses a light l at the start of syllables, but a dark l [ɫ] made with back of the tongue raised up at the end of syllables. Marina often uses a dark l even at the beginning of syllables, which is a common feature in General American English and Northern Welsh English (Wells, 1982).
    • "You're not horrible like [ɫɑɪk] me" - Horror Pop, Daddy vs Sailor(2007)
    • "But the melody [mɛɫədi] went stale" - Seventeen, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • "Who you never really liked [rɪɫi lɑɪɫkt] and you never trusted" - I Am Not a Robot, The Family Jewels (2010)
    • "I wanna be a bottle blonde [bɫɑnd]" - Teen Idle, Electra Heart (2012)
    • “Baby I am plump and ripe, I'm pinker than shepherds delight [diɫɑɪt]” - Froot, Froot (2015)

Several of the pronunciations Marina uses (de-aspiration, back /u/, voiced /d/) can also be found in Greek phonology. Marina is half Greek - her father is from Greece and met Marina's mother while studying in the United Kingdom. Marina also lived with her father in Greece from 16 to 18 to go to an international school in Athens. She was interested in living there "to connect with [her] heritage and learn to speak the language." She started making music when she was 18 and had moved back to London, so the time frame would be right for her to be influenced by Greek music and language. She has mentioned her Greek heritage in several songs - "you better make way for a Greek gold rush" in "Gold" from Froot, a clip of her grandmother singing in Greek on "Fear and Loathing" from Electra Heart, and "Fly to Athens, pass the Parthenon, see the village where my father's from" in "To Be Human" from Fear + Loathing.

These features found in Greek are also rather common cross-linguistically, being found in languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, to name a few just from Europe. This might not be coincidental. Marina is clearly interested in topics like human nature and finding connections between different cultures - the Love + Fear album and specifically the song "To Be Human" deals with these topics. In the linked video, she says "I moved around a lot as a kid. I spent summers in Russia, in the Ukraine, my dad worked in Japan for a long time [...] I just wanted to create this feeling of bringing people together."

She adds, "The message that we keep on seeing in the media, which is that, if you're from a different country, or a different continent, then you are so obviously different from us, that you're a threat. Whereas, I believe that people aren't that different, actually." Although the Love + Fear album is her first to explicitly ponder the shared experience among human cultures, it makes sense that Marina's childhood spent in different countries would make her more receptive to art from different cultures and that she would seek to imitate that. The timeline isn't right to say that she purposefully does it to sound 'international' - but it could be a result of her international life.

Wales Millennium Center

While I mentioned in the first section that Marina does not have a Welsh accent and does not use Welsh features consistently, it is worth pointing out that many of these features (back /u/, dark /l/, diphthongized /or/) could arguably be from Welsh English. They are not part of her spoken speech, which uses the London English equivalents instead (front /u/, clear-dark distinction of /l/, monophthongal /o/), but it is worth considering that she was borrowing features from Welsh English. At the same time, there are alternate explanations for some of these - dark /l/ is used frequently in American English, and both The Family Jewels and Electra Heart have a fascination with American culture.

If there is an overlap between some features (back /u/ and voiced /d/ in Welsh English and Greek; dark /l/ in North Welsh English and American English), how can we tell which one is the 'real' origin? It might not be possible to tease apart which English variety it is coming from. Indeed, she may not even be purposefully choosing to invoke any variety of English. But we could say that these different language varieties reinforce each other. Marina has been exposed to Welsh English and to Greek, both of which have a back /u/. Marina was interested in American culture, where Americans frequently use a dark /l/, and North Welsh English also uses a dark /l/. That these features are repeated across different dialects might not be accidental. There are other features of Welsh English and American English and Greek that Marina does not use at all.

The MOUTH-backing is from London Multicultural English. She doesn't have this feature in her speech, but per her FAQin Hell interview above, she hangs out a lot in East London, and it's likely she would have been exposed to this feature.

It's the Brand, Baby

Marina's vocal profile doesn't just involve her accent. Her singing style is immediately recognizable as well. She likes using harsh breaks between chest and head voice, resulting in a yodeling sound. She likes slipping into falsetto for more delicate portions of songs. In her early career, she liked using a stuttering vibrato at the end of phrases. Her lower register is so dark and smoky sounding compared to her airier upper register than an audio engineer mistook it for formant manipulation:

I do wonder whether there's something a bit strange going on with the vocal formants in this song. Formants are resonance peaks in every singer's frequency response that we humans are very sensitive to, and which provide us with strong clues as to a performer's age, size, and gender. Shifting human vocal formants unnaturally low gives the impression of some kind of mythical giant or monster (an effect used to death on film and TV), but as the formants shift upwards, you move through the natural vocal ranges for males, then females, and, finally, children, before heading off into Tombliboo territory. Of course, even the briefest comparison between Michael Jackson and Tracy Chapman illustrates that there's bountiful overlap between these notional formant ranges in practice, and it's not the specific formant range of Marina's voice in this production that bugs me — it's that the formants appear to be moving about! So "someone else's fault” at 0:19 comes across like a fresh-faced learner driver, whereas "pop that pretty question” packs more testosterone than the entire cast of Glee.

Now, it's conceivable that this is simply a virtuoso performance, because there is a significant degree of physical control you can exert over your own formants. Indeed, it's the stock-in-trade of voice-over artists the world over. However, I'd hazard a guess that there's some artificial manipulation going on here. It's not something that's difficult to do in something like Celemony Melodyne (as Will.I.Am has demonstrated with depressing regularity), so it wouldn't surprise me at all to discover that some producers are now deliberately modulating formants more subliminally during post-production, to add synthetic expression to their lead vocals.

- Mike Senior, Sound on Sound

Although her lower register is definitely used as a jarring break, there's no reason to believe her voice was electronically manipulated. Similarly, although Marina has a noticeable 'accent profile,' there's no evidence to suggest that it's the influence of Welsh English. Both her vocal style and accent profile seem to have been developed by her.

The end result of this is that Marina has an immediately recognizable vocal profile. When Marina is on a track, her voice is unmistakeable. Even on the rare occasions when she has appeared on other musicians' tracks, such as in "Baby," she carries her style with her. She is never at risk of being mistaken for a generic 'hook girl'; indeed, you could say that her peculiar pronunciation choices constitute a sort of branding.

Although Marina isn't the only musician to use her English accent in her music - the Beatles were groundbreakers in that sense - and she isn't the only singer to use features that don't belong to any particular accent - Lady Gaga has also done that - she manages to combine the two consistently such that she has a recognizable 'linguistic brand.' She does not switch through accents like Taylor Swift or Lana Del Rey; she has displayed all these traits throughout her career. Her singing style on her early, 'quirky' and 'camp' album The Family Jewels isn't very different from her more 'mature' and 'psychological' album Love + Fear. The instrumentals change - they have probably been the least consistent aspect of Marina's music. But her linguistic profile has not, and neither has her singing style. Combined with her lyrical content, which tends towards introspection, workaholism, human relationships, and musings on the nature of humanity, it is clear that she has a strong lyrical-vocal identity.

It's very common for people commenting on interesting linguistic aspects of singing to dismiss them as "people trying to be different and stand out." It's a thought-terminating cliche that limits any notable linguistic characteristics to individual innovations for no purpose other than to "stand out." For instance, the notion that "indie voice" is just an attempt to "stand out" has limited the scope of research on indie voice and ignored how it has developed over time and the particular linguistic contexts in which "indie voice" occurs.

However, we also cannot deny that having a strong musical or personal brand is an important part of the music business, and it will undoubtedly influence how musicians approach their craft. I cannot say that I know what Marina's thought process is when she pronounces "my life is a play" as "my life is a blay." Perhaps she thinks it's more melodious, or she's imitating some artist she heard in her teenage years that's influencing her. Without any interviews or writings, we cannot know her internal thought process, and any proclamation on "what she wanted to do" is only speculation. But we can say that when she consistently says "my life is a blay" and "going dawun, dawun, dawun" and "like froo-oo-oot," throughout all her albums, the effect is that she stands out and is memorable, at least in some part for her curious linguistic choices. Her fans seem to enjoy the way she plays with language, so it is successful in that sense:

Having said that, he [my voice teacher] did say one of my problem is because I probably try to mimic Marina's singing style and accent (which is true). [...][He said] "I just want to listen to her song so I can decide whether it's suitable for you (me) to sing her song. The answer is yes, but unfortunately you can't do it in her style," because he said something about Marina's way of vocalising her words (could be her pronounced accent) is unhealthy. [...] The reason that I fell in love with Marina's songs is because the way she sings a song is very unique. It's like she's telling a story and just having fun with singing without the restrain of "Okay, i think i need to sing it this way that so the notes comes out beautifully". Marina's singing style is not flat and bland and I love her unique accent so much. - (source)

Is Marina aware of it? Might she disagree that she's doing it to "stand out"? It's certainly possible! But every time a fan says she has a "Welsh accent" (she does not) or talks about her "recognizable style" or wants to imitate the way she sings, it's proof that people are noticing that there's something different about the way that Marina sings, and they're remembering and talking about it. Like it or not, it's part of her brand.

Works Cited

Przedlacka, Joanna (2001), "Estuary English and RP: Some Recent Findings" (PDF), Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, 36: 35–50

May 8, 2019

Mobile Formatting

It's been a while since I did one of these updates, but at long last, the update to mobile formatting is done. It's very simple: on the mobile version of Ace Linguist, the font will be bigger and there will be more space between the lines. Previously, the font on the Ace Linguist mobile version was terribly cramped - it was basically the desktop version of the site scaled down. This change should make it easier for mobile readers!

May 7, 2019

Bay-zhing or bay-jing: Let's go to Beijing

This impromptu post was brought to you by my setting up an RSS feed with my favorite language blogs and deciding to look at Language Log's recent posts. One of them was called "Why we say "Beizhing" and not "Beijing"" by Victor Mair. He immediately clarifies that he does not use the pronunciation:

Well, I don't say "Beizhing", and I think it sounds ghastly, so much so that I cringe when I hear it and my flesh creeps. I never could figure out why English speakers would use this hideous pronunciation when it would be so much easier, transparent, and direct just to pronounce the name the way it looks: "bei-", like "bay", as in "Beirut" (we don't have any trouble with that, do we?), and "-jing" as in "jingle". BEI- -JING! Voilà! We don't have to say "bei- -zhing". I realize, though, that almost everybody, including many China specialists who surely know better, say "Beizhing", not "Beijing".

Victor Mair is an American sinologist, and I know people who study or specialize in a particular language often have a fondness for pronouncing words from that language in a way that resembles the origin. I can say myself as a minor in Russian language that I get a twinge when I hear people say "baBUshka" instead of "BAbushka", which is how it would be said in Russian. Of course, "baBUshka" is the common pronunciation in English, at least in American English, and so though I continue stubbornly saying "BAbushka," I can't fault anyone for using the average pronunciation. Similarly, I understand Dr. Mair's feelings at hearing pronouncing "bay-zhing" when he knows that "bay-jing" is closer to the Mandarin pronunciation.

However, there is always a certain amount of elitism and posturing that occurs with regards to pronouncing words from foreign languages in another language. The "curmudgeonly correspondent" that writes in to propose an origin for the "bay-zhing" pronunciation refers to it as "egregious mainstream pronunciation." Another commenter refers to "English speakers getting it wrong (as per usual)." An earlier Language Log post by Bill Poser has an identical complaint: "This word [Beijing] is routinely mispronounced by newscasters and other people who are supposed to know better." And another commenter: "the only reason to use "Beijing" at all is the desire to match the official Chinese pronunciation, so going on to mispronounce it seems like fair game for some criticism."

I am not sure why "fidelity to names of places in foreign languages" is something to strive for in the first place. What does it matter if "bei-jing" is closer to how it is pronounced in Mandarin than "bei-zhing"? It reminds me of all the monolingual US American newscasters who really want everyone to know that they took a Spanish class by pronouncing Latin American country and place names with an approximation of the Spanish pronunciation, as if Spanish speakers were incapable of understanding that the same place has a different pronunciation in different languages. As a native bilingual speaker of Spanish and English, I occasionally struggle with words that aren't fully incorporated into English and alter between a Spanish-y and English-y pronunciation (do I go with "croqueta" in Spanish, "croqueta" mangled into English, or the deceptively French "croquette"?). But a place that has an established English pronunciation, distant from the original as it may be, is perfectly fine. I would never demand anyone say "ar-hentina" (Argentina) or "cooba" (Cuba) or "abana" (Havana) despite these being much closer to the originals. I wouldn't even ask Russian speakers to stop pronouncing "Habana" as "Gavana," and that one also makes my "flesh creep" (the spelling pronunciation [h] turned into a [g]...).

The origins of the "zh" pronunciation may be nonsensical or hyperforeignisms or a mistake or just plain lost, but the notion that people continue to pronounce it with "zh" as a hyperforeignism is misguided. For as far as I can remember, the capital of China was "Beijing" with the middle consonant pronounced as a "zh" [ʒ]. As such, I have pronounced "Beijing" as "bay-zhing" for almost my entire life, with the exception of the brief period of time when I pronounced it as "Bay-jing" (and also pronounced "Moscow" as "Moss-ko" instead of the common American "moss-cow" because it also "made more sense"). I made that brief change because I wanted my pronunciation of everything to be "correct". (Not coincidentally, this also coincided with the time in my life when I was an enormous pedant about "correct language use.") I dropped both pronunciations because they never sounded right and likely sounded affected to my peers. Am I mispronouncing "Beijing"? If I were speaking Mandarin, yes, I would be mispronouncing it. But the pronouncing with 'zh' [ʒ] is common enough that it seems odd to refer to it as a "mispronunciation" from a descriptivist point of view.

Indeed, Ben Zimmer pointed out a research paper from 1994 (Joseph, B. Systematic Hyperforeignisms As Maximally External Evidence for Linguistic Rules) describing this pronunciation as an example of 'hyper-French/pseudo-Mandarin'. It is compared to the similarly hyperforeign American pronunciation of "parmesan" as "parma-zhan," when it is pronounced as "parmezan" in French and "parmejano" in Italian - no 'zh' anywhere. "Bay-zhing" has apparently been a common pronunciation for nigh-on a quarter of a century. At which point does it cease being a mispronunciation worthy of goosebumps?

Considering that Language Log normally uses a descriptivist approach to language - and with some nuance, I may add - I am surprised to see that both major contributors and commenters find it comfortable to refer to a mainstream pronunciation of a city as "incorrect," "egregious," and "fair game for some criticism." Contrast this with this article on the stigmatized pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nucular" (emphasis mine):

What about Pinker's second point, that Palin's pronunciation of the word is "not a sign of ignorance"? Well, not of her ignorance, anyway. It's fair to assume that "nucular" was the dominant pronunciation in the ambience she grew up in, as it was for Bill Clinton, and that she acquired it "naturally." But at its inception, the "nucular" pronunciation was the result of ignorance, or at least of unfamiliarity with the item, which is why it tends to be more frequent in the varieties used by less-well-educated speakers (or maybe I should say it's less frequent in the varieties used by literate ones).

That doesn't mean that speakers who pick up the "nucular" pronunciation from family, friends, or teachers can be accused of ignorance themselves — they weren't the ones who came up with the reanalysis that motivated the pronunciation. But it does explain why such speakers might want to correct their pronunciation once they're made aware of it — not just because the "nuclear" variant happens to be used by better educated speakers, but because it conforms more closely to the word's orthography, and because this is, in its nature, a word that belongs to literate discourse.

Palin has to be aware that many people consider her pronunciation nonstandard, and she (or her handlers) seems to have made some effort at correction, which is presumably why she pronounced the word as "new clear" when reading off the teleprompter in her convention speech. Since then, though, it's been "nucular" all the way, which may be part of the "let Palin be Palin" strategy.

The pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nucular", much like the pronunciation of "Beijing" as "Bay-zhing," is one that deviates from the etymology of the word. The difference is that "nucular" is strongly stigmatized as an "uneducated" pronunciation while "Bay-zhing" is used even by Dr. Mair's colleagues in sinology, meaning it is clearly present in multiple class strata. Both pronunciations can be said to be the result of not knowing the standard pronunciation (nuclear) or the intended pronunciation (Bay-jing). However, both forms are common enough now that it is clear they are no longer one-off errors - they are distinct variants. Being that all these variants are recognized and understood, there is no risk of miscommunication occurring. I therefore see no reason other than aesthetic preference or class signaling to choose a certain pronunciation. What do we have to gain by stigmatizing or mocking perfectly common and understandable variants? Well, we create an additional linguistic shibboleth by which to recognize and exclude people who have not had access to education. It creates additional class anxiety (which in turn leads to the creation of hypercorrective forms which in turn creates even more shibboleths). You get people feeling like the commenter Chris Johnson:

I consistently pronounce 'nucleus' as [nukliəs], and I imagine most, if not all, other 'nucular' speakers do too. I don't think I've ever heard "nuculus".

I use the two pronunciations for 'nuclear' in more or less free variation. I never notice which form a speaker uses unless I'm specifically listening for it. I think I am more likely to use 'nucular' when saying the word 'thermonuclear' than when saying 'nuclear' itself. I have no idea whether my usage varies by domain or not. It doesn't seem like I had any trouble treating 'nucular' as an adjectival form of 'nucleus'.

I think the 'nucular' pronunciation has hopped over social and class boundaries more than people realize. It's not a very common word. I think it may be spread more by mass media than by the family dinner table. I had an upper middle class upbringing that valued education, and I even wanted to be a physicist in 5th grade. Nevertheless, I think 'nucular' was my usual form growing up. (I've shifted towards [nukliɚ] over the years, but my girlfriend still catches me sometimes.) Bush could very well be 'slumming' linguistically, but I'm sure there are more than a few kids from elite families that picked up 'nucular' from the culture at large.

(I've known for a long time that 'nucular' was a less prestigious pronunciation, but in the past few weeks I've been shocked at just how stigmatized this feature of my speech is – especially by people 'on my side' politically. As a speaker of a pretty standard variety of American English, this is a new and unpleasant position for me.)

I understand the sentiment of wanting people to treat foreign languages as worthy of respect. For example, many US Americans (and likely people in other English speaking nations) do not try to learn how to pronounce names from other languages and instead shorten them or even give people "English nicknames" instead. It makes sense to want to counter this Anglo-centric sentiment by saying that we ought to consider the native pronunciations of loanwords and other places. But cities are not people, and no cultural harm will come to Beijing if English speakers use the form 'Bay-zhing.' This is of course assuming that the name is not offensive or otherwise troublesome to the people it is applied to. Sometimes the standard name is offensive and in such a case, it is worth making an effort to switch to a preferred name. But I have seen no reason so far to believe that there is any harm to the people of Beijing by using the 'zh' pronunciation.

If you hang out with a lot of sinologists, maybe you will want to start using the "j" pronunciation to fit in. And if you feel compelled to start saying "Bei-jing" after reading this, that is fine. Indeed, it is fine to even tell people "did you know that if you say 'Beijing' with a 'j' sound, it's actually closer to the Mandarin pronunciation? Nobody knows where that 'zh' sound came from!" But I question what there is to gain from calling this now entrenched pronunciation a 'mispronunciation' and judging those who use the 'zh' variant as (sarcasm on) ignorant class-climbers foolishly betraying their station by applying French pronunciations when the English pronunciation would be closer to the Mandarin! (sarcasm off) Considering the amount of insecurity, angst, and division this sort of language policing causes, I question any perceived multicultural benefit that could come of it - and I am not confident that cultural understanding is gauged by hewing to the 'original' pronunciation, anyway.

This is a more freeform discussion style article. I would love to hear any thoughts or comments you may have on the topic!

April 15, 2019

What makes "Old Town Road" sound Country?

On April 13, 2019, Lil Nas X scored his first number one hit with "Old Town Road." This would otherwise be unremarkable except for the fact that it's a trap/country crossover made by a rapper who got it to blow up on TikTok. It's a short song, less than two minutes long. Although it was released under the 'country' genre on iTunes and other services, Billboard removed it from its country charts, citing that it did not incorporate enough aspects of modern country music. This has proved to be controversial, prompting debates about what country is and how Billboard can measure a genre. The question of whether race played a role has also hung over the song's removal from the charts.

In the midst of the controversy about the song and its memetic rise to success, the song itself has been forgotten. But I found one aspect of it particularly interesting and country-ish: Lis Nas X puts on a Southern accent in the song. Specifically, he imitates the variety of Southern American English spoken by white Americans. He himself is from Atlanta, Georgia, and speaks a Southern variety of African American Vernacular English. Lis Nas X imitating a mostly-white Southern accent would not be notable under most circumstances. After all, Taylor Swift, from the mid-Atlantic northern state of Pennsylvania, put on a Southern accent when she did country music. But it's especially interesting because African American Vernacular English and Southern American English are very similar in many ways! Some of the features they have in common are:

  • Pin-pen merger: pronouncing "pin" and "pen" as "pin," instead of pronouncing both distinctly.
  • /aɪ/ monophthongization: words like "ride" with an /aɪ/ sound get pronounced with the monophthong /a/. This means "ride" sounds like something between "rad" and "rod." There is no 'ee' or 'ih' sound at the end of the vowel, unlike in General American English.
  • Use of negative concord. This means that if one part of a sentence is negated, the whole sentence must be negated to 'agree' with it. So "nobody can tell me anything" becomes "nobody can't tell me nothing."
  • Feel-fill merger: both "feel" and "fill" are pronounced "fill." In General American English, "feel" has the long vowel of "feet" and "fill" has the short vowel of "fit" - they do not rhyme.

And this is far from exhaustive. The similarities between these two dialects should not come as a shock, since African American Vernacular English and Southern American English developed side by side due to the concentration of slavery in the American South. African American Vernacular English developed among slaves in the South and was influenced by Southern American English. Southern American English might have had influence from African American Vernacular English (see Richard Bailey's "Speaking American: a History of English in the United States"). It is hard to disentangle who influenced whom in the past.

But despite that, the two dialects are distinct, and Lil Nas X makes use of those distinctions to put on a more "country" sounding voice.

  • Exaggerated rhoticity. Lil Nas X leans in hard on the "r"s, making them longer and more notable. Modern Southern American English is rhotic, while African American Vernacular English is non-rhotic - "r"s after vowels are not pronounced.
    • "Riding on a tractorrr, lean all in my bladderrr ... you can whip your porrrsche." - Old Town Road
    Compare this to how Lil Nas X pronounces "r"s:

    • "Droppin' shit way before Decemba. Be afraid, hope you do rememba." - Thanos
  • /eɪ/ lowered to [ɛɪ]. The way he says "baby" almost sounds like "bu-ee-by." Although the "ey" /eɪ/ sound can be lowered in African American Vernacular English, it is not as dramatic as in Southern American English. Moreover, Lil Nas X does not use the low "ey" sound in his own music, so it is definitely something he is using to imitate Southern American English.
    • "Cheated on my beh-y-by" - Old Town Road
    Compare this to how Lil Nas X pronounces "ey"s:

    • "Cake the beat, I'm just the right ice ... workin' late night." - Rookie
  • /æ/ is turning into a diphthong /ɛə/. This is part of the Southern Vowel Shift. He says "tractor" as "tre-a-ctor." Once again, although this sound can be found in African American English, Lil Nas X does not use it in his own music. He says "smack" with the monophthong [æ].
    • "I got the horses in the beack... hat is matte bleack... riding on my treactor, lean all in my bladder" - Old Town Road
    Compare this to how Lil Nas X pronounces "aa"s:

    • "Smokin' on crack, I am on fire like Jack." - Thanos

What is curious about this is that Lil Nas X is not the only one who uses these tactics to imitate Southern American English. R. Kelly, a singer who has more recently been in the news for sexual abuse, used similar tactics in the 8th part of his musical series "Trapped in the Closet," as well as another additional feature.

  • Exaggerated rhoticity.
    • "Darrrlin', where have you been? I've been wurr'd about you ... sweethearrrt." - Trapped in the Closet
  • Parts of the Southern shift that he himself does not use.
    • /ɛ/ 'eh' becomes 'eya' [ɛjɪ].
    • "Then he screams, 'Bridgette!' 'Yeyis?'" - Trapped in the Closet

    • /i/ 'ee' becomes 'ey' [ɪi].

    • "Take your time, I still got some claynin' ... You know what I mayn." - Trapped in the Closet
  • /eɪ/ is lowered. R. Kelly also centers it so it sounds like "uh-ee" [əɪ].
    • "Your fuyvrite, cherry ... tuyk your time, I still got some cleanin' ... 'muybe? muybe that time of the month?'" - Trapped in the Closet
  • /u/ fronting. Southern American English pushes the /u/ sound to the front of the mouth so "you" /ju/ sounds like "yew" [jʉ]. This is a feature that is not present in African American Vernacular English.
    • "Darlin', where have you been? I've been worried about yew." - Trapped in the Closet

Although Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" may not have been country enough for Billboard, it follows a tradition of country singers adopting another accent to sound more country. It is also an interesting example of the ways that a speaker of one dialect tries to imitate another, similar dialect, by leaning in on the most distinctive aspects (and keeping the similar ones, like /aɪ/-monophthongization). Are you aware of any other examples of African American singers using these features to imitate Southern American English, in or outside of the country music genre? I've noticed that although rhoticity is exaggerated, another distinctive Southern American feature, fronting "oh" /oʊ/ to "uh-uu" [əʊ], is missing from these imitations.

April 11, 2019

The Tripping-Dripping Merger?

When you're interested in dialectology, it can be easy to get the feeling that phonologically English - or whatever language you study - has stopped changing in any significant way. Reading about the great changes that happened in the past, it can be hard to imagine something similar happening today. Wouldn't people start misunderstanding en masse? But language is a fluid thing, and the remarkable thing is that it changes right beneath our noses. Those who adopt new changes may not even be aware that they're doing it - and those who listen may not even be aware that a change has occurred. All this, of course, until someone points it out, at which point it can become a Big Thing that everyone is concerned about. But But the process happens naturally and incrementally. The drift from the past isn't apparent at the moment the drift happens, but only when you look further and further back and realize, hmm, perhaps people didn't always talk this way.

This whole introduction is here to justify talking about a potential merger that I've been hearing. It's not something I've read about; it's an observation I've made. The nature of this sort of thing means there aren't going to be any references for it existing. But perhaps others have also noticed it. Here's the description:

A merger is when two sounds that were previously distinct in a language's history become pronounced so that no meaningful distinction can be made between them. When American Southerners pronounce "pin" and "pen" as "pin", that's a merger because now if they say "pin," we cannot tell if they are referring to a sewing pin or a writing pen. And moreover, neither can Southerners without context or explanation ("I'm looking for an ink pen"). This merger also happens only under certain conditions - before the nasal sounds "n" and "m". So to a Southerner, a "pit" and a "pet" are very clearly pronounced differently, but a "pin" and a "pen" are pronounced the same. We can say, to use fancy linguistic terminology, that the distinction between short "i" and short "e" is neutralized before a nasal.

So the potential merger I've been hearing is in the environments [tr] and [dr]. In American English (as in most varieties of English), the "t" sound is voiceless and aspirated (little puff of air) at the beginning of a stressed syllable ('tin', 'attack') while the "d" sound is unaspirated and voiceless at the beginning of a word, meaning that the vocal cords don't vibrate. Both these sounds are voiceless, so the big difference between them is the small puff of air after the "t" - a difference in aspiration.

Now for a while, the sequence /tr/ has been acting a little differently compared to other syllables starting with /t/. To make the /r/ sound, the tongue has to curl up. This means in a fast conversation, the tongue anticipates that an /r/ is coming and can start curling while making the /t/. As it curls, it brushes up against the roof of the mouth, producing a "ch" sound. This is why you hear some people pronounced "tree" as "chree."

This process can also affect /dr/, but /d/ is voiceless. So what happens to something like "dream"? It can become "chreem" as well. (Potentially it could be "jreem" too). Now, I'm not entirely sure what happens to the aspiration in the "chree" case, but if the aspiration disappears, then there's nothing to differentiate /tr/ from /dr/ - both become "chr."

Here's an example from "break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored" by Ariana Grande:

Say I'm trippin' if you want to

A lot of fans thought this line was "say I'm drippin' if you want to" when it came out - and I can understand why. I can't hear any aspiration here, and I can hear some slight affrication. Without aspiration and with the added confusion of affrication, it becomes a lot harder to distinguish this as "tripping".

But can the "tripping-dripping" confusion work backwards as well? Why not! Check out "Finesse" by Bruno Mars.

We out here drippin' in finesse

This sounds very similar to Ariana's "tripping" because they are both voiceless, unaspirated, and affricated. I myself had some confusion with this song when it came out and thought he was saying "tripping in finesse," as if there was so much finesse everywhere he was stumbling over it. But the lyrics are "dripping," not "tripping." That this merger happens both ways suggests then that the distinction between /tr/ and /dr/ has been neutralized.

Now this doesn't mean that nobody will ever be able to distinguish between /tr/ and /dr/ again. After all, there are different levels of enunciation and clarity that one can aim for depending on the situation. In modern pop songs, a casual, "normal" pronunciation is expected. But if Ariana Grande and Bruno Mars were giving an important speech in front of diplomats (for some reason), we might find that they would distinguish between /tr/ and /dr/ by aspirating /t/ and by not including affrication. This means that the distinction is only neutralized in informal speech, but it's still there. If they pronounced them the same no matter the formality level, though, and if they weren't really able to tell the difference, then they really and truly would have neutralized the distinction between /tr/ and /dr/.

I tentatively call this 'new' because I have not encountered any literature on the matter beforehand (though I've heard a lot about 'tree' sounding like 'chree'). However, it's possible and likely that this phenomenon is older than I expect. Have any of you heard this "tripping-dripping" merger before? Do you yourself have it? Let me know in the comments!

April 8, 2019

Site Update - April, 8 2019

A few weeks ago, we reached 100,000 all time hits! I'm so happy to see that this site has been useful for so many people in providing a reference for linguistics in popular culture. Although I'm no longer able to churn out articles like I used to, I am still working on giving you all better long articles. I recently wrote about a Dialect Dissection about the Beatles and Regional Identity, which was one of the more challenging projects I've done due to technical problems. I've also got other, more free-form articles planned to come out in the following few months, in addition to more Dialect Dissections. It's getting good, y'all! I'm also excited to say that Ace Linguist was cited on Slate, in Carl Wilson's Billie Eilish review.

I'm excited about some of the future free-form articles I'm going to be publishing because they're more discussion-based. Most of the small articles on here don't get a lot of traction with regards to comments, but these are longer and therefore more well-reasoned out and less "well what are your thoughts y'all." The Dialect Dissections and other major articles will continue to be the lifeblood of the site, but you all also know I've been talking about diversifying the content for a long time. One area where I'm hoping to diversify a little is to spread out beyond just phonology. Most of my dialect dissections focus on sounds, but not so much on sentence structure. I'm hoping to correct that by having a future Dialect Dissection focus more on syntax.

I haven't really plugged the Patreon for this site a lot because I don't view it as a money-making venture and I hate the idea of having to "sell the site." You should not feel pressured to donate because, well, things aren't that bad right now. :) However, I'm trying to be more ambitious with the Dialect Dissections and other long-form articles, access more recent linguistics research, and maybe even get some professional help with certain aspects of the site. Ace Linguist will always be available to the public as it is first and foremost a site for educational purposes. But that being said, if you want to help the site, you can donate on Patreon and be charged only per Long Article that comes out. As a perk, you can read the articles 24 hours ahead of time. You can also read some stuff that was left on the cutting room floor - it may not have added anything to the narrative, but it's definitely of interest to linguistics nerds. (Perhaps in a year, they will be released to the public as well, since I hate the idea of withholding information. But for now, they can be Patron-only for a year.) If the idea of donating per Long Article isn't appealing, you can also make a one-time donation via Ko-Fi, although that one does not have support for reward structures. And if you choose to donate, through whichever medium, know that I appreciate you as a visitor and contributor to Ace Linguist. :)

March 28, 2019

Dialect Dissection: The Beatles and Regional Identity

The Beatles are an obscure band from an industrial fishing town in Northern England, overshadowed by far more influential bands such as Kraftwerk... okay, I’m kidding. I was guessing you were tired of reading opening statements describing how great the Beatles were - but their impact was indeed great. They were an enormous success on the pop music charts in the UK and the US, and influenced millions of wannabe musicians throughout the world. Their songs are so familiar to us that they are almost modern folk songs. Moreover, the Beatles were part of the British Invasion - a group of British Bands from 1964 to 1966 that became hugely popular in the United States. Along with other British Invasion bands such as the Animals, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, they became fixtures on the American charts, and opened up doors for other British rock bands in the future, such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

The Beatles are composed of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. They have their origins in Liverpool, a city in the Northwest of England. A lot of articles have been written about the accents of the Beatles. Did they have “no accent” or an “American accent” or a “Scouse” accent? In today's Dialect Dissection, we are going to be looking at the intersection between regional English identity and the world.

The Beatles

British Stuff

Let's start by noting all the British features that the Beatles display. The Beatles were from Liverpool, a city in England that falls under the Merseyside dialect. Although the Beatles' spoken English was clearly Liverpool-ish - or "Scouse" as it is also known - their Liverpool accent also appeared in their music. The following list details important aspects of the Beatles' dialects and examples in their music. The details of Liverpool English come from Wells, 1982.

  • Non-rhotic. American English keeps all sounds where they appear, like in "burn" 🔊 [bɜrn]. This is a 'rhotic' accent. Liverpool English is 'non-rhotic', as most English English dialects are. "Burn" would not have an "r" sound, but sound more like "behn" 🔊 [bɜn]. To English speakers with a 'rhotic' accent, this sounds like "dropping" one's "r"s.
    • "Another gehl [gɜl]" - Another Girl, Help! (1965)
    • "If this is love you gotta give me mo [mɔ]." - I Should Have Known Better, Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Intrusive R. When two similar vowels are next to each other, an [r] sound is inserted to break it up.
    • "I saw-r a film [sɔr ə fɪlm] today, oh boy." - A Day in the Life, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  • SQUARE-NURSE merger: This is one of the characteristics of Liverpool English. In Received Prounciation, words like "square", "hair", and "there" are pronounced [hɛə] 🔊, [ðɛə], and [skwɛə], using a vowel similar to the one in "head." This is distinct from words like "her" 🔊 and "fur," which are pronounced [hɜ] and [fɜ]. In Liverpool English, words like "square," "hair," and "there" use the same vowel as "her" and "fur," so that they become "squerr" [skwɜ], "herr" [hɜ], and "therr" [ðɜ] (note that it's still non-rhotic!). This is one of the most well-known and commented-on features of Liverpool English, and George himself has commented on his of it. Notice his pronunciation of "hair" and "there" in "Only a Northern Song."
    • "Or if my her [hɜ] is brown [...] 'Cause there's nobody therr [ðɜ]." - Only a Northern Song, Yellow Submarine (1969) "
  • Lack of NG-coalescence. Southern England and most American English varieties pronounce as a single consonant, [ŋ]. Like other Northern English varieties, Liverpool English pronounces with a 'g' sound at the end, so it becomes 'ngg' [ŋg]. This is especially noticeable when a vowel follows - notice how "living is easy" becomes "living gis easy."
    • "Living-gis easy [lɪvɪŋg ɪz izi] with eyes closed." - Strawberry Fields Forever, Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
    • "Sitting-gin [sɪtɪŋg ɪn] his nowhere land." - Nowhere Man, Rubber Soul (1965)
  • Lack of æ-tensing before nasals. Most American English varieties pronounce with a diphthong so that it sounds like "eh-an" [ɛan] 🔊. In British English, is pronounced with a single pure vowel. The Beatles pronounce it "aa-n" [æn] 🔊, with the vowel of "at." Note that they sometimes switch to a more American pronunciation (see below).
    • "But I can't get through, my hands [hændz] are tied" - You Won't See Me, Rubber Soul (1965)
    • "Sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van [væn] to come." - I Am The Walrus, Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
    • "I wanna be your man [mæn]." - I Wanna Be Your Man, With The Beatles (1963)
  • No yod-dropping. In words like "new" and "Tuesday," there is a y-sound after the initial consonant, resulting in 'noo' [nju] and 'tyusday' [tjuzdeɪ] 🔊. This is different from the American "noo" [nu] and "toosday" [tuzdeɪ] 🔊. The "ty" in "Tuesday" even becomes mixed together, resulting in "choosday" [tʃuzdeɪ].
    • "I wouldn't mind if I knew [nju] what I was missing" - You Won't See Me, Rubber Soul (1965)
    • "For I have got somebody that's new [nju]" - Another Girl, Help! (1965)
    • "Tuesday's [tʃuzdeɪz] on the phone with me." - She Came In Through the Bathroom Window, Abbey Road (1969)
  • Variable BATH-TRAP split. Southern England accents pronounce words like "grass," "bath," "laugh," and others with a broad a [ɑ] 🔊, so that they have the same vowel as spa [spɑ]. The Beatles mostly do not have the BATH-TRAP split and pronounce these sets of words with an "aa" [æ] sound 🔊, like in "mat" [mæt]. Paul McCartney himself notes, "The Liverpool accent - so, the way you say some of the words. You know, you say GRASS instead of GRAHHSS, and that sounds a bit American. So there ya go." However, John does use a broad "a" in "A Day in the Life," where he says "rah-ther."
    • "A love that should have lasted [læstɪd] years." - For No One, Revolver (1966)
    • "And when I ask [æsk] you to be mine" - I Should Have Known Better, A Hard Day's Night (1964)
    • "And though the news was rather [rɑðə] sad, well I just had to laugh [læf]". - A Day in the Life, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  • Centralized GOAT vowel. In American English, words with the "oh" vowel like "goat" tend to be pronounced with [oʊ] 🔊. In Liverpool English, there are two common pronunciations: "oh" [oʊ], but also "eh-eww" [ɛʉ] 🔊, with the tongue pushed more forward in the mouth. John is more likely to use the "eh-eww" pronunciation (see "Thank You Girl"), while Paul uses the "oh" pronunciation more often ("A Day in the Life").
    • "Oh oh [ɛʉ ɛʉ], you've been good to me." - Thank You Girl (1963)
    • "Found my way upstairs and had a smoke [smoʊk], and somebody spoke [spoʊk] and I went into a dream." - A Day in the Life, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  • Mary/merry/marry distinction. All three of these words are pronounced distinctly in British English. Words like "Mary" and "fairy" are pronounced with a high "eh" vowel: "Mary" is [meri] 🔊. The way Paul says "Mary" in "Long Tall Sally" almost sounds like "May-ry." Words like "marry" [mæri] 🔊 have the same vowel as "mat", so "barrow" sounds like "baa-rrow" [bæroʊ] and "carat" sounds like "caa-rat" [kærət]. Finally, words like "merry" [mɛri] 🔊 have a low vowel, like in "met" [mɛt]. Paul says "buried" with a low "beh-ried" [bɛrid]. (Note for American readers: there is significant variation of the vowels in these words for North American English, which has mostly merged all three so that they sound the same.)
    • "I'm gonna tell aunt Mary [meɪrɪ] 'bout uncle John." - Long Tall Sally, Long Tall Sally (EP) (1964)
    • "Desmond has a barrow [bæroʊ] in the marketplace [...] buys a twenty carat [kærət] golden ring." - Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, The Beatles (1968)
    • "Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried [bɛrid] along with her name" - Eleanor Rigby, Revolver (1966)
  • Lack of flapping. American English pronounces "t" and "d" between vowels as a flap sound, so "kitty" and "kiddy" are both "ki-di" [kɪɾɪ] 🔊. Although the Beatles did a lot of flapping (see below), they also used the "hard" [t] 🔊 and [d] 🔊 consonants between vowels, which is typical of British English varieties. Note that flapping has become increasingly common in British varieties of English and is no longer an exclusively North American phenomenon.
    • "It is [ɪt ɪz] no surprise now" - Tell Me What You See, Help! (1965)
    • "I wouldn't [wʊdən] mind if I knew what I was missing" - You Won't See Me, Rubber Soul (1965)
    • "Lovely Rita meter [ritə mitə] maid" - Lovely Rita, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, (1967)
  • British realizations of certain words. Americans tend toward pronouncing "Lancashire" as "Lanca-shire", "Moscow" as "Mos-cow," and "leisure" as "lee-zhure." The British pronunciations are "Lanca-sheer," "Mos-co," and "leh-zhure."
    • "Four thousand holes in Blackford, Lancasheer [læŋkəʃir]." - A Day in the Life, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
    • "And Mos-co [mɑskoʊ] girls make me sing and shout." - Back in the USSR, The Beatles (1968)
    • "That a man must break his back to earn his day of le-sure [lɛʒə]", Girl, Rubber Soul (1965)

There's a lot of Liverpoolness

As seen above, there are clearly many examples of the Beatles sounding English and Liverpool in their music. Contemporary audiences also noticed their accents, and there are many interviews and cultural reviews that make note of their accents.

Firstly, it is clear that most British audiences thought of the Beatles as sounding Liverpudlian. Early on in their career, a handful of British interviewers asked them if they would consider changing their accents. They scoffed at the idea and mocked the notion of singing in BBC English.

Interviewer: Mr. Edward Heath, the Lord Privy Seal, said the other night he found it difficult to distinguish what you were saying as Queen's English.

Paul: Oh yeah.

Interviewer: Are you going to try and lose some of your Liverpool dialect for the royal show?

Paul: No we wouldn't bother doing that. We don't all speak like them BBC posh fellas, you know.

John(?): Hell no!

Interviewer: What song will you be singing?

Paul: [in an exaggerated BBC accent] Well, I don't know, but I imagine we'll be singing "She Loves You."

Interviewer: Oh ho ho! Jolly good!

In a retrospective interview from 1971, John says that keeping their "Liverpoolness" was purposeful.

Blackburn: "Wasn't there a double charge to what you were doing right from the beginning?"

Yoko: "You were always very direct."

John: "Yes, well, the first thing we did was to proclaim our Liverpoolness to the world, and say 'It's all right to come from Liverpool and talk like this'. Before, anybody from Liverpool who made it, like Ted Ray, Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, had to lose their accent to get on the BBC. They were only comedians but that's what came out of Liverpool before us. We refused to play that game. After The Beatles came on the scene everyone started putting on a Liverpudlian accent."


The Oxford University student newspaper of the time, ISIS, wrote on the "vigorous assertion of their Englishness and regionalism," a double-whammy. They were not just a rejection of Americentrism in music, but a rejection of Southern England dominance.

But there are other significant features about the popularity of Merseybeat in general and the Beatles in particular. The Beatles’ vigorous assertion of their Englishness and regionalism has come at the same time as a sharp decline in the popularity of American music. The Тор Twenty of 8 September this year contained only two American records. This ‘anti-Americanism’ is not I think, in any way akin to the crude nationalism of race thugs or anti-Common-Marketeers. Good American records still make the charts easily enough—and American popular music is still technically superior to British. But the atmosphere of exoticism and hero-worship that used to surround American singers has been transcended and replaced by a greater integration between artist and audience.

(ISIS, 1963)

Even American newspapers of the time commented on their "uncompromising Northerness." The following New York Times article from 1963 echoes the above article on the significance of the Beatles sticking with their Liverpool accents.

They are working-class, and their roots and attitudes are firmly of the North of England. Because of their success they can act as spokesmen far the new, noisy anti-Establishment generation which is becoming a force in British life. In their uncompromising Northernness, they are linked with actors like Albert Finney in the theater and films and with novelists like Allan Sillitoe and John Braine.

The Beatles are part of a strong-flowing reaction against the soft, middle-class South of England, which has controlled popular culture for so long. The most important thing about the Beatles is that they come from Liverpool. In this city, where the Catholics and Protestants still fight every Saturday night after the pubs have closed, there are close to 300 beat groups performing in converted cinemas, cellar clubs--anywhere where an amplifier can be plugged in. The combined din they make has come to be known as the Liverpool Sound. The significance of the Sound is that it is a raspberry blown in the direction of London.

The rise of the Beatles also marks the end of American domination of popular music in Britain. Naturally, songs from the US will continue to pour in, but the recordings which reach the hit parade have to be made by British groups.


That is not to say that American audiences were intricately familiar to the nuances of using a Northern English accent in popular music. Indeed, there are cases where it seems American audiences were confused by the Beatles' accents.

Interviewer: "What about the taste of the fans over there [in America]. Did you find the same stuff?"


Paul: "We expected them to be very different, but they weren't at all. The accent was the only thing, you know. That was the only difference."

Interviewer: "Did they reckon you sang in an English accent or an American accent?"

Paul: "No, some fella said, 'How come, because you're from Britain, and you still sing in an American accent,' or something. We were trying to explain it to him.... oh, it was funny."

(Pathe News Interview, 1964)

In the Beatles' first American press conference in 1964, a reporter simply questions the Beatles on whether they are using English accents at all at the moment.

American Interviewer: "Are those English accents?"

George: "It's not English. It's Liverpudlian, you see."

Paul: "The Liverpool accent - so, the way you say some of the words. You know, you say GRASS instead of GRAHHSS, and that sounds a bit American. So there ya go."

American Interviewer: "Liverpool is the..."

Ringo: (jokingly) "It's the capital of Ireland."

Paul: "Anyway, we wrote half of your folk songs in Liverpool."

(Beatles Press Conference New York City, 1964)

There is even an apocryphal story about the making of their first movie, A Hard Day's Night. The story goes that before A Hard Day's Night was released in America, a United Artists executive asked Lester to dub the voices of the group with mid-Atlantic accents. McCartney angrily replied, "Look, if we can understand a fucking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool." The earliest source for this story is an IMDB trivia edit with no sources, so I question the veracity of it. Nevertheless, the fact that this story has spread shows that people are willing to accept the notion that the Beatles sounded different enough (and American executives are hard-headed enough) that some movie executive would entertain the idea of dubbing them over in American accents.

Their Liverpoolness was not always treated as a serious statement of identity to challenge both American and Southern English hegemony. They also embraced the humor inherent in the communication difficulties that occasionally occur between different dialects.

George: “There is a lot of what I’d call ‘liverpoolness’ which is in the way you’d say certain things. I have difficulty pronouncing certain words without the Liverpool accent. There’s always at least one or two words in every song lyric that gives it away. Things like ‘her’ and ‘her,’ [hair], ‘her her [hair] was blonde.'"


George: "Well this week, we have a special person for you on our program -- None other than John Lennon of The Beatles. Well John, I believe you've written a bewk. And this bewk's called 'John Lennon In His Own Write,' folks. W-R-I-T-E, you see. It's a larf [lɑf]. It's a larf [lɑf] a minute with John Lennon. Some of you might find it a bit difficult to understand -- because you see, it's in a sort of funny lingo. Well, we get it, you see. It's full of larfs. [...]"


Ringo: "[...] Many little drawings which will make you laugh [læf]."

George: (correcting) "Larf [lɑf]."

Ringo: "George is trying to lose his accent, you see."


Paul: Then the Liverpool accent is a little bit different cuz "you can’t, you can’t hardly understand us".

John: If it’s very broad-like, but see.

Paul: "Me uncle harry", like, has got a very strong Liverpool accent. "It is the man from capital, that’s him, that’s the fella." Then we get the other accent, which is the girls who go to the dance hall. It’s a very strange accent there. Cuz its all, “hey Paul, sing-g for us, cuz it’s christ nide dine(?) we went down to midland(?) Town audio(?) Today.” That’s another one, you see.


The most amusing and light-hearted moments of the Beatles regarding their accents is when they are on video and in a non-hostile environment. In the clip where they talk with Liverpudlian comedian Ken Dodd, you can hear how they comment on his "hurr" and how Ken Dodd launches into a joke based on a Liverpudlian pronouncing "for" and "fur" the same.

Interviewer: Boys, what do you think of Mr. Ken Dodd?

John: Great, he's marvelous.

George(?): Lovely hurr [note: hair].

Ken Dodd: We call it "hurr" in Liverpool, you see. We all say "the judy with the furr hurr."


Ken Dodd: A fellow went into those shops once in Liverpool where they sell those, you know, minks and things, and he says to the girl "give us one of those there hurr-y coats." She said, "I beg your pardon sir, what fur?" And he says, "'the judy', who do you think?"


And they make plenty of use and reference to Scouse English in A Hard Day's Night. They use the alveolar trill more often and the short "u" vowel in words like "strut"and "rush".

George: Eh, look at that talent. [referring to two girls]

John: Give 'em a pull.

Paul: Shall I?

George: Aye, but don't rush. None of your five bar gate jumps and over sort of stuff.

Paul: Now what's that supposed to mean?

George: I don't really know, but it sounded distinguished-like, didn't it?

John: George Harrison [trilled r], The Scouse of Distinction.

Paul: [wearing a bowler hat, in a posh accent] Excuse me, but these young men I'm sitting with wondered if two of us could join you; I'd ask you meself only I'm shy.

(Source 1, Source 2)

A Hard Day's Night itself has an interesting contrast between the Beatles, who are of course the irreverent and fun-loving stars of the movie and speak in their native Liverpool accent, and their handlers, who ruin their fun and attempt to control them, speak in Received Pronunciation. In the following segments, a marketing executive, Simon, has had an assistant tell George he's needed for something and brought in as part of a marketing campaign. Simon assumes he's exaggerating his Liverpoolness: "you don't have to do the old adenoidal glottal stop." The term "adenoidal" is commonly used to describe Liverpool accents. George says he doesn't understand and once Simon realizes that that is George's real accent, he switches to speaking to him in a condescending way. He nonetheless is interesting in the slang George uses - "grotty" (which was actually made up for the movie). Ultimately George's casual uninterest in the "posh" icon they're pushing gets him thrown out - and gets her removed from her position.

George: I'm terribly sorry but I'm afraid there's been some sort of a misunderstanding.

Simon: Oh, you can come off it with us. You don't have to do the old adenoidal glottal stop and carry on for our benefit.

George: I'm afraid I don't understand.

Simon: Oh, my God, he's a natural.[...] They ought to know by now the phonies are much easier to handle. Still he's a good type.

[He now speaks to George in the loud voice that the English reserve for foreigners and village idiots.]

Simon: We'd like you to give us your opinion on some clothes for teenagers.

George: Oh, by all means, I'd be quite prepared for that eventuality.

Simon: Well, not your real opinion, naturally. It'll be written out and you'll learn it. [...] (hands shirts to George) Now, you'll like these. You really "dig" them. They're "fab" and all the other pimply hyperboles.

George: (looking at shirts) I wouldn't be seen dead in them. They're dead grotty.

Simon: Grotty?

George: Yeah, grotesque.

Simon: (to secretary) Make a note of that word and give it to Susan. It's rather touching really. Here's this kid trying to give me his utterly valueless opinion when I know for a fact within four weeks he'll be suffering from a violent inferiority complex and loss of status because he isn't wearing one of these nasty things. Of course they're grotty, you wretched nit, that's why they were designed, but that's what you'll want.

George: I won't.

Simon: You can be replaced, chicky baby.

George: I don't care.

Simon: And that pose is out too, Sunny Jim. The new thing is to care passionately, and be right wing. Anyway, if you don't cooperate you won't meet Susan [...] Only Susan Campey, our resident teenager. You'll have to love her. She's your symbol.

George: Oh, you mean that posh bird who gets everything wrong? [...] Oh, yes, the lads frequently sit round the TV set to watch her for a giggle. Once we even all sat down and wrote these letters saying how gear she was and all that rubbish.

Simon: She's a trend setter. It's her profession.

George: She's a drag. A well-known drag. We turn the sound down on her and say rude things.

Simon: Get him out of here!! [...] You don't think he's a new phenomenon, do you? [...] No, it's alright, he's just a trouble maker. The change isn't due for three weeks yet. All the same, make a note not to extend Susan's contract. Let's not take any unnecessary chances!

(Source 1, Source 2)

The only other character speaking in a noticeably non-BBC accent (to my American ears) is Paul's grandfather, who speaks in an Irish accent and is a trickster figure throughout the movie, confounding both the Beatles and the handlers (though they always manage to get a hold of him at the end). In Paul's own words, he is "a villain and a right mixer."

There is a particularly well-known instance of a Brit considering the Beatles too American. Paul McCartney's father thought they used too many Americanisms in their music. He was annoyed by their use of "yeah" instead of "yes":

Paul: We sat in there one evening, just beavering away while my dad was watching TV and smoking his Players cigarettes, and we wrote She Loves You. We actually just finished it there because we'd started it in the hotel room. We went into the living room – 'Dad, listen to this. What do you think?' So we played it to my dad and he said, 'That's very nice, son, but there's enough of these Americanisms around. Couldn't you sing, "She loves you. Yes! Yes! Yes!"' At which point we collapsed in a heap and said, 'No, Dad, you don't quite get it!' That's my classic story about my dad. For a working-class guy that was rather a middle-class thing to say, really. But he was like that.


American Stuff

Let's compare the list of Liverpudlian and generally British characteristics with the list of American characteristics in their music.

  • aɪ-monophthongization. This is a feature typical of Southern American English and African American Vernacular English, where [aɪ] 🔊 words are pronounced as [a] 🔊. aɪ-monophthongization is almost standard in pop music nowadays.
    • "I [a] wanna be your lover baby, I [a] wanna be your man." - I Wanna Be Your Man, With the Beatles (1963)
    • "I want you to know now that I [a] still love you so, but if he loves you mo' go with him." Anna (Go To Him), Please Please Me (1963)
  • Unrounded LOT vowel. British English uses a round vowel [ɒ] in words like "lot" 🔊, "got," and tomorrow." American English tends to use the same unrounded vowel [ɑ] as in "spa" [spɑ] resulting in the American "lot" [lɑt] 🔊. The Beatles use the American unrounded LOT vowel very frequently.
    • "We have lost [lɑst] the time... I don't know why you should want to hide." You Won't See Me, Rubber Soul(1965)
    • "For as from today, well I've got [gɑt] somebody that's new" - Another Girl, Help! (1965)
  • Diphthongized THOUGHT vowel - this is typical of Southern English and African American Vernacular English. Words like "bought" [bɔt] 🔊 become "ba-ut" [bɑɒt] 🔊.
    • "Come aun [aʊn]" - When I Get Home, A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • æ-Tensing before nasals: The sequence is pronounced [ɛən]. Note that this pronunciation is inconsistent and they often use the English version (see above).
    • "I wanna be your me-an [mɛən]." - I Wanna Be Your Man, With The Beatles (1963)
  • FOOT-STRUT split. Most English speakers pronounce words like "love", "strut", "does", "Russia", etc. with an "uh" [ʌ] sound 🔊. The "uh" sound doesn't exist in Northern English. Northern English speakers use a short "oo" [ʊ] sound instead, as in "book" [bʊk]. Words like "strut" then become "stroot" 🔊. This means that "put" and "putt" would both be pronounced the same: "poot" [pʊt]. The Beatles use this short "u" often in their speech, but never in their music. In their songs, they use the "uh" sound instead.
    • "I give her all my love [lʌv]" - And I Love Her, A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Rhotic pronunciations. As mentioned above, most American English is rhotic, meaning that words with an in them have an r sound. The Beatles occasionally attempted rhotic pronunciations. For example, they start out the song "Another Girl" with a strong "r", but by the end they have switched back to a non-rhotic pronunciation (see above).
    • "Another GRRL [gɚl]." - Another Girl, Help! (1965)

So there are some American features, but it's nowhere near as extensive as the list of British features. Why do so many people seem to think that the Beatles "sound" American? As shown in the "Liverpoolness" section, there were some substantiated instances of Americans thinking that the Beatles did not sound English.

There are two things at play here. Firstly, the Beatles do not speak Received Pronunciation or London English. These are the two varieties of "English English" that most Americans are familiar with. If you are not exposed to different dialects frequently, it can be difficult to distinguish them later on since you do not have "practice" with telling them apart. Prior to the Beatles becoming famous, most Americans had no exposure to Scouse accents at all. Scouse lacks some features that are associated with Received Pronunciation, such as the BATH-TRAP split, so if you were an American listening for that, you would simply never find it. Moreover, the features that are distinctive of Scouse English, such as the prosodic patterns, lack of NG-coalescence, and NURSE-SQUARE merger, are not features that Americans normally "listen" for. Americans don't know that these features are socially meaningful in England. Finally, some features, like lack of AE-tensing before nasals and non-rhoticity, can actually be found in some American dialects, such as New York City English, which complicates the matter.

This means that there are very few "diagnostic" features Americans can listen for and recognize. Perhaps the most salient one of all is intonation. Scouse English has a very particular Irish-influenced prosody. But intonation is only recognizable in speech. Most people's exposure to the Beatles was probably not through interviews or even through the movies, but through their music, and in singing any distinguishable intonation pattern disappears. It is thus true that singing has some effect in diminishing the appearance of accents, but singing does not make accents disappear entirely. The list of features above show that you can still have recognizably regional features of an accent in song.

Lasting Effects

Since the 1960s, British popular music acts have had to make a choice between how much they want to preserve their accent in their music and how much they want to change it to sound more Americanized (and specifically African-American). All the groups in the British Invasion drew the line at a different place. Some, like Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, put the dial to 11 in terms of imitating Americans. Others, like the Beatles, adopted a hybrid. The British punk groups of the 70s put the dial all the way back to "as British as possible" as a rejection of all the pretensions of arena and prog rock - including the pretensions of American-ness. Choosing to keep a noticeably British accent instead of Americanizing your accent into the vague pop/rock/blues register is a statement. The members of One Direction, the English boy band phenomenon of the 2010s, felt it would be strange to sing in a British accent:

Liam Payne confesses that bosses at record label Syco (owned by Simon Cowell) encourage them to nurture their inner Yank. He says: “I don’t think you can really sing in a British accent. I think it’s a bit hard and sometimes a bit forced. Singing is an imitation at the end of the day, it’s the way you put things across.”

Louis Tomlinson, 19, from Doncaster, “I think in certain music genres you can really tell when people are British, but in pop it’s not as easy to get it across.”

Harry Styles, 19: "I have a theory... I think it’s all on who you grew up listening to and who your parents listened to. So when you sing, you’re singing along with them. I think you just apply that and you have that idea of singing.”

Louis agrees: “It’s what music you sang in the shower and what you listened to when you were young.”

Zayn, 20, “What Makes You Beautiful would sound more indie with a British accent.”


And if you speak a distinctly "regional" variety of British English as opposed to a "posh" one, there's an extra level of choice to be made in terms of whether to "posh it up". Pop singer Ellie Goulding says she regrets losing her native accent in favor of a posher one:

[Ellie Goulding] grew up on a council estate in Hereford, west England, and was so embarrassed by her accent that she trained herself to speak differently - but now she wishes she had retained her hometown dialect.

[Ellie] said: "I became fixated on speaking well. I felt like people just knew I was from a council house and that I was poor because of the way I spoke."

Ellie, who describes her original accent as "quite Bristolian", began studying British TV newsreader Nicholas Witchell to perfect her new, sophisticated accent, which she now regrets.

She lamented: "I feel silly because I'm not ashamed of the Hereford accent now and it's too late to get it back."


If you choose to keep your non-posh accent and manage to hit the big time, perhaps you will end up like the Beatles. As a result of arguably being the most popular band from Liverpool of all time, they have actually spread awareness of Scouse accents. American comedians added the Beatles into their repertoire of impressions, and many Americans recognize Liverpool accents as "how the Beatles talk." For example, the voice actor for Wakko from Animaniacs, Jess Harnell, modeled Wakko's voice on John Lennon. But ironically, the Scouse accent as spoken by the Beatles appears to be moribund. Fewer Liverpudlians speak like the Beatles today and the accent is increasingly similar to the one in Southern England (1, 2, 3). The American impression of a Liverpool accent is therefore one preserved in amber by a pop phenomenon.

The story of the Beatles and of the British Invasion shows, as always, that accent always belies something deeper. When American music was dominating the British charts, the Beatles came along and displaced it, providing a home-grown musical phenomenon in England. Moreover, they rejected the notion that they needed to sound "posh" to succeed in music. In doing so, they opened the door for other musical artists in England to use their regional accents. At the same time, their occasional imitation of American English shows that they were still a product of a more globalized world, and the influence of American acts on their music was clear. Thanks to them, worldwide audiences are more aware of what a Liverpool accent sounds like - but that accent is itself being displaced in the modern day as more people move in and out of Liverpool. The relationship between class and regionality has always been complicated in England - and even in pop music, people make statements by which dialectal path they choose to take.

Works Cited

  • Wells, John 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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