August 26, 2019

From Glide to Fricative

Updated:: with more audio samples besides YouTube.

Glides, or semivowels, are made by having the tongue almost come in contact with part of the mouth. For example, when you make the sound in "you" [ju], the tongue moves near the front of your mouth but it doesn't touch it. It almost sounds like a very fast 'ee' [i]! The same thing happens in "woo" [wu], where your lips almost form an 'oo' [u] but don't touch.

But what if you overshot your estimate, and then your lips touched, or your tongue touched the roof of your mouth? Then the air passing through would be disturbed, and the sound would become a fricative. If a sound that is normally a glide becomes a fricative, that's called fortition, because the sound is getting stronger. (Fortition also applies to other sound changes.)

Here are the examples that inspired this post. First, fortition of [w] into something almost like [v].

“vwhoa, let me show you how a country boy treats a lady, vwhoa, go ahead kick 'em off...” - "If the boot fits," Granger Smith

You can clearly hear some buzzing as he says the 'w' in "whoa", and that buzzing is a telltale sign of frication. No buzzing means no frication.

Now let's look at [j] becoming something like [z]. This one is a bit more subtle, but you can also hear some buzzing on the "you" that normally isn't there. I had to listen to this one multiple times to make sure that this wasn't some kind of editing error, but it doesn't sound like this was cut from a longer line.

"“zyou’ve got everything you need,” One Direction

How common is fortition from glide to fricative? It's been known to happen across languages, but how often does it happen in English? Frankly, I've no idea how common it is. I don't even know how common it is in song. From this very limited sample, it doesn't seem region specific - Granger Smith is from Texas and Liam is from Wolverhampton in England. Both probably 'overshot' while singing and ended up with a little extra buzzing. Since it's not super noticeable, I bet you most people won't even think of it as a speech error.

Have you encountered examples of glides becoming fricatives? What about across languages? Do you notice this happening in speech as well? Sound off in the comments!

August 20, 2019

The Frequency Illusion

Those of us who have bought a car will notice a curious phenomenon where, just as soon as we purchase our car, we immediately begin to see the same model everywhere on the streets. It's remarkable how we all become trendmakers as soon as we buy a car; we singlehandedly turned a Toyota Corolla into a bestseller. After all, we only start seeing this car in mass numbers after we purchase it.

Or perhaps you relate more to having psychic powers capable of influencing the world. You learn about a particular term, or meet someone from a country, and suddenly you see reference to that country everywhere. Once I started studying the Scottish accent more, I found references to Scotland everywhere - Scottish bands on my Spotify auto-generated playlists, Scottish actors referenced on Twitter, and even more books on Scotland at my local bookstore. Could it be that me learning about Scotland raised the prominence of this northern country?

Luckily (or not), these were not incidences of the Toyota Corolla and the country of Scotland suddenly becoming more popular after one learns about them. These are examples of what is popularly called the Baader-Meinhof effect, also called the Frequency Illusion. This is a cognitive bias resulting from selective attention (you don't pay the same amount of attention to everything all the time) and confirmation bias (looking for/remembering things that support our hypothesis and ignoring contrary evidence). The Frequency Illusion is especially relevant in linguistics research, and it was indeed coined by a linguist. We're going to take a look at the Frequency Illusion and some examples of how it applies in language.

History

Arnold Zwicky, a linguist at the University of Stanford and former writer for Language Log, codified this observation in a 2006 post.

In any case, we have here another instance of the Recency Illusion, the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent. This is a selective attention effect. Your impressions are simply not to be trusted; you have to check the facts. Again and again -- retro not, double is, speaker-oriented hopefully, split infinitives, etc. -- the phenomena turn out to have been around, with some frequency, for very much longer than you think. It's not just Kids These Days.

Professional linguists can be as subject to the Recency Illusion as anyone else. Charles Hockett wrote in 1958 (A Course in Modern Linguistics, p. 428) about "the recent colloquial pattern I'm going home and eat", what Laura Staum has been investigating under the name (due to me) the GoToGo construction. Here's an example I overheard in a Palo Alto restaurant 8/6/05: "I'm goin' out there and sleep in the tent." But Hockett's belief that the construction was recent in 1958 is just wrong; David Denison, at Manchester, has collected examples from roughly 30 years before that.

Another selective attention effect, which tends to accompany the Recency Illusion, is the Frequency Illusion: once you've noticed a phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot, even "all the time". Your estimates of frequency are likely to be skewed by your noticing nearly every occurrence that comes past you. People who are reflective about language -- professional linguists, people who set themselves up as authorities on language, and ordinary people who are simply interested in language -- are especially prone to the Frequency Illusion.

Here at Stanford we have a group working on innovative uses of all, especially the quotative use, as in the song title "I'm like 'yeah' and she's all 'no'". The members of the group believed that quotative all was very common these days in the speech of the young, especially young women in California, and the undergraduates working on the project reported that they had friends who used it "all the time". But in fact, when the undergrads engage these friends in (lengthy) conversation, tape the conversations, transcribe them, and then extract occurrences of quotatives, the frequency of quotative all is very low (quotative like is really really big). There are several interpretations for this annoying finding, but we're inclined to think that part of it is the Frequency Illusion on our part.

Zwicky wasn't the first to notice this phenomenon; the name Baader-Meinhof Effect had been circulating on message boards since 1994, and is more widely recognized. This wasn't even the first time Zwicky had written about it; he noticed his own sensitivity to a character in a book saying "and yet" despite the phrase only occurring three times in a novel. He has made a collection of posts on the Frequency Illusion, helpfully listed on his site.

He uploaded a short pamphlet to the Stanford University website that helpfully summarizes the sub-types of the Frequency Illusion:

Why are many people – including, on occasion, linguists – inclined to systematic dogged misapprehensions about variation in language (like the five below, from postings to the Language Log over the past two years)? These illusions follow from psychological processes and social practices, combined with bits of language ideology, and are facilitated by the fact that hardly anyone has a panoptic view of language variation; we mostly have to think about it on the basis of our personal experience.

(1.1) Recency Illusion: If you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it originated recently. (Example: a widespread belief that the case selection in between you and I is a recent innovation.)

(1.2) Antiquity Illusion: If you do something yourself, you believe that you always have, and that people in general have done it for a long time. (Example: the idea that the whole nine yards is a venerable idiom.)

(2.1) Out-Group Illusion: Things you view as novel, or simply ba d, are characteristic of groups you don’t see yourself as belonging to. (Example: an Australian’s assertion that “double is” is not found in Australia, but is probably an Irish thing.)

(2.2) In-Group Illusion: Things you view as characteristic of groups you see yourself as belonging to are peculiar to those groups, not shared by outsiders. (Example: many Pittsburghers’ belief that items like needs washed and redd up are unique to their city.)

(3) Frequency Illusion: Once you notice a phenomenon, you believe it happens a whole lot. (Example: a widespread belief that quotative all occurs “all the time” in the speech of some (young) people.)

One of the most humbling observations that Zwicky has made is that the Frequency Illusion can happen to anyone, even to professional linguists. The reality is that there are far too many things happening in language for one to be able to keep track of. Even keeping up with published papers is a challenge, let alone running statistical models of every phrase that catches the ear. It is easy for us to be mislead as to how common something is, and our intuitive responses on who is doing it are often simply wrong.

That being said, these intuitive responses can be a good jumping off point. I often go into my Dialect Dissections with certain expectations about what I will find and which features will be the most salient, but almost every time the evidence takes me in a different direction from what I expected. That being said, without my initial intuition, I would not have even known where to look. When the Frequency Illusion is the beginning and the end, it can be harmful. But if we let it guide research, we can learn what is really going on - and then hopefully share with others to 'shatter' their own Frequency Illusion.

Although Zwicky has already discussed several examples of the Frequency Illusion in his writings, I'm going to extend that analysis to some other areas.

Examples

One of the most noticeable examples of the Frequency Illusion is the discourse surrounding creaky voice, also known as glottal fry and vocal fry. Creaky voice is a kind of phonation that results in a noticeably 'croaky' or 'creaky' sound. It is an important phonemic mode in some languages, where presence and absence of creaky voice tells some words apart. But most of the attention paid to creaky voice isn't about its use in distinguishing words. Instead, it has focused on the supposed epidemic of creaky voice affecting college age girls in the United States.

Carrie Gillion has a great article discussing creaky voice. She mentions that creaky voice used to be associated with British men, up until an article was released that mentioned that college age women use creaky voice often. At this point, the association flipped and also took on an increasingly negative tone.

Gillon mentions that prejudice against young female speech is an important part of this. I would like to add that this is an example of the Frequency Illusion, for I have found a surprising number of examples of creaky voice from before 2011 that nobody seems to have been bothered by.

An example of the old-fashioned association of creaky voice with British men can be found in "Courage the Cowardly Dog." The character "Naughty Fred" appears in a 2005 episode. He has an English accent, although he is played by a Canadian actor. What is curious is the amount of vocal fry that his actor applies. It is especially noticeable each time he says 'naughty.' This episode aired in 2005, before the hullabaloo about creaky voice. Perhaps his voice actor still associated creaky voice with English men. I haven't found any references or comments about the high amounts of creaky voice this character displays. The notion that creaky voice is a new phenomenon or only prevalent in young women thus seems to suffer from a mass example of the Frequency Illusion striking at a particular time.

"Cause me to be quite ~naughty~"

Creaky voice as an artistic choice has also been criticized heavily. On two different ends of the pop music spectrum, we have Britney Spears, who was hugely influential in popularizing the use of creaky voice, and on the other end we have indie and indie-aligned artists like Billie Eilish who also use creaky voice frequently. Both usages of creaky voice are subject to heavy criticism and attack - though perhaps not that heavy since both Britney Spears and Billie Eilish are successful singers who have sold millions of records.

Creaky voice as an artistic effect is not even new, although its increased prevalence may be. In the song "Can't Smile Without You," we hear Karen Carpenter use creaky voice to transition from the musical phrase "finding it hard even to talk" to "and I feel sad." Karen Carpenter is the poster child for that pure, 'clean' 70s style of singing, with few affectations and a nice dose of vibrato on sustained notes. It is surprising to hear her use creaky voice in much the same way Britney does, to demarcate different musical phrases. While her use is definitely very limited compared to 1990s+ artists', it damages the notion that creaky voice is a novelty.

"~I~ don't even talk to people I meet ~and I~ feel sad when you're sad"

We can continue finding examples of the Frequency Illusion. For instance, I highly suspect that some aspects of Indie Voice are subject to the Frequency Illusion. The musical style is very common, but the linguistic style is rarer. The diphthongization, which was the subject of a Buzzfeed article, is difficult to find consistently. My articles on Indie Voice collect a number of these examples. There are even quotations from people complaining about how 'these artists are saying dreyss' and how you 'have to add an i' to sing in this style. But many of the early examples are noticeably subtle. Indeed, I have had several commenters tell me that they cannot hear the supposed diphthongization in the early examples.

There is evidence that something similar to this diphthongization does happen in spoken speech, as reported by John Wells and in the scant two examples I found. But if this has been happening since 1980, the publication date of the John Wells book, why did people only start talking about it now? There are pre-2013 examples of this subtle diphthongization, but there are few online records of people specifically talking about the diphthongization. I even have had commenters tell me that they do something similar in their own speech and that they don't consider it a noticeable linguistic phenomenon. If this has been happening in speech and in song, why did people start paying attention?

The indie voice example does not have a clean resolution. Perhaps the Frequency Illusion caused people to associate otherwise uninteresting phonetic features specifically with the singing style. I don't think the Frequency Illusion is the whole story, but I would not be surprised if it weren't a part of this perception that 'indie voice is everywhere' when actual linguistic examples are not as easy to come by.

Conclusion

I once read a post on a message board where a man in his 50s was complaining about how 'young people' cannot speak English correctly. His example was the word 'tree', which he claimed young people pronounced 'chree.' It seems this man was unaware that this sort of affricative assimilation is common not just in English, but cross-linguistically.

He had likely heard this form many times in his life and never paid it any mind. But when it came from the mouth of someone he was suspicious of - a young person - his brain suddenly noticed it and not only registered it as a 'young person thing,' but started hearing it everywhere and taking it as proof that 'this is how all young people talk.' It was his subjective experience, but his conclusion was not based on any evidence.

We all need to be aware that our intuitions often lead us astray when it comes to linguistic phenomena, and that pop explanations can lead us astray. Our own feelings about a group (young people, young women, the Irish, Pittsburghers) can cause us to inaccurately attribute certain features as being unique to them and as also being newer than they seem. If we want to have an understanding of language variation that lines up with reality, then we need to as much as possible collect evidence to try and test these intuitions. We also need to be wary and skeptical of 'new' features without accompanying proof, especially if we are claiming some particular group is doing it.

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.

Britishisms

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!
(source)

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.

Marina-Isms

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.