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."

(Source)

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.

(Source)

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."

(laughter)
(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.'"

(Source)

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."

(Source)

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.

(Source)

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."

[laughter]

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?"

[laughter]
(Source)

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.

(Source)

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.”

Source

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."

(Source)

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.
If you've enjoyed this article and would like to hear more from Ace Linguist, you can follow me on Twitter for more frequent posts or Facebook for only important site updates. Ace Linguist is self-funded. If you are interested, you could donate a small amount monthly via Patreon or a one-time donation via Ko-Fi. Please note that Ace Linguist is and always will be freely available to all readers, regardless of donation status, so please do not feel pressured into donating.

3 comments:

  1. blackford?? it's blackburn. and lancasheer may be general British pronunciation but the area's (idk about Liverpool's but it was in Lancashire then right) is Lancashuh

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the correction! I'll update the lyrics. And yes, 'Lancashuh' is also a common pronunciation, probably more common than 'Lancasheeuh'.

      Delete