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

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