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October 28, 2019

Dialect Dissection: Britney Spears

It's fair to say that Britney Spears is one of the defining pop icons from the 2000s. From the moment she smashed her way into our hearts with "...Baby One More Time," she's been delivering hits and controversy. Perhaps her most distinguishing feature is her croaky voice, which has been discussed by news outlets and fan pages alike.

Most people aren't aware that her linguistic uniqueness goes beyond the rasp. Britney Spears is a veritable vocal experimenter, playing with vowels and consonants to create a different sound on each album. She's also a Southern American with a knack for switching between radio-perfect Standard English and down-home Southern inflections. Britney's work shows a keen sociolinguistic awareness of speaking a regional dialect - she knows when to let it go and when to hold back.

In this Dialect Dissection, we're going to take a closer look at Britney's work to figure out what makes her sound so distinctive - and why she does it.

Southern Accent

Britney grew up in Kentwood, Louisiana, a rural town with a population of 2205 in the year 2000 (per the US census). Although Britney does not have the most dramatic features of a Southern accent (no 'drawl'), her spoken speech shows that she has some Southern features. Listen to how she says "two," "five," and "ten" in particular.

Tew [tʉ], three, four, fav [fav], six, seven, eight, nan [nan], tin [tɪn], [...] twenty [twɪni]

In her interviews, she often conceals these features - a fact her fans have noticed. But Britney is also able to switch between a General American-sounding accent and a Southern one. Her Southern accent becomes more pronounced when she's with her family, as can be seen in the below clip where she talks to/about her family. It's also very pronounced when she's talking to her assistant, Felicia Culotta (who also appears to be Southern). In other words, her Southern accent most appears around people she trusts.

..."I'm surprased, I'm surprised ... this is my sister, Jamie Leean..."

There's also an exchange between Britney and Felicia, where Britney teases Felicia about using a short "u" sound in "poor" (so it sounds like "poo-er." Most Americans and English English speakers have merged "pour" and "poor" so that they sound like "pore" with an "o" sound, but some Southerners still pronounce them differently. Britney is aware that using a merged vowel is more standard, and also points out the similarity to "poo." This shows that Britney is aware of how Southern English is perceived by non-Southerners and which features may be prone to mockery.

(at 26:07) Felicia: Remember we were poo-r.

Britney: She said poo-er! [laughter] It's pore!

Felicia: I said pore!

Britney: Poo-er!

Felicia: [laughter] We were pore.

Chuck Klosterman, who interviewed her for Esquire magazine, noticed how Britney was marketed on the basis of both her sexuality and her Southern-ness. He writes about the extent he believes her celebrity life has resulted in her being disconnected from a sense of normality, but also notes how Britney flips between accents when annoyed. If she mostly uses her Southern accent in the company of people she trusts, like her family and her personal assistant, perhaps her switching away from it is a revocation of that intimacy in an interview.

After I [interviewed Spears for Esquire], people kept asking me, ‘What is she really like?’ My answer was usually, ‘I don’t know, and I don’t think she does, either.’ […]

Her management team directed so much emphasis toward turning her into an unsophisticated semi-redneck that she now has no idea what is normal what is marketing. [...]

That said, I did notice that her Southern accent always seemed to mysteriously disappear whenever she became annoyed with my questions. Maybe she’s the blond Machiavelli.”

Why might Britney switch so often between varieties, and why does she use General American so often that fans aren't even aware that she has a Southern accent? Southern accents in the United States have a complicated perception. They can be considered 'uneducated' or 'cute', but rarely 'normal.' By mostly staying in a General American accent, Britney can avoid the harsh stereotyping that Southern accents are subject to. From Slade and Narro (2002):

On the other hand, the shocking actions of Britney Spears often put the South in a negative light. From the small town of Kentwood, Louisiana, Spears has portrayed the “white trash” inferiority Portwood-Stacer examines - marketing herself “with a kind of trashy sexuality, enacted in a celebrity culture of high fashion and unfathomable wealth.” In the study, Portwood-Stacer notes in her short and cataclysmic show with Kevin Federline that depicted their lives as a young, famous and married couple, Spears often falls from her “cutesy Southern accent into a twangy Louisiana drawl.” Cute? Twangy? Would successful professionals like their speech labeled as cute or twangy? Even Southerners question their speech as being accepted.

If Britney is particular about who gets to hear her Southern accent, her music has plenty of Southern features. This isn't unusual, since the features of Southern English overlap with African American Vernacular English, and both Southern and AAV English have been heavily imitated in popular music. But Britney likes to exaggerate these features. Combined with her light, sweet tone, her use of Southern features ends up creating a definitive sound for her.

If you would like to skip the in-depth audio samples and go straight to the discussion, click here to get to the good stuff.

  • Pin-pen merger: Most English dialects differentiate the the vowels in 'dress' [ɛ] and 'kit' [ɪ] when they appear before 'n' and 'm'. This means 'pin' /pɪn/ 🔊 and 'pen' /pɛn/ 🔊 sound different. In Southern accents, they sound the same, so 'pen' and 'pin' both sound like 'pin' ([pɪn]), and 'hem' and 'him' both sound like 'him' ([hɪm]) (Source). Britney often uses the merged vowel here, as she does in speech. However, she does not always merge them - she uses both "spind" and "spend" in her song "Thinking About You."
    • “I spind [spɪnd] my days ... and for us there is no ind [ɪnd] in sight ... each day that I spend [spɛnd] around you" - Thinking about you, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • “This letter that I’ve sint [sɪnt] a hundred times” - Email My Heart, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • "Now I hold him at attintion [ətɪnʃən] cuz new Britney's on a mission" - Toy Soldiers, Blackout (2007)
  • GOOSE-fronting. /u/ 🔊 → [ʉ] 🔊 : Normally for the long 'oo' vowel (in goose or true), the tongue is in the back: [u]. Southern accents move the tongue forward in the mouth so it sounds kind of like 'ew' [ʉ] (Source). Britney's fronted 'oo' vowel is one of her most imitated characteristics.
    • "The reason I breathe is yew [jʉ]" - ...Baby One More Time, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • “I'm a slave for yew [jʉ]” - Slave 4 U, Britney (2003)
    • “If you want me to believe it's trew [trʉ]” - Don’t let me be the last to know, Oops! ... I Did It Again (2000)
    • "But no way I'm never gonna fall for yew [jʉ] ... never yew [jʉ], baby" - Womanizer, Circus (2008)
  • GOAT-centering. The 'oh' vowel in words like 'know' and 'go' is usually pronounced as [oʊ], with the first half of it starting in the back of the mouth. Modern Southern accents pronounce it [əʊ], with the first half starting in the center of the mouth. This is another characteristic Britney feature. One commenter on New Britneyology says "I always found the way she said/sang O very distinctive and Britneyish," and poster Karenannanina comes at it from a singing perspective: "[in her first album] we get early glimpses of sounds she has always had problems with and has never been able to 'sing out'. These are the 'o' sounds in 'supposed' and 'know.'" (Source)
    • "How was I supposed to know [nəʊ]" - ...Baby One More Time, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • “Move slow [sləʊ]” - Sometimes, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • “Oh, but Cinderella's got to go [gəʊ]” - Cinderella, Britney (2001)
    • "I'm simply sick and tired of theuse [ðəʊz]" - Toy Soldiers, Blackout (2007)
  • COT-CAUGHT distinction - while most young Americans (especially Californians) rhyme "cot" and "caught" [kɑt]. Britney Spears does not. She distinguishes it by having words like CAUGHT with an o-like vowel like in "core," resulting in [kɔt]. (Britney sometimes uses the merger, perhaps to sound more Californian.)
    • “The day we cried, Autumn [ɔɾəm] goodbye” - Autumn Goodbye, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • "Life doesn't al-ways [ɔlweɪz] go my way" - Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman, Britney (2001)
    • "You had caught [kɔt] my eye and I wanted" - (I Got That) Boom Boom, In The Zone (2003)
    • "Even when we're up against the wall [wɔl] - "Gimme More", Blackout (2007)
  • LOT-CLOTH split - In most varieties of English English and American English, "on" and "Don" have the same vowel. In Southern English, however, "on" can have the same vowel as "door" or "dawn," resulting in [ɔn]. Britney uses this o-like vowel in words like "on" and "strong." Fans have also noticed this as a Britney pronunciation, but they have not connected it to Southern accents before.
    • "And the beat goes ohn [ɔn]" - The Beat Goes On, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • "What I like, what I wont [wɔnt] and what I don't" - Overprotected, Britney (2001)
    • "Please forgive me if I'm coming on too strong [strɔŋ] ... they're playin' my favorite song [sɔŋ]" - Hold It Against Me, Femme Fatale (2011)
    • "I got what you wont [wɔnt] - What You Need, Glory (2016)
  • FACE-lowering. In most American accents, words like 'baby' and 'say' are pronounced with a vowel that's high in the front of the mouth, [eɪ]. Southern accents use a vowel that's lower down in the mouth, resulting in [ɛɪ]. No imitation of "oh baby baby" is complete without some FACE-lowering.
    • "Oh baby baby [bɛɪbɪ]" - ...Baby One More Time, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • "I'm like a fire, bottle busting in your face [fɛɪs]" - Toy Soldier, Blackout (2008)
    • "Oh bayby bayby bayby [bɛɪbɪ]" - If U Seek Amy, Circus (2009)
  • Light l/dark l contrast - many varieties of American English use a dark l [ɫ] in all positions, with the back of the tongue raised towards the back of the mouth. A light l [l], in contrast, is made by gently tapping the tip of the tongue against the front of the mouth without raising the back of the tongue. Southern American English uses a light [l] at the beginning of syllables and a dark [ɫ] at the end of syllables.
    • "I still believe [bɪliv]" - ...Baby One More Time, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • "She's so lucky [laki]" - Lucky, Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
    • "Not this time because I realize [riəlaɪz]" - Lonely, Britney (2001)
  • STRUT-fronting. /ʌ/ 🔊 → [ɜ] 🔊 : The 'uh' vowel as in bug, luck, strut, etc., sounds like [ɜ] or [ə], a sound similar to British 'er'. It is higher in the mouth (Source).
    • "Before we rurn [rɜn]" - One Kiss From You, Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
    • "I lurv [lɜv] rock and roll" - I Love Rock and Roll, Britney (2001)
    • "I’ve had enurf [ɪnɜf]” - Cinderella, Britney (2001)
  • FEEL-FILL merger. This results in the sound 'eel' /il/ being pronounced as 'ill' [ɪl], so that "feel" [fil] 🔊 ends up sounding exactly like "fill" [fɪl] 🔊. Britney pronounces "feel" not with the vowel "ee", but as "fill," with the vowel sound "ih".
    • "Fillins [fɪlɪns]" - When Your Eyes Say It, Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
    • "Why am I so rill [rɪl]" - My Prerogative, Greatest Hits: My Prerogative (2004)
    • “My heart, it feels [fɪlz] so safe, You are my melody” - That's Where You Take Me, Britney (2001)
  • MARRY-MERRY distinction. Britney pronounces words like "paradise" with the vowel of "mat" [mæt], resulting in something like "maarry" [mæri] 🔊. Meanwhile words like "merry" and "fairy" are pronounced with the vowel of "met" [mɛt], resulting in "meh-ri" [mɛri] 🔊. Most Americans do not distinguish between -arry/-erry words and pronounce them the same, as -erry. Meanwhile, British English speakers have a three way distinction between MARRY, MERRY, and MARY - one more distinction than Britney.
    • “From the ashes rise a glimpse of paradise [pærədaɪs]" - When I found you, Britney (2001)
    • “I don't believe in fairy [fɛri] tales” - Cinderella, Britney (2001)
    • “From the first kisses to the very [vɛri] last rose” - From the Bottom of my Broken Heart, ...Baby One More Time (1999)

Britney's Dialectal Awareness

Britney Spears would not be the first singer to use a more Southern/African-American Vernacular influenced dialect in her sung speech while using a different accent when speaking. What is interesting is that it seems Britney was not always so comfortable using Southern American English in her music. As an example, let's look at aɪ-monophthongization, which is where vowels like "I" start sounding more like "ah." It is one of the most distinctive parts of Southern English. Britney's first album, ...Baby One More Time, has a remarkably low usage of aɪ-monophthongization. The blogger Karenannanina notices as such:

In fact, contrary to many assumptions – and I have been as guilty as anybody – at the start of her career her singing was rather mannered, with self-consciously “correct” pronunciation. On the BOMT album, the “i” sounds as in “time” and “sign”, are sung open-mouthed and open-throated and not rendered as “tahm” and “sahn”. The way she delivers “time” and “find” in From the bottom of my broken heart is quite startling.

You can hear the exaggerated "ai" diphthong in the following clip. There is barely any focus on the "a" part and instead a lot of stress on the "i" part. It sounds almost purposefully constructed to be the opposite of the Southern "ah."

Britney seems to be able to switch between a Southern and a General American accent, so she is bi-accent-al. Moreover, she seems aware of the stigmatization of Southern accents. Her decision to not use aɪ-monophthongization on her first album could be to avoid sounding "uneducated" or "low class."

Note that this doesn't really apply to the rest of the Southern features that she uses. As an anecdote, most people I've spoken to associate a Southern accent with a 'drawl' or with aɪ-monopthongization. Features like the FEEL-FILL merger, the DON-DAWN distinction, and GOAT centering tend to go unnoticed. A lot of Britney fans don't even relate GOAT centering to Southernness but as a "Britneyish" mode of singing." See the following quotes from "New Britneyology", which relates GOAT-centering and the DON-DAWN distinction to a failure to "sing out." A fan, Sucker Pnch, also considers the GOAT-centering to be a Britney feature:

On the other hand, we get early glimpses of sounds she has always had problems with and has never been able to “sing out”. These are the “o” sounds in “supposed” and “know”, and even more so in “born”, “on”, “wrong” and “along”, which have always been Britney’s biggest weakness. - Karen Annanina

I always found the way she said/sang O very distinctive and Britneyish - Sucker Pnch

Britney therefore shows interesting dialectal awareness on her album where she uses plenty of common Southern features, except for the most well known one. Once her status as a star was assured, she seemed comfortable using aɪ-monophthongization freely on her songs. She abandons her efforts to sound "neutral" on Oops! ...I Did It Again and beyond.

The media reaction to her Southern-ness

That a Southerner might feel self conscious using aɪ-monophthongization is curious when you consider the number of singers who use aɪ-monophthongization freely such as the Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, and Iggy Azalea. They can imitate speakers of aɪ-monophthongizing dialects (in other words, African Americans who speak AAVE and working class White Southerners) and reap the benefits of sounding "soulful" and "authentic." Meanwhile, AAVE speakers and speakers of Southern English are aware of how stigmatized this feature is.

Plenty of African-Americans and white Southerners use the feature in their music anyway, as can be seen in genres like the blues, country music, r&b, Southern rock, and hip-hop. But those wanting to seem more 'neutral' may suppress it because, unlike Northern American and English speakers, they are scrutinized more harshly and subject to class and race-based attacks. Detractors of Britney often mock her by using slurs and stereotypes against working class whites:

"I'm convinced she's an inbred hick," writes one Britney-hater on an Internet chat site, while another declares, "Well, what can you expect from her parents? (in a southern Hick accent) 'Gosh golly, ma dawters so a purrrty (Isa bees fangkin' cousin Henry for the inbred genes) . . . HYuk Hyuk! *snort*!'" "Britney Spears," writes one who intends to succinctly dismiss the whole matter, "herself is from Louisiana, she is a hillbilly." (Campbell 2001)

Cambell's 2001 paper "I'm Just a Louisiana Girl: The Southern World of Britney Spears" deals at length with Britney's Southern identity and how both her marketing team and the press used it to different ends. At the beginning of her career, when she was marketed as a sweet, young girl (who was frequently asked about her virginity), she was able to portray herself as a "Southern belle." But as her image became raunchier and more sexualized in an adult way, she was no longer able to maintain that image and she was instead increasingly castigated for being "white trash." Is it a coincidence that her more sexualized image in "Oops! ...I Did It Again" and "Britney" coincided with her increasing usage of Southern features? (It's also worth noting that this is the portion of her career when Britney began working with more African-American producers and music, a predecessor to singers like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift using AAVE for their 'edgy' periods.)

The tabloids had a field day with this. Certain parodies of Britney Spears honed in on the "Southern" part. Mad TV liked drawing on the "stupid Southerner" stereotype. The "I'm-a wiser" skit employed an exaggerated Southern accent (as seen below) while the "My Predicament" skit simply had the lyric "I'm gonna flash with all this cash - I cannot hide, that I was born white trash."

"Look I'm naked in the sauna! And I still can't really sing, bay-by ... a happy end for this white trash cinderella ... my hair's red now, y'all! ...And leave my bray-n and bay-bies at the door... look at y'all just pretend that I'm the girl from 'oops, I did it agin!' ... Hey y'all, did you like my sawng? I'm nay-kid!

Ballads remain neutral

Another curious aspect of Britney's dialectal awareness is how she treats ballads or otherwise 'sentimental' songs. She uses a lot of exaggerated features on fun songs, be they upbeat or slinky. But she tones the features down on her ballads, where she strives to sound more General American. Think about how the ballad "From The Bottom of my Broken Heart" had an exaggerated "ai" diphthong, sounding almost like a parody of General American.

I'll mention my subjective experience here - singers are more likely to use an accent perceived as neutral on ballads than on other types of songs. Perhaps it's the same way there's a distinction between how the use of accents in motion picture is associated with comedy, while supposedly 'serious' actors in dramas don't do accents. The idea is that the use of regional accents would detract from the emotional weight of the work (or that accents are too high risk to imitate and can easily end up sounding silly or offensively bad). A similar logic seems to be at work in music, where singers strive to sound more 'neutral' on ballads. Despite this, Britney still uses creaky voice on ballads, which shows that she considers it to be a vocal technique as opposed to part of an accent or dialect.

Creaky voice

Britney did not invent creaky voice. Even clear-voiced clean-cut singers like Karen Carpenter from the 70s have been using creaky voice selectively. Karen Carpenter likes using creaky voice to suggest a sort of emotional intimacy with the listener. (We'll use a tilde ~ to mark creaky voice in this section.)

"~Or am I really lying here..." - I Just Fall In Love Again, Carpenters

Britney took creaky voice to a new level, using it liberally throughout songs. When used on her ballads, the creaky voice suggested the same kind of vulnerability that Karen Carpenter used decades before. But her creaky voice also made helped her with a more sensual sound - Rami Yacoub, co-producer of the album ...Baby, One More Time, said "With N' Sync and the Backstreet Boys, we had to push for that mid-nasal voice. When Britney did that, she got this kind of raspy, sexy voice." While creaky voice is often maligned nowadays, Britney's singing style was clearly enormously successful considering the amount of records she sold and imitators she spawned.

Britney's use of creaky voice is neither random nor formulaic - it is intentional and situationally-dependent. She tends to use creaky voice either to lead into a word (as in "E-Mail My Heart" and "Oops! I Did It Again"), or to finish a word on a lighter note (as in "Gimme More"). The creaky voice works both on ballady songs like "E-Mail My Heart" and contemporary pop like "Oops! I Did It Again." Her use of creaky voice on "Oops! I Did It Again" is especially nuanced as she goes from creaky voice to modal voice on the phrase "oh baby," back into creaky voice to finish it off, and then fades back into the last "oh." Try it out for yourself - slipping in and out of creaky voice smoothly is tougher than it seems.

  • "~Oh baby baby, ~I shouldn't have let you go" - ...Baby One More Time, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
  • “~I can see you ~in my mind” - E-Mail My Heart, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
  • "But to lose ~all my senses, ~that~ is just so typically me, ~oh, Baby~, ~oh” - Oops! ...I Did It Again, Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
  • "Cameras are flashing while we’re~ dirty dancing" - Gimme More, Blackout (2007)
  • She can also use creaky voice for an entire phrase, as in "Me Against the Music," to add sonic texture to a phrase - note that the example on "Me Against the Music" is layered under a melodic phrase.

  • "All the people in this crowd grab a partner take it down" - Me Against the Music, In the Zone (2003)
  • Britney-isms and other Miscellanea

    I mentioned in the "Creaky Voice" section around three sentences ago that Britney's use of creaky voice is "neither random nor formulaic - it is intentional and situationally-dependent." The same applies generally to her approach to each track. She noticeably likes experimenting with different voices. She may start using a feature on one track and then use its opposite on the next one. Some are found just on one album, while others seem to be favorites she likes using often ("babay").

    These features aren't necessarily from copying an accent. They're more like an actor trying different approaches to the same character. The result is that listening to a Britney performance on one album may sound different from a Britney performance on another, despite her ultimately staying in a relatively conservative vocal range and using pitch-correction software in later albums.

    One of the fun things about listening to the discography for this project was hearing Britney use all sorts of creative features. From the point of view of a researcher, I would be frustrated that she only used a feature a handful of times. But from the point of view of a listener, I found her playfulness and creativity delightful. It goes to show that you don't have to have a five-octave vocal range to be an engaging vocalist. Experimenting and having fun can be just as effective in connecting with listeners.

    • HAPPY-breaking. The 'ee' sound at the end of a word becomes 'ey'. Although Britney is not the first singer to use this, she has become one of the codifiers of this accent trope by using it heavily in the 90s and 2000s.
      • "You can't take your pretty eyes away from may [meɪ]" - Sometimes, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
      • "Finallay [faɪnəleɪ] ... what we had is historay [hɪstoreɪ]" - Don't Go Knocking On My Door, Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
      • "You want a piece of may [meɪ]" - Piece of Me, Blackout (2007)
      • "I might be a little hazay [hæɪzæɪ]" - Hold It Against Me, Femme Fatale (2011)
    • NURSE/SQUARE lowering. Britney often uses a variable vowel in words with an r-colored vowel.
      • "I will be thar [ðær] " - I Will be There, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
      • "Early marnin' [manɪn] she wakes up" - Lucky, Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
      • "Like them city boys from New Yark [jɑk] ‘ - Toy Soldier, Blackout (2007)
    • L-vocalization. This is when the 'l' at the end of a word sounds more like a 'w', so "well" sounds like "wew.'
      • "I kiw [kiw] the lights" - Kill The Lights, Circus (2008)
      • "I used to be your girlfriend and I know I did it wew [wæw]" - Cinderella, Britney (2001)
    • [a] diphthongs becomes centered. This is another one that sounds similar to a technique pop singers use because it is easier to 'sing on' the schwa vowel. She uses this one mostly on her first album "...Baby One More Time." To my ear, it sounds like she's trying to make her voice sound deeper and more "adult."
      • "And say our love will never duh-ee [dəi] and I, I know you're uh-ut [əʊt] there" - Email My Heart, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
      • “A clever way to get ba-uh-ee [baəi]” - Soda Pop, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
      • “Taking time is what love's all aba-uh-ut [əbaəʊt]” - From the bottom of my broken heart, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
      • “Hold you ta-uh-it [taəit]” 3:09 - From the bottom of my broken heart, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
    • KIT and FLEECE changing places. On Blackout, Britney pronounces 'eek' as 'ick' on words like 'freak' and 'sneak.' I haven't encountered this pronunciation on other Britney albums, so it seems like she was playing with language on this album. Meanwhile on Circus, you have the opposite: she pronounces 'ill' with a long 'ee' vowel.
      • "Frick show, frick show [frɪk]" - Freakshow, Blackout (2007)
      • "Or snick [snɪk] away to the Philippines" - Piece of Me, Blackout (2007)
      • "Are you steal [stil] in my bed?" - Shattered Glass, Circus (2008)
      • "I kiw [kiw] the lights" - Kill The Lights, Circus (2008)
    • DRESS-raising. Words like 'dress' are pronounced with a higher vowel. Although this is also a feature of Southern English, I have included it here because it subjectively sounds similar to a technique singers use where they raise mid-low vowels to mid-high vowels to 'sound better.'
      • "My loneline-ss [loʊnlines] is killing me" - ...Baby One More Time, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
      • “You used to say that I was spe-cial [speʃəl]” - What u see (is what u get), Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
      • "But to lose all my se-nse-s [sensez]" - Oops! ... I Did It Again, Oops! ...I Did It Again (2000)
      • "I want it more than e-ver [evə] now" - Toy Soldier, Blackout (2007)
    • Monophthongs. These might be copped from Caribbean English, and there are many Caribbean English speakers in r&b and hip-hop. Britney has been influenced by r&b and hip-hop before, so this is likely the source.
      • "Don’t you kno [no] that you’re toxic" - Toxic, In The Zone (2003)
      • "o [o] you’re a womanizer, baby" - Womanizer, Circus (2007)
      • "But you kno [no] i’m just your type" - Hold It Against Me, Femme Fatale (2011)
    • Opposite to the above, Britney sometimes pronounces DRESS vowels lower than normal so that they approach the TRAP vowel. This sounds similar to the California Shift. Britney has imitated a 'bratty' Valley Girl in her music before, which illustrates her comfort with borrowing from this dialect.
      • "I used to be your girlfriend and I know I did it wæl [wæw]" - Cinderella, Britney (2001)
      • "It's not the way I planned et [ɛt]" - ...Baby One More Time, ...Baby One More Time (1999)
      • "Sink or swem [swɛm]" - When I Found You, Britney (2001)


    The rise and fall of one of the twenty-first century's musical icons had everyone saying "gimme more." Every aspect of Britney's life was scrutinized. When she uses a British accent, it's noted. Fans were shocked to find out that a number of vocals on Britney Jean seemed to come from her backup singer. Her use of creaky voice and otherwise non-standard vowel space made her the subject of derision and imitation.

    We can also see the consequences of failing to stay inside an approved box. Because Britney wanted to expand beyond the 'sweet little girl' angle and explore more sexual themes, both the media and the general public felt free to rip her apart and mock her origins. It does not matter how neutral she sounded on her first album - they were more than happy to call her a hick all the same. Britney may have been rich, but the attacks themselves were classist. As we've discussed in other articles, nobody should have to be mocked for the way they speak or where they are from. Britney may have had problematic behaviors, but mocking her origins does nothing but reinforced prejudiced attitudes towards Southerners.

    Despite the controversy, she still put out some great pop records. Britney has never truly been duplicated, though many a record label has tried. Her influence is still felt throughout the industry as the archetype of the young pop star gone awry. But even in her dark moments, her records remained full of a playful approach to language and music. Britney cultivated a recognizable style not by slavishly following the Standard, but by playing at the margins of it. She had no qualms about using a pronunciation for one album and abandoning it the next - while her imitators were still copying her creaky voice and "oh" vowels, she was experimenting with "snicking" to the Philippines.

    This article only scratches the surface of Britney's unique musico-lect. If you like Britney Spears and know just a little linguistics, you can expand on some of the phenomena discussed above. The New Britneyology post shows how valuable laymen approaches to music and linguistics can be. There's still a lot to cover that I just can't squeeze into this article without it becoming (even) longer. I hope there will be some more writing on this in the future from fans.

    Works Cited

    October 17, 2019

    What is the singing equivalent of "speech"?

    The word 'speech' can mean 'manner of speaking.' This is useful when talking about "analyzing's someone speech." However, there is no equivalent single word for 'manner of singing.' I suppose you could use 'song,' as in "analyzing someone's song," but that doesn't sound right. I've used roundabout descriptions before like "vocal style" and "singing style," but these have a connotation of analyzing the musical qualities of song as opposed to the linguistic qualities.

    I have thought about simply coining a new term, such as "songspeech." This would make it easy to say "John uses this pronunciation in his speech, but a different one in his songspeech." But "songspeech" appears (rarely) as a translation of the operatic term "sprechstimme" and refers to a style half between singing and speaking, which is not what I'm talking about at all. (1, 2, 3). There is also "SongSpeech," used in 1970 to refer to "the singing of old and new political songs." Although these terms are rare enough that I could attempt to co-opt them, I would rather not risk confusion.

    There's the classic "borrow from another language." Or perhaps just borrow one word. "Songsprache" came to mind, but apparently it means "song language" as in, "a language that is suited for singing." Not what I was looking for either. The one that really works is "canto," from Spanish meaning "singing." But alas, canto has a different meaning in English. What about 'chant'? That one, much like 'cant', also refers to speaking. I suppose cantus is free, but must we go to the Latin straight away? It always sounds a little pretentious to dig up Latin words and use them willy-nilly in English.

    Perhaps there is no one word-alternative to "speech." No simple or elegant way to say "in his speech as in his [songspeech/cantus], John likes rounded vowels." And even if you try using the more unwieldy "in his speech as in his song/manner of singing," it doesn't seem to point at what I want to point. "His song," by force of habit, seems to point to a single work, to an actual song, as opposed to a pattern of singing. If I, the person writing this, find it ambiguous, I can't imagine it would be any clearer for those reading it.

    Luckily, a kind Redditor introduced me to the contrasting terms spoken speech versus sung speech. They are a little strange at first blush, since "spoken speech" seems redundant. But if you encounter both in quick succession, I think it clears up instantly, and one gets used to it right away. I have taken to using spoken and sung speech as descriptors in my articles since being introduced to the term.

    Even better, there is precedence for the terms sung and spoken speech in academic journals. Some examples:

    Allophonic variation in spoken and sung speech
    Music and Speech Perception in Children Using Sung Speech
    The effect of sung speech on socio-communicative responsiveness in children with autism spectrum disorders

    It seems more popular in speech pathology than in traditional linguistics; perhaps because most phoneticians and phonologists study spoken speech almost exclusively, while use of sung speech for therapeutic reasons is currently being investigated by speech pathologists and other therapists. Nevertheless, it is exciting to know that this term is already in currency and that you can use it to look up other articles.

    Do you have any particular feelings about "sung speech" and "spoken speech" as distinctive terms? Have you come across them before? Are you familiar with any other alternatives?

    October 14, 2019


    The [ʒ] sound has long been complicated to indicate in English. Found in words like 'leisure' and 'genre,' it has no commonly agreed upon spelling representation. 'Zh' (perhaps by analogy with 'sh'?) is common (and, to my eyes, sensical), being found in romanizations of Russian and Mandarin, as well as the name 'Quenvanzhane.'

    Unfortunately, 'zh' does not have the best recognition. I remember being confused when the character 'Zhao' in Avatar: The Last Airbender was pronounced 'Zao.'

    When it comes to casual shortenings of words like 'cas(ual)' and 'us(ual)', the spellings can become even more erratic. And the spelling of 'zhuzh' [ʒʊʒ], a word meaning to make fabulous, isn't agreed upon yet - you can find 'zhoozh', 'zhuj,' 'jooj,' and other variants.

    All that being said, the following spelling(s) of 'zh' have truly caught my eye for total lack of consistency:

    While TOMS has “tszujed” its designs up since its initial introduction, innovative style and design has never been a brand hallmark.

    The 'j' for final [ʒ] isn't uncommon in laymen descriptions (see 'caj' for 'cazh'). The 'z' doesn't even surprise me, as 's', 'z', 'j', and 'h' are often bundled together in a haphazard attempt to capture the sound. But 'tsz' truly leaves me speechless. Is 'tsz' a representation of [ʒ] in some language I'm not aware of? Why the 't'? And much to my surprise, it's not all that new either. There's an Urban Dictionary entry from 2005 with the helpful tidbit:

    "It is very hard to pronounce, and even harder to spell, many times often misspelled 'jujj' or 'jooj'. Pronounced "zhuj", by the way."

    October 9, 2019

    The deed is done

    Some good news first - Ace Linguist has been approved for ads, which will hopefully help offset some of the hosting costs! And perhaps in the future, it could even help expand the scope of the site a little.

    The bad news - I am still figuring out some aspects of how to run the ads. Currently they appear after every single post, which is not quite what I wanted. I would prefer them as a footer. I will have to experiment with ad placement and such to see what Google does and does not allow. I want to make the ad experience simple and non-intrusive to you all.

    I have written up a sort of mission statement regarding ads, monetization, and the goal of the site. If I am going to be adding ads, after all, I think you should know what the ads are funding! (Currently they're not funding anything since they've just been added, but I think you get the idea). Dropbox is the number one priority to fund. After that, there a number of "nice-to-haves" that I have listed in the statement. The goal of the ads is to make the site better, not to rake in the dollars. Trust me, this sort of content isn't exaaactly the most lucrative sort.

    I shall continue to keep you updated regarding any changes to the site. I would expect a new Dialect Dissection to come some time this month. I wish I could say it were Halloween-related or otherwise spooky, but it isn't, except perhaps in some cosmic way of 'the horror of the situation.'

    I am also experimenting with the idea of "Dialect Mini-Dissections," for when there's a particular clip or album that I want to talk about but don't have enough material to justify making a full length Dialect Dissection. Some singers only have one album out, but still have linguistically interesting features. Likewise, perhaps an episode of a television show may merit a Mini article. I don't love the name "Mini-Dissection" (frankly I'm not as enthralled about 'Dialect Dissection' as I used to be, though I don't plan on changing it) so I will continue to brainstorm a more sensible name.

    Thanks as always to all my readers!

    - Karen

    October 8, 2019

    Dialect Borrowing and Confusion

    I would say that most of the time, people who speak different accents of English are able to understand each other. I would definitely say that American English speakers should be able to understand English English speakers. But sometimes there's interdialectal confusion, either with regards to comprehension or intention.

    This short post was inspired by Jeff Klingman's review of Sri Lankan/English rapper M.I.A.'s song "Bad Girls." He writes:

    The lyrics are the worst part by a fair margin. There’s no eye-rolling political agit-prop, but there’s nothing taking up its void either. It’s about being a bad girl, and driving a car. (But which seat will she take??) It acts like “get down” rhymes with “you can hang.” It’s just sort of filling space.

    The lyrics in question from the song are:

    Get back, get down
    Pull me closer if you think you can hang
    Hands up, hands tied
    Don't go screaming if I blow you with a bang

    Klingman seems to think that MIA was attempting to rhyme "down" with "hang," and moreover that this is a forced rhyme. But it's clear that "hang" was meant to rhyme with "bang."

    Whence this confusion? MIA uses a curious bit of pronunciation on "down" and pronounces it as "d[æ]wn" like many Americans, instead of using the RP "d[a]wn." But she uses an RP pronunciation on "hang," which is "h[æ]ng."

    Perhaps the similar phones used in "down" and "hang" caused Klingman to think that she was attempting to rhyme "down" and "hang," when "down" was just borrowing from American English and the "hang"/"bang" rhyme was always the intended one.

    This is obviously a very minor instance of confusion, but it's still one that's stuck out to me since I read this review. Do you have any examples of borrowing pronunciations from other dialects which caused confusion, minor or major?

    October 6, 2019

    News regarding the site

    Greetings! Content has been going slower than I hoped due to the enormity of some of the topics I have attempted to tackle. I'm working on a follow-up to the Indie Voice article that goes more in-depth into the past of the feature and multiple potential origins. I'm also re-working one of my very old articles on HAPPY-breaking in pop music. It's one thing to write about a particular artist, where there is a beginning and an end. It's another to look through multiple decades' worth of music, where there are no delimitations and little prior research. Research is ultimately a living project and no topic is ever truly "done" - but I want to make sure the pages I'm working on will meet the standards of Ace Linguist up until now.

    I am also working on one more Dialect Dissection that will be out very soon on an individual. I have two more that are in the very early stages, one of which might be a sort of mini-dissection due to lack of material from the artist and substantial overlap with the Indie Voice page. Nevertheless, I think it may be worthwhile to cover some of that overlap because it's one thing to look at it from the point of view of "multiple artists with indie voice", which is quite macro, and "one artist with their own version of indie voice," which is the micro level. I try to avoid repeating myself, but maybe in this case the repetition will help.

    Dropbox has increased their rates, which is not surprising to me. But it does make me realize that the services I rely on are not static and may continue to rise in price in the future. In particular, I'm working on some more advanced projects that may require paid hosting services. This sort of stuff starts adding up quickly. The Patreon has not been a huge success (shout-out to my one patron - I appreciate your support greatly!) and I understand. Patreon is usually better for content that comes out once a month or weekly. However, I cannot pump out articles monthly and have them be to my standards. I would still like to cover my costs of hosting and such as I try to do more advanced things. I have therefore been exploring having some unintrusive ads on the site. The purpose of the ads would be to cover, at least partially, the hosting costs - I doubt that they will cover the cost completely. I don't view Ace Linguist as a profit making venture, and on the very remote chance that the ads bring a bucketload of cash, I would like to communicate that with you to see how we can use it to improve the website. There are few accessible linguistic educational sites out there and I want to continue making Ace Linguist accessible to you all - one thing I've looked into is hiring expert help, which is currently out of the realm of possibility.

    If it doesn't work out, I'll remove them or try something else. I don't want to plaster this with unpleasant ads. I also strongly dislike deceptive ads and am aware of the possibility that ads may be a vector for malware. I'll research these possibilities and be vigilant about them. The ads are not in place yet and I will let you all know once the dirty deed is finalized.

    Many thanks to everyone who has supported this site by sharing it with friends or commenting or writing an email or supporting on Patreon. It warms my heart to know that there are all sorts of people out there who want more in-depth linguistic knowledge in their life. I hope to continue meeting that need for years to come!

    - Karen