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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?


  1. [æʊ̯] is very widespread in England, it's just not strictly RP.

    1. Ah, even better. Then it's not even a case of a writer being confused by hearing two distinct forms, but just straight up being confused by a dialect with [æ] in both "down" and "hang."

      I think most Americans nowadays have some degree of velar raising in words like "hang" and "bang" such that they become "h[æɪ]ng" or even "h[eɪ]ng" (I use a form close to but not exactly the latter). I can understand why someone who is used to this form may become confused when encountering "h[æ]ng" and see it as a ham-fisted attempt to rhyme with "down" (though the rest of the verse shows that it's meant to rhyme with "bang").

      I can't tell where Klingman is from - he's written a few articles on New York City, so he probably *lives* there. New Yorkers, in my experience, don't have as much pre-velar raising in words like "hang," so I would expect someone who lives in New York to be familiar with that pronunciation.

      Perhaps he just ignored the second half of that verse to make a snarky point? Then again, some people seem to have low "dialectal awareness," as it were, and cannot recognize dialectal features unless they are extremely obvious.

      In any case, I will update the article with this information. Many thanks, as always, for your insightful comments!

    2. ^_^

      I agree on velar and/or nasal raising all over North America vs. absence in the UK.