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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


    1. 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.

      And so does Stephen Colbert, heard here using his Trump voice intending to rhyme poor with Baltimore and then not doing it.

      1. Interesting! I know Stephen purposefully tried to erase any Southern features from his speech. Seems the POUR/POOR distinction is not coded as "Southern" by Americans. I think it also used to be more widespread among all Americans in the 20th century, and Southerners are just the last group to continue using it (though likely in decline as well).

        Louisiana-raised Van Dyke Parks clearly uses "poo-r" in the song Widow's Walk, as well as the cot-caught merger.

    2. Please dissect Lana del Rey's accent.

    3. "Are you steal [stil] in my bed?"

      I'm pretty sure she meant "still" as in "you haven't left my bed."
      And I think she said "were" instead of "are" (the song is all in past tense).

    4. Hey, and what about her "TH" pronunciation?

      I'm not a native speaker, but I have noticed that is pretty clear when she pronounces that, as it is when she pronounces "L".
      You can see that, for example, in her music (video) "3", when she speaks "three", "nothing", etc.
      As a non-native speaker it is very didactic to show people the way she pronounces "TH", because in my language there's no such sound.
      But actually I think she pronounces that with her tongue between her lips, while the general way, I think, it's in the middle of the teeth, right? (Please correct me).

      And what I really want to know: that's because of her southern origins or it's more like a Britney-ish thing? Or both?


    5. Hi, I want to reference your work here in an essay for university, could you provide your last name and date of publication please? Thank you

      1. Hello, please check the reply to your email!

    6. 23-year-old from Louisville, KY here. We don't have much of Southern accent here, but interestingly I'd pronounce "caught," "autumn," "wall," etc. exactly as she does. Certainly not with the "cot" sound.

      1. Interesting! The South as a region is supposed to be resistant to pronouncing "caught", "autumn", "wall" etc. with the 'cot' sound, so that makes sense. I got the impression that many younger people were beginning to merge them, but perhaps the distinction is more robust than I thought.