May 8, 2020

General Blog Update: May 8, 2020

Hello friends! At the very end of April, I finally succeeded in two goals: re-writing an older article that I no longer agree with entirely, and making a video version of an article.

I normally try to stick to the idea that once something is published, it's done and I shouldn't touch it anymore. This is to prevent the absolutely awful situation of post-publishing editing frenzies, which are not helpful to me or to my readers.

However, sometimes I look at old articles that I made when I was trying to get a grip on how the blog would be structured, and I find that they're lacking somewhat. What really makes me want to rewrite an article is when I no longer agree with the arguments I put forth in it.

So for example, my original article on /i/-breaking in pop music had a weird line of argumentation that went:

  • part of the Southern vowel shift is /i/-breaking. (This easily explains ME-breaking)
  • Southern English has lax HAPPY, so it can't apply /i/-breaking to HAPPY words.
  • Other dialects of English may have tense HAPPY.
  • People aren't linguistic detectives, so they may 'misapply' rules, like /i/-breaking on HAPPY words.
  • This mis-application is what led to 'happay.'

This was ... okay considering the information I had at the time, but it relies on some leaps - particularly the idea of people applying linguistic rules everywhere regardless of where they appear in the source accent. This is a thing that happens, but did it explain why HAPPY-breaking began when it did? Eh, not especially. I don't doubt that it could have been one of the reasons HAPPY-breaking caught on - language change and spread is complex and there may be multiple motivating factors.

My updated argument relies on the fact that Southern England English (always with the Southerners) has /i/-breaking, including in HAPPY words, and that Southern England English is heavily associated with a culturally significant and influential genre of music. I think this explanation is less of a stretch. It's not ironclad, but these chains of associations in pop music rarely are.

As for videos, I've long had people tell me "I would read your articles, but they're too long and so much work. I would totally watch them if they were in video form, though." I do like video editing and I think videos can make it easier to present certain types of information, as well as add a little bit of personality to otherwise rather dry articles. So I made a video.

I'm not "pivoting to video" or anything. The text format is quite integral to this site's identity. I specifically made this site a blog instead of a YouTube channel from the beginning because I wanted more text-based linguistic content. But I think the video aspect can complement the text and vice versa. The video part isn't excruciating to make - it took me less than a month to put together that video. The longest part of making any particular article is always going to be the research and teasing out whether this subject actually deserves an article.

With that in mind, I would like to go through older articles and make video forms of them without having to do huge edits. I also have a handful of articles I would like to re-write: the lax-HAPPY portion of the original "Oh Babih, Babay" article deserves a page all its own, and I have major changes I want to make to the Indie Girl Voice article. (I would also like to not ever have to touch that subject again once it's done. Everyone acts like an expert on the internet, but the topic of "indie voice" reeeaaally brings out the people who have no qualifications and very strong emotions.)

There shall be novelty in the land, worry not! I'm not falling into rehashing old works. A sneak preview of some of what I've been working on is an understanding of the so-called trans-atlantic or mid-atlantic accent, a guide to identifying different accents using a popular video game as scaffolding, and some more on mergers in English.

As I am (thankfully) still employed, I continue running this blog on my free time. I will attempt to continue putting out works at least once a month, ideally more. Many thanks to everyone who reads, watches, and comments, as always.

- Karen

April 30, 2020

It's Gonna Be May: A Historay

This article is also available in video form! You can watch below. The article has more points and citations while the video has more visual aids, so they both complement each other.

At the end of April, you'll start seeing memes of Justin Timberlake everywhere with the text "it's gonna be may." This, of course, is a reference to the 2000 hit song "It's Gonna Be Me," where Justin sings the hook. Only except of the expect "me," he sings "may." The meme itself dates back to 2012, but it has proven enduring as a cyclical meme. It reminds of us of both the hopeful month of May and how weird it was that pop stars used to sing like that. If you need a reminder or you've never heard the song before, here's a clip of the offending pronunciation:

  • "Baby, when you finally get to love somebody, guess what: it's gonna be may." - It's Gonna Be Me, N'Sync (2000)

Justin is not the only pop star to sing "me" as "may." We've all probably heard a pop star sing something like "I'm missing you like canday" or "I want to be the minoritay." The nameless but frequent phenomenon even inspired an Atlas Obscura investigation by Dan Nosowitz.

But tracing the pedigree of this feature has eluded most of the people who write about it. Nosowitz's article offers an explanation for why it happens now, but it doesn't tell us who first started using it. Moreover, it confuses the vowel in "it's gonna be may" with a different vowel entirely, which muddies the waters even further. He refers to Stevie Wonder saying "thirteen month old babay," but that's not actually what Stevie Wonder is saying: he's saying "thirteen month old bab-IH," with a short 'i' and no diphthong. These two vowels have separate histories and need separate accounts.

  • "Thirteen month old babee [beɪbi] ... thirteen month old babih [beɪbɪ]." - Superstition, Stevie Wonder

So why does it matter which vowel happened - singers change their vowels all the time, right? Well, most linguistic changes of this sort aren't random or arbitrary - there is usually a reason that sound changes happen, and a reason that they spread as well. The spread of "may" and "babay" doesn't seem to be caused by random innovation - it's a daisy chain of influence from disparate genres and peoples all reaching their zenith in the massive pop moment of the 90s.

I first tackled this subject in 2016 (re-published in 2017) in one of my earliest articles. This is not just a rewrite, but a totally new theory to explain just why pop singers do that thang. I hope you'll join me in what is probably the most comprehensive history of "it's gonna be may" yet.

Setting the boundaries

First, let's talk about "it's gonna be may." What’s happening is the "ee" [i] vowel is being converted to "ay" [ɪi]. This is an example of diphthongization, or a vowel "breaking" into two vowels. This breaking can apply to other words that have an 'ee' /i/ sound in them, like "knees" /niz/ can become "knays" [nɪiz]. We’ll call this pattern ‘ME-breaking.’ There some dialects that have ME-breaking commonly, like Southern American English (Lee, 2012; McDorman) and London English.

  • "He loves mee [mi]." No breaking.
  • "He loves may [mɪi]." Breaking.

Words like ‘happy’ and ‘sadly’ have an ‘ee’ sound in them, but the stress doesn’t fall on the ‘ee.’ This puts them in a separate category, called ‘HAPPY’ words. Nowadays, most dialects of English have an ‘ee’ sound in these words: this is called tense-HAPPY.

But in the 1800s, these HAPPY words were pronounced with a short 'i' [ɪ] sound. So they sounded like ‘happih’, ‘verih’, ‘anarchih.’ This pronunciation is called 'lax-HAPPY'. While lax-HAPPY isn’t popular nowadays, older speakers of conservative Received Pronunciation (Wells, 1980), Southern American English (Thomas, 2006), and African American English still use it.

So what if you had breaking in a HAPPY word? This would result in ‘happay.’ There’s no agreed-upon term for this, but I’ll call it HAPPY-breaking. You can find HAPPY-breaking in working class varieties of London English and in Yorkshire varieties, among others.

  • "She is happee [hæpi]." Tense-HAPPY
  • "She is happih [hæpɪ]." Lax-HAPPY
  • "She is happay [hæpɪi]." HAPPY-breaking

To keep things simple, I will use the IPA symbols [ɪi] to note that a word has vowel breaking: m[ɪi]. This is because the vowel breaking in "it's gonna be may" isn't actually identical to the sound in the word "May." Some instances of vowel breaking are not as obvious and will not sound as close to the word "May." I am less interested in the degree of breaking and more interested in the fact that it occurs at all, so both subtle and obvious breaking will be written with [ɪi].

Timeline

Here's the fun part: we're going to look at popular songs from the 20th century to find out who started this whole ME-breaking and HAPPY-breaking mess. To keep things simple, I mostly focused on songs that topped on the Billboard Hot 100, which is an American popular music chart. An even more comprehensive review would compare this with the UK charts or also look at songs that charted below #1, but I am just one person and listening to every #1 hit of the 80s was enough work for me.

One question we're going to try to tackle here is how could singers have been exposed to "may" and "babay"-like forms? Remember, it's unlikely that multiple people over multiple decades just happened to come up with vowel-breaking on their own, so we have to posit an explanation for how they picked up on it.

Unfortunately, there are rarely direct examples of a singer saying "I sang it like this because I heard it from this person/someone told me to." As such, we have to rely on some circumstantial evidence at times - such is the nature of tracing influences in pop music history. Sometimes we're lucky and we know that a singer was a fan of early singers because they've done covers of their material. Sometimes they even do interviews. Sometimes we have to rely on genre similarities and the fact that musicians tend to be aware of other people working in their scene. But sometimes there's no obvious explanation. Tracing history is rarely clean.

1950s-1960s: Lonesome Cowboy

The earliest example of ME-breaking I've been able to find so far is in country music, by Southern American English speakers. Lefty Frizzell had a hit in the 1951 song "Give me more, more, more (of your kisses)," and also some ME-breaking. Another example is in his unreleased 1951 song, "You Want Everything But Me."

  • "They'll even pay the weddin' bills to just get rid of m[ɪi]" - Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses), Lefty Frizzell (1951)
  • "You want everything but m[ɪi]" - You Want Everything But Me, Lefty Frizzell (recorded in 1951s, released 1981)

Another Southern country singer was Waylon Jennings. He sang a cover called "She Called Me Baby" in 1967 with some HAPPY-breaking.

  • "She called me baby, bab[ɪi]" - She Called Me Baby, Waylon Jennings (1967)

You could also find some breaking in jazz. The singer Chris O'Connor was Missouri born and raised, and has a diphthongized 'me' in S'Wonderful.

  • "That you should care for m[ɪi]" - S'Wonderful, Chris O'Connor (1957)

Overall, breaking in popular music is limited to Southerners in these two decades.

To my surprise, I was unable to find examples of African American singers with ME-breaking. ME-breaking appears to be more a characteristic of Southern American English than African American English, including Southern African American English. I haven't found examples of ME-breaking in the literature for African American English. I listened to influential black blues and rock 'n' roll artists such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard, and Fats Domino, but they had no ME-breaking at all! (There was some lax-HAPPY, but remember that that is a different feature. Don't worry, I'm covering it in another article in the future.)

1970s-1980s: the Rock and Punk Years

The earliest example of breaking in rock music is the Rolling Stones. This group also happens to be from London, which is a region with ME-breaking. You can hear an example of it in their song "It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)," from 1974:

  • "I said can't you say s[ɪi]" - It's Only Rock and Roll (but I Like It), the Rolling Stones (1974)

In 1975, an American-English rock group called the Arrows recorded a response to this song, called "I Love Rock and Roll." Their American lead singer also gave ME-breaking a try:

  • "I saw her dancin' there by the record mach[ɪi]ne ... And I could tell it wouldn’t be long till she was with m[ɪi], yeah, m[ɪi]." - I Love Rock 'n' Roll, The Arrows (1975)

Then in 1976, the English punk group the Sex Pistols released their first single “Anarchy in the UK.” Besides being massively successful, it also had ME-breaking (be -> bay) and pronounced HAPPY-breaking (anarchy > anarchay).

  • "I want to b[ɪi] anarch[ɪi]" - Anarchy in the U.K., the Sex Pistols (1976)

The singer Johnny Rotten came from a working-class household in London, so this ME-breaking wasn’t copped from country music. You can hear in this interview how he makes 'week' sound more like 'wake':

(1:07) Watch Top of the Pops and send their boring little letters into Melody Maker w[ɪi]k after w[ɪi]k.

From here, both ME-breaking and HAPPY-breaking appear sporadically throughout the 80s. The 1982 cover of I Love rock and roll by Joan Jett is the first #1 US hit of the 80s to feature ME-breaking, imitating the same vowel that the arrows used.

  • "He was looking at me, yeah, m[ɪi] ...take your time and dance with m[ɪi]" - I Love Rock 'n' Roll, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (1982)

1986 had the top 10 hit by the Beastie Boys, “You gotta fight for your right to party.” Although the Beastie Boys were basically a rap group by that time, they started out as a hardcore punk band and the influences can still be heard in their instrumentation. Perhaps there’s also some influence in their vowels, because we hear HAPPY breaking:

  • "You gotta fight for your right to part[ɪi]!" - (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party), the Beastie Boys (1986)

ME-breaking hadn't just infiltrated classic rock and punk - it also made its way into glam rock. The 1987 song, "Pour Some Sugar On Me" by the English group Def Leppard should perhaps be called "Pour Some Sugar On May."

  • "Pour some sugar on m[ɪi]"- Pour Some Sugar On Me, Def Leppard (1987)

The 1990s and beyond: Pop Takes Over

As we leave the 80s, we can tell one thing. ME-breaking and HAPPY-breaking had firmly entrenched themselves in rock and rock-adjacent genres. You'll find examples of ME-breaking and HAPPY-breaking in rock music throughout the 90s. One could even consider them to be a part of what it means to sing rock music: a part of a rock singer "register." My favorite 90s-era of ME-breaking and subtle HAPPY-breaking is the theme song to the video game Sonic Adventure, which is a beautiful example of all the cliches associated with rock music at the end of the decade.

  • (upper harmony) I don't know what it can be but you drive me craz[ɪi] ... open your heart and you will s[ɪi]" - Open Your Heart, Crush 40 (1998)

However, knowing the path it took for ME-breaking and HAPPY-breaking to get into rock music doesn't explain how it got into pop music. That path is a little more mysterious and murky - but we're going to tread it anyway.

In 1994, rapper Notorious B.I.G. posthumously released "Juicy." The Brooklyn girl group Total sings on the hook:

  • "You had a goal but not that man[ɪi]" - "Juicy", The Notorious B.I.G. (ft. Total) (1994)

The chorus was interpolated from Mtume's song "Juicy Fruit" 1983, but this original version did not have HAPPY-breaking. Why did this girl group use HAPPY-breaking on the pop hook of a rap song? Perhaps influence from growing up around rock music? It's not clear, but what is clear is that this song was a massive hit, spreading HAPPY-breaking across the airwaves.

HAPPY-breaking and ME-breaking both appear in an unusual place in the 90s - Mariah Carey’s #1 hit song “Always Be My Baby.” This is one of the earlier places in pure pop music where we see HAPPY-breaking and exaggerated ME-breaking.

  • "Boy, don't you know you can’t escape m[ɪi]? Ooh darlin' cuz you’ll always be my bab[ɪi]" - Always Be My Baby, Mariah Carey (1995)

Like with "Juicy," it's not clear how Mariah came across this form. Perhaps she picked it up from "Juicy" - Mariah was a noted fan of hip-hop. She was also a noted fan of glam rock - she's covered songs by Def Leppard, which we noted were big users of this sort of breaking.

HAPPY-breaking makes a re-occurrence in the song “Quit playing games with my heart” by the Backstreet Boys. This song was produced by the Swedish producer Max Martin, a fact that we'll revisit later.

  • "Bab[ɪi], so bad, bab[ɪi], quit playing games with my heart." - Quit Playing Games (With My Heart), the Backstreet Boys (1994)

Then we have "Wannabe", released in 1996, has subtle ME-breaking by Mel B. Mel is from West Yorkshire, another region with ME-breaking. (Source).

  • "And as for m[ɪi]? Ha, you’ll see!" - Wannabe, Spice Girls (1996)

In 1999, HAPPY-breaking and ME-breaking reached levels of vowel-breaking heretofore only dreamed of by man with Mandy Moore talking it all the way. This is one of the most obvious and exaggerated uses of HAPPY-breaking. It shows that by this point, HAPPY-breaking and ME-breaking had become associated with contemporary pop music.

  • "This feelin’s got me week in the kn[ɪi]s... come to m[ɪi], sw[ɪi]t to m[ɪi]... I'm missing you like cand[ɪi]" - Candy, Mandy Moore (1999)

It all comes full circle in the year 2000. N'Sync released “It’s gonna be me,” which topped the US charts for two weeks. The song has both normal 'me' and ME-breaking, which makes them easy to compare. No HAPPY-breaking, though.

  • "I remember you told m[ɪi] ...It’s gonna be m[ɪi] ... but in the end you know it's gonna be m[i]. It's gonna be m[ɪi], it's gonna be m[ɪi], gonna be m[ɪi]"

Justin was asked about this pronunciation in an interview and said something rather interesting:

Justin: I will say in my defense Max Martin made me sing 'me' that way. [...] I just want to throw Max Martin on the chopping block for that one.
[...] Anchor: Did he give a reason for that?
Justin: I think he just wanted me to sound like I was from Tennessee. [...] He just kinda likes that.

Max Martin gave him direction on how to sing. Max Martin, if you'll remember, also produced "Quit Playing Games With My Heart," which had HAPPY-breaking. Perhaps he also guided the Backstreet Boys in using this pronunciation.

Timberlake clearly associated it with southerners as opposed to english punk rockers, but Max Martin was a fan of hard rock, so it’s likelier that Max Martin heard the pronunciation from them and decided to use it. He also could have picked up on it from Mariah Carey and the Spice Girls - he listened to pop music and could tell a trend when he heard one.

Noticeably, a number of Max Martin produced songs feature ME-breaking. This may seem coincidental, but Max Martin has been known to record demos of songs before giving them to singers, and telling them to copy the performance as much as they can. Another popular singer he worked with was, of course, Britney Spears. (She has enough linguistic peculiarities otherwise to merit her own article.)

  • There's nothing you can do or say, bab[ɪi] ... I'm not your property as from today, bab[ɪi]

Martin is known to be controlling about the music he writes. Music journalist John Seabrook writes:

And yet Martin is known to insist that the artists he works with sing his songs exactly the way he sings them on the demos. In a sense, Spears, Perry, and Swift are all singing covers of Max Martin recordings. They are also among the few people in the world who have actually heard the originals. Countless self-proclaimed performers on YouTube sing Max Martin songs, but there is not a single publicly available video or audio recording of Martin performing his own stuff. (In the course of researching my book “The Song Machine,” I got to hear an actual Max Martin demo, for “… Baby One More Time,” when a record man who had it on his phone played it for me. The Swede sounded exactly like Spears.)

If true, this would go a long way to explaining why other artists who have worked with Martin use breaking. For example, Martin worked on Katy Perry's song "Part Of Me." In this demo, she even rhymes "me" with "way" twice:

  • "I just wanna throw my phone away, find out who is really there for m[ɪi]... You can take the dog from m[ɪi], I never liked him anyway. In fact you can take everything except for m[ɪi]."

2010-era pop songs don't have to be produced by Max Martin, but his imprint is still strong. Taylor Swift's song "Out of the Woods" was produced by Jack Antonoff, but she still uses ME-breaking on the high notes.

  • "You were looking at may [mɪi], you were looking at may [mɪi], you were looking at may [mɪi]."

The Run-down

So we've traced the path that HAPPY-breaking and ME-breaking have taken through pop history. HAPPY-breaking and ME-breaking are no longer hot and trendy. But they haven't faded away entirely - instead, they've found a home in the linguistic toolbox of singers. They've expanded from the rock singer register to the pop singer register. Perhaps this is why we don't even comment on contemporary singers who still use it; it's become invisible to us as a sign of pop-ness.

The question to ask is why singers found these features so appealing. There are plenty of other vowels they could have used, after all. Why these?

Bio-mechanics and song

Nosowitz's Atlas Obscura article has an important point: close vowels, like 'ee' [i], are harder for singers to sing with than more open vowels like 'ih' [ɪ]. If you'll look back at a lot of the examples, you'll notice that breaking is more common on sustained or high notes. I personally do find it easier to sing high/sustained notes on 'ih' and 'ey' than on 'ee' (Mitrano, 2002).

Changing vowels to make singing easier or more 'beautiful' isn't unusual at all in sung speech. Classical singers have to learn the correct vowel placements to get the large, resonant and particular sound they need (Nix, 2004). These vowel placements are not the same as you would find in spoken speech! Pop singers are not usually classically trained, but you don't need classical training to experience the bio-mechanical feedback when you sing 'ee' on a high note versus 'ey.'

What if you could used these sounds on a lower note, which doesn't need the help of a different vowel? Vocal coach Lis Lewis (quoted in Atlas Obscura) suggests that "this is an attempt to co-opt the signifiers of intensity without actually needing to use them." This would match with JC Chasez's recollection of how "It's Gonna Be Me" was recorded:

[...]But because "It's Gonna Be Me" has become a meme for the month of May, it was interesting when we cut that record. It was actually a very conscious choice to say it that way, because we wanted it to really punch.

For certain words, we bent the pronunciation. We were hitting the L's hard on "lose." Instead of saying, "You don't wanna lose" -- which would be kind of boring -- we'd be like "You don't wanna NLUUSE." But when you're listening to someone in the studio singing it that way, at first you're like, "What is wrong with you?" But you have to dig and hit these different shapes of consonants and vowels to give them energy. Instead of saying, "It's gonna be ME" we said "ET'S GONNA BAY MAY!" for it to hit harder.

Those conscious choices sound funny from the outside, but when it all comes together it sounds amazing. There weren't memes back then, but we knew it needed to be more.

There is another process we need to consider before coming to the conclusion that it's all "fake energy"...

The process of enregisterment

A register is "a particular socially identifiable variety of a language." The classic examples are of formal and informal registers: a person who is giving a public speech will be speaking in a more formal register than someone who is hanging out at home with their friends.

You can also broaden the concept to refer to things like how English speakers can put on a 'vampire voice' by saying "I vant to suck your blod." Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch points out that this is because one of the most iconic Draculas was played by Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian man with a Hungarian accent. So when Adam Sandler's vampire character in "Hotel Transylvania" says "welcome to hot'el trenseelvenia," he's not trying to communicate that his character is Hungarian - he's trying to communicate that he's a vampire. We call this association of linguistic features with an identity "enregisterment."

This concept can also apply to music. Originally, the people who said "may" and "happay" were just using their own Southern or London accents. But when singers started copying their pronunciation, they removed breaking from its origins. In turn, these features were re-analyzed and "enregistered" as part of a rock register. As the feature kept popping up in smash songs, it also became enregistered in the pop register.

Registers aren't mandatory - you can have vampires without Eastern European accents. But registers do communicate something: your awareness of belonging to that group. A rock or pop singer who uses "may" is able to signal their awareness of rock and pop singing styles (not to mention make use of a useful vowel modification in difficult songs).

That doesn't make using "may" a sign of fakeness or inauthenticity. Registers aren't always explicitly taught or acquired. You can learn different registers by osmosis: Just being in a different linguistic environment makes people change their own speech to sound more like everyone else. This is called "accommodation" and it's a sign of good faith and wanting to make things easier for other people (West & Lynn, 2017, p. 468-469).

Conclusion

Linguistic innovations happen all the time, but not all of them catch on. With HAPPY-breaking and ME-breaking in music, we are lucky to have such a long corpus of recorded music to use to trace its origins. The spread of breaking is a fascinating example of how different genres of music interact with and define each other. It's also an example of how modality-specific features can make a difference: it helps that breaking made it easier to sing harder notes.

Despite the massive spread of breaking in music, it remains locked to sung speech. Nobody starts saying "I hope you love may" or "I hope you're happay" in speech unless they're joking (or speak one of the varieties of English that we mentioned with these features). This also illustrates another feature: how we are clearly able to distinguish between registers. A singer can say "it's gonna be may" multiple times in a song and then get on an interview and use "me" consistently the entire time. Sung speech and spoken speech registers aren't anywhere as porous as the different genre registers are.

In the Atlas Obscura article, Nosowitz writes that it is surprising that nobody has taken the linguistics of pop music seriously considering how obvious the difference is, even for lay people. There is a treasure trove of interesting information for both linguists and musicologists in sung speech, if we only care to listen. After all, the simple meme that started this whole thing was almost 60 years in the making.

Works Cited

March 27, 2020

Hindsight is Twenty-twunny

Greetings, readers! Posting to let you know that my family/friends and I are alright. I hope that you are all also okay, and able to quarantine to the best of your ability. These are difficult and stressful times that we've been called on to live in. I'm polishing a Dialect Dissection to be revealed soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a micro-post about a curious little phenomenon I've encountered recently.

How do you pronounce the word "twenty"? For me, it's [ˈtwɛni]. Maybe [ˈtʰwɛntʰi] for some extra oomph. I've heard people with the PIN-PEN merger go with 'twinny' [twɪni], as Taylor Swift demonstrates in her song "22." (But Taylor doesn't otherwise have the PIN-PEN merger.... is this another example of her Southern imitation?)

But I recently found out about a third American pronunciation, which is 'twunny' [twʌni]. I discovered this through the place where all great language misunderstandings happen, which is to say Tumblr.

Some context here: there is a podcast called "My Brother, My Brother, and Me" run by three brothers from West Virginia, who are affectionately referred to as the McElroys. In one episode, they were coming up with humorous variations on the year 2020. They tried rhyming 'twenty' with 'venti' but decided that it didn't rhyme, and ended up deciding that 'twenty' did rhyme with 'funny' and 'honey'. This led to some confusion on Tumblr:

https://titania-saturnine.tumblr.com/post/190238734062/so-it-sounds-like-twone-ny-in-a-midwestern

The Reddit thread dedicated to the podcast also had some confused folks:

rookie-mistake: I'm still baffled that anybody claimed venti and twenty don't rhyme

jebedia: They don't! At least, I pronounce twenty, "twun-tee", and venti, "vein-tee".

thenacho1: I pronounce "twenty" as "twoohny". The vowel sound is the same as "book". I don't think anything rhymes with it in my accent.

KillerVelocity: The fact it doesn't rhyme unless you have their exact twunny funny accent makes it all the more bizarre.

If I myself say "twunny," it doesn't sound unusual, and I've probably heard people pronounce it "twunny" before. But I've never noticed that this existed as an alternate pronunciation of "twenty," and now I'm interested to see what processes could be driving this change. I can't think of any other 'tw' words that have the vowel backed like this. 'Twelve' with the 'uh' vowel doesn't sound familiar to me at all.

Some people seem to have "twunny" as an allophone, switching between "twenni" and "twunni". Stack Overflow:

In normal speech, my twenty (especially in twenty-XXX compounds) is very likely to be [ˡtʍɛɾ̃i ~ ˡtʍəɾ̃i]. In rapid or tired speech, frequently even [ˡtʍəɹ̃i], with the /nt/ cluster becoming a nasalised, centralised, postalveolar approximate with no contact at all (I might even write it [ˡtʍə.ɨ̞̯̃i], if it weren’t so diacritically overloaded). – Janus Bahs Jacquet

But it's clear not everyone has it as an allophone. The McElroy brothers, for one, explicitly reject the notion that "twenty" and "venti" rhyme, which suggests that "twehnty" isn't in their mental dictionary. Moreover, the McElroy brothers also have the PIN-PEN merger, as you can tell from a joke they claim the name "Ken" is just "Nick" backwards - a joke that doesn't make sense unless you pronounce Ken as Kin. If anything, they should have a mental representation of it as /twɪnti/, but they don't. "Twunny" doesn't appear to be the result of any rules.

Whence "twunny", then? I haven't found any definitive answers on this extremely pressing issue, but this Scottish ballad may be a clue. This is from an 1886 book on English and Scottish ballads, and appears to be written in some form of Scots:

Nor to the kirk she wud ne gae
Nor til't she wud'n ride,
Till four and twunty men she gat her before
An twunty on ilka side,
An four and twunty milk-white dows
To flee aboon her head.

Indeed, this variation of "twenty" is also found in older Scots texts (alongside many other variations of "twenty"):

TWENTY, adj., n. Also twentie, twintie (Peb. 1805 J. Nicol Poems II. 13), twinty (Sc. 1722 Earls Crm. (Fraser 1876) II. 174; Sh. 1928 Manson's Almanac 186),
†tuinty (Wgt. 1794 G. Fraser Lowland Lore (1880) 69);
†tuantie (Bnff. 1715 W. Cramond Annals Bnff. (S.C.) I. 115),
†twantie (Mry. 1716 A. & H. Tayler 1715 (1936) 286),
twontie (Sc. a.1830 Lord Thomas and Fair Annet in Child Ballads (1956) IV. 470),
twonty (s.Sc. 1962 Southern Annual 29),
' twunty (Sc. 1776 Lord Ingram and Chiel Wyet in Child Ballads No. 66. C. xxii., 1824 S. Ferrier Inheritance II. xxx.; Abd. 1861 J. Davidson Poems 18; Kcb. 1893 Crockett Stickit Minister 77; Slk. 1914 Southern Reporter (17 Dec.) 9; Per., Fif., Lth. 1915–26 Wilson; Lnk. 1951 G. Rae Howe o' Braefoot 74; Rs., em.Sc., Uls. 1973);
twoonty (Abd. 1880 W. Robbie Yonderton (1928) 42; s.Sc. 1928 Border Mag. (July) 107);
toontie (s.Sc. 1873 D.S.C.S. 161),
toonty (Abd. 1880 W. Robbie Yonderton (1928) 63; Rxb. 1923 E. C. Smith Braid Haaick 11, 1966 Hawick Express (26 Jan.) 4). Sc. forms and usages.

The ordinal twentieth is occas. used where Eng. uses the cardinal, e.g. twentieth and second, twenty-second (Sc. 1782 J. Sinclair Ob. Sc. Dial. 227). Among older speakers the rest of the numbers in the decade are expressed as ane and twenty, twa and twenty, etc. [n. and wm.Sc. ′twɪnti; ne.Sc. + ‡′tunti; em., sm. and s.Sc. ′twʌnte, s.Sc. + ′tunti]

"Twunty" dates back to 1776! Notice that alongside "twunty," we also get the "twoonty" that a Redditor earlier spoke of.

There is now a clear mechanism for spreading - this variation of "twenty" developed in Scotland and was probably brought over by Scottish immigrants. West Virginia, conveniently, was settled by the "Scotch-Irish." It seems likely that the distribution of "twunty" (and the much rarer variant "twoonty") in the United States and Canada would match places with heavy Scottish settlement.

What are your thoughts? Do you say "twunty," and if so where are you from? Are you aware of any other explanations for "twunty"? I would have thought the "w" had a backing effect, much like how historical w[a]r became w[ɔ]r, but I can't think of any other words affected by this change.

February 28, 2020

Site Recommendations

I'm always surprised to find out how many people are running linguistics blogs, and how knowledge of these blogs is predicated on either being in a particular space (e.g. Tumblr), a "friend of a friend runs a blog on X" type deal, or just pure chance (googling Praat scripts and happening upon some interesting stuff).

I wish there could be a more connected "lingosphere" as it were. It used to feel like there were few people blogging about linguistics. I've come to realize that there are many, but not a lot of awareness! Likely because these are all passion projects made with the goal of sharing knowledge (much like yours truly :) ).

To that end, I'd like to promote some interesting blogs/sites I've had the pleasure of coming across recently.

Joey Stanley is a PhD candidate in linguistics who writes about phonetics, phonology, and Praat (a software for analyzing sounds). His writing is clear and concise and a joy to read. I enjoy his discussions on Wells' lexical sets and their limitations.

Humans Who Read Grammars is a blog about linguistic typology run by multiple young linguists. The topics are diverse, but if you're interested in the colorful spectrum of language diversity, you're sure to find something there. As an example, a fun discussion on r-metathesis in Germanic languages.

Possessive Suffix, or Ja me räjäytämme sinun possessiivisuffiksisi, is a Tumblr run by a historical linguist specializing in historical linguistics regarding Finno-Ugric. Because it is on Tumblr, it is less article-centric and more based on shorter posts and responding to other linguists. You may enjoy this thread on the difficulty of establishing orthographies for the same language family!

Most of the blogs I mention have an RSS feed, if you would like to keep up with them that way (Joey Stanley's blog unfortunately doesn't). Yes, Tumblr blogs have an RSS feed (though I don't know if there's a way to filter by tag)!

If you have other linguistics blogs that you read, or if you run one yourself, please feel free to post in the comments! You'll notice that I have a definite bias in what sort of blogs I'm interested in - phonology and phonetics, historical linguistics, and some typology. If your recommendation is outside of these fields, no worries. Bring on the syntax and psycholinguistics and pragmatics! We're not picky.

February 21, 2020

The sCreen's sPell

February hasn’t been an easy month for me, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely I’ll make a major post by the end of the month. But to avoid letting the month go by without any sign of life, I’d like to share some observations that probably aren’t worth a whole article but may still be interesting to read.

I’m a fan of the song “Mad About The Boy,” written by Noel Coward. While looking for a version sung by Coward himself, I came across this strange cover by Peter Sellers, which was part of the music “The Magic Christian.”

There’s a lot to unpack here - the unholy mix between some kind of Californian English and Received Pronunciation, the melodramatic performance (par for the course considering the poor reviews for this movie), the ridiculous but era-appropriate panning of the voice hard left and right - plus copious amounts of vocal fry.

But what really caught my ear was Sellers’s pronunciation of “screen” (0:19) and “spell” (0:23)

Normally in English, a consonant cluster of /s/ plus a stop /k/, /p/, or /t/ results in the stop being unaspirated. This is in contrast to the usual situation when those consonants are at the start of a syllable, where they are aspirated. I’ve heard some English speakers impressionistically describe the word “spin” as “s” + “bin” - because /b/ sounds are unaspirated but /p/ sounds are not!

But no English speaker could say that Peter Sellers is saying “s + green” or “s + bell” in this song. He is fully aspirating the stop in “sc[h]reen” and “sp[h]ell.” Impressionistically, I almost feel as if the word has been split into two - how often is an aspirated stop the second member of a consonant cluster in English? Never - the phonotactics of English only allow aspirated stops to be preceded by /s/.

While here I’m describing it as if the “s” were causing the stops to lose aspiration, historically it was the other way around. At some point in the development of Germanic languages, what were originally voiceless unaspirated stops because voiceless aspirated stops. They contrasted with unaspirated voiced (or sometimes even voiceless) stops. You can hear this system in English, German, Swedish, and Icelandic. Dutch is an example of a Germanic language that doesn’t have this distinction - no aspiration.

But this change didn’t affect every instance of voiceless stops. One of the places where this change didn’t occur was a consonant was preceded by /s/, which functioned as a blocking environment. You can hear an example of this in the word ‘stop’/‘stoppen’/‘stoppa’ (all meaning stop) in English, German, Swedish, and Icelandic - the /t/ is unaspirated in these.

I don’t have any examples of a different language that allows /s/ + aspirated voiceless stop consonant clusters, but they’re probably out there somewhere.

For some further reading, here's a Master's Thesis on the origin of aspiration contrast in Germanic languages.

January 24, 2020

The PIN-PEN Merger

The PIN-PEN merger, where words like "pen", "Lenin", and "hem" sound like "pin," "linen," and "him," is one of the most ubiquitous mergers in American English - but it only started spreading a century ago. Its expansion has been silent, as entire regions of the United States acquire the merger while avoiding societal scrutiny.

Today we'll be taking a look at this common merger and the history behind its appearance, its spread, and how it's regarded.

What is the PIN-PEN merger?

Most dialects of English pronounce words spelled with 'in' differently from word spelled 'en'. This means that "pin" and "pen" aren't homophones, and "ten" and "in" don't rhyme.

But some dialects of English pronounce them so that they sound the same. Usually, the 'en' sounds sound more like the 'in' sound.

You can hear the difference in the following example. The first audio clip is 'when' pronounced with 'en'.


When [wɛn]

The second audio clip is 'when' as spoken by someone with the merger. It sounds like 'win.'


Whin [wɪn]

Who has it?

The PIN-PEN merger is most commonly found among speakers of Southern English. You can hear it in people with strong Southern accents, such as Charlie Daniels (Wilmington, North Carolina), but you can also hear it in people who grew up in the South and otherwise speak General American, like YouTuber Lindsay Ellis (Tennessee).

Johnny said, "Devil, just come on back
If you ever want to try agin
I done told you once you son of a bitch
I'm the best that's ever been
Well fortunately, I have literally never sinned, so condimn away I shall.

Another large group with the merger is speakers of African American Vernacular English. They themselves can be Southern, but they can also be from other regions. Janelle Monae (Kansas City, Kansas), Kanye West (Chicago, Illinois), and Nicki Minaj (born in Trindad, raised in New York, New York) are not from the South, but they all have the PIN-PEN merger. (Not all African American English speakers have the PIN-PEN merger, though, especially if they live outside the South!)

Janelle Monae: I worked with Prince ... as a mintor
Nintindo, and we in the ind zone [...] like we in the frind zone
Okay, get your kids, but then they got their frinds I pulled up in the Benz, they all got up in We all went to din' (dinner)

Although the PIN-PEN merger usually leans in favor of 'PIN', sometimes it can actually lean in favor of 'PEN.' A great example of this is Emily Procter, an actress born and raised in North Carolina, who portrays Ainsley Hayes, a character also from North Carolina. Notice how she pronounces "Pinafore" as "Penafore":


"'He is an Englishman' is from H.M.S. P[ɛ]nafore [...] they're all about duty... then it's p[ɛ]nafore."

Here's a Western example from the show Gravity Falls, that we used earlier in the article. You can hear Colorado native, Kristen Schaal, use the PIN-PEN merger when she says "when" like "win." Contrast this with Los Angeles native Jason Ritter, who uses an un-merged "when."


Dipper: Wh[ɛ]n are we?
Mabel: The real question is, wh[ɪ]n are we?

Where did the PIN-PEN merger come from?

Vivian Brown (1991) argues that the PIN-PEN merger may have originated in English speech patterns. Historically, there were rural Southern Irish varieties with the merger - a feature that may date back to seventeenth century English. It's possible that this is the source of the merger in the Southern United States.

Although most Irish emigrants from the 1800s settled in the Northeastern United States, many Irish Catholics settled in the large cities of the Southeastern United States (e.g. Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans).

The PIN-PEN merger is now sharply recessive in Irish speech. I have found two examples of Irish English speakers with the PIN-PEN merger: a man from Kerry and a woman from Limerick.


(0:30) The price has gone up agin. - A man from Kerry. (Source, Irish English Resource Centre)

(0:20) The price has gone up agin. - A woman from Limerick. (Source, Irish English Resource Centre)

So it's plausible that Irish English was the source of this feature in American English. When do we start finding references to it?

The actual appearance of the PIN-PEN merger in the US isn't clear. Paul Longmore reports that colonial Americans said "ingine instead of engine, and yis instead of yes" (so maybe all 'eh' words were changed to 'ih'), meaning they may have already been a very early PIN-PEN merger from the beginning of colonization.

Meanwhile, the PIN-PEN merger in the United States appears to have started in the American South in the 1800s (Brown).

We don't know if the merger originated in white populations (from Irish immigrants) and spread to black populations, or if it developed independently in black populations and spread to white populations, or even if it was developed independently in both populations, but the end result is that both Black and White Southern Americans ended up acquiring this merger.

The PIN-PEN merger does not appear to have been universal at the time. This testimonial from a former slave does not have the PIN-PEN merger. Slave owner Rebecca Latimer, born in Georgia in 1835, also did not have the merger (video here).

Moreover, a study of Confederate soldiers who escaped to Brazil and had an enclave of English also provides some interesting clues. The descendants of those soldiers still spoke English, but it didn't sound Southern at all - among other things, it had no PIN-PEN merger.

The PIN-PEN merger may have only been occasional in the South in the 1800s, but by the 1900s it started spreading. Bailey and Maynor (1989) say the merger "began in the last part of the nineteenth century and worked its way to completion during the last half century [1900-1950]."

Beginning in 1916 and lasting up until 1970, African Americans began migrating in large numbers out of the South and to the Northeast, the Midwest, or the West. This group would have possibly still had the PIN-PEN merger, which would explain why speakers of African American Vernacular English outside of the South can still have the PIN-PEN merger.

In the early 21st century, the PIN-PEN merger remains widespread among the South and variably in the African American diaspora.

Curiously, there are isolated examples of the PIN-PEN merger happening in the West and Midwest. This could be a result of Southern transplants moving to the West, but it could also be an independent development.

Why does the PIN-PEN merger happen

The most important thing to notice about the pin-pen merger is that it only happens before nasals. This means that "pit" and "pet" are unaffected by the merger. Only "n" and "m" are really affected, since there are not many words ending in "eng".

There are multiple acoustic explanations for why the PIN-PEN merger happened. One of them is that vowels that appear before nasal consonants tend to be nasalized, and this affects production and perception of the vowel. This could have facilitated the merger happening. Another explanation is that PIN and PEN do not actually merge to PIN, but to a vowel between PIN and PEN that most people categorize as PIN - a result of both nasalization and of /i/ vowels being lowered and /e/ vowels being raised in Southern English. (Source 1, Source 2).

The pin-pen merger also doesn't have to be absolute; you can find examples of people who only have it in certain words. An anecdotal example is a friend of mine who pronounces "when" as "win" and once offered me some "Fancy Jims." When I asked her what a Fancy Jim was, she pointed to a bag that said "Fancy Gems." She denies having said "Jims," perhaps because for the most part she does not have the merger.

Effects of the pin-pen merger

The pin-pen merger affects a large number of commonly used words, yet it rarely seems to comprehend intelligibility. The most common mixup, appropriately, is between "pin" and "pen."

I had an encounter once where I asked two store attendants where the "pens" were and one directed me towards the "pens," but the other directed me towards the aisle with pins. The second store attendant not only had the merger, but wasn't able to tell "pen" and "pin" apart in speech. The first store attendant told her "no, those are pins, she's looking for pens, like to write with."

When I've spoken to people who have the complete merger, they tend to be surprised that anyone distinguishes between "pin" and "pen" and say they had never really noticed it before. This is common among people with certain types of mergers that don't attract much attention. An example from a Language Log commenter:

I currently work in Chicago but I'm from South Texas. My boss seems to get a real kick out of my pronunciation of the word "pen".

We have to go to him for supplies and he always make me repeat myself whenever I ask for one and laughs incessantly. He says that I pronounce the word "pen" is funny. My ignorance must shine through because although I've tried to understand the "sound" difference between "pin" and "pen", I just can't. You write with a "pen", you stick something to the wall with a "pin".

He states that I say "pin" when I should say "pen". When back home in Texas, when asked for a "pen", I've never given someone a "pin" or the other way around. So I don't understand how he hears a difference.

That being said, when people become aware of the pin-pen merger, it can become a source of mockery, as this author shows.

I recall reading an article (now unfortunately lost) about a college student from Oklahoma who went out of state for college, and who was made fun of for multiple Southernisms. His classmates purported to "teach him" how to speak "properly." One of the differences he had to learn was between "pin" and "pen." (Another one was to say "milk" instead of "malk.")

The pin-pen merger opens up a number of rhyme, pun, and joke possibilities that aren't possible if you distinguish pin-pen. The following are some examples:

"Ken, which is Nick backwards" - Griffin, Episode 419 of podast My Brother, My Brother, and Me
I can be a piece of sunshine, inner peace, inner-tainer (entertainer)
Rocket, Beyonce
an image of a hand holding small liquors with the text saying So Mini Options Innergy Meditations

The Ind Isn't Near

The PIN-PEN merger doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon and may even spread to other American dialects. But it doesn't seem like it's going to affect every dialect of American English. As has been mentioned on this blog and on practically every article about linguistics, language change is inevitable, and that sometimes includes mergers.

The PIN-PEN merger is an example of how language change can happen right under our noses and both the people affected and those not can be unaware of it. The world didn't end and the English language was not split in two; now one side just has to mention when they talk about an ink pen or a sewing pin. It's a harmless difference that has also opened up a number of interesting artistic and comedic avenues.

Do you have the PIN-PEN merger? Were you aware of it before reading this article? Have you ever tried learning to distinguish between the two? And if you don't have the merger, do you notice it in those who have it? What are some cases when there's been a mixup due to the merger?

References

January 2, 2020

Into the New Decade: Happy New Year!

Hello, Ace Linguist readers! Can you believe yet another year has gone by? It hasn't been as active as the last year, but still a lot of good content. And new types of content, too! Some of my favorite posts from last year:

Perhaps my favorite part of 2019 was the increased visitor interaction with the posts. Many thanks to everyone who has commented!

I'd like to ask y'all what kind of content you'd like to see more of on Ace Linguist.

  • More Dialect Dissections? Change in focus in Dialect Dissections?
  • More posts on sound changes in English?
  • How about posts about languages other than English?
  • More opinion-type posts?
  • General linguistics stuff?
  • Other?

Here's to a great 2020, with more linguistics content along the way!

- Karen