July 30, 2020

Catch 'em, Ketchum

Reading about the Virginia Saltmarsh Mallow got me wondering how the word 'Mallow' is pronounced. My instinct is to say m[æ]llow, but what about marshm[ɛ]llow? Come to think of it, why is marshmallow pronounced with the DRESS [ɛ] vowel in American English? UK English seems to roundly prefer marshm[æ]llow, as to rhyme with 'hallow.' The predominant American form is, I think, marshmellow. But where did this pronunciation come from?

Virginia Saltmarsh Mallow flower, a pale pink flower that looks like a hibiscus. From Wikipedia, taken by Bob P

Another word with an 'a' spelling but an 'e' pronunciation is 'any.' Unlike 'marshmallow,' I can't actually think of any case of someone pronouncing 'any' like [æ]ni. 'Many' used to be pronounced with an [æ] sound, and a relic of this is the word 'manifold,' which comes from 'many' and has an [æ] sound. Under the influence of 'any,' it came to be pronounced as 'menny.' Why 'any' came to be pronounced with the [ɛ] in the first place is unclear, too.

Here is another one - a common pronunciation for 'catch' in American English is c[ɛ]tch. This one is common enough that it formed the basis of a pun name in a popular show. The Pokemon tagline in the 2000s was "Gotta Catch 'Em All." In that vein, the main character was named Ash Ketchum - as in Ash "Catch 'em."

I'm not sure how [æ] became raised in these cases. Any thoughts?

July 21, 2020

I Dream(p)t of Euphonic Insertion - or Phonetic Intrusion

You may be familiar with the question of which is the "proper" past tense form of the verb 'dream': is it 'dreamed' or 'dreamt'? But one form has long since dropped out of discussion: 'dreampt,' a form old enough to be found in Shakespeare's plays. The form 'dreampt' seems to survive only for people invoking an old-fashioned mystique. But whence dreampt - where did that 'p' in 'dreampt' come from?

Romeo: I dreampt a dreame to night. Mer: And so did I. Rom: Well what was yours? Mer: That dreamers often lye.

The 'p' in 'dreampt' was introduced through a phonetic process called 'intrusion due to coarticulation,' or 'euphonic insertion' in the older philological tradition. Intrusion happens due to a fact about how vocal sounds are made. You see, the tongue and lips have to actually move from one place to another when we are speaking. When we write 'dreamt', or [drɛmt] in IPA, the letters abstract away this fact. The cluster [mt] makes us think that the velum lowers to produce a nasal sound, the lips close perfectly, the velum raises and the lips open, and then the tongue strikes the alveolar ridge.

But this sequence is an ideal version of [mt]. The reality is more often as follows, using the example of 'something'. Bold emphasis and paragraph breaks are included for emphasis and readability. (Reetz, 2009)

[...] Intrusions [are] when phones are inserted. These insertions can [...] result from coarticulation. In English, this happens when a nasal consonant precedes a voiceless fricative, as in the word 'something.' In these cases, a voiceless plosive with the same place as the nasal may intrude between the nasal and the voiceless fricative.

Namely, to produce the nasal, the oral pathway has to be closed completely (similar to an oral stop) and the velum is lowered.

Next, in the production of the following fricative, the velum is raised and the plosive closure is released at the same time to allow turbulent airflow for the fricative.

If the velum is closed first and the oral closure is released slightly later, the articulation is the same as an oral stop: an oral closure with raised velum and a release. As a result, an oral stop has been inserted.

For example, chance [t͡ʃæ̃ns] can become [t͡ʃæ̃nts], length [lɛ̃ŋθ] can become [lɛ̃ŋkθ], or something [sʌ̃mθɪ̃ŋ] can become [sʌ̃mpθɪ̃ŋ].

The quote above focuses on nasals followed by fricatives, but the same can happen to nasals followed by stops in a different articulation.

Indeed, English has a rule that nasals + stops must shared the same place of articulation (in other words, they must be homorganic consonants) within the same morpheme. Think of how strange the sequence [anp] would be in English. I bet when pronouncing it, you want to turn that [n] into an [m] to create the comfortable [amp].

'Dreamt' could be analyzed as two morphemes: 'drem' plus the past tense marker '-t', which explains why this non-homorganic (or heterorganic) sequence exists in English.

Em(p)ty Movement

'Dreampt' is not the only word to have a 'p' sound euphonically inserted. In some words, the intrusive 'p' became part of the standard spelling, and therefore part of the standard pronunciation. One such word is 'empty,' which originated as Old English 'æmettig.' Once that middle vowel was lost, the spelling 'empty' with a 'p' appears to have proliferated.

Some spellings came to include this 'p', and other spellings do not include them. H.L. Mencken noted:

Boughten and dreampt present greater difficulties. [...] The p-sound in dreampt follows a phonetic law that is also seen in warm(p)th, com(p)fort, and some(p)thing, and that has actually inserted a p in Thompson (=Tom’s son).

This sort of intrusion occurs cross-linguistically as well. The word 'tempt' in English comes from Latin (via French) 'temptare,' a variation of 'tentare.' It's not clear how that 'n' became an 'm' in the first place, but we can imagine that once someone attempted to pronounce 'temtare,' that dastardly 'p' moved in to create 'temptare.'

There are other types of intrusion other than a [p] being inserted between an [m] and a fricative or alveolar stop. As mentioned above, 'chance' can become 'chants,' and 'length' can become 'lenkth'. The Middle English compendium does have a single citation for 'lenkthe'. I couldn't find a word with [ns] that was spelled 'nts', but I also did not look very far.

Though the spelling 'printce' for 'prince' doesn't seem to exist in Middle Enlish or in today's modern English, the similarity between these two words has not gone unnoticed. The following joke from the Animaniacs series depends entirely on the similarity between 'prints' and 'Prince', as well as the flexibility of 'finger' as a noun and 'finger' as a verb.

Dot: I found Prince! [holding up Prince, the singer]
Yakko: No no no, finger prints!
Dot: I don't think so.

Works Cited

July 13, 2020

Blog Recommendations

Some recommendations, this time of the phonetic variety.

Jack Windsor Lewis's Phonetiblog is delightful for fans of phonetics. It is very much a true blog, as opposed to a site-masquerading-as-a-blog like yours truly.

Peter Roach's "A blog that discusses problems in Wikipedia's coverage of Phonetics" is precisely what it says on the tin. I am a fan of Wikipedia, but I also like to see what goes on behind the scenes. As an expert in phonetics, Roach provides an interesting perspective on issues with the Wikipedia phonetics pages. This is especially useful since a lot of amateur linguists get a lot of their information from Wikipedia.

July 6, 2020

Blog Update + Black Linguists

As the protests in the United States to end police brutality against the Black community continue, I have been thinking about ways in which linguistics can interact with anti-Black racism. Linguistics is pretty White, and the world of linguistics blogging is also very White. I wanted to introduce my readers to some scholars and writers on linguistics whose work I admire. Most of them are on Twitter as opposed to having their own blogs (blogging being increasingly niche nowadays), but if you're not a Twitter person, don't worry - I have linked to examples of their work that you can read off-Twitter.

Kelly Wright (@raciolinguistic). She does a lot of work on experimental sociolinguistics and racial ideologies. This paper shows how sports journalism tends to associate certain fixed phrases with black athletes versus white athletes.

Nicole Holliday (@mixedlinguist) also does sociolinguistic work. This pop article she wrote on Blackness within the context of Beyonce's Formation was an inspiration for this blog!

Some of you may be familiar with the concept of white-centrism and Native Speaker-ism in ESL, but if you're not, then you should read JPB Gerald's paper on how it affects people teaching English abroad.

April Baker Bell (@aprilbakerbell) has a book out called "Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy" which I'm very excited to read! You can also read one of her older pieces here, where she talks about how the assumption that Black American students must be taught White-coded American English to "avoid discrimination" is misguided.

Rachel Elizabeth Weissley (@rachelawiselure) does work on neurolinguistics and sociolinguistics. She has several of her papers available at her own site, including this very interesting one about listeners of different dialects react to African American grammatical constructions.

Duane G Watson (https://twitter.com/duane_g_watson) does research on an area of linguistics that sorely needs more attention - prosody. He takes a psycholinguistic approach to prosody and intonation. Several of his articles are available on his website if you send a quick email.

Kendra Calhoun (@_kendracalhoun) studies the intersection of language and social media. Her thesis on the use and perception of the meanings of "literally" is a look at how young people can also reinforce prescriptivist ideals.

Michel DeGraff (@MichelDeGraff) is a professor of linguistics at MIT and studies the syntax and morphology of Haitian Creole, as well as pedagogical and political use of Creole in Haiti. If you are interested in the formation of Creole languages, you may want to check out this paper.

Anne Charity Hudley (@ACharityHudley) is a variationist sociolinguist with an emphasis on education. Her book, Understanding English variation in Schools, is designed to guide teachers through working with a multicultural classroom.

If you are on Twitter, I also recommend following @Yohimar, @mnpgrue, and @_ravensnest!

June 29, 2020

Kim Petras: L2 English, California Dreamin'

Kim Petras is a German pop singer who has found cult success among fans of lighthearted bubblegum pop. I find her sociolinguistic awareness and flexibility, especially on her newer work, interesting. Her earlier work is in standard General American English. This is undoubtedly the result of influence from American popular media, as German students of English are usually taught a British-based variety of English. She shows that she's aware of differing versions of English, their association with genre, and their aesthetic use.

This is old news if you've followed past Dialect Dissections, but Kim speaks English as a second language. All of the other subjects we've covered speak English as a native language. It's therefore interesting to see how someone who does not speak English as an L1 can also play with language.

June is LGBTQ pride month, and coincidentally, Kim happens to be trans. I'd been working on this article for a while, so it's a happy coincidence that it came out during Pride month.

Non-native English Accent

As mentioned, Kim does not speak English as a native language. This is most evident in her earliest interviews, where she has some interference from German. Her more modern interviews and music has fewer of these features, but they still appear every now and then.

  • TRAP has the [e] vowel.
    • "When I was twelve...um [e]nd yes." Source
  • STRUT is fronted and centralized.
    • "I think it's kind of in my bl[ɐ]d." Source
  • Voiced consonants at the end of words are devoiced.
    • "My parents tol[t] me to go to school." Source
    • "When I was twelve... an[t]." Source
    • "My silhouette is in the frame of your sha[ts] (shades) again" - Hillside Boys (2017)
  • In English, consonants like 'k' and 'p' are aspirated at the beginning of a stressed syllable, but unaspirated if they are the beginning of an unstressed syllable. Kim sometimes aspirates them in an unstressed syllable. This tick dates back to her earliest interviews.
    • "I feel like I'm brea[kʰ]ing" - All I Do Is Cry, Clarity, Clarity (2019)
    • "That she leave you bro[kʰ]en" - Broken, Clarity, Clarity (2019)
    • "Voice would be dee[pʰ]er" Source
  • Non-native syntax.
    • "I loved fashion always." Source

Her accent is noticeably more native-like and more decidedly American in her newer interviews. One reviewer went so far as to say "there is little evidence of a Kölsch accent in her expletive laden stage banter, instead her voice bears a noticeable LA inflection." We're going to take a closer look at that next.

Aspirational California

Kim uses some aspects of the California Vowel Shift. Why use a Californian accent instead of standard General American? Part of it may be an attempt to craft a musical persona, much like how Lana Del Rey made use of New York accents and Southern accents in her music to create streetwise and rural narrators. Californian accents in particular are associated with youth and leisurely subcultures like surfer girls and valley girls:

Eckert (this volume), for instance, discusses the importance of shifted vowels to California youth in locating themselves in the gender order and entering the heterosexual market. Finally, Eckert (2008b) identifies correlations between the CVS and less enduring identities, such as emotional states and an adolescent girl’s performance of a drama queen identity. In sum, even though the CVS is named and can be conceptualized in geographic terms, it participates in the construction of a wide array of identities. [...] California speech varieties, like those just discussed, are also closely tied to stereotypical character types represented in the media. Among the most notable are valley girls, surfers, stoners, and slackers, the first two of which are sometimes referred to in descriptions of California dialects (Bucholtz et al. 2007).

One of Kim Petras's inspirations is Paris Hilton, who grew up in Beverly Hills and is representative of a particular type of young, blonde, luxury-obsessed socialite. Kim Petras also idolizes Britney Spears, who, while not from California, has also used some aspects of the California Vowel Shift in her music.

Were there any pop stars that you idolized as a kid?

Britney and Christina, obviously! I love them so much. I love Fergie, I love Madonna—I really loved every single pop star there is. I always loved Boy George. My mom’s obsessed with Culture Club.

Did you have any favorite music videos?

You Drive Me Crazy by Britney Spears. I watched that a million times. And Stronger by Britney Spears. And when Christina [Aguilera] put out Lady Marmalade—oh my god, I’m so obsessed with Lady Marmalade. (Source)

California has served as a fantastical location in Kim's music. Kim moved from Cologne, Germany to Los Angeles in California at the age of 19 to chase her pop ambitions, so California also holds a personal significance to her - and she may have been exposed to Californian accents herself from living there. (If she is influenced by Californian accents, she doesn't seem to express it in her speech, which aims for General American.)

Also, I’m very inspired by being from Germany and imagining what L.A. and Hollywood would be like and then living here and living on studio couches and shitty apartments—the realness of it versus the fantasy of it. So I’m trying to have as much of that as possible in my visuals. (Source)
  • "I been out West in LA" - The Hills (2017)
  • "So while I'm away in LA getting paid" - Homework (2019)
  • "I could take you to LA, yeah, we could take it to the bay, yeah" - Meet the Parents, Clarity (2019)
  • "And all your kisses taste like Malibu" - Malibu (2020)

California therefore holds multiple different meanings for Kim, like a laidback chick or a bratty partyer. Here are some of the Californian features in her inventory:

  • KIT-lowering. The vowel in KIT is lowered towards "kett."
    • "What's up b[e̞]tch" - Got My Number, Clarity (2019)
    • "Gave a few of y'all dr[e̞]p thats charity" - Clarity, Clarity (2019)
    • "No surprise that i’m l[e̞]t, other hand on the wh[e̞]p"- Clarity, Clarity (2019)
    • "If I'm l[e̞]t, I'ma catch a f[e̞]t" - Another One, Clarity (2019)
  • DRESS-lowering. The vowel in DRESS /ɛ/ is lowered so it sounds like DRASS [æ].
    • "On the b[æ]d on the floor" - Got My Number, Clarity (2019)
    • "Won't get to the b[æ]d, to the b[æ]d" - Do Me, Clarity (2019)
    • "When she leave you for your b[æ]st friend" - Broken, Clarity (2019)
  • GOAT-fronting. This is if GOAT /oʊ/ were pronounced "gewt" [əʊ].
    • “I’m a rolling st[əʊ]n” - Everybody Dies, Turn Off The Light (2019)
  • Variable COT-CAUGHT merger. Sometimes she merges them to [a], but sometimes she keeps CAUGHT distinct with [o].
    • "From d[ɑ]llar to b[ɑ]ller, you know you're a star." - Shining, Clarity (2019)
    • "Tell me what happen to everything I w[ɑ]nted, what happen to my dreams now they are all h[ɑ]nted" - Fade Away, When Dreams Come True (2008)
    • "S[o] it in the rear-view mirror" - If U Think About Me (2019)

Curiously, Kim does not use one of the most characteristic features of the Californian accent, which is the fronted GOOSE /u/ vowel that ends up sounding like 'ew' [ʉ]. She always uses back [u] vowel instead. All of the other aspects of the Californian accents that she has shown involve shuffling vowels in American English around: moving the vowel in KIT down to the vowel that used to be DRESS, moving DRESS down to the TRAP vowel, moving CAUGHT to the COT vowel. Even the GOAT-fronting involves the [ə] sound, which is found elsewhere in English. General American English, on the other hand, does not have the [ʉ] sound, so there is no reference for her to pull it from.

Some varieties of English English have a fronted [ʉ] vowel in GOOSE, but it seems to me that L2 speakers of English are not taught to use that sound - they are taught to use instead a relative back [u], which is more conservative. Kim's native language, German, has a back [u] sound as well as a sound made by rounding the lips and bringing the tongue very near the teeth: [y]. [y] is acoustically similar to [ʉ], but Kim doesn't use this sound in her English music at all. Perhaps she doesn't think of the Californian [ʉ] as sounding similar to [y], or [y] feels too foreign to use in English language music, or it may risk turning the Californian influence into parody. In any case, her confidence stays b[u]ming.


Kim also has some other curiosities. Some are repeated and some only appear once.

  • Kim normally uses an American [ɑ] in words like "lot" and "not." However, she sometimes pronounces /ɑ/ words with a rounded [ɒ] sound instead. This is most common when /ɑ/ is preceeded by /p/, sincce the bilabial /p/ has a rounding effect on the vowel and turns it into [ɒ]. Although labialization can occur with /p/ in English, it does not usually affect the quality of the next vowel.
    • "Baby don't st[ɑ]p, don't st[ɑ]p, we're getting to the sweet sp[ɒ]t, sweet sp[ɒ]t
    • "If you wanna p[ɒ]p one in the hills
  • Dramatic consonant deletion, similar to Ariana Grande. This is also typical of "mumble rap," which influenced her Clarity-era work.
    • "Ain't no wonder why they all so scea' me (scared of me)" - Clarity, Clarity (2019)
    • "That she lea' you (leave you) broken" - Broken, Clarity (2019)
    • "But you’ll never meet my p[æ̃]ts (parents) I could fly you out to P[æ]s (Paris)" - Meet the Parents, Clarity (2019)
  • Monopthongization of FACE and GOAT. Also typical of "mumble rap" and trap, likely due to Caribbean influence.
    • "Almost tatted your n[e]me" - Broken, Clarity (2019)
    • "Not for you or n[o]body" - Another One, Clarity (2019)
    • "And my mind going psych[o]" - Broken, Clarity (2019)
    • "Rollie said it's our time and that's n[o] lie" - Shining, Clarity (2019)
  • ME-breaking, when the vowel 'ee' /i/ is pronounced like 'ay' [eɪ]. This pronunciation was popular in the 90s and early 2000s pop, which was an influential period for Kim Petras. One of her icons, Britney Spears, has had her share of ME-breaking.
    • "Only want me back when you can’t have m[eɪ]" - Broken, Clarity (2019)
  • MARRY words are distinct from MARY/MERRY. Inconsistent - she uses both [æ] and [e] in "Paris" in different songs.
    • "One look at you , I'm p[a]ralyzed" - Heart to Break
    • "Boy you used to have the baddest dipped in c[æ]rats" - Broken, Clarity (2019)
    • "I'm in P[e]ris with Mark Jacobs" - Broken,Clarity (2019)
  • STRUT vowel fronted to [ɑ].
    • “Got one hand on the bl[ɑ]nt" - Clarity, Clarity (2019)
  • GOAT has the vowel of [ɑ].
    • "Just wanna be your [ɑ]nly one"- Got My Number, Clarity (2019)


This short little article on Kim shows that dialect play is not just for native speakers of English, but also something that L2 speakers can engage in to build an identity in their artistic worlds. It would be interesting to find more examples of L2 speakers of English attempting accents other than national standards (General American, RP, Cultivated Australian, etc.) and seeing which features they incorporate and which they do not. It will also be interesting to see if Kim changes her use of accent as her career develops - her earliest work sticks to General American, and it's newer music that branches into establishing an aspirationally Californian persona.

I did not elaborate on this part, but it's also interesting to see the repetition of some linguistic aspects of trap-influenced music. The use of monophthongs as a signifier of trap music goes back to my first article on Taylor Swift. The extremely lenited articulation recalls Ariana Grande, who has now thoroughly embraced it. Ariana's lenition was originally probably because it was easier for her to sing in a more simplified syllable structure, but it dovetailed neatly with the mumble rap trend, which coincidentally also had massive lenition. Kim dips her toes into imitating these aspects of trap and mumble rap - both highly Black-coded genres - while combining them with a White blonde Californian identity.

Crossover of different aspects of accents in a single work isn't something I've written about before, but it certainly needs more attention. This sort of crossover is pretty rare in normal spoken speech, because making up your own accent is considered weird. Film and the stage also seem to avoid accent-mixing as a device, since it's very easy for it to sound like a bad attempt at a particular accent and audiences are very sensitive to inaccurate protrayals of their own accents. But music doesn't have any allegiance to verisimilitude (as shown by the very niche feature of HAPPY-breaking spreading dramatically in 90s teen pop), so we should expect to see more of it. Much of modern pop music is cross-dialectal, with White American singers imitating Black American English, and White British singers imitating White American singers imitating Black American English.

As a final note, I was unable to tell if Kim has a Cologne accent when speaking in German. If you'd like to hear her speak in German, check out the following video. A content warning - the video contains invasive questions about trans women and mentions Kim's name before transitioning.


June 1, 2020

Hank Williams's Old-Timey Southern Accent

Dialect Dissections are some of my big articles. Dialect Dissections tend to cover a lot of people or a single person who uses multiple language varieties.. But sometimes I just wanna do a mini-Dialect Dissection on a single person. Some people have interesting linguistic quirks, but are pretty one-note in it. I don't want to put it under the same title, so I've been trying to think of a new name for it. Mini-Dialect Dissection? Accent Analysis? A Langue Look (for the Saussureans out there)? Would like to hear y'all's thoughts.

Whatever we're calling it, I want to do one for Hank Williams, a country star out of Alabama. Hank Williams has a lot of features typical to Southern American English, including some that have since been washed away. Because his backing tracks tend to be sparse and he doesn't exactly do a ton of overdubs and harmonies, it's pretty easy to pick his voice out and hear the feature.

Features that haven't changed

Glide-weakening in PRICE words. Hank's glide weakening (which can also be a monophthong) appears both before voiced and voiceless consonants.

  • "The midn[a]t train is wh[a]nin' low" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry

STRUT-centralization. This is a typical Southern feature that is still used today.

  • "Well I'm in l[ɜ]ve I'm in l[ɜ]ve" - Lovesick Blues

Raised DRESS vowel. This is a typical Southern feature that is still used today.

  • "My h[e]d is startin' to bow" - Moanin the Blues

Rhotic accent.

  • "The silence of a falling sta[ɹ] lights up a p[ɝ]ple night."

Features that are no longer in modern Southern English

WINE-WHINE distinction. Not many young Americans maintain this feature, but Hank uses it rather consistently.

  • "Hear that lonesome [ʍ]ipporwill" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • "Lord I don't know [ʍ]at I'll do" - Lovesick blues

THOUGHT-LOT distinction. Hank uses an [ɒ] sound in THOUGHT words. This is distinct from modern Southerners, who tend to use a diphthong.

  • "Well Lord, I th[ɒ]t I would cry" - Lovesick Blues
  • "I told my p[ɒ] I'm going steppin' out" - Honky Tonk Blues
  • I been lovin' that gal for so d[ɒ]ggone long - Moanin' the Blues

Lax-HAPPY. This feature is almost dead among young Southerners.

  • "Well I'm nobod[ɪ]'s sugar dadd[ɪ] now" - Lovesick Blues
  • "This cit[ɪ] life has really got me down" - Honky Tonk Blues
  • "I'm free and read[ɪ]" - Hey Good Lookin'

As an aside, Hank also does proto HAPPY-breaking. He probably does this for aesthetic reasons. He also doesn't use a diphthong, but rather breaks it into two syllables.

  • "Something up with m[ɪ.i]" - Hey Good Lookin'

FACE and GOAT are more monophthongal than in modern American accents. This is basically dead in modern Southern English.

  • "And I kn[o]w a spot" - Hey Good Lookin'
  • "Oh b[e]by"

CLOTH-LOT distinction? For Hank, some words (especially before -s and -ng) are pronounced with a diphthong. These words fit into what is traditionally called the CLOTH set.

  • "That means he's l[ɑɒ]st the will to live" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • "Come al[ɑɒ]ng with me" - Hey Good Lookin'
  • "Wr[ɑɒ]ng" - I Just Don't Like This Kind of Living

Avoiding of LOT words moving to STRUT category. This used to be more common in Southern English, but Southern English is nowadays following General American in moving these words to the STRUT category.

  • "Wh[ɑ]t you got cookin'?" - Hey Good Lookin'

Back GOOSE vowel. This is very unlike modern Southern accents which front the GOOSE vowel considerably.

  • "Moanin' the bl[u]es" - Moanin' the Blues

No FEEL-FILL merger, unlike modern Southern accents. "Feel" and "still" do not rhyme.

  • "That old time f[i]lling ... I can't help it if I'm st[ɪ]ll in love with you - I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)

Light l sound before vowels. Modern Southerners (and increasingly, speakers of General American) use a dark (velarized) l in all environments.

  • "Moanin' the b[l]ues" - Moanin' the Blues

Other curiosities.

The values Hank uses in r-colored vowels are not always the same as in modern Southern English. For instance, "where" is pronounced as "whurr" and "there" has a low [ɛ] (modern Southern has [e]).

  • "And as I wonder wh[ɝ] you are" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • "Tell me wh[ɝ] you think you're going" - I Just Don't Like This Kind Of Living
  • "Th[ɛ]re's soda pop" - Hey, Good Lookin'

Hank has a POUR-POOR distinction, though ironically not with the word "poor" itself. He has "rural" with an [ʊ] vowel, and also has no second [r] in it. This is curious considering he does not otherwise have a non-rhotic accent.

  • "I left my home down on the r[ʊ:]l route" - Honky Tonk Blues

There is some s-assimilation before yods. "Miss you" becomes "mish you."

  • "Heaven only knows how much I mi[ʃ] you - I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You

Some lexical items are non-standard. "Picture" becomes "pitcher" and "sit" becomes "set."

  • "A pitcher(picture)" - I Can't Help It IfI'm Still In Love With You
  • "S[ɛ]t (sit) and yearn" - I Just Don't Like This Kind of Living


One of the things I find interesting about Hank's accent is how it is recognizably Southern, but lacks a number of features we associate with Southern English - no drawling, fronted GOOSE vowels, and fronted GOAT vowels. The two features that definitively place it in the South are the glide-weakening in PRICE words and the centralized STRUT vowel. Otherwise, Hank Williams has little in common linguistically with a modern country singer like Luke Bryan.

Hank Williams was born in the year 1923 in Butler County, Alabama. This means he grew up in what Erik Thomas calls a "plantation area" (a term not defined but which probably serves to distinguish between heavily slave-holding areas like South Carolina versus areas with fewer slaves like Texas and Oklahoma) and in the "pre-World War II era." Both of these things are important for pinning down Williams's accent. The pre-World War II distinction is especially important, because it accounts for the FACE and GOAT monophthongs, features which no Southerner has today. If you'll look at the chart in Thomas's book, you'll see both "older" and "younger" features. Most of Hank's features can be comfortably placed in the "older" column.

Distinct from Thomas's observation that CLOTH words are always grouped with THOUGHT words, Hank seems to have different realizations for THOUGHT words and CLOTH words. It's possible that this distinction is a result of the environment (-s and -ng words), not a separate CLOTH phoneme to contrast with the THOUGHT phoneme.

One set I couldn't compare was NORTH and FORCE. This set has been merged in most varieties of English since the 20th century. Southern varieties of English were among the few in the United States to preserve the distinction, though they eventually gave out and merged. I couldn't find tokens to compare NORTH and FORCE words for Hank, so he may have the distinction! But he also may not. This would show that as far back as the 30s and 40s, the NORTH-FORCE distinction was weakening in Southern English.

I would like to compare Hank to other country singers from different time periods and different parts of the South. While it's useful to think of Southern English as one big thing - especially when comparing it with other varieties of English - this hides the real diversity within Southern accents. Country music can be a great place to pull examples of Southern accents from.

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].


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).


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