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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 [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 (strange and somewhat insensitive) interview:



  1. "From d[ɑ]llar to b[ɑ]ller, you know you're a star." has an example from Broken, not Shinin'

    1. Good catch! I'll update it with the file shortly.

  2. Cologne is in the original aspiration-free belt. The phonotactics of aspiration are not taught, so people who don't aspirate natively just end up aspirating unconditionally. I'm from the area where aspiration was eliminated by the High German Consonant Shift, and I didn't know /s/ deaspirates following consonants before I read about it.

    I can't listen to the video now, but I'll try as soon as possible.

    Voiced consonants at the end of words are devoiced.

    In those kinds of German that have final fortition, it isn't word-final, it's syllable-final. (Impossible to tell from the given examples.) It's also not limited to accents that have voiced plosives in the first place, but Kölsch does.

    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.

    Yes, or a diphthong [ʊu̯].

    or [y] feels too foreign to use in English language music

    I'm sure that's it.

  3. Cologne is in the original aspiration-free belt. The phonotactics of aspiration are not taught, so people who don't aspirate natively just end up aspirating unconditionally. I'm from the area where aspiration was eliminated by the High German Consonant Shift, and I didn't know /s/ deaspirates following consonants before I read about it.

    Fascinating! So that would make Cologne German more like Dutch or Afrikaans then.

    As a fun aside, I found an 1960s example of a Wisconsin L1 speaker of Kölsch, and I can hear that every time he says "Kölsch", the 'k' is unaspirated.

  4. I've listened now. Yep, generic northern half of Germany, except for two western features, the lack of aspiration and the change of |p t k| to [ʔ] when a syllabic nasal follows.

    more like Dutch or Afrikaans

    Exactly – Dutch is next door and part of the same aspiration-free belt.