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December 16, 2020

Year Round-Up

We did it - we got through 2020! 🎉

This pandemic-filled year has been challenging for everyone, including me. You can see that this year, I didn't get to write as many articles as I did previous years - but that doesn't mean there weren't good articles. If you've missed them up until now, here are some choice selections from this year:

The PIN-PEN merger: an article on the history of those who make 'pin' and 'pen' rhyme. If you're wondering why that's a big deal, you definitely need to read the post. I'm most proud of the example I was able to find of an actual Irish English speaker with the PIN-PEN merger, which lends credence to the idea that the merger may have spread from Ireland to the US!

It's Gonna Be May: A Historay: an article about why pop stars sing words ending in 'ee' as 'ay'. This is the first rewrite of an older article I've done, and I think it's much improved. It also marks my first foray into making an accompanying video, which you should watch. (You should also subscribe to the channel on YouTube, because I plan to make more companion videos and host them there.)

Hank Williams's Old Timey Southern Accent: a look at a country music star and his particular dialect. Hank has a more conservative accent than modern country stars, and studying him puts language change in the American South into context!

Kim Petras: L2 English, California Dreamin': a look at how this rising pop star from Germany makes the decision to base her English accent on California - and why it matters.

Black Linguist Recommendations: Familiarize yourself with the work of some awesome Black Linguists! This is a list of Black Linguists and some samples of their work. If you like using Twitter, I also listed their Twitter handles so you can see what they tweet - linguist twitter is a great way to familiarize yourself with cutting edge linguistic work and discussions, especially if you're not a grad student. Let's remember to read and engage with the works of Black Linguists!

I Dream(p)t of Euphonic Insertion - or Phonetic Intrusion: why is there a 'p' in 'empty' that nobody really says? Why does Shakespeare put a 'p' in 'dreampt'? A look at the history of these inserted p's, and other consonants like them. This one ended up getting a surprising amount of attention from Twitter - thanks, y'all!

Dialect Dissection: The Diverse Dialects of Xenoblade: Why do most video games only use American or English accents? And why did this one decide to branch beyond and include Scottish, Welsh, and Manchester accents? A lesson in recognizing different accents, the cascading effects from one business decision, and why seeing your accent on screen matters.

ABBA's Special Swedish Sibilants: I don't just look at accents in English - I can also look at them in Swedish. One of the singers from ABBA seems to have an unusual Swedish accent, which she later tried to change.

One of the advantages of not having the time to write bigger articles is that I got to practice writing smaller articles that I was still satisfied with. And it turns out there may be an audience for smaller linguistic bites - I was surprised by how well-received "I Dreampt of Euphonic Insertion" and "ABBA's Special Swedish Sibilants" were, with the bare minimum promotion on my part.

I finally improved my laptop situation, which means that using the laptop I used for audio recording is no longer a battle against entropy and the decay of all things mortal. On the contrary, I will be busier than ever in 2021, so... we'll see how it goes. :)

I have one article that I almost published in December but for the fact that anything you write in December will immediately appear as outdated by a year in a month. And the article deserves better than a single month of 2020, so I hope to get it out quickly in 2021. I've spent far too much time on this topic because people are just very interested in it.

Here's to the 5th year of Ace Linguist! I hope 2021 will be a better year for you all than 2020 was. I will, at the very least, do my part to bring you fun and interesting linguistics content to brighten your day. If you have ever read, commented on, or shared one of my articles, you have also brightened my day, and I thank you very much! See you all next year ;)

- Karen

December 14, 2020

Santa Claus or Santa Closs?

The Holiday Season is fast approaching, so let's have some seasonal fun! If you're an American, odds are you're familiar with the song "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." The vaguely ominous song forewarns of the jolly, big-bellied toymaker who only distributes gifts to sufficiently moral children.

The earliest known recording of the song dates back to 1934. The song has since become a Christmas standard having been covered multiple times and played yearly during the "Christmas Freeze" on radio. The song has three different unique words that can be subjected to the COT-CAUGHT merger: 'Claus', 'naughty', and 'all' in some versions. This, combined with the song's enduring popularity for decades, means we can compare how the COT-CAUGHT merger has spread throughout the decades.

Tom Stacks's version: Released 1934.

Born 1899, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Stacks clearly has an [o] in 'naughty' and 'Claus', and even in 'gonna.'

  • "He's making a list, checkin' it twice. G[o]nna find out who's n[o]ghty and nice! Santa Cl[o]s is comin' to town."

Bing Crosby's version: Released 1944.

Born 1903, Tacoma, Washington.

Bing uses different vowels in these words. His first 'Claus' sounds more like the German name 'Klaus', with an [aw] diphthong.

  • "You'd better not pout, I'm telling you why (why?) - Santa Cl[aw]s is comin' to town."

But his 'naughty' has [ɑ]:

  • "He's gonna find out who's n[ɑ]ghty and nice."

If you want to compare with other songs, his "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" has [ɑ] in "dolls that will w[ɑ]k".

  • "D[ɑ]lls that will t[ɑ]lk and will go for a w[ɑ]lk is the hope of Janice and Jen."

The Andrews sisters noticeably have an [o] in 'watch'. All three sisters were born and raised in Mound, Minnesota. Listen to the upper harmony:

  • "You'd better w[o]tch out, you'd better not cry."

Frank Sinatra's version: Released 1948.

1915, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Frank has what seems to be a [ɒ] - not as clear as Tom Stack, but distinct from the [ɑ] in "watch."

  • "You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I'm tellin' you why - Santa Claus is coming to town."
  • "Gonna find out who's n[ɒ]ghty and nice."

Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. Released 1958.

Born 1919, Fresno, California.

Ross Bagdasarian Sr. is best known for creating the characters "Alvin and the Chipmunks," anthropomorphic chipmunks with sped-up human voices. Though Bagdasarian's vowel in 'naughty' isn't clear, the vowel in 'Claus' is [ɑ]. Despite only being born four years later, Bagdasarian is more merged than Sinatra. Multiple factors may come into play here - he was born in California, which appears to be an early spot for the COT-CAUGHT merger. He is also a child of Armenian immigrants. One preliminary study shows that children of immigrants seem more likely to pick up on vowel systems with the COT-CAUGHT merger than ones without.

  • "You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout, I'm telling you why - Santa Cl[ɑ]s is comin'..."

The Crystals, released 1963.

Dolores "La La" Brooks, born 1947, New York City, New York.

Dolores Brooks sang lead on this Phil Spector-produced version of the song. She has an introductory monologue on the song, where she produces a very clear [o] in 'called'.

  • "I stocked up at the North pole to spend the holiday. I c[o]lled on old dear Santa Claus..."

She keeps this clear [o] sound in 'Claus' and 'naughty'. Brooks is Black, but she does not use a diphthongized [ɑɒ] as is typical of African American English. The [o] she uses is more typical of New York City English - it's quite similar to the [o] used by Stacks!

  • "You'd better watch out, you'd better not pout, you'd better not cry I'm telling you why, Santa Cl[o]s is coming to town."
  • "Gonna find out who's n[o]ghty and nice."

Michael Jackson, released 1970.

Born 1958, Gary, Indiana.

Stacks, Sinatra, and Bagdasarian were all born within a 20 year period of each other, and all were white. Michael Jackson, on the other hand, was Black and born in 1958 - the same year Bagdasarian released his version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town."

In the literature, you'll see people say that African American Vernacular English usually avoids the merger by having the CAUGHT sound be [ɑɒ]. However, Jackson doesn't use a diphthong in 'naughty' or 'Claus'. The difference between his COT and CAUGHT vowel seems to be that his COT is more [a] and CAUGHT is [ɑ].

  • "You better w[a]tch out, you better not cry - Santa Claus is coming to town."
  • "Gonna find out who's n[ɑ]ghty and nice."

It is possible that Jackson kept the two vowels distinct when pronouncing them, but still have considered them the two vowels to be shades of the same sound. In other words, he may have kept a distinction in production but not in perception. This is a stage in the spread of a merger.

If you want to hear a young Michael Jackson use the [ɑ] sound in another CAUGHT word, listen to the song "Maria," where "calling" clearly has [ɑ].

  • "Maria, don't you hear me c[ɑ]lling, Maria?"


In the 20th century, the COT-CAUGHT merger was already spreading to different locales. Bing Crosby, born 1903 in Washington, is the earliest of this list to have the merger. He is from a Western state, so that should not be surprising. What is notable is just how early that is. Ross Bagdasarian is another Westerner who was born 16 years after Bing, and has a merged vowel in some locations. I suspect that the merger may have even begun before the twentieth century.

The clarity of the CAUGHT vowel is also in flux. Tom Stacks and Dolores Brooks use very obvious o-like vowels. Sinatra's CAUGHT vowel is more ambiguous, and harder to tell apart from his COT vowel.

The topic of race also shows variability. Dolores Brooks is from New York City, which is a region that preserves a strong COT-CAUGHT distinction. She does not use the diphthongized [ɑɒ] vowel that appears in most descriptions of African American English, but a vowel that is closer to what other New Yorkers use. Michael Jackson also does not use this diphthongized vowel, and appears to have a system that is also partially merged.

Are there any other standards or songs you'd like to see examined over time for language change?

Finally, a version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town in the minor key. Really brings out the creepy undertones in the original song.