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November 5, 2021

Dialect Dissection: ABBA

There is a rumor that Sweden's top three exports are Volvo, Ikea, and ABBA. Regardless of whether it's true, it shows that ABBA is an international brand on the level of Ikea and Volvo, and at the same time quintessentially Swedish. From 1972 to 1981, ABBA won Eurovision, recorded 8 studio albums studio, pioneered the concept of music videos, and toured the world thrice. They also gained a second life in the 90s with the release of ABBA Gold, a Greatest Hits record that your mom almost certainly owns on CD. The ABBA revival led to the production of the Mamma Mia musical, which itself got turned into a movie in the 2000s. Few artists have found this level of success after their peak.

Looking back, it is easy to assume they were fated to win. ABBA crafted intricately catchy melodies, distinctive walls of sound, and had a recognizable visual image. They were from Sweden, a country nowadays associated with pumping out pop songwriters in assembly-line fashion. Our pop stars no longer have to be from a native English-speaking country to be taken seriously.

None of this was clear in the 70s, where the idea that ABBA was disposible pop garbage for children was repeated by critics abroad and in their home country of Sweden. Indeed, their international success was taken as proof that their music was low grade, capitalist claptrap. Alternatively, there was the xenophobic implication that ABBA were only capable of making that appealed to the lowest common denominator because, as second language speakers, they could not be expected to write anything of value. More than one radio jockey suggested the members of ABBA may not even speak English at all.

Was ABBA's English really that bad? Were they trying to sound American, British, or something in-between? How did they fare in other languages? And what impact does this have on their legacy? These are the questions we'll be looking into on this Dialect Dissection.

Table of Contents

English as a Second Language

ABBA was made up of four members. In the the above image, from left to right: Björn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, and Benny Andersson. Agnetha and Frida took the lead vocals, Björn and Benny wrote the songs, and Björn also handled the lyrics. None of them speak English as a first language.

They all have native-level proficiency in Swedish, but they learned English as a second language. Before beginning their careers as ABBA, they had their own separate musical careers in Sweden where they sang primarily in Swedish. ABBA decided to sing on English because there was no future for an international band that song solely in Swedish (Palm, 2002)

Björn and Benny wrote the music together, but Björn alone handled the lyrics. Early on, their manager Stig Andersson assisted with lyrics and song titles, and Benny pitched it now and then, but it quickly became clear that Björn was best suited to writing lyrics: "When an English version of the lyrics were needed, Björn, who was by far the better English-speaker, would have the main responsibility, and that's the way it had been from the start. 'It came much, much easier to me than to Stig, who hadn't studied English as much in school, and was also of an earlier generation'" (Palm, 2017).

Being a second-language speaker of English meant Björn faced additional hurdles to songwriting: "That is our major problem - we're not born with English and don't have it as our first language," Björn admitted to an American reporter in 1974. "The phrasing has to be right so that it doesn't sound like you try to put something in that doesn't belong there. Nobody has complained so far, but it's our major problem" (Palm, 2017). As ABBA became more popular, the lyrics and even pronunciation came under additional scrutiny - but some critics took it too far.

The foreignness of ABBA's English has often been exaggerated for comic effect, or to denigrate them by suggesting that they are not as involved in the musical process as they claim. In truth, ABBA took pronunciation seriously. You can even see in some of the handwritten lyrical notes they used in the studio that they marked up the lyrics with pronunciation notes.

Original lyric sheet for "One Man, One Woman" featuring lyric changes by Björn as well as pronunciation notes by Frida. Notice the diaresis over "woman" to mark that the pronunciation is 'eh', not 'ah'. The pronunciation for 'live' is also clarified by writing an 'e' over the 'i' and crossing out the 'e', probaly to distinguish the pronunciation from 'live' as in 'live music.' Source: ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions by Carl Magnus Palm

Because ABBA did not pick up English as a native language, they had to learn it as a second language - and with that came interference from their native Swedish. Swedish and English have a noticeable overlap in vowels and consonants, which goes a long way towards helping Swedish speakers sound closer to how native English speakers sound. But the overlap is not perfect, and they are missing vowels and consonants that appear in English. Sounds that are similar may also not be 100% the same, resulting in a pronunciation that's 'good enough' when heard over a low-fi AM radio, but unusual with high-quality headphones.

ABBA's accents also came through when they sang and spoke live. This is to be expected - ABBA owned their studio, so they could record as many takes as they wanted without having to worry about money or time. When performing live, you only have one take, and you are in a much more excitable environment than the calm, sterile atmosphere of a studio. With that said, let's take a look at how ABBA's English was influenced by their learning it as a second language:

  • The vowel in STRUT /ʌ/ is moved towards [a]. Swedish does not have an [ʌ] sound.
    • "Still my w[a]n and only." - My Love, My Life
  • No /z/ sound. Swedish does not have [z], so the nearest sound is [s].
    • "Where they play the right mu[s]ic." - Dancing Queen
  • No 'zh' /ʒ/ sound. Swedish also does not have [ʒ], and the nearest sound is the 'sh' sound [ʃ].
    • "Disillu[ʃ]ion" - Disillusion
  • The short 'oo' sound [ʊ] is sometimes [u]. Short 'i' is also sometimes fronted towards [i].
    • "You sh[u]dn't be so mean." Me and I
    • "It used to be so g[u]d." - SOS (Live at Wembley)
    • "They got the l[u]k in their eyes." Dancing Queen (early version)
    • "G[i]vin' love is a reason for l[i]vin'.
  • The /j/ sound in Swedish has a buzzy, fricated quality to it. ABBA sometimes carry this over into English.
    • "She's pushing [j]u around." - The King Has Lost His Crown
    • "We were [j]ung and full of life." - Fernando (Live)
  • The vowel in TRAP sounds like the 'eh' vowel in DRESS. Although Swedish does have an [æ] sound, it only appears in certain situations, and the next closest sound available is [ɛ]. The ABBA singers usually use an [æ] sound, but on occasion they use an [ɛ].
    • "In my fl[ɛ]t all alone." - Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)
  • Spelling pronunciations. Swedish spelling is more straightforward than English spelling, and it does not have many 'silent' consonants.
    • "No more [tʃ]ampagne." - Happy New Year
    • "I'm not a c[o]ward." - I Wonder (Departure)
    • "They say my w[o]und will heal." - Disillusion
    • "Clim[b]ing the apple tree." - Me and Bobby and Bobby's Brother
    • "It doesn't really b[v]ther you if this boy cries" - I Saw It In The Mirror
  • Non-standard grammar, or unidiomatic usage. This is more prevalent in their demos.
    • "Since many years, I haven't seen a rifle in your hands." - Fernando
    • "I'm down and I feel depressed, sitting here just waiting for next bus traveling downtown. It's a crying shame. Isn't it a beautiful weather?" - Free As A Bumblebee (Demo)
    • "Now I see you've broken a feather." - Chiquitita
    • "There's not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn't see." - The Day Before You Came

American or English?

There are two major standards of English in both number of speakers and cultural power - English based on 'Received Pronunciation,' a prestige form from the United Kingdom; and General American, based on a variety of English spoken in America that is seen as 'region-free.' In Sweden, English textbooks and classes use UK English as the model for learners. However, the incredible cultural reach of American music and film means that Swedish speakers also have tremendous exposure to American English, and this is especially true for the generation born during and after the Second World War.

The increased availability of American media and English-language media in general meant that English became seen as a cosmopolitan language allowing access to the world beyond the borders of a then-ignored Scandinavian country. The Swedish language itself lost prestige, as Palm notes:

Björn's generation was perhaps the first that had grown up surrounded by English being spoken and sung, through 1950s rock'n'roll and then 1960s pop. For those born in the 1940s, English became the "cool" language, whereas for most in Stig's generation (he was born in 1931), Swedish always came first. Generally speaking, they wouldn't have romanticised the English language and all its connotations to quite the same extent as those who were 10 or 15 years younger. Not least importantly in Björn's case, he was the only ABBA member who'd gone on to senior high school, and had studied not only English but German and Spanish as well. (Palm, 2017)

Being inundated in both American and UK English meant that ABBA were aware of different possible pronunciations. For the most part, they made the choice to go with General American English in their music. However, they didn't play it straight - they also added in some features of British English.

Unlike many other artists of the time, ABBA avoided using aspects of African American English. This is not out of some sense of national or racial chauvinism - the members of ABBA were clearly aware of Black American music, and tried making songs in that vein on their earlier albums. These r-and-b attempts were, at best, cute, but they failed to live up to the artists they were cloning. A similar attempt at breaking into rock music, which was more in the Anglo-American vein (with appropriated Black language and culture) also failed, as audiences and critics alike weren't interested in their attempts at swagger. Their most successful forays were into pure pop, informed by their love of Swedish folk melody. Beyond the occasional flattening of 'I' to 'ah' and turning 'crazy' into 'crazih', ABBA did not use African American English - a fact that did not go unnoticed.

In their interviews, ABBA's English was clearly more British. This reflects an attitude that is noted in Swedes today: "pupils are more likely to use American English in a more relaxed situation, whereas British English in a more formal situation" (Arvidsson, 2017).

  • Variably rhoticism. ABBA mostly pronounce their R's, but will switch to a non-rhotic pronunciation when it's useful for a rhyme.
    • "In the night, a new day dawning and the f[ɜ]st b[ɜ]ds start to sing. In the pale light of the m[o]ning, nothing's worth remembering" - Summer Night City
  • COT-CAUGHT distinction: very noticeable in British English, more subtle in American English of the 70s, and increasingly disappearing from modern American English.
    • "From the first moment I s[o] you" - Love Isn't Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough)
    • "And I th[o]t" - Angeleyes
    • "In the night, a new day d[o]ning and the first birds start to sing. In the pale light of the morning, nothing's worth remembering" - Summer Night City
  • ABBA usually lacks the TRAP-BATH distinction, going with an American [æ] for both sets of words. The only exception is when a rhyme requires it in the song "I Let The Music Speak."
    • "Hiding their shame behind hollow l[æ]ghter." - Cassandra
    • "Let it be a f[a]ce if it makes me laugh." - I Let The Music Speak
  • They don't consistently distinguish between the MARY-MERRY-MARRY words the way an RP speaker would.
    • "I'm C[e]rri not the kind of girl you m[e]rry, that's me." - That's Me
    • "And your name is H[æ]rry." - Our Last Summer
  • Mixed RP and GA specific pronunciations.
    • "They all worship me and pay their [h]omage." - I Am The City
  • Varying realizations of words. These are not based on any accent, but selected for rhyme and euphony. For example, ABBA uses a 'u' sound in 'sure' in one of the early songs. This pronunciation is relatively conservative and likely to have been taught in schoolbooks. In a later song, they use the more common 'shore' pronunciation and even rhyme it with 'more'.
    • "Love isn't easy, but it s[u]re is hard enough." - Love Isn't Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough)
    • "Are you s[o] you wanna hear more?" - That's Me

Sung in Spanish

ABBA has recorded in multiple languages besides English. They've made a handful of official releases in their native language, Swedish. They've also done a few recordings in German and even one in French. But the non-English language they most recorded in was Spanish. After a Spanish-language version of Chiquitita was released to great success, ABBA began recording more songs in Spanish.

Their Spanish also shows signs of Swedish interference, and it is more noticeably non-native. Some examples follow.

/p/, /t/, and /k/ are aspirated

In Swedish and English, the sounds 'p', 't', and 'k' are accompanied by a little puff of air afterwards. In Spanish, these sounds are never aspirated. Agnetha and Frida seem to inconsistently aspirate these sounds.

  • "Yo pʰor tʰi me engane hace tʰiempo lo se" (I was cheated by you a while ago, I know it) - Mamma Mia (Spanish)

/e/ is raised

One noticeable L2 feature in their Spanish is their pronounciation of the sound 'e'. In Spanish, this sound is made in the center of the mouth. See the following vowel chart:

In Swedish, you'll notice that there are two vowels that are in that area, /e:/ and /ɛ/. Which one will ABBA use?

It turns out that they decide to go with the higher one. To a Spanish speaker, ABBA's 'e' vowels in Spanish sound like a short 'i' or even a long 'ee'.

  • "Donde se fu[e]?" (Where did it go?) - Hasta Manana

Taps and trills are not distinguished

Spanish has two contrasting 'r' sounds: 'r' and 'rr'. The single 'r' is pronounced as a tap between vowels, sounding like American English 'butter'. 'rr' sounds like a trill. If 'r' is at the beginning of a word, it is pronounced as a trill. In other positions, 'r' may be a trill or a tap.

Swedish has one r sound, and it can have multiple different forms. The important thing is that there is no meaningful distinction between the tap and the trill in Swedish. In Spanish, "caro" (expensive) and "carro" (car) are distinguished solely by whether the middle sound is a tapped or trilled 'r'; there is no situation like that in Swedish.

It seems that Agnetha and Frida had trouble remembering the rules, and defaulted to a trill. This is not surprising, as the trill is both more common in Spanish and in Swedish.

  • "Veras que el futurro" (You'll see that the future...) - Yo Lo Sone
  • "Te sabre esperrar" (I'll know how to wait for you) - Hasta Manana (Spanish)

Which Spanish?

Another interesting aspect of their Spanish is that they seem to change the model. For example, 'll' is a sound that varies widely in the Spanish speaking world. Some speakers pronounce it the same as 'y', which is a /j/. Some speakers from Spain pronounce it as a /lj/. And speakers from Argentina may pronounce it as /sh/. ABBA have used all three pronunciations.

The earliest song they recorded in Spanish, Ring Ring, uses the /j/ pronunciation.

  • "[j]amame al fin por favor" (Please, call me already) - Ring Ring (Spanish)

They then recorded "Chiquitita" in Spanish. After the success of this single, they also recorded "I Have a Dream" in Spanish. Chiquitita uses a harder version, while Yo Lo Sone uses the 'sh' pronunciation typical of Argentina.

  • "En mi hombro aqui [J]orando" (Here on my shoulder, crying) - Chiquitita (Spanish)
  • "Y [sh]egare" (And I'll arrive) - Yo Lo Sone

Once the success of the Spanish model was clear, Agnetha and Frida embarked on the journey of recording a large number of songs in Spanish. These use the Spain /lj/ pronunciation. Once this mass of Spanish songs were recorded, ABBA recorded four more Spanish songs: two for the release of Super Trouper, and two for the release of The Visitors (Palm, 2017). These songs songs varied in their usage of /j/.

  • "Estre[lj]aciones" - Fernando
  • "Bri[lj]as con plenitud" (you shine with plenty) - La Reina Del Baile
  • "Risas, [j]antos" - Conociendome, Conociendote

ABBA uses the velar fricative [x] for Spanish words with 'j', which is standard for Mexican and Spain Spanish. Caribbean varieties use a softer, English-like 'h' instead.

  • "La ve[x]ez llego" (Old age came) - Fernando (Spanish)

Cultural Analysis

English Parochialism

Perhaps even more impressive, in 2010 the group overcame considerable musical and cultural handicaps to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an American institution that's always been heavily geared towards acts from the U.S. and the U.K. "I didn't think this would happen, because we were a pop band, not a rock band," the group's Benny Andersson was quoted as saying in Rolling Stone. "Being a foreigner from the North Pole, this feels really good." (Vincentelli, 2011)

Björn recently pointed out, "We were not taken seriously: one-hit wonders, here today, gone tomorrow - 'This is something we dismiss, these strange, exotic Swedes.' It was difficult to cope with it. It wasn't like that in Germany or other places on the continent, but it definitely was the attitude in America and England. British music journalists were especially vitriolic, almost hateful: 'Go back to your bloody country in the north!" (Vincentelli, 2011)

A 2002 interview, American singer Dionne Warwick admitted, “I watched ABBA on TV during their breakthrough. Their English wasn’t good so I thought they were adorable."

ABBA was popular throughout the world, including the US and the UK. Those two countries also produced the most scrutiny regarding their nationality.

A listener in Japan or the Soviet Union or Germany won't speak English as a native language, and will be less able to judge whether Agnetha and Frida's accents were native-like, or whether Björn's lyrics were idiomatic. The listeners may not even speak English at all, and just enjoy the sound of the melody. This is how Björn and Benny got their first exposure to English music, after all (Palm, 2002).

Native English speakers, on the other hand, do have a strong command of English and are sensitive to accent and sentence construction, as well as the lyricism. No doubt that their ABBA's simple lyrics, especially in their first four albums, seemed to be begging to be dismissed as foreign speakerese. Few ABBA fans are bold enough to defend lyrics like "She used to follow us in school, we really thought that she was a little fool."

Björn himself said he didn't pay much attention to the lyrics when he began writing them, focusing on meeting a bare standard of grammaticality and a pleasing sound to the ear: "It was far more important [in the 1960s] for a song to have been written as 'pop music in English' than to utilize the correct grammar or any real sense of logic, commitment, or significance" (Vincentelli, 2011). It was only beginning with the "Arrival" album that Björn tried to take songwriting more seriously, and "The Album" showed a maturation of his writing style.

The early, sillier song lyrics would dog ABBA for the rest of their career. The criticisms were sometimes fair, but often tinged with essentialist arguments about how non-native speakers can't really understand English lyricism, or were just mindlessly babbling. Even positive reviews excused the weaker lyrics as second-language problems:

What certainly served them well in smaller international markets may have detracted from early success in the U.S. and the UK. Some critics, such as Peter Hackman, felt as though ABBA’s members were unable to properly pronounce their own English lyrics, that ‘‘they [were] completely insensitive to the energetic rhythm of English language.” The Swedish band’s eager effort to sing in a variety of non-native languages calls into question the xenophobia that surrounds American and British assessments of the musicians’ occasional semantic missteps. Source

Ken Tucker in Rolling Stone: "Arrival is Muzak mesmerizing in its modality. By reducing their already vapid lyrics to utter irrelevance, lead singers Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Falstkog are liberated to natter on in their shrill voices without regard to emotion or expression, and the language barrier is broken." (Vincentelli, 2011)

"... Those of us who love Abba do so because the band is about as pure an example of smart/dumb pop imaginable. Significant rock is all well and good, but there is always a place for pop music that is fun. Most of Abba's past hits have been unadulterated pop, with lyrics - written in English by Swedes who've always had a slightly quaint conception of English syntax and pronunciation - that operate at the most basic level of childish/adolescent fantasy." Review of 'The Album' by John Rockwell, from Vincentelli, 2011.

The attitude is encapsulated in the following segment from the British parody show 'Not the 9 o clock news.' They make fun of ABBA for their simple but repeated song titles, "wholesome" image, and "poor" English:

Two of us write music, two have way a song
Sorry in translation, that line come out wrong
The world is just a great big stage
Each man plays his part
In this concrete jungle, my sleeve is on my heart

On the beaches we go swimming in the nude
Oh how I wish now and then that we could sing something rude

Super duper, super duper, its a super duper refrain
So we thought how super duper to sing "super duper" again

ABBA's supposedly bad English was played up beyond what the evidence holds. What people called 'ungrammatical' was more often than not just weird phrasing or word choice. There is nothing ungrammatical about a phrase like "I feel like I win when I lose" or "come on, I'll give you consolation." Some other rumors regarding ABBA's craft I've been told:

These conspiracy theories were more likely to be spread by DJs and random people than serious critics, but they show an attitude of disbelief regarding the authenticity.

Moreover, the idea that the members of ABBA sounded like the 'Swedish Chef' character is promulgated by revival acts, such as Björn Again. (Disclosure: I've been to a Björn Again concert.) Part of the experience of going to see an ABBA revival band is in playing up the Swedish nationality, and too often by making their English sound far more cartoonish than it actually did. An ABBA fan writes as to the ubiquity of these bad Swedish accents in revival acts:

Open Letter to ABBA Tribute Bands
I’ve recently had the opportunity to see “ABBA Gold,” one of several ABBA tribute acts that I’ve had the chance to see over the years. While I certainly consider ABBA Gold to be one of the better ones I’ve seen, I’ve also seen some bad ones and just wanted to highlight some of the good and bad things I’ve seen at all these various tribute performances that I’ve seen in hopes that your shows can be improved.

1. Fake Swedish accents.

We know ABBA is from Sweden and their speaking English is slightly accented, but most tribute act performances take their fake Swedish to the extent of the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show. This is completely unnecessary. Most of your audiences will only have casual knowledge of ABBA being from Sweden so it’s not necessary to use a fake Swedish accent when speaking to the audience. All it does is irritate the most diehard ABBA fans and it adds a “cheese factor” into your tribute performance that makes it feel more of a parody than a tribute.

The best tribute band utilizing a Swedish accent that I have seen is “ABBA: The Music” but that’s because they are really from Sweden, their accent is real, not fake. If you must employ a Swedish accent to channel ABBA for your performance, at least buy a couple of the CDs from the ABBAMAIL web shop that have interviews with the members of ABBA so you at least know what the real members of ABBA sounded like when they talked. - Ryan, ABBAMAil, April 2005

And Björn himself found the exaggerated accents less than flattering:

And what does he think about Björn Again, the fake-ABBA’s from Australia, carrying his first name, who are so successful?
“I’m flattered in a way, but I’m astonished that people are willing to pay money to see that group. What I like less is that they are copying us with an accent that reminds one of the Swedish cook from the Muppet Show. Now, I don’t have an accent like that, do I? Other than that I don’t object, although I only know them from television.” Source

ABBA's foreign accents weren't always played negatively, though. At least some fans seemed to view them as part of artistic effect:

And in the second verse [of the song 'Me & I'] Frida brings forward the Swedish accent, uses it to make the verse sound even more edgy and challenging. I'm not sure if it's my ear, but sometimes I think Swedish and some Eastern European accents of English sound like hard steel spikes puncturing the flow of the language. And these accents can, if they are used in the right way, make the speaker sound slightly edgy and not really with "all bolts fastened properly". (Think crazy Russians in 80:ies cold war movies!) The vocoder and that accent goes together perfect, strengthening the effect of each other. Making it really spicy!! I might be reading in too much here, but this is how I hear Frida. She's using the accent to emphasise the lyrics about freakish behaviour. - Linda Grandqvist, Swedish ABBA Fan, ABBAMail

Race and American Music

ABBA made what one may call 'pure pop' or 'bubblegum pop' music, which is a label that is more useful in pointing out what something is not than what it is. ABBA dabbled in rock, rhythm and blues, and even reggae, but for the most part, their music was not in these genres nor was their influence directly felt. 'Pure pop' can perhaps be defined as pop music that lacks influence from genres created by Black Americans, such as the three R's mentioned earlier. This is always context-dependent, of course: by the 70s, rock was recontextualied as a white Anglo-American phenomenon. Music being made by Black Americans can vary in how 'Black' it is considered to be: the Supremes was made of three Black women, but their style of music appealed to white audiences. For the most part, ABBA's music followed the vein of light 60s pop, pre-Beatles seriousness.

The decision to avoid the self-seriousness, sonic experimentation, and introspection associated with other white acts made ABBA a target for accusations of frivolity. Their decision (or lack thereof?) to not draw from the Black American tradition drew some attention. Noted music critic Robert Christgau lambasted ABBA for embodying "late capitalism" and "aversion to singing like Negros," two characteristics that were somehow linked.

It is hard to imagine a music critic today complaining that white artists don't draw enough from Black musicians, let alone copying their pronunciation, but the cultural dialogue of the 70s was quite different from today's. Christgau was drawing a line between ABBA's conceptualization as a product for mass white America, and their failure to cross a racial boundary. Arguments about segregation were still fresh in the minds of Americans. Some people idealistically thought that white musicians using Black musical forms would succeed in breaking down racial barriers and hasten the end of racism. Not all people thought this (and certainly not all Black people), but it was a cultural idea that informed this critique of ABBA.

The Sweden the members of ABBA grew up in was racially (though not ethnically) homogenous. It is hard to estimate how many Black folks lived in Sweden, but here is one statistic: in 1960, the population of Sweden was 7 million, and the number of immigrants from Africa was 596. Some Black folks from America moved to Sweden, but it's hard to find hard numbers on this. Of note is Lotte, a Black singer from Brooklyn who moved to Sweden, formed a musical act with Svenne, and was signed to Polar, the same label as ABBA. Björn and Benny wrote songs for them, as they did for their other labelmates. People like Lotte are an exception in an overall rather white country.

Neither Björn nor Benny seem to recall hearing Black musicians like Chuck Berry played over the radio when they were children (Palm 2002) (though Benny backtracks on this in later interviews, see Vincentelli 2011). They instead heard white singers like Elvis and Connie Francis. This means they did not have direct exposure to Black English, only to white Americans imitating it (or not imitating it at all). Why did Swedish radio stations not play Chuck Berry? No explanation is given in the definitive ABBA biography Bright Lights, Dark Shadows. It may be that white singers were signed to labels that were able to create distribution deals in countries like Sweden and Black singers weren't. There were racist attitudes in Sweden and broader Scandinavia against Black people (Weisbord, 1972), which one speculates may have influenced which records DJs played. The point is that during a critical period of musical identity formation, ABBA were not exposed to Black singers the way white Americans were. As a result, their sung speech sounds more white American (versus white British).

After the experimentation on their first three albums, ABBA stuck to the pure pop template. It is what got them the most sales and acclaim. Although ABBA always wanted to do more rock-type music, it seems to have fallen on its face. "So Long," an underappreciated single, was an absolute disaster in the UK, and it took the immaculate pure pop "SOS" to steer their career back on track. ABBA didn't make a serious attempt at engaging with Black-created musical forms again until 1979's "Voulez-Vous," when they tried to adapt their sound to be more modern. (What alternative did they have, punk?) This was already quite late in the lifetime of disco, such that it had become less distinctly Black. For context, ABBA released "Voulez-Vous" in April of 1979, and the 'Disco Demolition Derby' happened a mere two months later in July of 1979. Their final two albums stuck to various flavors of synth-pop. Overall, ABBA's cautious relation towards Black music and language separated them from other white mainstream acts.

Swedes Go Cosmopolitan

In the linguistic analysis, we saw that ABBA split their English: non-rhotic American English for singing, Received Pronunciation when speaking. Why would they sing in American English when they were taught British English? The obvious answer is that the pop music that influenced them was American, or American-imitating, and this formed their mental template for what pop music should sound like. But we would be remiss if we didn't point out that there may have been a commercial aspect as well. Sounding 'neutral' meant you didn't stick out. You could have some non-Americanisms - the Beatles, after all, kept many of their Liverpool features. But sounding unapologetically English simply wasn't done in the international pop sphere. Choosing American English was a safe bet.

Regardless of how listeners perceived it, English language was an important vehicle in the band’s early stages of recognition. As Simon Frith and Peter Langley wrote in a 1977 article in Creem magazine, Rock is an essentially Anglo-American enterprise, and most other countries do have their rock groups. ABBA, by entering the Eurovision Contest, made clear they weren't one of them.

ABBA's aim towards global domination got them some consternation. I recall reading an English newspaper that blasted ABBA for their "pseudo-American accents." ABBA's mix of American English with RP non-rhoticity, as well as their second-language flavor, made them sound as if they belonged to no group for some people, like these posters.

Hey Nude Spock, it was me who said that when singing accents are lost (and it was me who said American ones were unsexy too). Now, there are definitely some people who sing with an accent. I was listening to Carole King today and she sings with a major American accent. But then bands like Aqua & Bjork & Abba & anyone Japanese don't sound American (even when they are trying to) and very few English and Australian and NZ bands do either. - toraneko, 2001. (emphasis mine)

Abba do a very convincing job of singing in the mid-Atlantic accent favoured by British performers of modern popular music. This was developed as a concession to the predominance of the USA in the 1950s and established itself as the norm from the 1960s onwards. 'Wahderloo' now sounds fairly natural to a British ear. However, I have no idea what the Americans think when they hear it. - Lancashireman, 2010.

I did not know they were Swedish for quite a long time! Having been used to lots of accents from Anglo-Indian to various American and Canadian to a range of northern and southern British... I could not place ABBA, but that did not worry me. - Christine Andersen, 2010.

They sound mid-Atlantic to me. Not pleasant. Harsh, flat, without inflection, pronounced as though a machine were speaking English. But does it really matter all that much how Abba sounds? Should I be lying awake at night worrying about this? - Tom in London, 2010.

Finally, ABBA's music and career always had an international bent. The name 'ABBA' was selected because it "had no specific connection to any one language or culture" (McMullen, 2019) and "sounds right in as many languages as possible" (Palm, 2002). Additionally, their earlier song titles were also chosen for sounding good in multiple languages. For their first four albums, their manager Stig had a hand in suggesting good song titles. They ventured into singing in German and French before recording a Spanish album late in their career. Their use of language melded with their international, almost universalist ambitions.

"I was looking for a word that wouldn't need a translation, something that everybody would be familiar with... I needed a three-syllable word that would fit the melody." - Stig Anderson on 'Waterloo'. (Palm, 2002)

"In an artificial world of neon, Abba appeared onstage and disappeared in the same way. Afterwards these four people seemed just as unreal and elusive as the smoke that stayed behind at the stage....A perfect show with well-directed spontaneous laughter and musicianship. Nothing personal that could disturb Stig Anderson's consummate hit products.... The songs are built on simple harmonies and multinational repetition... "I love you," Abba sing and point towards the audience. But it's a lie. Abba don't love us. They love the 20 kronor they can steal from us when we've been swept away by the Abbamania and lose our grip on reality for an hour." Reviewer for ABBA concert. Quoted in Palm 2002, 268. From McMullen, 2011. Emphasis mine.

One the one hand, ABBA was too international, but on the other their English was not good enough. Would not poor English pronunciation be a good thing and make ABBA less of a vehicle for the international music industry and more of a Swedish group? There seemed to be no limit as to what one could accuse ABBA of: Composer Jan W. Morthenson even referred to ABBA as ‘‘a totalitarian culture’’(Morthenson 1977a). But English was important for ABBA. It was an important vehicle for international success. During the Brighton contest,they performed ‘‘Waterloo’’ in Swedish during the competition—as prescribed by the rules at the time—but had prepared an English version in case they won and were given the opportunity to perform another time on stage (Broman 2005, p. 52)

As mentioned above, ABBA was sometimes seen as not American or English enough to truly appeal. At the same time, their American-ness was trotted out when ABBA needed to be perceived as an international evil by leftist Swedes. ABBA's use of language was ambiguous enough to support whatever interpretation of them you wanted to.

Thank You For The Music

So “when all is said and done,” what was ABBA’s linguistic legacy? And how did it fit in with their image?

Both leftist Swedish music critics and Anglo-American rock critics agreed that ABBA was ‘too commercial,’ but they had different bases for their claims. The ‘proggers’ (leftist music critics) saw ABBA as making disembodied, international messageless music. The rock critics saw ABBA as foreign mindless babblers selling sonic candy floss. Both agreed that ABBA was nothing but a money-making machine, sure to fade as soon as possible.

To some extent, the ABBA circle internalized some of these messages. Björn certainly felt inspired to step up the lyrics starting with their fifth album. And even musically, the group felt they needed to prove they could hang with the big dogs on account of not being Anglo-American:

"They were very confident about 'Dancing Queen' because that was a really good piece of music," [their recording engineer] Tretow, a master of understatement, said. "It was so together, and the swing and the feel to it was different from everything they did before and after. We used 'Rock Me Baby' as a guide for the feel of the swing. We're Swedish and that's quite different from being American or English - because we weren't brought up with that music. We had to make our own; it wasn't natural." (Vincentelli, 2011) Emphasis mine.

At the same time, it was hardly an albatross. Indeed, the members of ABBA took pride in not being from the UK or US, and some critics saw it as a much-needed shakeup in the pop scene.

In a 1978 article for The New York Times, John Rockwell observed that "ABBA represents a healthy challenge to the two-decades-long dominance of Western pop music by Britain and the United States. The musical context from which ABBA evolved is that of so-called Euro-pop - a flossy, bouncy, sometimes triumphantly silly fluff-music that derives not from the urgency of American blues (the source of rock) but from older forms of European folk music."

"Maybe that's another reason ABBA still exists," Benny mused recently. "We come from Sweden and we were raised on music that was not just Anglo-Saxon. We listened to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Beatles, the Kinks, and all that - at the same time that we had [bandleader and composer] Hugo Montenegro and [strings arranger] Mantovani, German schlager, Italian songs and French chansons. It all comes to you and probably stays there. If you grow up with three chords and only Little Richard and Elvis stuff, and you continue in that spirit, it will limit you. But if you grow up in a country like Sweden, with all this stuff from France, Italy, German, Denmark, along with England and America, together with classical music and folk traditional music, it keeps your possibilities open." (Vincentelli, 2011)

By now, you've noticed that we've spent more time talking about how ABBA was perceived than what they intended to do. This is by design: the members of ABBA were notoriously private for being part of such a popular group. They didn't appear in the press for scandals (Vincentelli, 2011). They rarely spoke about what their songs meant, who they were for, or their inspirations while writing them. This gave everyone else space to project their own cultural anxieties and expectations on to them.

This was aided along by ABBA’s ambition to universal appeal. Per McMullen, ABBA “sought to avoid what they considered the ‘particular,’” such as “ethnic sounds.” With the exception of the Swedish folk-influenced track “Arrival,” ABBA stuck to radio-ready pop. Their international commercial ambitions wouldn’t allow anything outside that mold. A great example is the demo track, “Hamlet III.” It is obviously influenced by Swedish folk music, particularly the “schottis.” But it was too much a schottis, and Benny and Björn felt the track didn’t work as a pop song, and it was shelved until Benny released an accordeon-only version on his own folk album decades letter. Avoiding the “particular” indeed. This also influenced ABBA’s reputation as "some of the brightest whiteness pop has ever known", per Barry Walters (McMullen 2019).

Combined with their desire to reach as many audiences as possible by singing in different languages and using language-agnostic names, it is perhaps inevitable that ABBA became a blank screen ready for projection. “Because it was so visible, perfect, delineated, and vacuous, Palm suggests ‘the audience could spin their own fantasies around Abba's slightly unreal, almost too perfect appearance’” (McMullen, 2019).

But this seemingly formless outreach had a bright side, too: ABBA’s music reached a broad swathe of the public that had perhaps never felt represented by Anglo-American rock. They showed it was possible to make great, international pop music without being American or English – or even speaking English as a first language. They showed you didn’t need to conform to rock critic sensibilities to touch people. They showed it’s okay to have fun and dance through the tears, even if everyone else think it’s cringe – a doubtless factor among ABBA’s decades-long popularity with LGBT listeners.

In the comments section of entertainment writer Owen Gleiberman’s July 2018 Variety article titled “The Secret Majesty of ABBA,” one fan speaks to the dual effect of the band’s unapologetically-European sensibilities: I am an Asian American growing up in Europe and I remember so well, after the ‘Eurovision Contest’ in 1973 [sic], ABBA was loved and appreciated by all European people. Unlike the Beatles, or the Bee Gees, ABBA sang songs not only in English, [but] also in Spanish, French, Italian and their native tongue Swedish.

From our modern perspective, the idea that an all-white group of heterosexual musicians could, in any way, be 'outsiders', may seem nonsensical. But pop music was so homogenous in the 60s and 70s that a group coming from Sweden was seen as both threatening and laughable. ABBA reflected an international approach to music that didn't center American and British tastes: a tiny crack, but a crack nonetheless. The rest of the world is here, and the US and the UK no longer have sole control over the musical discourse.

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Kim Petras: L2 English, California Dreamin': Like the members of ABBA, Kim Petras speaks English as a second language - and still has a thriving career as a pop singer. Compare how Kim chooses different models of English that better suit her desired genre.

Dialect Dissection: The Beatles and Regional Identity: One of the most famous rock bands of all the time, with an accent nobody expected. Read about how the Beatles countered common expectations for how a rock band 'should' sound - and how the UK and the US reacted.


  1. The single 'r' is pronounced as a tap between vowels, sounding like American English 'butter'.

    This is an urban legend. The American (and Australian and South African and Oxfordshire etc.) sound is a flap: the tip of the tongue isn't held in any place, but flapped backwards across the alveolar ridge. Spanish has no such sound, and if you used it in Spanish, you'd sound distinctly odd.

    The -r- and the r-, -rr-, -r of Spanish are both alveolar trills: the tongue is held in place against the alveolar ridge, and air is pressed through. They differ as follows:
    1) the former is strictly limited to a single contact (a single bubble of air gets through), while the latter has (variably) four or five contacts. This is an exaggerated distinction compared to Italian, where r has (variably) one or two contacts, while rr has three or four.
    2) the former is apical, the latter is laminal.

    An actual tap should be some kind of ultrashort plosive. I'm not convinced such a thing even exists.

    Some people use "tap" to mean "single-contact trill". But most trills worldwide have a single contact most of the time.

    ABBA uses the velar fricative [x] for Spanish words with 'j', which is standard for Mexican and Spain Spanish.

    [x], or [x ~ ] variation, is widespread across Latin America. But in Spain, it's uvular [χ] all the time. And indeed:


    Also noticeable:
    – seemingly random distribution of [e] vs. [ε] (in most kinds of Spanish I'd have expected [ε] only);
    – /o/ is not only not mid, it's more open than [ɔ] (in most kinds of Spanish I'd have expected [ɔ]);
    – there's an actual [v];
    z as [s], unlike in most of Spain;
    – they actually get the [ʎ] right (the most conservative pronunciation of ll), but then they can't get off it quickly enough and insert an entire syllabic [i];
    – instead of being [ɰ], the g is a completely voiceless plosive, which makes it identical to a Spanish /k/. The d is fully voiced, though, which is easier after the [n].
    – I think they both get the single-contact [r] right, but they're not completely synchronous, so I can't tell if one of them gives it two contacts. I'm pretty sure it's apical.

    1. Oops, I meant [x ~ ç] variation.

    2. This is an urban legend. The American (and Australian and South African and Oxfordshire etc.) sound is a flap: the tip of the tongue isn't held in any place, but flapped backwards across the alveolar ridge. Spanish has no such sound, and if you used it in Spanish, you'd sound distinctly odd.

      I speak Spanish as one of my native languages, and I cannot hear a distinction between the American flapped 'r' and the Spanish tapped 'r'. The other native speakers I've spoken to have even recommended that Americans trying to speak Spanish use the flapped 't' sound to sound more native (as opposed to the retroflex approximant). I speak Cuban Spanish and most of the Spanish speakers I interact with are Cuban, so I don't know if that's a confounding factor, but I've never really thought of the two sounds as being all that different.

      [x], or [x ~ ] variation, is widespread across Latin America. But in Spain, it's uvular [χ] all the time.

      Thanks for the clarification! In Cuban Spanish it is always [h], so I notice it from Mexicans and Spaniards. I suspected that [x] (or the other variations you mention) was part of the 'neutral' Latin American Spanish.

      there's an actual [v];

      For them, I'm almost certain it's interference or spelling pronunciation. But as an aside, there are Spanish speakers use use a [v] for written in sung speech or even overly careful speech, to sound more 'elevated'. I wonder if their pronunciation coach thought they would sound more believable with [v] than attempting [β]. I'm probably overthinking this and they simply used a spelling pronunciation.

      This is definitely something I'm going to cover in the future at some point; I've had heated debates with Spanish speakers who insist that there is phonemic /v/ in Spanish and that it's simply merged in fast speech.

      /o/ is not only not mid, it's more open than [ɔ] (in most kinds of Spanish I'd have expected [ɔ]);

      Yes, I did think there was something funny with their /o/! In this clip, that /o/ is not where I'd expect it to be. It's quiet and below her usual resonant range, which makes it hard to hear and so I removed it from the article:

      "Y muevo c[o?]n sinceridad"

      I may end up just making a separate page for other ABBA in Spanish oddities and examples, since I had to cut a few out for space.

      – instead of being [ɰ], the g is a completely voiceless plosive, which makes it identical to a Spanish /k/.

      Good catch, I'd never noticed that before! Yes, it sounds like they're both saying "llecó."

      I've noticed speakers of aspiration contrast languages (e.g. Swedish, English) have a hard time with 'true voice' languages with no aspiration (e.g. Spanish). My partner, for example, has a very hard time producing [p˭], and either aspirates it or replaces it with a half-voiced [b]. In theory it should be better since English voiced consonants are not fully voiced (and often not voiced at all), but his [b] has some voicing to it, and so words like 'puedo' sound like 'buedo'.

    3. Ah, I've never heard Cuban Spanish! And yes, of course the flap is the closest most Englishes get to a one-contact trill.

      The one Colombian I've ever encountered used [h], BTW, so "Caribbean" doesn't seem to be limited to the islands.

      "Y muevo c[o?]n sinceridad"

      Interesting. Both e are actual [e]. The o in muevo is almost [o], but the one in con strikes me as a canonical [ɔ]. So far it's the French distribution: closed vowels in open syllables and vice versa. Could be interference from the lengthening of open syllables that has overtaken most Germanic languages, most kinds of Swedish included.

      I once heard a song, from southern Mexico I think, that stuck completely to [e] and [o] (at least in the Spanish part – the rest was in some Mayan language that I have no clue of). I don't know how widespread that is, but it's definitely odd from a global perspective.

      I've noticed speakers of aspiration contrast languages (e.g. Swedish, English) have a hard time with 'true voice' languages with no aspiration (e.g. Spanish).

      Yes! ...though the English Wikipedia article on Swedish phonology is unclear about how much voicing exists in b d g in Swedish, and the soundfiles only have them in initial position, where the speaker seems to overarticulate dramatically; he does start with some amount of voice, though.

      For me, BTW, b d g are the most difficult sounds of the entire French language, but aspiration doesn't come naturally to me either (I had to learn it consciously for English). My kinds of German represent one of maybe two worldwide occurrences of a pure fortis-lenis contrast... my /b d g/ are always completely voiceless, sounding exactly like Mandarin /b d g/ or Spanish /p t k/, but my /p t k/ sound like in French (except /k/), Slavic or Japanese.

      Pure voice contrasts aren't actually all that common. They tend to occur either when they're actually rare within a language, like in Spanish where the voiced plosives are rare allophones of approximants, or in crowded systems like in Hindi or Thai. Elsewhere, the voice contrast is backed up by a fortis-lenis contrast even when it hasn't shifted (partially or entirely) to an aspiration contrast.

  2. Did not become really acquainted with their music until recently at the age of 83. Now stuck un their talent. Not sure wghat Ivwas kistening to back when they wer so popular, but have made up fo it, singing along with them as I listen to them riding in my car or truck. Benny and his keyboards are really something.

    1. ABBA's music is much more intricate than it seems at first glance. Even after listening to them for so long, I still discover new things when listening to them. Glad you're enjoying them today!