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December 16, 2022

Cute Linguistics Gifts

I find the holiday gift-giving season very stressful (and societally-mandated seasonal gift-giving in general). After watching several YouTube videos on gifts for specialized hobbies, I wondered what kind of linguistics gifts you could give someone. It's not a very materially-focused hobby, after all. So here's an attempt at something you could conceivably gift someone who likes linguistics which they could enjoy. None of these links are sponsored (though if that sort of thing doesn't bother you, let me know - I'm not against getting some kind of actual revenue efrom this blog).


For the aspiring historical linguist in your life, "The Story of Our Language" by Henry Alexander is old (1960s), but is an accessible introduction to how modern English developed from Old English. It can be purchased very cheaply on the secondhand market.

"Introducing Linguistics: A Graphic Guide" is a wonderful little intro that covers multiple subfields of linguistics and is pocket-sized.

"Language Myths" by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill covers a variety of Linguistics 101 topics and myths like "In the Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare", "Maori is an inferior language because you cannot use it to discuss astrophysics," "kids are ruining English."

John McWhorter's linguistics books tend to be aimed at a broad audience. Of the ones I've read, the closest I can think of relating to historical linguistics is "Words on the Move: Why English Won't—and Can't—Sit Still (Like, Literally)". I think it covers some aspects of language change.

Deep in Linguistics Sauce

Lingthusiasm is a podcast focused on linguistics. You can gift someone in your life a subscription to Lingthusiasm, if you know they're a podcast type. If you're not into podcasts, they still have you covered with linguistics paraphernalia. I own the 'liquids for your liquids' bottle. It's a simple, lightweight aluminum watter bottle with no fancy features, but the people at work always ask me what the symbols mean, and then I get to explain liquids to everyone. There's also one with glottal consonants on it, if those are more your style. I also have the mask, but I would not recommend it as a serious COVID mask - it is not fitted to the face so air escapes out the side, and the polyester jersey has a tendency to stick to your nostrils and make it hard to breathe.

William Labov's Principles of Linguistic Change. This is a 3-volume set, but it's helpful for anyone interested in the variety of features that motivate language change. You can read it straight through if you're a maniac or just keep it as a reference work. If you know there's a particular subfield your friend is interested in, you can just buy one of the volumes (e.g. cultural factors is volume 3).

If you're passionate about linguistics, what kinds of gifts would you consider thoughtful and fun? What about something for a younger person who's just getting into linguistics?

November 7, 2022

No Escape from Ameriphilia

People who really love one country even though they live in another are nothing new. The Western world has seen bouts of Francophilia and Anglophilia, corresponding with the rise in power of France and England respectively. The popularity of anime and manga around the world have led to a particular form of Japanophilia, whose adherents are derisively called "weeaboos." But despite the power of the United States, we rarely hear anyone talk about 'Americanophilia'. There is no cutesy name for it. Wanting to be American is basically in the water.

The lack of a name hasn't stopped people from commenting on it. The following song, 'Tu vuo fa l'Americano' (You want to play at being American) by Renato Carosone, lightheartedly mocks a Napolitan man who wants to drink whisky and soda, play baseball, and wear jeans with logos on the back pocket. Renato believes it all in vain - "Ma si' nato in Italy!" (but you were born in Italy!). The song is sung in the Napolitan dialect of Italian, making the local pride more evident.

There's just one problem with this rejection of American values - the song itself is written in the genre of jazz, a distinctly American style.

Apparently writing and performing your music in an American genre is fine, but American fashion and drinking habits are a step too far!

Another Italian performer who cribbed from American influences was Adriano Celentano, famous in linguistics circles for writing 'Prisencolinensinainciusol'. This long-titled proto-rap is performed entirely in nonsense lyrics intended to sound like American English. While it's usually presented as a novelty comedy song, Celentano has always emphasized that the song is about the difficulty of communication. This is made clear in the (Italian-langauge) opening to the performance of the song on TV:

There's been a rumor circulating that this song was made to make fun of the way Italians would listen to anything in American English. This is currently the top-voted comment on the most popular upload of the song on YouTube:

DrLimp (2021): At the time english songs were getting great popularity in Italy, Italian singer Adriano Celentano wanted to prove that italians would love everything that sounded remotely english, so he wrote this, proving his point since it was very successful. The reason why it sounds so good even if it's gibberish is because Celantano studied phonetics theory to compose this.

...But in an interview with NPR, Celentano celebrates the American connection:

Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang - which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian - I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.

Side note: it is absolutely hilarious that he believes American 'slang' (referring to Black American English? this blogger also thinks so) is easier to sing than Italian, as Italian was traditionally considered to be the best language to sing in by English speakers. This being due to the prominence of Italian opera. It appears that the language of whichever is the most culturally powerful country is always, somehow, the easiest to sing in.

Nevertheless, the fact that the song became popular enough to hit the top 10 in Italy and some other European countries shows that audiences were probably more receptive to the general sound of American English and the hypnotic beat than to the message of the difficulty of communication. Italian TV-watching audiences might have been aware that the song was about communication, since the school-themed show above was what propelled the song to popularity (per NPR), but I doubt record-buyers would know or care.

What makes 'Prisencolinensinainciusol' sound American? There are many closed syllables: 'eyes', 'red'. There's the use of the retroflex approximant. The consonant and vowel inventory sounds about right. And the prosody is uncanny - I'm reminded of a combo of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The use of a funk background - another Black American genre - also provides the context. Would we still think it sounded 'English'-like if we didn't have the context to prompt us? Someone run the song through one of those AI background-removers and then place the vocal track on top of something entirely non-American-sounding and we'll see.

Let's return back to Carosone and his jazzy plead to stop wearing hats tilted on side. Why can't we call the young man an Ameriphile, or an Americophile, or an Americanophile? (Yes, I've looked them all up, and it appears there's no standard.) I'd venture to say it's because American pop culture is so dominant worldwide (one could even call it hegemony) that one can't even point it out. Everyone has their limit as to what's too much American culture - Celentano seems to have no problem producing pseudo-American sounds, while Carosone will accept the music, but not the hobbies. I wonder what Carosone would say if asked why he decided to record this riposte in jazz. As a performer of traditional Napolitan music, as well as someone who has stepped into various diverse genres, he may have chosen jazz to show his flexibility as well as add an extra jab at the American-obsessed fellow. But hearing a jazzy song chide someone for Ameriphilia doesn't sound like an ironic twist. It doesn't even sound like much at all, so accustomed are we to American genres.

If we might grant that Carosone may have intended a bit of irony or hypocrisy in choosing a jazz setting for the song, then the following cover of the song, 'Ty hochesh' byt' Amerikantsem' by Zhanna Friske, lacks any of this tension. This song comes from a New Year's Eve performance on television, New Year's being an important holiday in Russia. Many television programs will have performers come on and do covers and skits. This one centers on a man who rudely walks into an establishment and demands an 'Americano' coffee, at which point the waitress, Friske, asks him if he really wants an 'Americano'. This song is less about Ameriphilia replacing native culture and more about the false idea that the United States is a land of plenty, where sociopaths can become rich and step on their enemies (unlike Russia, of course). She instead portends that he'll end up fat, overworked, and disappointed at how ugly American women are. The man recants and chooses to drink tea instead.

Meanwhile, the music is still stubbornly American. The genre remains jazz, but more of a Broadway take on jazz. She's dressed less like a waitress and more like a Bohemian showgirl. Her moves and backup dancers are obviously inspired by 40s-era Broadway shows. Once again, we have the curiosity of using American pop-cultural forms to decry American values. And if Carosone still has credibility as someone who made his career in traditional music, Zhanna has none of that as a pop star dabbling in various types of synth-pop. She's even embraced cosmopolitanism in her song 'Zhanna Friske' where she brags that the man of her desire will be "leaving in English with Zhanna Friske."

Both attempts at criticizing Ameriphilia remain boxed in due to their small scope. If we take Zhanna's version seriously, then it's fine to enjoy American-style cultural artifacts so long as you do them within Russia and you don't get it in your head that the United States is in any way a better country than Russia. If we take Carosone's version seriously, then the problem is being too obvious and naked in your Ameriphilia - if you're going to enjoy American stuff, at least be prudent about it and don't do it all at once. Friske's version is more political where Carosone's is cultural, but both cede that mass media must take place, if not in the language of American English, then in the genre of American music.

Am I reading too much into two lighthearted comedy songs? Yes, absolutely. But it's been on my mind for a while, this contradiction between a song making fun of Ameriphilia being, at the same time, in an American musical genre. It's like making a j-pop song about how silly being a weeaboo is. Only, not even then, because Japanese pop culture has nowhere near the reach that American pop culture has, that has allowed American pop culture to institute itself as a naturalized standard. It'd be more like if we lived in an alternate universe where 'weeaboo' wasn't a word, everyone listened to j-pop, but wearing kimono on the street was seen as gauche and taking it too far.

October 28, 2022

"Yeah this is a blog post about light novel title lengths, so what?"

If you're into anime (Japanese animation) or light novels (Japanese young adult novels), you may have noticed that in recent years, titles have gotten a little... long. And not just long, but distinctly sentence-like. You'll have titles like "So I'm a Spider, So What?", "I've Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level" and "Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?" Compare this to previous titles like "Bakemonogatari" (a pun on 'bakemono', monster, and 'monogatari', stories).

YouTuber RedBard has already made a video covering when this change happened, which I recommend watching:

This looks at the change of length in English language translations. I also recommend this accompanying piece at Otaquest, which looks at the change in Japanese, and this genre-based analysis by jgeekstudies.

Both Red Bard and jgeekstudies seem to agree that light novel title lengths began increasing dramatically in 2014. The jgeekstudies paper mentions that the long titles are most common in the fantasy and isekai genres. 'Isekai' is a genre based around a person who is transported to another world and has to live there now. "Sword Art Online" is an example of a popular isekai work. The three titles I mentioned in the open paragraph are also either fantasy or isekai.

Red Bard speculates that light novels have become so long as a way to give a very neat plot summary and hook readers in right away. Light novels are displayed with the spine outwards, so having an attention-grabbing title can cause a potential reader to check out the book and its actual summary in a way a one-word title might not.

I'm not a big consumer of isekai anime, so I don't have a representative sample, but I have watched "I've Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level" and I don't know if I'd really call the title a good summary of the story. The plot begins with a young woman who dies of overwork, and is reincarnated as an immortal into a video game fantasy world by a goddess who takes pity on her. She decides to live a carefree, slow life and only kills a handful of slimes each day. After 300 years, she has, indeed, 'maxed out her level' by killing slimes.

However, this barely has any relation to the real story, which involves her becoming an adoptive mom for two slime spirits, building a chosen family, and generally getting into hijinks. Her having maxed out her level is more an excuse for her to be overpowered; her killing slimes for 300 years is related to the overall theme of avoiding overwork and choosing a slow life (raising her level slowly instead of grinding out powerful enemies every day). I would consider the title more of a hook of the absurb elements of the show than something that really has much to do with the rest of the plot.

Indeed, I think it's worth pointing out that these sentences are all humorous, or at least a little absurd. "So I'm a Spider, So what?" could have been called "I got reincarnated as a spider" - already a silly premise - but goes the extra length of being defensive about being reincarnated as a title. "Is it wrong to try to pick up girls in a dungeon" takes a funny concept and also makes the asker sound defensive or curious.

It's funny to consider that light novel titles are becoming full sentences compared to English language pop songs, which have gone the opposite direction from favoring sentences or titles to single words or phrases (previous posts here and here). I mention in a previous article that having a song title be a sentence picked out from a song's chorus was a good way to make your song memorable, which was important in a time before Shazam and internet on cell phones to look up song lyrics. Today, it's relatively easy to find out what a song's title is, so there's little risk to naming it something short and sweet from the beginning or end of the chorus.

It's just another part of enregistration, where something becomes popular due to some reason (an early innovator who struck gold with a highly recognizable example, random chance causing a cluster), is copied by people, and ultimately becomes a genre marker. If I see an anime titled something like "Yeah, it's true - my little sister got reincarnated as a yogurt after beating a video game", there's a pretty good chance it's going to be some kind of isekai or fantasy adapted from a light novel. The fact that it's so easily parody-able, as I just showed, also makes it very easy to produce - find something absurd in the premise of your book, add some kind of emotional coloring to it with a discourse marker, and you have a title that can intrigue readers and make them laugh while not challenging them stylistically. Profit!

Will light novel titles continue being sentences? Probably for a while, until people get tired of it and are ready for something new. Titles of things tend to fluctuate over time, and trends come and go, just like one-word titles for songs. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to see just how fast the convention of "light novel titles as sentences" got adopted and enregistered.

September 29, 2022

A Research Question

I'm not going to be able to get the article I wanted out before the end of the month (work, school, and volunteering will do that to you), buuut I wanted you all to know that there are articles in the pipeline. Classic rock has been on my mind for a while now, being the genre that sort of sparked my interest in the question "why and how can singers sing in an entirely different accent than their speaking one?" We more or less seem to have the answer, which is that singers copy linguistic features of other singers that they think are part of the genre. But I'd really like to elaborate on this:

  • How conscious are singers of these changes they're making?
  • Not everyone is good at copying accents, so how does natural talent play into which features get copied and which don't?
  • How do these features spread? i.e. which singers and records are 'vectors of transmission'?
  • When doing covers, most singers don't copy the accent of the original singer. What triggers the sense that "this song wouldn't be right without the accent"?
  • Once a singing-linguistic style becomes the norm in a genre, what has to happen for that norm to be challenged and change?

The sketch I have so far is something like this: at some point, a certain group of people with a consistent linguistic feature produces music. They use their own native variety because they're making music for themselves. This music is then carried across some kind of linguistic border and is introduced to an audience that is not familiar with the music.

The uniformity of the music and the language are noted by the new audience. Many of them find it so inspiring (bestowing status on the musicians) that they choose to make their own version. Some will try to make it speaking their own native variety, and some will try to imitate the accents. Depending on factors (how high status are the foreign musicians? is there a very strong sense of local pride?), the localized version or the foreign version may win out. If the foreign version wins out, it may then spread to across a different border, increasing the hegemonic sense that music produced in this genre must have that accent. Repeat.

I have some examples from non-music genres where something similar happens (the association between genre and variety is so strong that it even crosses the language boundary), but that will be for a different article, one probably much farther ahead in the future. There's a lot to potentially discuss (effects of recording media versus live performance, American hegemony, purposeful pushing back, variety spread as a type of cultural/soft power, questions of appropriation) and it's going to take a lot more work. But I wanted to get the question and my attempt at answering the question out.

Next semester I hope not to take any classes, which should give me a little more time to finish up the articles I do have. Pray no extra strange things happen.

- Karen

August 31, 2022

Blog Update: Quick Book Reviews

This month (and likely the next) has been very busy, but I did find the time to finish reading up some language-related books, and I will provide some quick reviews for you here.

Millennials Talking Media: Creating Intertextual Identities in Everyday Conversation by Sylvia Sierra. This book works from the perspective of discourse analysis, looking at how millenials use references to pop culture for different purposes - to smooth other difficult conversations; to create an in-group identity; to allow people who don't know about an event to participate anyway by reminding everyone of a shared pop-cultural heritage; to have fun; to reference stereotypes. The book is academically-focused, so it may be a difficult read if you're not familiar with discourse analysis.

One concept I found interesting was the idea of 'play frames' - that is, 'framing' a conversation in a playful way to focus on fun. Sierra references how the subjects of the study, her roommates, have different levels of willingness to engage in 'play frames.' The book also tackles the meaning of 'intertextuality', including a very funny conversation where Sierra discusses with her roommates, in a very casual matter, how intertextuality is different from mere 'references'. Overall, I found the book informative - I was not familiar with discourse analysis beforehand, so many of the concepts were new to me. If you're interested in how conversation works between millenials, and the ways in which pop culture can reinforce group identities, this book may be of interest to you.

Women, Men and Language: A Sociolinguistic Account of Gender Differences in Language by Jennifer Coates. This book focuses on gendered differences in conversation, and specifically on examining certain well-known claims in sociolinguistics about how men and women differ in language. If you've ever heard that women are more likely to use hedges, that women are more likely to use standard forms than men, and that female conversational style is more 'collaborative' than male conversational style, which is 'competitive', then this book will be relevant to you - and likely challenge many of these preconceptions.

The book is a collection of studies. The one I found most interesting was one on the difference between teenage girls' social networks and teenage boys'. Coates is critical of the Labovian notion that women speak a more standard version of languages due to seeking 'upward prestige', and instead she suggests that a social network-based explanation does a better job of accounting for these differences. The social network study found that teenage girls had more diffuse social networks than teenage boys, who had dense social networks, and that denser social networks were correlated with having more 'regional' features. This means that women speaking a more standard version is not because they want to be seen as more middle class, but because they have less exposure to people who speak these variants, and less identification with them.

July 29, 2022

Ace Linguist Interview on BBC Oxfordshire

I got the chance to be interviewed by Tom of BBC Oxford a week ago, and I wanted to share the conversation with you all! The topic at hand is mondegreens, or misheard lyrics. We share some of our favorite misheard lyrics and discuss why this happens.

Part one and part two available here.

Interview originally hosted at BBC radio Oxford


June 30, 2022

"Thees is love" and short 'i' lengthening

This is such a micro music linguistic trend that I have a hard time justifying writing about it, but I've now heard it from several different artists and feel compelled to include it here.

It's simple: take a word with a short i [I] sound, like 'bit'. Now replace that vowel with a long 'ee' sound [i], so it sounds like 'beat'. You don't have to go all the way to the [i] sound - you can be somewhere in between - but the end result sounds more like the long 'ee' than the short 'ih'.

The scant handful of examples:

  • Florence and the Machine. What kind of man loves like th[i]s?
  • Adele. Chasing Tables. "Th[i]s is love."
  • Natalia Kills. Television. "We'll never go to heaven but who needs to when you l[i]ve this good."

I had originally included these in my article on Indie Voice, but after some feedback, I decided to remove them since my examples leaned more towards pop and pop-indie, and I couldn't really say I'd heard them enough to justify calling it part of the Indie Voice cluster. But if it's not indie voice, what is it?

I have so few examples that coming up with any serious explanation isn't likely, but we can speculate. My immediate thought is that lengthening and raising the vowel in 'BIT' is something that many speakers of foreign languages do, because they don't have a short 'ih' vowel and the closest available one to them is 'ee'. It's common for Spanish speakers to confuse 'ship' and 'sheep'.

Singers can be influenced by singers with other accents, including singers who speak English as a second language. Marina Diamandis is one such example who sounds like she's imitating Greek or Spanish speakers. I also hypothesized that influence from jazz and bossa nova was part of the Indie Voice sound. If you want to use the fancy terms, these pronunciations are "linguistic resources" that singers can draw from when singing. Imagine listening to someone who speaks differently from you, hearing a pronunciation you find cool, and going "I'm gonna save that for later..." and putting it in a sort of phonetic palette. (hat tip to Lisa Jansen for introducing me to the "linguistic resource" concept in her book on pop and rock pronunciation.)

Now, here's the thing that's bugging me... the ship-sheep confusion isn't considered cool by most people. It's one of the most obvious signs that you have a foreign accent, and it's one of the thing second-language speakers of English focus on when trying to reduce their accent. On the flipside, it's one of the features that comedians like to exaggerate when mimicking a foreign accent. A quick example comes from the song "Illegal Alien" by Genesis, where Phil Collins attempts to imitate a Mexican accent:

  • "With a bottle of Tequila, and a new pack of c[i]garettes." - Illegal Alien, Genesis

One day, I'll do a little mini-dissection on "Illegal Alien," because wow does this song have some interesting ideas on what Spanish English sound like that. But I hope this gets the point across that this feature is ripe for mimicry and caricature.

Listening to Florence and Adele and Natalia, I don't really think they sound or want to sound foreign. In the words with the 'ih'-lengthening, the actual musical duration is also longer than the surrounding word. "What kind of man loves like thiiiiis?" "Thiiiiiis is love." "We'll never go to heaven but who needs to when you liiiive this good." Could it be easier to sing it by raising the vowel? This would be in contrast to the pop pronunciations of HAPPY with a short 'ih' at the end and HAPPY with an 'ey' sound at the end - singers claim that 'ih' and 'ey', which are lower in the mouth, are easier to sing than the 'ee' they replace.

Could be a slip of the tongue, but Florence repeats this pronunciation in every instance of her chorus, so that's a whole lot of slips of the tongue that made it to the final cut.

If imitation is out, and there's no clear phonetic or musical motivation, then we're left with the fuzziest reason of all - aesthetics. Is there some kind of aesthetic linked to pronouncing 'this' as 'thees' that has nothing to do with foreign speakers of English? The fact that these pronunciations only show up at certain parts of the song, instead of replacing every 'ih' throughout, suggests that they're sort of special. It could be a type of marking, bringing attention to these syllables by breaking our expectations of which vowel 'belongs' there.

This is still all speculation, but sometimes that's the fun stuff. Do you have any other examples like this, from other genres? What do you think is motivating this pronunciation?

May 31, 2022

"I Love An Anchovy" - The Millenial Generic

If you hear someone say "I love an anchovy," no context, do you assume they have have one particular anchovy that they love, or that they just love anchovies in general? And does this phrase sound normal to you, or unbearably young?

I'm not sure if it's the Baader-Meinhof effect, but lately the "I love a _" construction has been popping up everywhere in my life. I've even found it unbidden in my own speech, slipping from my lips to say "I love a weather report." My intuition tells me it's trendy, but it's always worth double-checking.

First, the construction itself - almost always in first person, more commonly the singular. A common example, "I love a red lip", means "I love red lips [for makeup]" or "I love a red lip [when I'm wearing makeup]." The difference between "I love red lips" and "I love a red lip" is subtle, but the latter one sounds more situational, like you like to use red lipstick often, while the former sounds like you're just a fan of red lips. I don't know if everyone feels this difference, but "I love red lips" feels like a stronger statement than "I love a red lip."

More broadly, the "I love a _" looks like a form of generic. Specifically, it's a construction about a kind of "general property" ("The Generic Book", Carlson, 1995). Compare:

  • John smokes a cigar after dinner.

This isn't about any one cigar, but about John's habit of smoking cigars. 'a cigar' is a stand-in for all the cigars John does smoke after dinner. It makes no further claims about cigars. It's common for generics in English to be singular nouns ("a cigar") or plural nouns ("John smokes cigars after dinner"). We can see a parallel in "I love a red lip" and "I love red lips."

Second, who's saying it? Anecdotally, mostly women, millenial-age or younger, and especially in the fashion and cooking worlds. I don't hear a lot of men using it, and if a man said something like "I love a mechanical keyboard," it would sound slightly feminine to me.

How old is it? It seems to date to around the mid-2000s. I've found it in 2007, in the book 'People':

"I love a red lip," says Heroes star Ali Larter, who often puckers up in the shade.

In 2009, a man who is definitely not a millenial assures a reader that anchovies are a great way to punch up a meal:

I love an anchovy. They lend a fabulous, penetrating richness to all sorts of dishes, from salads and pizzas to stews and roasts.

Twitter also has a fair amount of results for "I love a red lip" in 2009 and 2010, suggesting the construction was already common at the time. There are far more results now, but it's hard to know whether this is because the construction is more popular or more people are using Twitter: Twitter had 30 million monthly active users in the first quarter of 2010, 68 million in the first quarter of 2011, and 330 million by the first quarter of 2019 (via Statista).

The celebrity cook Alison Roman is a fan of this construction, using it frequently. She was born in 1985, making her the prototypical millenial woman who would use this construction.

You can't start with like, a dried soaked chickpea or bean. I love a canned chickpea, and I'm not afraid to say it.

Now why would a phrase like this appear if we already have a perfectly good generic in 'I love red lips' or 'I love anchovies'? I mentioned above that 'I love an anchovy' seems less intense and absolute than 'I love anchovies', so this gradation may have been a motivation for this innovation. There are other constructions that seem semantically similar to me, such as:

  • I love a (good) anchovy.
  • I love an anchovy (situation).

And as mentioned above, plural nouns and indefinite singular nouns are also used to represent a general property:

  • John smokes a cigar after dinner.
  • John smokes cigars after dinner.

It's not a big step to complete the parallel:

  • I love red lips.
  • I love a red lip.

There could also be an analogy with the following phrase, which is popular among millenial women and gay men.

  • We stan a [adj] queen.

So far, the construction seems pretty limited. As mentioned above, I almost always find it in the present tense first person. You could imagine forms like:

  • She loves a bold lip.
  • You know [that] he loves an anchovy.
  • I'm loving a kitten heel.

But it starts getting weird the more you deviate from it. These made-up sentences sound weird:

  • He loved an anchovy. (speaking of someone who's dead?)
  • Once I show you the proper technique, you will love a red lip.
  • I have loved an anchovy, but I'm over it/them now.

What's your experience with the millenial generic? Do you use this construction?

Works Cited

April 29, 2022

Blog Update

It's been another busy spring for my personal life, which means barely any time for my obligations, let alone the blog. I've made some progress on the Jekyll migration, but it won't be ready any time soon. I'll keep you all posted on the status of that.

In the meantime, I want to share a book I recently found out about: English Rock and Pop Performances: A Sociolinguistic Investigation of British and American Language Perceptions and Attitudes, by Lisa Jansen. Those of you who frequent the linguist blogosphere may know her from her blog, Lisa Loves Linguistics, where she writes about the sociolinguistic aspects of song. Her article on Rihanna's use of Jamaican Creole in the song "Work" was one of the inspirations for this blog. The book is about perceptions of British and American English in pop music, which I imagine would be of interest to readers of thiis blog. (I also happen to get a citation in the book! One of my very old articles on what I call 'HAPPY-breaking'. The newer version can be found here. I've seen my blog cited before, but it's very exciting to see 'Ace Linguist' in an actual physical book!)

I also read "The Japanese Language" by Haruhiko Kindaichi. It was originally published in the 50s, so I take the linguistic analyses with a grain of salt. But the interesting aspect of the book is that it was written by a Japanese linguist in Japanese for a Japanese audience. I read the book in translation, of course, but the intended audience is Japanese, not foreign. It is therefore an informative read about how Japanese authors, speech-givers, and everyday people view the Japanese language. One funny example was his comment on Japanese's Subject-Object-Verb form. In very long and complex sentences, such as in the Japanese constitution, someone reading a Japanese sentence must wait until the very end to find out if the verb is affirmative or negative. Most descriptions of Japanese I've read are from people learning it as a second language, so it is interesting to read about native speakers' attitudes towards their own language.

One of my time-consuming obligations will let up soon, and I hope to get back to finishing the migration and writing more articles! Maybe we can have 'Hot Linguistics Summer.' :)

- Karen

March 22, 2022

Happy 6th birthday, Ace Linguist!

Yes, Ace Linguist has been around for 6 years! I've never properly celebrated the website's birthday before, mostly because I'd never settled on a proper date, but I figured the anniversary of the first ever post was a good place to focus.

6 years ago, I was on the verge of graduating university and entirely unsure of I was going to do with my life. I still vaguely dreamt of going to grad school to study dialectology, but that wasn't guaranteed. Feeling the need to shore up my resume a little, I embarked on a project that I was sure wouldn't amount to much - a personal blog to write about linguistics.

When I first got into linguistics, I was inspired by the wide variety of blogs out there - places like Language Log, Language Hat, John Wells's phonetic blog, and All Things Linguistic, to name a few. Running a website was a dream I'd had since I was a little kid (and I'd tried to make it come true multiple times before), and combining it with language felt natural. Even though I was certain that blogs were on their way out in 2016, I started one anyway.

The blog had a rough start, with some unfocused articles about morphology in Zootopia and the semantics of 'beating a game.' But I realized pretty soon that I wanted to do something relating to an interest of mine - collecting the phonetic details of pop music.

Dialect Dissections were born at least partially out of a sense of frustration at how people talked about accents. We have the tools to talk about phonetic changes and hear examples easily: audio samples and the International Phonetic Alphabet. When people say things like "I think Taylor Swift used to have a Southern accent," why not try to figure out which Southern features she had? I took on the task, not sure if anyone else would be interested. I was pleasantly surprised at the possitive reception!

And so here we are today. My pace has slowed down since 2018 as my life has gotten much busier. My ambitions may outscale my schedule, but luckily I have time on my side. Here's to more years of Ace Linguist, and to more linguistics on the web!

- Karen

March 1, 2022

Hotel California's Mexican-Jamaican Accent

Album Cover for Hotel California

I was listening to "Hotel California" a while back and was suddenly struck by the impression that the singer, Don Henley, sounds vaguely Jamaican or Spanish. A search shows that I'm not the only one who got this impression (emphasis mine):

I'd also be curious to know what Mexican-Americans think of the title tune's Spanish accent. Robert Christgau
Just to acknowledge where this thread came from, there is a definitely reggae influence though I think it’s mixed with a generic south of the border vibe. Chickenfrank mentioned calypso, and I think there’s some Latino in there as well. Henley occasionally slips in a little pseudo Jamaican accent, doesn’t he? [...] Ugh, I think you’re right about that. Almost never a good practice. Take heed, tomorrow’s recording artists who are checking in on this thread! Rock Town Hall
Wtf is that accent that clown singing "Hotel California" has? The guy in the Police has it too. Sounds like they're making fun of Jamaicans. Twitter
Does Don Henley sound Jamaican in "Hotel California"? In the song "Hotel California" by The Eagles, Don Henley the lead singer, sings in some sort of accent. My family thinks he is singing perfectly normal. Does anyone agree he sings in some sort of accent? My parents think I'm crazy. Here's the song. Yahoo Answers

Okay, so I'm not the only one who got this impression, and the scale is tilted towards 'Jamaican' as opposed to 'Spanish.' Let's listen to the song and see if we can figure out what's causing this.


The use of [ɪ] (short 'i') and [i] (long 'ee') instead of [ə] ('uh') for 'the' is unusual in General American. Because 'the' is usually unstressed, it is pronounced with an 'uh' [ə] vowel. When 'the' is stressed, it is pronounced with an 'ee' vowel - but 'the' is rarely stressed. Henley goes for a pronunciation of 'the' that is higher and fronter in the mouth. How might this relate to a Jamaican impression? Jamaican patois has a wider variety of vowels available on non-stressed syllables (see also 'Accents of English 3' by Wells, 1982, pg 570-571). And Spanish has no vowel reduction, so an English L2 speaker may well use a full 'ee' [i] in words like 'the'.

  • "I had to stop for th[ɪ] night"
  • "So I call up th[ɪ] captain"
  • "Wake you in the middle of th[ɪ] night"
  • "I heard th[ɪ] mission bell"
  • "They livin' it up at th[i] hotel california"

The 'tance' in 'distance' is realized as a full [a], where normally it would be pronounced as [ə]. This is also a characteristic of Caribbean English (Wells 1982 pg 570), as well as a characteristic of Spanish ESOL.

  • "Up ahead in the dist[a]nce"

When he says the 'c' sound, he doesn't produce a strong puff of air - that is to say, it is weakly aspirated, or not aspirated at all. Spanish has no aspiration on these consonants.

  • "Then she lit up a c'andle

He breaks the vowel in 'ahead'. The [ea] sound in associated with Jamaican English, though it isn't used in words with the 'head' vowel, but with FACE words (Wells 1982 pg 576).

  • "Up ah[ea]d in the distance"

Impressionistically, the heavy use of triplets in the melody's rhythm makes it sound less 'General American'. This is total speculation, but perhaps it recalls the syllable-timed nature of Spanish.

  • "Then she lit up a candle"

American English has a tendency to make the 't's in words like "pretty" and "better" soft, a process called "t-flapping." Pronouncing these words with a harder "t" sounds unusual for General American. Twice, Henley avoids using T-flapping in this song, pronouncing 't's with an unaspirated [t] sound instead of a flap. This goes some way towards making the song sound more 'foreign', because flapping these words is almost a necessity for General American English.

  • "She got a lot of pre[t]y pre[t]y boys"
  • "Then she li[t] up a candle"
  • "Warm smell of coli[t]as"

His pronounciation of "show" is long on the [o] and not on the [w], which makes it sound closer to a monophthong, and therefore more Jamaican (Wells 1982 pg 571).

  • "And she sh[o]d me the way"

He pronounces the 'r' in 'corridor' as a flap, which is typical of Spanish ESOL speakers.

  • "There were voices down the co[ɾ]idor"

Is there any smoking gun for this accent sounding Spanish or Jamaican? I would say not. There are some features that could have been plucked from either Jamaican English or English as spoken by Spanish speakers. Moreover, these are instances of features: not every 'oh' is turned into a monophthong, and some 't's are flapped. Henley's "Hotel California" performance is a mosaic of pronunciation features, each one ringing differently to different listeners.

I would venture that whether you interpret his accent as being more 'Spanish' or 'Jamaican' has to do with the extent to which the music influences you. The song's working title was 'Mexican Reggae' and both influences are present: the reggae influence is more rhythmic (the 'chka-chka' guitar scratch in the background), the Mexican-Spanish influence in the instrumentation and chord progression. Speaker familiarity with either variety and the influence from the genre of the song may affect whether he sounds 'Jamaican' or 'Mexican' or, as some listeners said, neither!

This sort of mosaic of features is more common than you would think in pop music. Previous Dialect Dissections show that singers run the gamut from copying simple phonetic features to imitating entire accents. It's not always clear that a phonetic feature is inspired from one particular accent - when Don Henley sings "she got a lot of preTTy preTTy boys," was he subconsciously influenced by Spanish or Jamaican? Was it a conscious attempt to imitate either (or even both) accents? Or a stylistic choice based on maing the word 'pretty' sound a little harder than it would with a flap? We will probably never know what intentions singers had, but we can document where they choose to diverge from the accent they use when speaking, and we can document how people interpret those sounds.

Related Reading:

Now Here You Go Again: Stevie Nicks' Incomprehensible Singing: Another look at a classic rock song with unusual pronunciation.

Dialect Dissection: The Beatles and Regional Identity: The ur-rock group with the Liverpool accents - or wait, is that American? A look on why these two accents sound similar, and why it matters that the Beatles sound Scouse.

February 8, 2022

Pre-L Back Vowel Madness

Some American English sound changes are very well documented, such as the PIN-PEN merger or the COT-CAUGHT merger. Others, not so much. One example is back vowels before an /l/ sound. Back in 2006, Labov noticed four potential mergers happening in some North American English varieties:

  • /ʊl/ and /oʊl/ (BULL vs BOWL)
  • /ʌl/ and /ɔːl/ (HULL vs HALL)
  • /ʊl/ and /ʌl/ (BULL vs HULL)
  • /ʌl/ and /oʊl/ (HULL vs BOWL)

I have a small collection of examples for these, as well as other potential mergers and vowel shifts involving back vowels before /l/. Let's take a look!

HULL and DOLL (new) ✔️

This one was not mentioned by Labov, probably due to overlap with HULL vs HALL with the COT-CAUGHT merger applied. The /ʌl/ sequence is pronounced as [al].

  • "You're not getting any added b[ɑ]lk from your finish, in fact it's taking away balk" - Love To Sew at 15:10
  • "Blossom's behavior [ɑ]ltimately pushed them" - Sarah Z, Johnlock, 53:00

BULL and BOWL ✔️

Short u /ʊl/ is pronounced as [ol], so theoretically 'bowl' and 'pull' ended up rhyming.

HULL and BOWL ✔️

'Uh' /ʌl/ is pronounced as [ol], so 'hull' and 'bowl' rhyme. In my experience, this one is quite common among Americans and isn't restricted to a particular region.

  • "[O]ltron has been a long-time adversary of the Avengers" - Comic Drake

See also this previous post on the Colt-Cult Merger.

BULL and HULL ✔️

Short 'u' /ʊl/ is pronounced as [ʌl], so 'bull' and 'hull' rhyme.


Not mentioned by Labov. I've noticed a trend towards words with 'ol' in them being pronounced as [ol] instead of [ɑl]. Most examples I've found are of words with 'olve' in them (resolve, revolve) so it's possible this is just a reanalysis of 'olve'. I've also heard the variant 'psych[o]logy' and 'alcoh[o]l' (no audio clip). I haven't found anyone that turns all /al/ into [ol]. This means [o] may exist as an allophone of /ɑ/ before /l/ for some speakers with the COT-CAUGHT merger. This allophone may restore the CAUGHT vowel in some words (e.g. 'all' with [ol] is very common) while also innovating [ol] in places where it isn't found historically, like [olv].

  • "Try to focus on s[o]lving the problem" - Natalie Wynn
  • "Many of the criticisms rev[o]lved around..." - Sarah Z
  • "So central to the American psych[o]logy" - Not Just Bikes


Unsure in which direction these are merged: does /ʌl/ become [ol] or does [ol] become [ʌl]? It's also complicated because the COT-CAUGHT merger affects HALL words, and it's unclear if this merger is meant to apply to accents with a separate 'aw' /ɔ/ vowel or also ones with a COT-CAUGHT merger (in which case, see HULL-DOLL above).


Many of these speakers are Canadians (Love To Sew, Sarah Z, Linus from Tech Tips) which makes me wonder if these pronunciations are affected by the Canadian Vowel Shift. Sarah Z, for example, has HULL-DOLL and DOLL-BOWL - and I would not be surprisd if she also has HULL-BOWL and BULL-BOWL. I am also curious how many of these changes result in proper mergers - I did not look for comparative examples of 'BOWL' to see if there was a merger, for example.

If trends continue, then there may be a phonological movement towards simplifying the back vowel space before /l/. Many of these are moving towards [ol]. I'd love to know if there's a speaker out there who has a PULL, HULL, and DOLL all with the BOWL vowel.

Off-the-cuff speculation: I suspect some of this instability with /ol/ is caused by an incomplete COT-CAUGHT merger leaving some words with lexicalized pronunciations. In my area (South Florida), most people do not have the COT-CAUGHT merger but some people continue to use the [o] vowel in 'all', 'mall', and other high-frequency -all words (yes, mall is a high-frequency word here). These are reanalyzed as having the same vowel as BOWL (no surprise, as American /ɔ/ is usually realized as [o] with an offglide by people who distinguish it). There may be some reanalysis involved - the DOLL words that are being pronounced with [ol] are words that are also spelled with 'o'. I would be curious to see if COT-CAUGHT merged North Americans with the DOLL-BOWL merger actually extend it to words spelled with 'al', like 'halter'.

February 1, 2022

Cross-language wordplay and code-switching

I like listening to songs in languages other than English, and on occasion these songs will borrow words or even entire phrases from other languages. This type of code-switching can happen for many reasons, but usually it doesn't involve any sense of lyricality to it: you were in one language, and now you are in another. This isn't always the case, though. Some songwriters try to make a rhyme or a pun between two languages. Here are a couple of examples of cross-language wordplay.

"Baddest Girl In Town - Pitbull" (Spanish/English)

Baila, dejame ver como tu mueves la salla
Ella es candela, fuego, fire
Dance, let me see how you move your skirt, she's a flame, fire, "fire"

The reggaeton genre features a fair amount of code-switching between English and Spanish, since it's not uncommon for singers to be bilingual. Here Pitbull shows a rhyme between "salla" (skirt) and "fire", pronounced with a non-rhotic accent. [aja] is a common sound sequence in Spanish, and English words ending in -ire can be pronounced non-rhotically to sound close enough to rhyme. Another example of a song using this rhyme is "Summer's Not Hot" by Selena Gomez, which goes:

The temperature is 99 and it can't get much higher, so come on over Romeo, and vamos a la playa (let's go to the beach)

"Shape of You - Ndlovu Youth Choir" (Zulu/English)

Ngamshaya ngo 'hi' yena wangshaya nge 'smile'
(I said hi, and she hit me with a smile)

Translation via Lyrics

This song features a fair amount of borrowing from English, some of it being lyrics from the original English version and some being original. This line has a lot of assonance, and like the Pitbull example, relies on the [aja] sequence. I especially like the combo of 'hi yena', which seamlessly puts an English word into a Zulu construction to continue the assonance. 'Smile' is pronounced with the diphthong broken into two syllables, as in 'smi-yul'.

"I am the Best - 2NE1" (Korean/English)

Geondeurimyeon gamdang mothae I'm hot-hot-hot, hot fire
Dwijibeojigi jeone jebal nuga nal jom mallyeo
(If you touch me you won't be able to handle it, I'm hot, hot, hot, hot fire)
(Before I flip something over, Please, can someone stop me?)

Here we have another 'fire' example (no English word has contributed as much to songwriting as 'fire'), but the rhyme is more slant than straight. 'fire' is still pronounced nonrhotically as [faja] but it's being rhymed with 'mallyeo' [maljʌ]. It's not unusual for k-pop songs to prefer inexact rhymes over direct rhymes. We can see another example of this Korean-English loose rhyme in the following lyric, where 'yaegi' [jɛgi] is rhymed with 'baby' [beibi]:

Eotteon bigyodo nan geobuhae igeon gyeomsonhan yaegi
Gachireul nonhajamyeon naneun Billion dollar, baby
(I refuse to be compared, I'm telling you the truth)
(If we're talking about my value, I'm a billion dollar baby)

Translation via Genius

Moj kalashnikov - FACE (Russian/English)

Я не говорю про юмор, bitch, но мы shoot'им
Ya nye govoryu pro yumor bitch no my shutim
I'm not talking about humor, bitch, but we're joking/shooting

This one isn't a rhyme, but a pun. The Russian word for 'we're joking' is 'shutim', which sounds as if it had the English word 'shoot' in it. This leads to a pun on both the immediate theme of humor and the song title, 'my kalashnikov'.

"KAWAII - Tatarka" (Tatar/English)

Яңгыр ява, тама тамчы, Чылана минем Versace, She is cutie, she's almighty, You will never ever catcha
yaņgyr yava tama tamchy, chylana minem Versace, she is cutie, she's almighty, you will never ever catcha
It's raining cats and dogs, soaked my Versace, she is cutie, she's almighty, you will never ever catcha

Finally, a Tatar selection. Though 'Versace' is an Italian name, it's pronounced 'Versachy' as it usually is in English. The rhyme is for 'tamchy' [tamtʃɤ], Versace [versatʃi], and catcha (catch her) [katʃa].

Common themes in the English words being pronounced is a relatively simple consonant structure: 'fire' CVCV, 'baby' CVCV, 'shoot' CVC, 'catcha' CVCV. The most complicated words were 'smile', CCVCVC and and 'Versace', CVCCVCV. Not all languages allow for the types of consonants clusters English allows (e.g. 'strengths', 'strum', 'fixed'), so words with fewer consonant clusters are more likely to rhyme across languages.

Similarly, vowels were kept simple: [ai], [ei], [u]. Tatarka pronounced the /æ/ in 'Versace' and 'catcha' as [a], which made vowel repetition easier. English also has a high number of possible vowels, so it's not a surprise that words with the 5 cardinal vowels should be easier to rhyme and pun on cross-linguistically. I'd like to find examples of cross-language rhymes with rarer English words.

January 27, 2022

Ace Linguist Blog Migration

Due to some brouhaha with Google, I have decided to stop relying on Blogger as a platform. I've enjoyed using it so far, but using Google products will now become more complicated - not to mention that I'm much less interested in using Google products now, due to the aforementioned brouhaha.

I don't know how or when, but I will be migrating the blog to some different service. Whatever option I choose will continue to allow for anonymous comments. I will also attempt to migrate currently existing comments to the new site, preserving time, date, and author.

I still have the domain, so you'll still be able to visit at :)

I'll make sure to keep you all updated. New post coming next week!