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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.

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