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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?


  1. I've always wondered this about Florence's What Kind of Man. There's a really funky "kiss"/"years"/"this" rhyme scheme in there, and rather than changing "years" to something like "yis" (which should be easy, she has a non-rhotic English accent), she changes "kiss" and "this" to "keess" and "thees". It does feel easier to sing, but the odd rhyme ends up being distracting.

  2. My working hypothesis right now is that this is a stylistic choice made due to the relative sonority of the vowel in question [i], partly driven by the vowel space the singer(s) are utilising and partly driven by the melody of the song.

    I've taken the section you're dealing from Adele's Chasing Pavements (You've put Chasing Tables :-) ), and taken formant frequency readings here for "I know this is love"

    This chart crudely represents the vowel space graphically, where the top left is the same area as the top left of the IPA vowel chart.

    The red line for PRICE is the "I" vowel, showing the vowel space that the note oscillates between. I've given one of her FLEECE vowels for reference ("need" from earlier in the song". You can see she doesn't quite get to the FLEECE [i] vowel here, but it's certainty heading that way. Adele's PRICE vowels are often realised closer to monophthongs than diphthongs when she sings, so this definitely seems like a stylistic choice in this particular instance. Nevertheless, the vowel in "this" is moving towards the exact same position as PRICE.

    Next, I've taken a snapshot of Adele's pitch contour:

    The dark sections on the spectrograph while Adele is warbling on "I" show where she's moving between vowel sounds, exactly where the pitch changes. Now look at Adele's pitch contour over "this". It shifts from about 230 Hz to 385 Hz (I think this is Bb to Gb, which would make sense because the song is in Eb and ends on the tonic, I think, on "love"). Again, the dark section shows F2 (which corresponds with how fronted the vowel is the higher the frequency) moving in an arc along with the melody. Pretty striking.

    'Aesthetics' is indeed a fuzzy term, but I certainly think the principles of sonority apply here, and I don't think the feature is an indexical marker of any kind, i.e. I don't think it has social meaning.

  3. This may be influence or imitation of Southern American dialects, where the equivalent of /ɪ/ is [ɪ~ɪjə~iə]. See the Wikipedia page: