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December 26, 2023

December Update

It's been a slow year for the blog - between health problems, financial difficulties, and outside responsibilities, there simply hasn't been much time or energy to devote to it. But I want to keep readers informed of any progress I make monthly, since I am still working on a rather large project behind the scenes. The project involves a big linguistic analysis over a period of nearly 30 years! I'm about 62% of the way through the material. I've had to develop some new tools to work on this, which I also look forward to sharing with everyone. Once they're done, I hope they'll make it easier for future projects of this scale.

I always tell myself after I finish a huge project like this that I need to shift gears and focus on something smaller, but the truth is that putting out content monthly, even small articles, is kind of difficult for me at this point in my life. I intend to keep putting out monthly posts with updates on what I'm working on. But I want to be honest with readers too about what I can and can't do.

Wishing you a happy December! - Karen

November 2, 2023

Ace Linguist Podcast Appearance - "In a Manner of Speaking"

Hello everyone! I made a guest appearance on Paul Meier's "In a Manner of Speaking" podcast, on the topic of Colonial American English. It was great fun working with Paul and I really encourage you to check it out!

Please also look into his other podcast episodes - I really enjoyed this one he did with David Crystal.

October 31, 2023

"Because tired" - a short history of 'because X' constructions

Several years ago, the construction ‘because [noun]’ became a meme on the internet. We started seeing sentences like "I can't go to a party because tired" and "I want this because reasons." The American Dialect Society even declared “because” their 2013 word of the year:

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” [Ben] Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”

Giving ‘because’ the word of the year status spurred a great deal of thought about what ‘because’ is doing in constructions like “I can’t go to a party because tired” or “I want this because reasons.” Ben Zimmer, writing for Language Log this time, gave a run down of various grammatical interpretations of this new because. Here’s a short collection of posts on this use of "because":


Neal Whitman

Sentence First

Geoffrey Pullum

Where does it come from?

How old is this usage? One of the earlier examples of it is in the ‘because racecar’ meme from It comes from a craigslist posting for a Mazda MX-3, written in terse, short language. “1992 Mazda MX3 GS for sale. Does not run, needs motor. Completely stripped inside because race car.” This style is similar to that used in newspaper headlines.

There is a fair amount of speculation as to where this usage comes from. Neal Whitman traces it to humorous usages like “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, because hey, free lemons.” The ‘hey’ here lets you introduce clauses if you like: “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, because hey, free lemons are delicious.”

Whitman finds a relatively early example of ‘because NOUN’ from 2008:

“[M]arket capitalism leads to political liberalism because… well, because FREEDOM, that’s why!”

Ben Zimmer compares the ‘because [noun]’ constructions to humorous uses like the following:

Leslie: What the hell are you doing out here?
Ben: Sorry, babe, I am off City Hall property. You have to stop. Firewall.
Leslie: Wrong. All roads and bridges fall under the purview of the Pawnee Department of Transportation, which is located on the fourth floor of City Hall. Firewall down. Stay frosty, Wyatt. We're just getting started.
Ben: OK, well, that's interesting. You know why?
Leslie: Why?
Ben: Because… (runs away)

Similar examples date to 1871. Courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary:

1.b. 1871–
Used elliptically in answer to a question, implying that a fuller reply is being withheld for some reason.
The little fishes of the sea, They sent an answer back to me. The little fishes' answer was ‘We cannot do it, Sir, because—’.
‘L. Carroll’, Through Looking-glass vi. 132

‘Why didn't you leave the bottle?’ ‘Because!’ I said shortly. I wasn't going to explain my feelings on the matter.
‘M. Carroll’, Dead Trouble x. 175Citation details for ‘M. Carroll’, Dead Trouble

Gretchen McCulloch argues instead that the following 2011 comic was influential in spreading the ‘because’ construction, and argues for a shortening process:

I want this because of reasons
Because of reasons
because reasons

I don’t believe that there is just one process that created ‘because NOUN’. The construction appears to have independently been created multiple times. The ‘of’ in “because of [NOUN]” does not carry any semantic meaning, so it’s easy to remove it and preserve the meaning. Similarly, imagine a full version of the racecar meme: “[It is] complete stripped inside because [it is a] racecar.” Removing both ‘it is’ does not affect the meaning.

‘Because More Expeditious’ - An Older Use of “Because X”

I have found a dramatically earlier usage of ‘because [adjective]’ than is commonly reported, and which I have not (yet) seen cited as a possible model for the ‘because [noun]’. This is an academic or highly literate usage of ‘because [adjective].’

“but 'tis more probable the latter, because more expeditious.” - 1713. INCOGNITA: OR, LOVE and DUTY RECONCIL’D
“Meanwhile the master saw no danger which would result from this preaching, unless he might foresee that eventually he should find the relation so responsible, and the character of the servant so well fitted for it as to render emancipation expedient, and a duty because expedient.” - 1831. Relation of Master and Servant, as exhibited in the New Testament, by S. Taylor
“As justifiable, the legal right, is such, as the thing, the most immediate and necessary, to do; and as the only thing feasible, or suitable, under the state of circumstances; but, when the exigence of occasion had passed away, and a normal condition of society had obtained, that which had been made right, as legal, and because expedient*, has now to be unmade, *because inexpedient.” - 1869. Of the commonwealth; its freehold and its freedom, by a county and borough elector
“So now he can know God more than he knows his brother: clearly known more, because more present*; known more, *because more within him*; known more, *because more certain.” - 1905. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church
“Metallic cabinet work is superior to wood:
1. Because more durable, being stronger in construction and unaffected by climate or changes of seasons.
2. Because more sanitary, being impervious to microbes and vermin and more readily kept clean.
3. Because more convenient, having no parts to get out of order, shrink, or swell.
4. Because more agreeable in use, all parts being always usable and made with smooth, rounded surfaces and with suitable working tops.
5. Because more attractive, being more substantial in appearance and also artistically finished with surfaces subject to no deterioration.
6. Because more economical ultimately, with first costs little greater than wood. 7. Because entirely incombustible.” - 1902 Metallic Filing Devices, Fixtures and Furniture for Public Buildings and General File Rooms
“By the end of the 1860s these changes became more visible, because more formal and official.” - 1999. Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day
“The limpness of a warm presents a bit of an obstacle to the critic's Freudian interpretation, but he readily overcomes it by citing the secondary medieval meaning of “gusano”: the more appropriate, because vertebrate, “víbora” (“viper”).” - 2001. Recovering Spain's feminist tradition

These examples show that ‘because more [adjective]” and “because [adjective]” existed in a variety of styles from the 1710s to the modern day. Religious commentary, industry publications, academic books, and even popular books. (I can report that one of these ‘because’ constructions appears in ‘Class: A guide to the American status system’, but I did not write the page it happened on. Bad habit!)

Where did this use of ‘because’ come from? It is hard to say. I can’t find a quotation of it in the Oxford English dictionary. It’s used throughout the 1700s and 1800s, but always dwarfed by other uses of ‘because.’

Indeed, this obscurity is so that some commenters on the English Language Learner Stack Exchange found it ungrammatical. The accepted answer incorrectly attributes the use of ‘because adjective’ to the recent slangy use. (The answer by sumelic is more correct.) None of the articles on ‘because [noun]’ I’ve read so far mention this older usage of ‘because [more] [adjective]’.

As idle speculation, I mention that French has a similar construction where the word 'car' (because) takes a direct object.

"C'est un chemin nefaste car passif, aliene, perdu" - Simone de Beauvoir, the Second Sex
"It is a nefarious path because passive, alien, lost"

Could this "because [adjective]" usage have been influential on the "because [noun]" construction and its variations? Possibly - it’s not as if there aren’t highly literate people on the internet who enjoy reading older texts. But I doubt it is a direct inheritance. For one, I could not find examples of ‘because [noun]’ in any older texts, only ‘because [adjective]’.

I would instead say that this usage shows that for a long time, we have had both the constructions ‘because it is [more] [adjective]’ coexisting with ‘because [more] [adjective]’. Eliding the words between ‘because’ and the adjective hasn’t affected our ability to understand the phrase. Since the ‘of’ in “because of reasons” is hardly contributing to meaning, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that “because [noun]” came around. The memeification of it from 2011-2013 just propelled it from a fringe or individual usage to part of a meme-y, informal style. Perhaps the emergence of this construction was just a matter of time, because history.

September 30, 2023

August 31, 2023

From Stop to Flap and back to Stop

Have you noticed that Americans pronounce words like 'kitty' and 'kiddy' the same? The 't' and 'd' both become a lighter sound - they become a flap. This is called 't-flapping', and it happens when [t] and [d] are between vowels and at the end of a stressed syllable.

There's also th-stopping - this is when 'th' [θ] and voiced 'th' [ð] become harder sounds. Voiceless 'th' [θ] becomes a [t] and voiced 'th' [ð] becomes [d]. These sounds are still different from the normal 't' and 'd' founds in words like 'darn' and 'take' because these new sounds are dentals, made with the tongue hitting the back of the teeth and not the alveolar ridge.

Examples would be 'without' becoming 'wi[t̪]out' and 'there' becoming '[d̪]ere'.

Here's the fun part: when dental fricatives get t-stopped, they can even be flapped again. Here's an example from song:

  • "You wi[ɾ]out me ain't right" - break up with your girlfriend, Ariana Grande
  • This can happen across morpheme boundaries:

  • "Dreads to the top, gold in my mouth, woah[ɾ]ere" - Wish, Denzel curry
  • "G-g-get wi[ɾ]it" - Get Wit' It, Vanilla Ice
  • This particularly form of stopping is common in African American Vernacular English (which Denzel Curry speaks and which Ariana Grande and Vanilla Ice are trying to imitate).

    In sung speech, I've even heard the flap fortitioned to [d]. This restores the [d] sound in a word like "pedal" (a Duke of York maneuver), but replaces "t" with "d" in words like "metal."

  • "This shi[d] always happen to me" - break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored , Ariana Grande
  • "pedal to the medal (metal)" - Gold Trans Am, Kesha
  • Just for fun, what if we combined all these processes... could we turn a voiceless th into a d?

    Here are the rules in a VCV environment:

    [θ] can become [t]

    [t] becomes [ɾ]

    [ɾ] can become [d]

    One word that meets these constraints is 'toothache'.

    So if we wanted to turn th into d, we'd need this sequence:

    0. th.

    We're starting with a 'th sound surrounded by two vowels.


    1. [θ] becomes [t]

    This t is usually a dental t and unaspirated, so it isn't the same as the alveolar aspirated [t] that is normally used. This should prevent mergers.

    toothache -> too[t]ache 2. [t] becomes [ɾ]

    This might be difficult if the t is dental - a dental flap doesn't sound all that easy to me. Perhaps the [t] can drift back towards the alveolar ridge, and make itself susceptible to tapping.

    too[t]ache -> too[ɾ]ache

    3. [r] becomes [d]

    Another difficult one, since I've only encountered this in sung speech, but if you were to humor me:

    too[ɾ]ache -> too[d]ache

    So in an alternate universe, or a dialect-to-be, could you end up with 'toodache'?

    July 24, 2023

    Blog Update

    Moving to a new place this month, so no post for July. Alas, all my linguistics books are in the new place. Pray I can get settled in quickly so I can work on finishing this huge project in front of me!

    June 30, 2023

    English Errors of Metal

    Although Europeans dominate metal music, the lingua franca of the genre is still English. And not only is it English, but many subgenres of metal rely on specific vocabulary (fantastical and Tolkien-esque, or macabre and deathly). This leads to a lot of interesting little quirks of pronunciation and grammar. I've already documented some examples in the non-metal pop band, ABBA. I don't want to make fun of these singers or lyricists, as writing songs in a different language is difficult, and these mistakes are harmless - I just find them interesting and want to share. Here are some I've noticed from a handful of bands:

    Nightwish, a symphonic metal band from Finland: their earliest records, understandably, had more L2 errors than later ones.

  • "And the [p]ath under my bare feet... the [e]lven [p]ath" - Pronouncing the 'p' sound without aspiration makes it sound like the "elven bath." Finnish does not have aspirated consonants, so it sounds like singer Tarja is transerring Finnish rules to English.
  • "Songs as a SED-uction of sirens" - Writer Tuomas appear to have thought that 'seduction' has the stress on the first syllable, and Tarja sings it with an unexpected 'eh' vowel.
  • "The unc[e]rven path" - A spelling pronunciation from Tarja, perhaps by analogy with words like 'care' [ker].
  • "It's the honest of his words, ruled by magic and mighty s[we]rds" - Tuomas thought that 'words' and 'swords' rhyme, but they do not in modern English. Tarja also pronounces the 'w' in 'sword.' Journalist Robert Menner claims Americans still pronounced 'sword' with a 'w' sound in the first half of the 1800s, so Tarja may have fit in a little better then. The vowel still would have been [o], not [e].
  • "The moonwitch took me TO a ride on a broomstick" - The expression in English is either "took me on a ride" or "took me for a ride." There is no expression "take to a ride."
  • "You stand a[k]used of robbery" - A lack of aspiration and no 'y' sound here (a spelling pronunciation?) makes this sound like "You stand a goose of robbery."
  • Burning Witches, a power metal band from Switzerland:

  • "Just stories on tape-stries" - a spelling pronunciation dividing 'tapestry' up not as 'ta - pes - try' but as 'tape - stry.'
  • Sonata Arctica, a power metal band from Finland, has relatively good pronunciation, but the writer struggles with stylistically appropriate English.

  • "Find a barn which to sleep in, but can he hide anymore?" - The use of 'anymore' without a negative sounds odd to me, especially in a question, but some people do use the word like this. If you're a 'positive anymore' user, does this sound grammatical to you? The 'barn which to sleep in' is clumsy. Stylistically you would prefer either 'Find a barn to sleep in' (no linking word necessary).
  • "Knock on the door and scream that is soon ending" - lack of article on both 'knock' and 'scream'.
  • Share your favorite moments of L2 errors in metal or other genres in the comments!

    May 15, 2023

    Blog Update

    No post this month; it's been overwhelmingly busy in my personal life. I'm working on a relatively large project documenting three decades of sound change, and I've had a lot less time to devote to it recently. Some of this work has been listening to a lot of audio, and some has been programming tools to minimize the amount of work I need to do by hand. I hope to be able to release both the research itself and the tools.

    Have a nice May! I hope to see you all in June. - Karen

    April 10, 2023

    Solenoid, silenoid, or cellunoid?

    I come today with more questions than answers. The English language, it turns out, can support a wide variety of localized pronunciations for the same word, with little clear root as to where they come from and where they go. Today we'll be looking at a car part, the 'solenoid.' A solenoid is a "coil of insulated wire carrying an electrical current and having magnetic properties", which entered the English language in 1827 from French solénoïde (via etymonline). The standard pronunciation is /sɒlənoɪd/, 'soll-uh-noid', but I've found at least two alternative pronunciations.

    Passing a current through the solenoid coil creates an electromagnetic field. Image via IQSDirectory.
    An example of a red solenoid coil. Image via iFixit.

    In the Beach Boys Song "Cherry Cherry Coupe" (1963), Mike Love sings about a car with doors that open with the 'cellunoid' [sɛljʊnoɪd] system. You may wonder how we know that this is supposed to be the same word as 'solenoid', beyond the general consonant contours being the same, and the clue is in the car door description - solenoids were used in technology that made doors 'pop' open without the need for car handles.

    Door handles are off but you know I'll never miss 'em
    They open when i want with the cellunoid system

    We find an early reference to this in Volume 80 of "American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist" (1959). The same device is also advertised in Volume 57 of Playthings, with the same verbiage.

    Volumes 31-32 of Gas Appliance Merchandising (1959) mention 'cellunoid valves' as self-evidently recognized car parts.

    By the 1980s, the term appears to be falling out of favor. Some of the last references I can find to it are in "Adapting Work Sites for People with Disabilities" (1983).

    This 1985 reference seems to be a metaphorical use by a psychotherapy patient (Understanding Human Behavior in Health and Illness.

    And this 1998 hit is firmly in the world of literature (Five Fingers Review).

    And so it seems that the cellunoid pronunciation and spelling has died out, having seen its peak in the late 50s and early 60s, and descending into obscurity by the 80s and 90s. It's not clear where this alternative pronunciation and spelling came from. It smells of being a trademark to me, but a search through the United States Patent and Trademark Office site didn't turn up any hits in patents or trademark registrations. In fact, trying to do so redirects me to patents and trademarks featuring the word celluloid instead.

    Having hit the end of one mystery of history, let's start another. This is the pronunciation "silenoid" [sɪlənoɪd]. At first glance, it looks like a descendant of 'cellunoid'. The y-sound [j] in 'lyu' appears to have been dropped, meaning that the sound change called "yod-dropping" happened. It also looks like the 'eh' [ɛ] sound was raised to short 'ih' [ɪ]. I don't know if there's any sort of documented FELL-FILL merger, but English vowels tend to merge and change before L, as I've written in Pre-L Back Vowel Madness.

    Unexpectedly, we have an early citation for 'silenoid' than we do for "cellunoid". The Journal of General Psychology Volumes 35-36 (1946) mentions the 'silenoid'.

    Further research on "silenoid" is unfortunately complicated by the fact that "silenoid" is also used to refer to flowering plants from the "Silene" genus. This tantalizingly early example of "silenoid" (1915!) is in fact a reference to carnations (Contributions by the New York Botanical Garden).

    While I couldn't find any later recordings of someone using 'cellunoid', I was able to find this pronunciations of "silenoid", thanks to the folks at the Smiley Smile forums: "I did check to see if the silenoids were working."

    And a more modern example from Donut Media, with "fuel silenoid and NOS silenoid".

    March 6, 2023

    Please Mr. Postman, a Sociolinguistic Capsule

    One of the more noticeable trends of pop music of the 60s and 70s was the popularity of covers, singing someone else's song. This practice has decreased in modern-day pop music for various reasons: the expectation that artists be 'authentic' and write their own music, as well as the loss of songwriting royalties for covering someone else's song are likely the two biggest contributors. So these covers from the mid-century represent a good opportunity to compare a sociolinguistic variable among different artists and see how they pronounce it.

    The song I had in mind was Mr. Postman. It was first performed by the Motown girl group, the Marvelettes, in 1961. It was then covered by the English rock band, the Beatles, in 1963. It then got its third major cover more than a decade later by soft rock group Carpenters, in 1975. This makes it a fun look at how different groups interpret the same song.

    The sound I wanted to investigate was the 'ay' sound, as in 'time' and 'I': /aɪ/. This sound is pronounced [aɪ] by white Americans and English people, but it was pronounced [aɛ] and [a] by Black Americans. White American southerners may also say [a]. These versions of /aɪ/ are called 'monophthongal'. This vowel sound was heavily copied by white English singers who desired the black sound found on Motown and blues records. On the other hand, it was used less by groups that wanted to sound 'mainstream' and 'whiter.' As such, it indexes 'blackness' in music. (You may ask why it does not index Southern-ness, but that is a topic for another article.)

    We're going to look at how these three groups pronounce the /aɪ/ sound in this sound.

    The Marvelettes

    This all-black group from Michigan is the originator of the song, and therefore likely to have a lot of monophthongal 'ah's on there. Here is the tally:

    aɪ = blue aɛ = pink a = yellow
    lyric pronunciations
    'Cause it's been a mighty long time (Whoa, yeah) [aɛ] [a]
    Since I heard from this boyfriend of mine [a] [aɛ]
    From my boyfriend who's so far away [aɪ]
    I've been standing here waiting, Mr. Postman (Wait, wait for you) [a]
    'Cause it's been a mighty long time (Whoa, yeah) [aɪ] [aɪ]
    Since I heard from this boyfriend of mine [a] [a]
    So many days, you've passed me by [aɪ]
    You saw the tears standing in my eye [a] [aɪ]
    By leaving me a card or a letter [a]
    Yeah, since I heard from this boyfriend of mine [a] [aɛ]
    Please check and see just one more time for me [a]
    Don’t pass me by, you see the tears in my eyes [a], [a], [aɪ]
    Absolute frequency Relative frequency
    Total tokens: 20 100%
    Total unambiguous [a]: 11 55%
    Total monophthongized [aɛ]: 3 15%
    Total [aɪ]: 6 30%

    Though the singers in the group natively speak African American Vernacular English, you will notice they don't use the most monophthongal [a] all the time. This is to be expected, as the shape of the vowel is influenced by the consonants that come after it. They also use a more diphthongal 'ai' several times, especially in the word 'eye'. The diphthongal variants of /ai/ appear around 70% of the time.

    The Beatles

    lyric pronunciations
    I been waiting a long long time [a] [a]
    Since I heard from that girl of mine [a] [a]
    From my girlfriend so far away [a]
    I been standing here waiting Mister postman [a]
    I been waiting a long long time [a] [a]
    Since I heard from that girl of mine [a] [a]
    So many days you passed me by [a]
    See the tear standing in my eye [a] [aɪ]
    By leaving me a card or a letter [a]
    I been waiting a long long time [a] [a]
    Since I heard from that girlfriend of mine [a] [a]
    You gotta check it and see one more time for me [a]
    Absolute frequency Relative frequency
    Tokens: 17 100%
    Monophthongal a: 16 94%
    Diphthongal a: 1 6%

    This one is stunning. Though the Beatles is a band of all white members from Liverpool, they have a higher rate of monophthongal /ai/ than the Marvelettes do! Additionally, they only use the pure monophthong [a] and the not the [aɛ] variant. [aɪ] is only used clearly in 'eye'.


    Why’s it taking such a long time (Whoa, yeah) [a] [aɪ]
    For me to hear from that boy of mine? [aɛ]
    From my boyfriend so far away [aɪ]
    I've been standing here waiting, Mr. Postman [a]
    Why’s it taking such a long time (Whoa, yeah) [aɪ] [aɪ]
    For me to hear from that boy of mine [aɪ]
    So many days, you've passed me by [a]
    You saw the tears standing in my eyes [aɪ] [aɪ]
    By leaving me a card or a letter [a]
    Why’s it taking such a long time? [aɪ] [aɪ]
    Why don’t you check it and see one more time for me? [aɛ] [a]
    Absolute frequency Relative frequency
    Tokens: 16 100%
    Monophthongal [a]: 5 31%
    [aɪ]: 9 56%
    [aɛ]: 2 13%

    Soft rock band Carpenters is associated with middle-of-the-road music, stereotypically for older generations (in their time, for the Silent and Greatest generation). They use a much higher number of [aɪ] than the Beatles or Marvelettes do. Nevertheless, they do use a fair amount of monophthongal sounds as well, 31%. They prefer to use the sound on quick and unstressed beats, but it does get the spotlight on some longer notes: 'passed me ba-a-a-a'.


    Perhaps the most astounding finding is that the Beatles used the [a] sound more than the Marvelettes. In Trudgill's study on the sociolinguistics of English rock bands, he found that they often did not mimick native patterns of (Black) American, which suggested that the singers were not sure of how to accurately copy them. It seems the Beatles picked up on the fact that the Marvelettes and other Black singers pronounced /aɪ/ more diphthongally, but they did not realize that they did not always pronounce it like that. Instead of going for the more middle-ground [aɛ] version, they sang the most distinct one with [a]. This could show a failure to imitate correctly, but it could also show a desire to show off the sound that was most 'different' from their own Liverpool English.

    Another interesting finding is that the Carpenters used the [a] variant a third of the time. The Carpenters were recognized (and derided) as being music for old people afraid of new forms like rock and funk, so their consistent usage of [a] shows that by 1975, using it some of the time was considered unremarkable. The lead singer, Karen, gives it special attention on longer notes like 'one more time for me' and 'passed me by', suggesting it serves as sort of 'accent vowel' for specially marked passages.

    The Marvelettes' own pronunciation shows the most varied approach, which is to be expected from native speakers. Having a closed syllable is the biggest trigger for a more diphthongal vowel ('time', 'eyes', 'mine'). As in the other variants, having a long note is also more likely to have the monophthongal variant.

    I suspect that the Carpenters may not have heard the original version by the Marvelettes. For one, they copy some lyrical changes made by the Beatles: ('mighty long time' -> 'long long time' -> 'such a long time'), as well as excluding the 'pass me by, you saw the tears in my eye' lyric. Finding old records would have been much harder in the 1960s and 70s than it is today - old records were not always re-released and easily available. If this is true, then the Carpenter's version is based on imitating the Beatles imitating the Marvelettes. This is deliciously close to showing a certain pattern in American music: Black Americans create a new musical genre -> white English people or white Americans imitate it and exaggerate it -> white Americans tone down the 'blackness' to make it friendlier for musically conservative audiences. This also suggests that Karen Carpenter's decision to sing [a] in 'time' and 'by' was not influenced by Gladys Horton's original version, but both felt it more musically appropriate to use [a] in high-emphasis beats.

    This is just a selection of three songs, and hardly representative of the variety that existed during the 60s and 70s, but they do happen to show a clear sociolinguistic pattern. I wonder what other songs we could find that exhibit interesting linguistic differences between covers, and whether they also share this pattern (white groups imitating black groups use [a] flatly, or increase usage of [aɪ]).

    February 28, 2023

    Why Can't 'a Wife' Walk Down the Street?

    Ever since the sentence 'a girlfriend was walking down the street' appeared to me unbidden in a hazy late-night half-sleep, I've been trying to understand what makes certain relationship words sound so weird as the subject of a sentence. Consider:

    • 1a."I saw a boyfriend enter the store."

    • 1b. "A wife selected zucchini from the produce section."

    • 1c. "The dog chased a husband down the street."

    My immediate thought is that these relationship words, girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband, need a pair to make sense. The sentences are immediately made more acceptable by adding on another member:

    • 2a. "I saw two boyfriends enter the store."

    • 2b. "A wife selected zucchini from the produce section and handed it to her husband."

    • 2c. "The dog chased a husband and wife down the street."

    Compare also the words 'mother' and 'father'. Both of these need another member to make sense ('child'), but it is actually quite acceptable to use them by themselves, in the indefinite.

    • 3a."I saw a lonely dad at the playground."

    • 3b. "A mother was excitedly waiting in line for coffee."

    Hmm, what if we compare with another relationship word, 'friend'?

    • 4a. "A friend entered the store."

    • 4b. "I saw a friend select zucchini from the produce section."

    The effect is interesting - I read these sentences differently from the ones above. The implication is very strong that this is my friend, not somebody who is a friend to someone else and not me. Meanwhile, sentence sets 1 and 2 don't have the implication that the boyfriend, wife, or husband have any relation to me at all. While the feeling is uncanny, you do get the intended meaning, which is "somebody who is male who is in a committed relationship entered the store." If you try to force the same distant reading on the 'friend' sentences, you get the same quirky feeling.

    I suspect part of it is custom - we almost never have need to refer to someone's paired-off status without mentioning the pair. On the other hand, people talk about the behavior of mothers and fathers separate from their children often. And to refer to a stranger as a friend of some unmentioned other person, but not you, is something we almost never need to do. Don't we assume, rightly or wrongly, that everyone is a friend of someone else?

    This obviousness comes into play with 'daughter' and 'son':

    • 5a. "A daughter came into my store."

    • 5b. "A son selected zucchini from the produce seciton."

    Everyone is someone's child, so this construction that foregrounds someone's status as a son or daughter is simply unneeded.

    January 23, 2023

    The Carpenters Take On Californian Accents

    The "Oldie but goodie" soft rock/pop/middle-of-the-road band "Carpenters" seems to have been tinged by nostalgia since it began. Active from 1969 to 1983, the band was fronted by Karen Carpenter, a singer with a contralto voice as well as an underutilized drumming talent. Her brother, Richard Carpenter, was also in the band, and provided harmonies and occasional lead.

    The siblings were late baby boomers, with Karen born in 1950 and Richard in 1946. They were born in Connecticut but grew up in Los Angeles, California. Despite this, they provide a comical attempt at imitating a Californian accent. When covering the song "Fun Fun Fun", they decided to pay homage to the original band (The Beach Boys) and their Californian roots by imitating some kind of 'surfer' accent. Richard takes lead on this song and gives us these deviations from his typical accent:

  • æ-tensing, where the sound 'an' and 'am' become diphtongs. Richard tries an exaggerated version: "Well she got her daddys car and she flew to the hamburger st[ɪa]nd now"
  • Just a line later, he forgets his commitment to the accent and uses a pure æ instead:

  • "Seems she forgot all about the library like she told her old m[æ]n now"
  • But he remembers by the next line that he's playing a character:

  • "Goes cruising just as fast as she [kɪan] now"
  • The song is abridged, so we cut to the final verse, where he shows us one more trick - u-fronting, or at least his attempt at it.

  • "We got a lot of things to d[ɪu] now"
  • There is, otherwise, not much to say about the Carpenters. Karen preserves the COT-CAUGHT distinction. This may be something she preserved from her New England uprising, as elder baby boomer Brian Wilson (of Beach Boys fame), who was born and raised in California, already has the merger.

  • "Can't laugh and I can't w[o]lk, finding it hard even to t[o]lk"
  • She also distinguishes between 'w' and 'whine' - the WINE-WHINE distinction - on Desperado:

  • "[h]wy don't you come to your senses"
  • This is an affectation, as she doesn't keep this consistently.

  • "You must know [w]at I'm going through"
  • Otherwise, there is little of sociolinguistic interest on the Carpenters' songs. They, especially Karen, stuck to the conventions of beautiful singing for their time. Noticeably, despite dipping their toes into rock, Karen doesn't affect a Black American accent to the extent most rock groups did. An example of that will be covered in a future post.