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]).

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