Sunday, June 04, 2006

Trudgill on Pop Song Pronunciation

When I last wrote about pronunciation in pop music, Ben Zimmer directed me to Peter Trudgill's article on the subject. After months of not reading this article... well, I read it. It's very good. In fact, the book I found it in, his On Dialect, is very good, and surprisingly accessible for a layman like me, and it will surely be fodder for a number of posts.

Trudgill's thesis is twofold: first, that over the course of the sixties British groups went from emulating "American" pronunciation - not dropping post-vocalic /r/s, monophthongizing /aj/ to /a:/, frequently using /ae/- to not doing so. Secondly, he shows that the advent of punk brought an increase in markedly British, and particularly working-class Cockney, features.

In the broad outlines I agree with Trudgill. His data is pretty remarkable - he has a graph showing the Beatles' use of postvocalic /r/ steadily declining throughout their careers. Remember, though, that Americans themselves tend not to use postvocalic /r/ when they sing (outside of country music). My feeling is that the de-Americanization of British singing pronunciation in the sixties can be described as the emergence of a sort of trans-Atlantic standard singing pronunciation, or perhaps a growing awareness on the part of British singers that if they wanted to sing like Americans, then they shouldn't out-American Americans by using post-vocalic /r/s.

The main quibble I have with this article has to do with Trudgill's assertion (which figures throughout the book) that in an attempt to Americanize their pronunciation British singers hyper-corrected their rhotacization, inserting "intrusive" /r/s even where those with intrusive /r/s don't really have them. That this is the case is undoubtedly, umm... the case. But two of the three examples he provides are problematic. The first is the Beatles' version of the old chestnut "Till There Was You" on their second album, "With The Beatles" (1963). In their version, Paul McCartney sings "There were birds in the sky/ but I never sawr them winging." Trudgill thinks that this proves that McCartney wanted to sound American but misanalyzed when it is us crazy Americans have /r/s. I think that the underlying point is entirely plausible, but I'm sure in this instance that McCartney was just trying to be goofy and self-mocking so that no one could tease him for singing a moldy oldie like "Till There Was You."

Another example Trudgill provides is from the Kinks 1966 song "Sunny Afternoon," where Londoner Ray Davies sings "My girlfriend's run off with my car/ and gone back to her mar and par." Except he doesn't. I listened to the key moment repeatedly and heard neither "mar"(which would be a typical and authentic example of "intrusive" /r/) nor "par", which is par-ticularly striking because he does sing "car" with a pronounced /r/. Were he to sing "par," it would strike me as a clever and funny sort of stretch of a rhyme, not a misanalysis of American rhoticity.

Trudgill's third example, Cliff Richard's 1961 "Bachelor Boy," is a solid and incontrovertible example; "a bachelor" becomes something that is so rhotacized that to me sounds like "her bachelor" or "your bachelor." Haven't heard of Cliff Richard? I hadn't either, but then in one of those weird coincidences that either supports or disproves my belief in the fundamental absurdity of the universe, my favorite music journalist, Sasha Frere-Jones, mentioned him in an article in this week's New Yorker. In this article, an intriguing analysis of the role of British pop music in America, Frere-Jones claims that British musicians who get famous here tend to "lack identifiably English accents." This may be true, but the lack of accent is largely a symmetric one.

As for Cliff Richards, Frere-Jones calls him "England's answer to Elvis Presley." That I'd never heard of him underscores the surprising insularity of American pop music, which is sort of the point of his article. Frere-Jones has a fascinating, albeit perplexing blog that is definitely worth checking out.


Queenie said...

what i would like to do a study on is glides in country music. [nu] vs [nju] etc. most of the classic oldsters have glides. but i don't listen to new country so i don't know if the youngins do. maybe we could write a paper on this, ben...

V Smoothe said...

I don't really know anything about rhotic accents. I still find it interesting to read about, though.

I have a question, though. Does adding r's where they don't belong actually make you sound more American? I always thought that was a characteristic of British accents, although now that I think about it, my sole bit of evidence for this is the fact that a professor of mine used to tack an r onto the end of my name every time he said it (to my profound annoyance!). "Are you coming to your appointment today Eker?" "What do you think about that Eker?" Maybe it was just a weird tic of his.

Ben said...

Q/C - I think that's a bang-up idea; a nju study on glides is long overdju. Unfortunately I too only know old country; my friend V Smoothe, on the other hand, can lend one. A hand, that is. Because she knows nju country music.

V-S/E - I think I'll devote my next post to the very issues involved in putting in extra /r/s. Which professor are you referring to? The British MC Hammer fan? My guess is it was an attempt at humor, which, likemost of mine, ultimately failed. Anyways, can you tell us whether or not nju country (or perhaps noo country) music tends to have glides? Nu, Eker?

V Smoothe said...

Ben -

MC Hammer? I don't know. The thought of Nigel Nicholson jamming to U Can't Touch This makes me giggle. Anyway, whatever the deal was, he was super consistent with tacking r's onto my name. Dale used to find it hilarious.

As far as new country goes, I'd be happy to help, but you're going to have to explain glides to me a little more first (with some examples?). Wikipedia wasn't particularly helpful. I just so happen to be enjoying some hot country right now, so I'll try to listen for glides and report back.

Ben Zimmer said...

...McCartney was just trying to be goofy and self-mocking so that no one could tease him for singing a moldy oldie like "Till There Was You."

Keep in mind that "Till There Was You" was just one of a number of cabaret-style songs that Paul covered with the Beatles in the early days. "A Taste of Honey" was another one that got recorded in the studio, but there were various others Paul would sing in live performances, such as "Falling In Love Again", "September in the Rain", and "The Honeymoon Song". His rendition of "Till There Was You" was based on the version sung by Peggy Lee, who Paul was a big fan of.

In all of these schmaltzy tunes (which can be heard on "Anthology", "Live at the BBC", and various bootlegs), Paul's pronunciation is very rhotic indeed. (Compare his non-rhotic delivery in the Beatles' early "rockers" like "I Saw Her Standing There": "One, two, three, FOH!") So I think Paul definitely adapted his rhoticity according to the genre.

Whether his hyper-rhotic "sawr them" in "Till There Was You" was self-mocking or earnest, I'm still not sure. But it's interesting to note that he didn't always sing it that way. If you listen to the version on "Live at the BBC", you'll find there's no intrusive /r/. So I think when he was in the studio to record "With The Beatles" he just felt the urge to ham it up a bit more.

Ben said...

V - a) Yes, Nigel is an MC Hammer fan. Or at least he had MC Hammer in his CD collection, for which we teased him cruelly. b) as for glides, or rather their absence, Wikipedia has a mediocre description of it, referring to it as yod-dropping

B - Great points all. And isn't it interesting that it's the schmaltzy songs where Paul is rhotic, as opposed to the R&B covers. I'm going to check out the Peggy Lee recordings and see if they aren't in fact the inspirations for Paul's increased rhoticity.

Interesting too that along with the overall trend towards non-rhoticity is a trend wherein Paul's schmaltz-outlet switches from Broadway/cabaret songs to Music Hall-style songs.

I think your "hamming it up in the studio" explanation is spot-on, and the contrasting "Live at the BBC" version basically proves it, as far I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Ben. I do disagree on the Kinks example though. Since 1966 I have always heard "par" in that song- noticed it from the first. "Mar" is a bit less certain. Of course attributing motivation to pop song anomalies is problematic- who knows what the singer had in mind, as in the McCartney example. Lennon, in "What's the New Mary Jane" goes out of his way to Americanise the R in 'party'. Who can say why?

Anonymous said...

Also on that McCartney/Wilson song, note that he also is particular to pronounce the T in "never saw them at all" where the US would say "a-dall"

philbury said...

Cliff Richard was the attempt of the music biz in London to cash in on the success of Elvis Presley. A whole raft of youngsters with names like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Rory Storm were quickly created to order. Cliff turned out to have real staying power, though he never made much of a showing in the US charts. He can still fill the Albert Hall with 60 year old grannies who really should have moved on(he has spookily youthful looks).

In France they have Johnny Hallyday who performed the same function for that country. Incredibly he is still voted the most popular man in France (he looks like a health warning for fake tan). The French couldn't really move on as they never got there in the first place.

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