Morphology, Music, performance, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

“He said me haffi work, work, work…” – Rihanna’s multivocal identity

First off I’d like to whole-heartedly thank my dear colleagues Eva Hänsel and Michael Westphal for their support and effort. Both are experts on Caribbean English varieties and helped with this song’s analysis. The Guardian’s music editor, Harriet Gibsone, requested my view on Rihanna’s language use in her new single “Work” which led to this post. Read the full Guardian article here.

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Rihanna’s new single Work is a prime example of the prevalent heteroglossia in pop culture language. She makes use of various linguistic resources, i.e. different features from different varieties, to construct her multivocal identity (Blommaert 2010, Fabricius& Mortensen 2013). She combines Caribbean varieties, although mostly sticking to stereotypical Jamaican Creole features, with Standard American as a basis and possibly also a hint of African American English (AAE). Probably most noticeable in this song – and this is why it seems to stand out from the others at first sight or hearing – is her use of typical morphosyntactic Caribbean English features which include the use of:

  • haffi instead of the modal have to
  • the personal pronouns me [miː] and him [ɪm] in subject position
  • the negation marker nah
  • fi which in this one instance replaces the preposition to
  • a go as future marker: when you a go learn translates to ‘when are you going to learn’

We can also hear that she omits the third person singular –s in nobody touch me in the righteous and nobody text me in a crisis. This feature can be found in Caribbean varieties as well as in AAE. Due to her close connection to the American Hip-Hop and R’n’B scene, we could assume that she is also likely to incorporate respective AAE features, drawing from yet another linguistic resource which reflects part of her identity. However, she does not consistently use these features, but switches back and forth, e.g. personal pronouns are also used case sensitively: He said me haffi work or I hope that you see this through. Also, fi can have a number of functions but occurs only in one instance.

Rihanna’s accent reflects her multilingual pop identity as well. In fact, as with the morphosyntactic markers, she neither sticks to one particular accent (e.g. Bajan or American English) throughout the entire song, nor does she use any of them consistently (cf. Trudgill 1982). Except for maybe one: She makes steady use of rhoticity. Simply put, she pronounces /r/-sounds in non-prevocalic positions as in e.g. work, dirt, turned. Although this is probably one of the most salient Bajan Creole features, her singing style is also strongly influenced by Standard American English which is rhotic as well. This example shows that it is difficult to assign a specific feature to a particular accent or variety. In most cases one feature can be found in several varieties. In some instances she makes use of:

  • the word-initial h-deletion (as in hurt, haffi, hope), a predominantly Jamaican feature
  • the monophthongisation of the FACE-vowel, turning it into a long [eː] (three times in a row: patience, decoration, foundation) which can be heard throughout the Caribbean and certainly is a very stereotypical, recognisable feature
  • unreduced vowels in unstressed syllables so that the vowel sound in the final syllable as in patience, decoration, foundation turns into a comparatively strong [aː]
  • the insertion of a palatal glide between [k] and [a] as in cyar instead of care which is also a more or less Pan-Caribbean feature
  • th-stopping, pronouncing the <th> in the as [d]: I dealt with you the nicest can be heard in the Caribbean but is also found in AAE

Although she uses some of the most prominent Caribbean features in Work, they are not specifically or uniquely Bajan. Rihanna draws on various varieties and eclectically builds her own linguistic repertoire. Even though Work might evoke an increased “Caribbean-ness” since she uses salient morphosyntactic features, it is not Rihanna’s first linguistic display of her Afro-Caribbean roots. She undoubtedly introduced herself as a Caribbean artist with her debut single Pon de Replay. The title itself contains two “Caribbean English” features: the preposition pon for ‘on’ and th-stopping (de). The track Diamond repeatedly contains the Barbadian raised PRICE-vowel when she sings shine bright like a diamond. Moreover, in interviews we can sometimes hear the typical Bajan t-glottaling in word final position as well. That Rihanna draws on Caribbean features in her new single Work is presumably an active decision. Singing is language performance and such “high performances” (Coupland 2007) are planned and rehearsed communicative events that are produced explicitly for an audience. Whether she intends to actively do identity work by highlighting her ethnic background linguistically or uses Caribbean features as a stylistic device to simply create a diverse sound that suits the genre cannot be said for sure. But this song certainly reveals Rihanna’s multifaceted pop culture persona. Her linguistic repertoire is perhaps the most obvious means to catch a glimpse of her identity (Gibson&Bell 2011).

  • Blommaert, J. 2010. The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bell, A. & A. Gibson. 2011. Staging Language: An introduction to the sociolinguistics of performance. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15, 5: 555-572.
  • Coupland, N. 2007. Style: Language Variation and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Fabricius A. & J. Mortensen. 2013. Language ideology and the notion of construct resource: A case study of modern RP. In T. Kristiansen & S. Grondelaers (Eds.), Standard Language Ideology in Contemporary Europe (Series): Vol. 2. Language (de)standardisation in late modern Europe. Experimental studies (375–401). Oslo: Novus Press.
  • Trudgill, P. 1982. On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sources on Caribbean varieties:

  • Roberts, P.A. 2007. West Indians & Their Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

  • Schneider, E.W. (Ed.) 2008. Varieties of English: The Americas and the Caribbean. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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