Globalisation, Jamaican Creole, Language Attitudes, Music, Perception, performance, Reggae, singing, Sociolinguistics

Caribbean Queens? Rihanna and Minaj: A Comparison


We, my colleague Michael Westphal and I, have already worked together on examining Rihanna’s multivocal pop performances. In the course of our research, we got more and more interested in the audience’s reactions towards such performances. We also broadened our perspective in taking another pop persona with Caribbean roots into account: Nicki Minaj. How do these two immensely popular artists, Rihanna and Minaj, construct their Caribbeanness? And how does the audience perceive their performances? We conducted a small scale analysis of their singing styles, visual representation in music videos, and the audience’s perception looking at YouTube comments. At the 7th Biennial International Conference on the Linguistics of Contemporary English we presented our results. Please find our respective abstract below:

biclece limi

Jansen, Lisa & Michael Westphal. 2017. „Caribbean queen? Rihanna and Nicki Minaj’s multivocal pop personas”. 7BICLCE. Universidade de Vigo. 29.09.2017. Vigo, Spain.

Pop music surpasses national and linguistic boundaries (Pennycook 2007). It creates a marketplace of various linguistic resources that artists use in their music performances to create their pop personae (Trudgill 1983, Coupland 2007: 146-176). Performers are mobile, transnational linguistic agents. They do not only physically travel worldwide and spread their multivocality, but their products are distributed and consumed internationally via a multitude of media channels. They transport mobile standard and non-standard varieties into new spaces and make them accessible to a broad audience. Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are globally successful artists with Caribbean roots who combine different musical styles (R’n’B, hip-hop, reggae, pop) and the performance codes associated with that genres (African American English, Jamaican Creole, Standard American English). Rihanna’s recent single Work was praised for reflecting her Barbadian heritage, others dismissed it as lyrical gibberish. Minaj’s Jamaican Creole performances are mostly accepted as authentic although she is originally from Trinidad. These contradicting reactions give insight into language-ideological perspectives and stimulate the need for a thorough linguistic analysis. Which performance codes are used and why? Do they co-occur with specific parts of a song or musical styles? Which features are used to index different varieties?

A morpho-syntactic and accent analysis of Rihanna’s and Minaj’s work reveals that certain parts within a song pattern with the choice of a specific variety. For instance, American English seems to be reserved for sung, not spoken or rapped, parts. The analysis also shows that both artists use Jamaican Creole to perform their Caribbean identity but only command a truncated repertoire (Blommaert 2010: 102-136). The performance is mainly restricted to stereotypical features. The study also scrutinizes different music videos and demonstrates that the Caribbeanness of the music performances is reinforced through visual modalities in an exoticizing and commodifying way. Results show that both artists are transporters of standard and non-standard English varieties. Rihanna’s and Minaj’s playful mix of features within their genres is not only a display of their multifaceted and multivocal identity, but it gives insight into language-ideological processes within the dynamics of global Englishes.

Coupland, N. (2007). Style: Language variation and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2006). Global Englishes and transcultural flows. London: Routledge.

Trudgill, P. (1983). Acts of conflicting identity: The sociolinguistics of British pop-song performance. In P. Trudgill (ed.), On dialect: Social and geographical perspectives, 141-160. Oxford: Blackwell.

Globalisation, Jamaican Creole, Language Attitudes, Music, performance, singing, Sociolinguistics

Reminder: Rihanna’s Multivocal Pop Persona

cambridge rihanna

Source: (l.) and LiJa (r.)

Rihanna is a globally successful artist with Caribbean roots who combines different musical styles and the performance codes associated with these genres. Her single “Work” attracted great attention and generated considerable media coverage. On the one hand it was praised for displaying her Barbadian heritage, on the other dismissed it as lyrical gibberish. Interested in how Rihanna works her multivocal pop persona in this single, we conducted a morpho-syntactic analysis of the lyrics and investigated the accent of Rihanna’s singing style in this song to discover how she combines different linguistic resources. Furthermore, we analyzed an accompanying music video to show how Rihanna visually represents her pop persona.

Intrigued? Then read our Cambridge blogpost for more information or directly download the full article here.


Jansen, Lisa, & Michael Westphal. 2017. Rihanna Works Her Multivocal Pop Persona: A Morpho-syntactic and Accent Analysis of Rihanna’s Singing Style. English Today 33 (2): 46-55. doi: 10.1017/S0266078416000651.


Language Attitudes, Perception, performance, singing, Sociolinguistics

Published: “Britpop Is a Thing, Damn It”

the language of pop culture

Just recently, Valentin Werner edited and published an intriguing volume called The Language of Pop Culture (2018, Routledge). Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to take part in this project and contribute a chapter.

Said chapter gives insight into a small explorative pilot study that I conducted for my  PhD project. It explores British attitudes towards an Americanized singing style in British music and the American accent in general. You can take a first glance at the book and its contents here and get it for your university or department library, if you are intrigued.


Werner, Valentin. (Ed.) 2018. The Language of Pop Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jansen, Lisa. 2018. “Britpop is a thing, damn it”: On British attitudes towards American English and an Americanized singing style. V. Werner (ed.), The Language of Pop Culture, chapter 6. New York: Routledge.

Language Attitudes, Music, Perception, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

Language Attitudes: Just One Sound


English singer Alesha Dixon was heavily criticized for her performance of the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen” at Silverstone. Especially the last sentence of the anthem was at the centre of criticism: 1. she sang God save our Queen instead of the Queen and 2. her supposed American accent caused great indignation. The latter was mainly based on her pronunciation of God [ɡɒd] as [ɡɑːd] which was strongly emphasized since she lengthened this vowel sound even more to be in line with her melody and rhythm.

Twitter and co. were the usual anger outlets and gave insight into language attitudes towards linguistic behavior in national anthem performances. Here only some tweets and online newspaper comments:

  • Alesha Dixon appears to think Gad should save the Queen instead.
  • Alesha Dixon singing the national anthem in an American accent for the British Grand Prix?
  • Pretentious and fake!!
  • Alesha Dixon pays tribute to Independence Day by singing the national anthem in an American accent.

If Alesha Dixon or any other British singer switches to an American singing style in one of their songs, people might notice it but do not pay great attention to it – they would surely not be shocked. But in this case the discursive frame sets linguistic expectations that seem inevitably bound to a very specific cultural context. There is a heightened sensitivity with which the audience perceives such performances and artistic freedom is considered inappropriate. The comments show that national pride and a certain linguistic behavior (being “authentic” not “fake”) are intertwined and should certainly be reflected in the performance of the national anthem.

Want to read more about it?

Language Attitudes, Perception, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

Conference Impressions: Sociolinguistics of Globalization, Hong Kong 2015

hk conference

I had the privilege to present a paper at the Sociolinguistics of Globalization conference organized by the University of Hong Kong. Intimidated by the number of renowned linguists (you know, those that you quote all the time) and the amount of parallel panels, I felt like ‘the new kid on the playground’. Language experts from around the world met to discuss the effects of globalization processes on language behavior, use and attitudes.

I was majorly interested in the panels dealing with music and language. Here it seemed that the sociolinguistics of hip hop clearly dominated the discourse. Specifically this music genre reflects the phenomenon of ‘glocalisation’: A global phenomenon, hip hop music, is re-interpreted and re-invented with a local voice. Its main ideas and concepts (i.e. the credo of “keepin’ it real”) are adopted while at the same time projecting an authentic local place identity. This is not necessarily the case when it comes to pop music, where an American-influenced pronunciation still dominates and seems to have become the default or the norm. Andy Gibson illustrated this “power of the norm in pop song phonetics” in his presentation on the singing style of three New Zealand singers.

I was able to gain many new insights and inspiration from manifold approaches, methods and different languages and cultures. Fortunately, I also had the pleasure of meeting Andy Gibson (Auckland University of Technology) for at least a quick chat. The conference offered fruitful stimuli and was a great experience.

If you are curious about who was there and presented what, take a look at the book of abstracts.

Language Attitudes, Perception, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

British attitudes towards an “American accent” in English pop and rock performances

The following abstract summarizes a presentation I will give at the Sociolinguistics of Globalization conference in Hongkong in June 2015 .


British Attitudes towards an “American accent” in English Pop and Rock Performances

Many British artists switch to an “American-influenced accent” when singing. Previous studies in this field focus on the production side of performances and on what motivates British artists to change or stick to their accent (cf. Trudgill 1982, Simpson 1999, Beal 2009). However, the audiences’ perspective, i.e. perception and reception, has been widely neglected. In the course of globalization US cultural dominance has dispersed and English varieties mutually influence each other. This is especially observable in contemporary popular music – where singers seem to eclectically create diversely influenced performance accents.

For this paper folk perceptions towards accents in singing were elicited. Guided interviews based on music samples aim at answering the following questions: Which features, language-wise and other, do Britons perceive as “American” in music today? And which associations are triggered in connection with such performed accents? Preliminary results show that concluding an artist’s origin from his/her performed accent is a highly challenging task for native speakers. Salient phonetic features alone (cf. Simpson’s USA-5 model) do not suffice to represent and determine an accent. Other factors such as genre or content prove crucial for the evaluative process as well. Attitudes show that American accents are often associated with “incorrectness” but prove more marketable whereas local British accents are seen as a welcome change that authentically supports British pop-culture.


  • Beal, J. C. 2009. ‘You’re Not from New York City, You’re from Rotherham’: Dialect and Identity in British Indie Music. Journal of English Linguistics 37, 3: 223-240.
  • Simpson, P. 1999. Language, Culture and Identity: With (Another) Look at Accents in Pop and Rock Singing. Multilingua 18, 4: 343-367.
  • Trudgill, P. 1982. On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Picture: