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

Language Attitudes: Just One Sound

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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?

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Music, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics

Input: Language of American Pop-Punk

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The article named I made a linguistics professor listen to a blink-182 song an analyze the accent (Dan Nosowitz) published on Atlas Obscura deals with the development of language behaviour of American pop-punk bands. It traces back how Californian punk bands such as Green Day started out imitating a British Clash-esk working-class accent to the development of a pop-punk strand that “abandoned any pretenses of Britishness” (Nosowitz 2015). 1990’s Bands such as The Offspring or blink-182 “took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up, pushed it to new extremes” (ibid). As linguist Penelope Eckert reveals in her analysis of blink-182’s First Date, DeLonge‘s singing style is not exclusively Californian. He mixes typical Californian features (some of them are results of a vowel shift) with Chicano English variants and sprinkles it with a few British working-class pronunciations. What comes to mind here right away is Trudgill’s concept of conflicting identities (Trudgill 1983).

This article is a pleasure to read and gives insight into the punk genre, its origins, its ideas and therewith its multiple intertwined identities which can be retraced in singers’ performances.

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Music, Phonetics, Sociolinguistics

Guest contribution: The Sociolinguistics of ‘Indie’ Music: Kate Nash

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Preface

This is a guest contribution written by Anika Gerfer. She is one of my students who has just recently successfully passed her BA-thesis under my supervision. I asked her to write a brief summary and share her work on my blog. Enjoy!


The Sociolinguistics of ‘Indie’ Music: Kate Nash

Since the 1980s, the linguistic behaviour of singers in performances and recordings of (popular) music has caught the interest of many sociolinguists. Trudgill (1983) and Simpson (1999) discovered that a range of British artists of the mid-20th century switched to an ‘American accent’ in singing (Simpson labels this set of features associated with ‘American accents’ the “USA-5 model”). Today, this kind of singing behaviour is perceived to be the kind of pronunciation to perform ‘mainstream pop’ in general (Beal 2009). With the advent of Punk and the emergence of the music genre ‘indie’ many bands started singing in their own local accents in order to index authenticity, locality and independence from the big record labels (O’Hanlon 2006; Beal 2009).

I analysed Kate Nash’s singing behaviour in order to demonstrate that singing in a local and/or social accent does not necessarily index values of the corresponding region or social class. She’s an indie pop/rock singer from London whose songs contain linguistic features associated with the London working-class accent Cockney. Not only did I examine her accent by comparing Cockney variants with RP variants as well as USA-5 model variants of different variables, but I also searched for occurrences of youth language in the lyrics of the songs from her three albums Made of Bricks (2007), My Best Friend Is You (2010) and Girl Talk (2013).

I found out that Kate Nash diverges from the “mid-Atlantic pronunciation of popular music” (Beal 2009) by singing in a kind of ‘hybrid’ accent consisting of Cockney (Ø 68.8%) and RP features with minor exceptions of /t/-flapping and the monophthongisation of the price diphthong. The lexical analysis reveals that Nash uses a high amount of taboo words, slang as well as fillers throughout her albums. The repertoire from which she chooses downsizes from 2007 to 2013, which shows that the extensive swear word vocabulary preferably used by a number of teenagers is likely to change when they reach adulthood. The content of her songs changes as well: she sort of “reinvents” (Simpson 1999) herself in the course of her career by developing from an adolescent singing about finding one’s place in society to a feminist activist who speaks out against the sexualisation of women in pop music. By performing her songs in a non-standard manner (e.g. screaming and talking) and referring to taboo topics, Nash diverges from the values of mainstream pop music. However, unlike the Arctic Monkeys or Australian hip-hop artists who express locality by performing in their regional accents, Nash rather indexes belonging to youth culture.

My study shows that indexical values can change due to the fact that English varieties alter as well. As the example of the working-class dialect Cockney shows, vernaculars might develop into mainstream accents so that formerly stigmatised features are deployed by adolescents no matter what social class they belong to. Vernaculars are therefore capable of developing into mainstream just like the music genre indie did.

Literature:

  • 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.
  • O’Hanlon, R. (2006). Australian hip hop: a sociolinguistic investigation. Australian Journal of Linguistics 26(2), 193-209.
  • Simpson, P. 1999. Language, Culture and Identity: With (Another) Look at Accents in Pop and Rock Singing. Multilingua 18(4), 343-367.
  • Trudgill, P. 1983. Acts of conflicting identity: The sociolinguistics of British pop-song performance. P. Trudgill (ed.), On dialect: Social and geographical perspectives, 141-160. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
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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 .

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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.

Literature

  • 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: unsplash.com
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Sociolinguistics

Thoughts on the properties of popular music recordings

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Gibson and Bell (2011) coined the term mediated staged performances which laid the groundwork for approaching a definition of popular music recordings.

Staged performances are linguistically stylized communicative events, executed in stage-like situations were the audience lies at the centre of attention. Musicians perform for their audience, their main goal being entertainment (Gibson/Bell 2011: 558, Coupland 2007). It is stressed that such events are planned by performers (e.g. several concert preparations and rehearsals) and audience (fans purchase tickets and come together) alike. During the performance both are physically separated. However, communication is possible via cheering and clapping as a direct response to the performer and evaluation of his/her presentation. The singer on the other hand can spontaneously react to the audience’s feedback and might accommodate to or comment on the place of performance (e.g. hometown or abroad), linguistically or otherwise.

Considering music recordings these parameters need to be re-defined and adapted. Gibson and Bell mention that “their pervasiveness in contemporary society makes them the primary channel of public performance” (2011: 558). Music not only accompanies our everyday life activities such as working or shopping, it is also virtually accessible and available 24/7 not least due to music streaming services and portable electronic devices. This entails that hearers do not always voluntarily choose to listen to music but sometimes are simply exposed to it in public space(s). However, even when they consciously decide to listen to a certain artist, song or album it is not necessarily a heightened event. The performer is not physically present at the moment of the hearer’s reception and cannot directly receive a responsive evaluation. Spontaneity is exchanged for consistency and recognition value. The final recording is widely spread, defines and represents an artist and his/her image. Eventually, success is defined by clicks, download rates and/or sales figures.

These properties could influence both: a singer’s singing style and the audience’s perception. For instance a British singer might choose to sound more local if he/she wants to evoke authenticity and promote localness or switch to a “mainstream” accent which is audibly influenced by “American varieties” in hope of being more readily accepted worldwide (Beal 2009). The latter in particular will make it difficult for the audience to identify a singer’s origin.

Literature

  • 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.
  • Coupland, Nikolas. 2007. Style: Language Variation and Identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gibson, A & A. Bell. 2011 Staging language: An Introduction to the Sociolinguistics of Performance. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15:5: 555-572.
  • Picture: unsplash.com
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Morphology, Phonetics, Phonology, Sociolinguistics, Throughput

Just a little throughput…

Dear fellow linguists,

I just wanted to share a few links:

This is a great article I found in the German quaterly Fluter. Every issue is dedicated to one specific political, cultural, societal, economic (etc.) topic. One of the most interesting issues for me of course was dealing with LANGUAGE. The article entitled “Weissu – is krasse Sprache: Jugendliche Migraten mischen das Hochdeutsch auf” written by Hadija Haruna deals with contemporary German ethno- and sociolects. Although, or perhaps even because it is not an ‘academic’ linguistic article, it gives a good introduction into several sociolinguistic topics. It addresses phenomena like covert and covert prestige, code-switching and the fact that new language forms are creative and innovative. I used it in class to approach these terms and found it very useful. I hope you like it as well.

This link leads to a very interesting research that has been conducted. A gigantic corpus analysis that should reveal the question: “L’anglais, une  language optimiste?” /Is English an optimistic language? If your interested, click and read! And if you want read something about it in English, here you go.

Stay curious!

LiJa

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