One of the songs our choir is rehearsing this season is a Donna Summer number called Last Dance. It will be familiar to any of you who were alert to the popular music of thirty-odd years ago (which I was not — the song was new to me).
As often happens in the lyrics of popular music, in this song dance is made to rhyme not only with chance but also with romance. This is something of a problem for speakers of RP and similar accents: we normally pronounce dɑːns and tʃɑːns but rə(ʊ)ˈmæns, which means the rhyme doesn’t work properly.
Our choirmaster has given us clear instructions that in this song we are to sing dæns and tʃæns, as if we were American.
(Well, sort of. Real Americans would be quite likely to do BATH Raising and come up with something like dɛːnts, tʃɛːnts or deənts, tʃeənts.)
Interestingly, the rehearsal tracks supplied to us show a very selective Americanization of this and other same-genre songs. We are expected to do t-voicing but not to add rhoticity. So the title words of another number, Get this party started, come out as ˈɡet ðɪs ˈpɑːdi ˈstɑːdɪd.
The choir is very good at supplying us with rehearsal tracks. For each piece of music we are offered a separate sound file for each of the four voice parts (tenor 1, tenor 2, baritone, bass). So we can listen repeatedly and practise on our own by singing along.
Another piece we are doing is a compilation of Christmas number ones down the years. Among them is Benny Hill’s comedy piece Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West). The soloist on the rehearsal track, doing the Benny Hill narration, adopts what is intended to be an appropriate West-of-England accent — Benny Hill was from Southampton, as is immediately revealed by the way he speaks. To English people from elsewhere the most obvious feature of a west country accent is its rhoticity. So we duly get ˈɝːni and ˈmɪlkkɑːrt. But for fastest, where the real Benny Hill would have said ˈfaːstɪst, the voice on our rehearsal track says ˈfɑːrstɪst, a lovely example of hypercorrection.
When imitating a rhotic accent we non-rhotic speakers find it quite difficult to sort out farther and father, larva and lava. It is hard to change scarf skɑːf, for example, to skɑːrf without at the same time changing half hɑːf to hɑːrf. The phrase fastest milkcart is particularly tricky, with a quick succession of ɑː’s, only one of which should properly be made r-coloured. Thinking of the spelling each time would solve the dilemma, but somehow we can’t do that in the middle of the flow of speech. It makes you admire British actors like Hugh Laurie, with his remarkably authentic-sounding American accent, even more.