Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Donna and Benny

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.

16 comments:

  1. Popular music has long been sung using an African American (AAVE) accent rather than General American, which explains the apparent contradiction in the T-flapped but arhotic ˈpɑːdi. This is the usual pronunciation of party in POP singing.

    Nowadays some elements of AAVE grammar and vocabulary are.also included.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Of course, not all American accents are rhotic, and I believe in particular African-American speech is often non-rhotic. Added to that, I think there is a bit of a tradition of suppressing the natural American rhoticity when singing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Is avoiding hypercorrect rhoticity really so difficult? Isn't it a bit like avoiding 'intrusive r' (if r-linking is the norm for you in this context and you've got it into your head not to do it)? Just remember those words without an r in the spelling - surely a minority.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I often listen to the singing of African Americans of the rural South who probably died half a century ago. Several performers had something superficially similar to hypercorrections like ˈfɑːrstɪst. At least that's what stands out in the singing of the name Noah in religious songs.

    It's as if the singers perceived the GOAT vowel preceding another vowel as a non-rhotic variant of a higher-prestige rhotic version. This would tie in the studies that John cites in Accents of English that found rhoticity to be a social marker in some Southern communities. In this instance it wouldn't be a marker of extra education, but it might be a marker of the seriousness of singing about religion. So:

    Norah, Norah, don't get lost
    In that Red Sea


    Alternatively, could it just be that the music demands a glide and the accent doesn't allow the w that many of us would insert? But then why r?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Sorry! That was Moses. But other songs do have Norah.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Worth pointing out, Benny Hill's RL accent was pretty much RP:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zkv9dbLW4WM

    ReplyDelete
  7. Deborah Kerr's solution in "Shall we dance?" in the King and I was to sing the hyperenglished rəʊ'mɑːns to rhyme with 'perchance', and Yul Brynner copies that.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Some Real Americans really do just have the ash in "dance" and "chance." :D

    ReplyDelete
  9. And I would say that "Real Americans" are much more likely to SING æ in "dance", "chance" or "romance" than to do anything remotely resembling BATH raising, and your second guess is much more plausible than [dɛnts]. To most Americans, those words are merged with TRAP, and so they are perceived as TRAP words (whether spoken as such or not) and so are easily sung that way. "Last Chance" being the Gay clubbing iconic song that it is, most of your choir members will be channeling Donna and won't have to even THINK about what vowels are required... your misspent youth wasn't spent clubbing and singing disco songs? I guess we are the lucky recipients of the wealth of great things you were doing and creating instead of dancing away the nights in the clubs...

    ReplyDelete
  10. «your second guess is much more plausible than [dɛnts].»

    Did anyone say anything about the plausibility of [dɛnts]? I'm sure you're right about anything remotely resembling BATH raising being relatively unlikely, but if BATH raising does happen, it doesn't preclude the allophonic lengthening to dɛːnts, tʃɛːnts, does it?

    BTW the horrible possibility, nay probability, has just occurred to me that the hyperenglished rəʊ'mɑːns to rhyme with 'perchance' in "Shall we dance?" in the King and I, which I above supposed to be Deborah Kerr's solution, was not her solution at all, but was required of her qua hyperenglish governess in terms of the production values as conceived in terms of an American audience.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Well, she had undergone the change from Kerr to Kah(r), too, after all.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Mallamb

    Deborah Kerr's solution in "Shall we dance?" in the King and I was to sing ...

    Except that she didn't sing at all in the film. The sound that came out her mouth belonged to the fabulous Marnie Nixon. Still, no doubt she copied Deborah Kerr's accent.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Do you really mean BATH-raising? The only American accents that have a real TRAP-BATH split are New York, Philadelphia and various allied dialects. (Not along the same lines as the TRAP-BATH split of RP, of course, but similar enough to be describable by the same name; and BATH is raised in those.) A typical American accent has prenasal raising of the (single) TRAP/BATH phoneme; but calling it BATH-raising implies something more general than just a prenasal allophone, and that there's a BATH phoneme distinct from TRAP.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Lipman,
    How do you know she had undergone the change from Kerr to Kah(r)? I've had a look at Wikipedia and see that she was born in Glasgow and spent the first three years of her life with one or other set of grandparents in Helensburgh, a town not unlikely to harbour speakers of RP or Sassenach of one kind or another, then or now, though we don't know whether her parents and/or grandparents would have been among them. If so they may well have pronounced (ii) of the LPD options: "Kerr (i) kɜː ǁ kɝː , (ii) kɑː ǁ kɑːr , (iii) keə ǁ ke ə r —In the United States, (i)." The point that "the Scottish pronunciation of her surname, /ˈkɛr/, is closer to a phonetic reading of the name" is of course true, and she was no doubt almost universally called that when she was a tot, but she was educated in England, and the statement «when she was being promoted as a Hollywood actress it was made clear that her surname should be pronounced the same as "car'"» could in all likelihood have meant no more than that that was the established pronunciation of it, which was encouraged for publicity purposes: the article goes on to say «To avoid confusion over pronunciation, Louis B. Mayer of MGM billed her as "Kerr rhymes with Star!"»

    There's a link to a NY Times Obit which alleges that "Louis B. Mayer, boss of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, famously decreed that Miss Kerr’s last name rhymed with star", but a billing is not a decree.

    David,
    Though I now seem to remember that I knew that in the dim and distant past, I'm afraid I'd simply forgotten that she was dubbed, and there doesn’t seem to be anything to that effect on the clip I found to check my recollections of the pronunciation. Now you have explained everything: Marnie Nixon no doubt did copy what she at any rate thought was Deborah Kerr's accent. The funny thing is that now you have prompted me to a less perfunctory listen, she is doing so a bit erratically in other respects as well. But no one was going to instruct her NOT to say rəʊˈmɑːns, or Yul Brynner, who apparently did his own singing, not to copy her. Obviously it had to at least sound as British as an American audience would expect.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This very real American says [dænts] and [tʃænts] with righteous [æ] and epenthetic [t].

    ReplyDelete