Swan song of English accents

In the days of the British Empire, both the English language and English accents of that language were spread around the globe. But ever since World War II and the rise of U.S. media, things changed.

Fast forward to 2102 and the release of the new James Bond thriller Skyfall, and it’s title song recorded English singer Adele. As discussed this week in Slate, “Though Adele speaks with a strong London accent, her singing voice sounds more American than British. Why do British vocalists often sound American when they sing?”

“Because that’s the way everyone expects pop and rock musicians to sound. British pop singers have been imitating American pronunciations since Cliff Richards, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones began recording in the 1960s. These musicians were largely influenced by the African-American Vernacular English of black American blues and rock and roll singers like Chuck Berry, but their faux-American dialects usually comprised aspects of several American dialects. Imitating an American accent involved both the adoption of American vowel sounds and rhoticity: the pronunciation of r’s wherever they appear in a word. (Nonrhoticity, by contrast, is the habit of dropping r’s at the end of a syllable, as most dialects of England do.) Sometimes Brits attempting to sing in an American style went overboard with the r’s, as did Paul McCartney in his cover of “Till There Was You,” pronouncing saw more like sawr.

“Linguist Peter Trudgill tracked rhoticity in British rock music over the years and found that the Beatles’ pronunciation of r’s decreased over the course of the 1960s, settling into a trans-Atlantic sound that incorporated aspects of both British and American dialects. The trend also went in the opposite direction as new genres developed: American pop-punk vocalists like Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day took on a British-tinged accent to sound more like seminal artists such as Joe Strummer of the Clash. Contemporary singers continue to adopt various accents according to their genre; Keith Urban, who is Australian, sings country music with a marked American Southern accent. A recent study suggests that the default singing accent for New Zealand pop singers utilizes American vowel sounds, even when the singers aren’t trying to sound American, perhaps because today’s singers were brought up listening to American (and imitation-American) pop vocals.”

 

Fro complete story, see “Why Do British Singers Sound American?” in Slate.

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