Patricia T. O'Conner on Accents in Song

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner looks at English accents in song. She’ll also answer questions about language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is available in paperback, as is  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

If you have a question about language and grammar, leave a comment or call us at 212-433-9692!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [49]

PeterV from Vegas

I would argue that voice lessons were cultivated in Britain in the 1700's when the predominant accent was very similar to the colonies which were very careful to maintain an accent like the home country. We still have a bias toward the more nationally predominant accent.

Aug. 16 2012 03:53 PM

aw i said that before the thats-a-maori joke

Aug. 16 2012 01:53 AM

i'm pretty sure we should just all agree that this segment was a punishment for how mean we all were to julie berstein when she was a terrible host to that lady who came on to talk about vegetables.

Aug. 16 2012 01:36 AM
Douglas Walker from Brooklyn

At an early Beatles press conference, Lennon remarks that "we
sound blacker than the Africans", when he meant, of course, the
African-American singers emulated (and idolized) by the Beatles,
Stones, etc. (he would have been puzzled had someone pointed out the glaring fact that on the African continent
many European accents were commonly heard,
vestiges of Euro-imperialist colonization - some Africans
probably sounded more "British" than the Beatles, doncha know...)

Aug. 15 2012 10:45 PM
Mia from Manhattan

Madness never lost their accents, save for that tiny snippet at the start of "One Step Beyond."

Aug. 15 2012 02:03 PM
Richard Wise

The Kinks don't have a Mersey accent. They're from London.

Aug. 15 2012 02:02 PM
Caroline Schimmel from Greenwich, CT

A closer--David Sedaris imitating Billie Holiday in his Christmas story--spot on

Aug. 15 2012 01:57 PM
Ken Druse from Brooklyn

British songs from the 1930s and 40s, especially during WW II, also sounded American. Popular songs in the 1930s were often remade by Brits.

Aug. 15 2012 01:56 PM
Maori - Amori from NZ

That's Amore.

When the moon hits your eye,
Like a big pizza pie,
That's amore.

When an eel who swims by
Takes a bight from your thigh,
That's a moray.

When our habits are strange,
And our customs deranged,
That's our mores.

When your horse munches straw,
And the bales total four,
That's some more hay.

When Othello's poor wife,
Becomes stabbed with a knife,
That's a Moor, eh?

When your sheep go to graze,
In a damp marshy place,
That's a moor, eh?

When you ace your last tests,
Like you did all the rest,
That's some more "A"s!

A comedian ham,
With the name Amsterdam,
That's a Morey.

When your chocolate graham,
Is with marshmallows crammed,
That s'more, eh.

When you've had quite enough,
Of this dumb rhyming stuff,
That's "No more!", eh?

Aug. 15 2012 01:54 PM
fuva from harlemworld

Perhaps the Beatles weren't self-aware. They denied "imitating", but it was so.
And, Nick Angelo from Manhattan, maybe you read that, but it ain't so.

Aug. 15 2012 01:54 PM
David from Washington Heights

What does Ms. O'Connor mean by a "neutral" accent? Doesn't she have a mid-western accent? (Compare how she and Leonard pronounce the word "foreign?)

Aug. 15 2012 01:54 PM

This lady is just plain wrong. The British Invasion bands sound American because they worshipped American bands. The Australian band the Bee Gees sounded British because they wanted to sound like the Beatles. British singers like Adele sound American because Americans made the records that influenced her. Case closed. All this linguistic stuff is both wildly overthinking and tremendously ignorant. Next segment please.

Aug. 15 2012 01:53 PM
Jocelyn from Brooklyn

Sorry Dr. O'Connor is off today. There's nothing neutral about the American accent of pop song. It's pure convention. As the first caller tried to say, you can sing in any accent. The fact that someone can sing in a cockney or regional accent if they want to (and presumably they're aren't straining to do so) proves that it just doesn't come out sounding American. For example there are many white acts that sound "black." That's different from "neutral American," right? This argument just doesn't hold up.

Aug. 15 2012 01:52 PM
Liz from Glen Cove

There is truth to the rounding out of vowels making songs easier to sing - anyone who's studied voice can tell you that. Likewise, not hitting on consonants like 'R' too hard. It can be annoying when it's taken to such an extreme that it sound unnatural. The opening song to the 'Bye Bye Birdie' movie soundtrack comes to mind. 'Bye bye, bur-hee...' So annoying!

Aug. 15 2012 01:51 PM

@ Tim in Brooklyn

Two of the groups you mention as singing with English accents
(U2 and the Pogues) are Irish... you might end up with a pint of Guinness being poured on you in the pub!

Aug. 15 2012 01:50 PM
C. Tennyson from NYC

Regarding the correct pronunciation of that river in London: I'm from Norwich CT and we have a Thames ther, too, only ours is pronounced with the initial TH theta. Norwich is over 350 years old and we were always told we preserved the original pronunciation and it was the Brits who changed. This reminds me of the discussion of the recovered Shakespeare pronunciation from a month or so ago.

Aug. 15 2012 01:50 PM
ALR from NJ

I've been having this same discussion with my husband for years. I concede that, to some extent, the singers may have tried to sound like their blues heroes (as he insists), but I really think that it's a neutralizing of the accent--there are just too many British/foreign singers that "lose" their accents for them all to be trying to do it--especially Adele. Could we just ask her about that at some point? BTW, I teach ESL (lots of phonology) and so I think I win this one--know all about the vowels sounds, etc. Thanks, Patricia.

Aug. 15 2012 01:50 PM


Absolutely. You could argue about the American white rappers who copy Black music, but the British seem to have a particularly long tradition of White singers sounding very Black (and very American) with both the style and phrasing of their songs. Adele, and Amy Winehouse are among the most recent, but there are many. The Stones and Dusty Springfield were some of the earlier ones.

Aug. 15 2012 01:47 PM
Artemis from KY

The Brit Pop invasion of the mid-late 1990's featured many English bands with British accents, Blur, Oasis and Elastica are examples of this.

Aug. 15 2012 01:47 PM
hc from nyc

isnt your guest creating a kind of metaphysical heirarchy in which american english (as well as pop rock) is favored, insofar as her thesis is that they are 'the most natural' for the physiological comportment of the human body? in other words isnt instead really the case that the way someone sings is connected to the tradition and expectations of the style of music? even older music which you just played the accent is an older english, not contemporary english. i think this actually borders on a dangerous way of thinking about language and what is considered "natural". so everything which sounds different is forced?

Aug. 15 2012 01:47 PM
Tim from Brooklyn

I disagree. The Clash, U2, and the Pogues are examples of bands that sing with an English accent. The reason the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sound like Americans when they sing is partly intentional, and partly because they are singing distinctly American music.
Tim Hanford

Aug. 15 2012 01:46 PM

I love PT O'Connor and want to comment on this subject of American accents in popular song. Jazz was born in America. Rock n' roll was born in America. When anybody anywhere else started listening to either of these, they naturally heard American accents. I'm sure Mick and Keith heard more American accents in their music listening than any other accents. Same with all the other British musicians of the 50's, 60's and 70's. So, naturally, they emulated the accents they heard in the music they were making, which had deep roots in American music.

Aug. 15 2012 01:45 PM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

The Beatles didn't suppress their British accents.

Mick Jagger affected a Southern Black accent.

The creepist is Bruce Springsteen affecting a Southern accent, but he's from New Jersey.

Aug. 15 2012 01:44 PM
Stephen Coren from Highlands, NJ

I'm a big fan of Patsy Cline. When I first heard her speak - on a compilation of live performances - I was amazed at the difference between her singing voice and her speaking voice. The first warm, round, passionate, insightful. The latter, hard, twangy, almost uneducated.

Aug. 15 2012 01:44 PM
Nick Angelo from Manhattan

Both of you keep saying they are imitating "American" accents. This isn't true. They are imitating Black blues singers. You don't hear the British Pop singers sounding like Tony Bennett or some musical comedy singers... Adele and Amy Winehouse totally imitate black female singers...
I've read where American gospel music originated in Scotland, so it looks like we went full circle :-)

Aug. 15 2012 01:44 PM
Jenna from UES

The British cast recording of "Gypsy" starring Angel Lansbury features a group of young boys singing. When they sing together they definitely sound "British" because later in the song, the boys grow up to be men and their adult counterparts sing in that American way.

Aug. 15 2012 01:43 PM
psb from nyc

pet shop boys are among the only musical acts who sound very british when they sing.

Aug. 15 2012 01:40 PM
Tom from Greenwich

This concept is BS. Singers deliberately choose how they pronounce words ALWAYS. Always.

Look at the history of recorded music---Who do you think everyone in the world listens to? American music.

Aug. 15 2012 01:39 PM

This woman is speaking nonsense. The examples of British singers who sing WITH an accent (Ray Davies, David Bowie?) show that it is not "physiology" or the "demands of the music." There are also a number of examples of American singers who mimic British accents -- remember how everyone thought the Killers were British at first?

It's largely a matter of striking a pose, and copying the artists who influence or inspire the later artists.

Aug. 15 2012 01:38 PM
fuva from harlemworld

Ernie hits it on the head.
It depends on the music tradition in which they are performing.
Mick, Adele are singing black rhythm and blues-based music and so they attempt to sound like that.

Aug. 15 2012 01:38 PM
JG from Manhattan

One exception to prove the rule would be the Scottish twins the Proclaimers who consciously stuck to their regional accent and avoided the traditional transition to "mid atlantic" singing accents. They were successful too.

Take a listen to "Five Hundred Miles" and "Throw the 'R' Away".

Aug. 15 2012 01:37 PM
Jack Haley from Astoria

I think the notion that an American accent is somehow "neutral" is something that would only be thought by an American.

Aug. 15 2012 01:37 PM
jdd from brooklyn

There are some British bands and artists where you do hear their accents: Robyn Hitchcock, XTC, and Squeeze for example. I do think that other artists "lose" their accents consciously or unconsciously to sound "authentic" to an American rock 'n' roll tradition.

Aug. 15 2012 01:37 PM
Arch Currie from Norwalk, CT

Is this phenomenon related in any way to the fact that many people who normally stammer don't while they sing?

Aug. 15 2012 01:36 PM
Ash in Chelsea

Patricia, What you have said so far might be true for Eurpeans singing in English, but I have heard many Japanese jazz singers sing in English and their accents are often very prominent in their treatments. Comment?

Aug. 15 2012 01:36 PM
Laura from New Providence NJ

I really appreciate this discussion - I noted that there are a lot of songs written by the BeeGees that were covered by country singers back in the day.

1) Lilly Allen has a very audible british accent in some songs ('The Fears')

2) When we sang in choir back in the day, or took voice lessons, we took great pains to sing in a more british sounding way (softening the r's or not pronouncing them at all).

Aug. 15 2012 01:36 PM
Ian from Queens

Colin Blumstone of the Zombies is another good example of a British invasion singer who retained his accent when singing, as opposed to Jagger, Stewart, John, etc.
Great shout out for the Kinks!

Aug. 15 2012 01:36 PM
tim from nyc

are there some languages which, when sung, do not sound like a native accent?
some languages have very odd pronunciation aspects that an unpracticed mouth cannot enunciate.

Aug. 15 2012 01:35 PM
Michelle from Long Island City

Isn't there a factor of acculturation here? White Americans who sing the blues typically use some version of black English in their songs, and they certainly don't sound that way when they speak. I suspect the genre and its cultural connotations have a lot to do with that.

Aug. 15 2012 01:35 PM
M from brooklyn

oh come on!! those british singing accents weren't neutral they were southern black! "you 'CAINT' always get what you WOWNT" - those guys were copying the southern black blues singing style. how could you pretend not to hear that??

Aug. 15 2012 01:34 PM
Richard from New Yawk

not just the British. Cyndi Lauper is an example.

Aug. 15 2012 01:33 PM
Terri from Brooklyn

You can hear Billy Bragg's accent in his songs; listen, for example, to "Must I Paint You a Picture."

Aug. 15 2012 01:33 PM

Abba sounds British to me. The goal is to sound African American.

Aug. 15 2012 01:32 PM
Michael E. Flood from Rockaway NY,

Punk singers put on a fake British accent when they sing.
When pop musicians start out they ape there influences and have to find there own voice.
American popular music is pervasive, cultural imperialism rules.

Aug. 15 2012 01:32 PM
Lissnah from NJ

Please explain;
I was working on billing for my construction company and saw an invoice referencing "uncompleted" work which sounded wrong. But, I looked it up and incomplete indicates something missing while uncomplete suggests something else needs to be done. Is this a dubious distinction?

Aug. 15 2012 01:30 PM
J.J. from Brooklyn

Many British bands in the late 70s and early 80s (i.e. Punk and New Wave) bands sang with pronounced British accents, maybe as a badge of honor or to prove authenticity.

Aug. 15 2012 01:29 PM
Kenneth H. from bedstuy, bk

OMG....I've been wondering this for a lonnggg time...thank you!

Aug. 15 2012 01:28 PM
RJ from Prospect hts

Which American English?

Aug. 15 2012 01:27 PM
Carolyn Martin from Litchfield, CT

As always, looking forward to Patricia O'Connor segment. Dismayed, however, to see that Lopate website description of today's topic states: "...British singers often don't sing with an accent." Don't sing?? Perhaps better phrasing would have been "...British singers often sing without an accent."

Aug. 15 2012 12:08 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.