Singing in Dialect

I was taught early on that listening to singers is a terrible way of getting a sense of their particular accent. This makes sense to some degree, since singing will distorts important distinctions such as vowel length and prosody. But I’ve encountered a few recordings over the years of people singing in pitch-perfect local dialects. Here are a few of them.

Damien Dempsey sings in his own working-class Dublin brogue (a choice that was, from what I’ve been told, a bit controversial). Here is a good clip:

Most Scottish singers blunt the edges of their accents, but not the Proclaimers, who famously maintain the burr:

Despite Northern England producing the greatest rock bands in human history (The Beatles, The Smiths, and Joy Division, to name three colossi), the actual accents of the region don’t get much airplay. Not until Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys came along, that is:

Or, if you want a true-blue Cockney accent that isn’t being screamed by a late-70s punk rocker, there is this bizarre novelty song from the 1950s performed by Stepney’s own Bernard Bresslaw:

But wait, you may be asking? Where are the North American accents?

Well, over here in the New World, we have a long history of “dialect singing” in music. Country music, the blues, hip-hop, and reggae are all genres that are inextricably bound to the accents and dialects in which they were originally performed. As such, it’s a little hard to separate authentic accents from convention, even when these genres are performed by artists with the accent in question.

For you see, we live in a peculiar world, one where a young man from Caboolture, Australia sings as if he grew up in Tennessee:

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Singing in Dialect

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Interesting topic. I knew you’d mention the Proclaimers. I laughed when I first heard them sing. I had just never heard anyone sing in a Scottish accent before.

    The singer of the group Madness and Kate Nash both also sing in their accent. But they’ve both been accused of being “Mockneys” as well. The song “Parklife” by Blur is mostly just a guy talking in a Cockney accent, but that’s not singing so I don’t know if it counts. I’ve noticed that some country and/or bluegrass singers who aren’t from the South put on Southern accents even in interviews.

    “Or, if you want a true-blue Cockney accent that isn’t being screamed by a late-70s punk rocker…”

    Not all 70s punk involved screaming to be fair. The Clash are a good example of a band from that era that didn’t simply scream in all of their songs. They may be the exception though. I wouldn’t know though because they’re one of the only 70s punk bands I like. The Ramones had a few good songs though. I actually thought they were English when I first heard them. Maybe some American punk bands were trying to sound English during that era. This is all a bit off topic though.

  2. I’ve always assumed that one reason why accents tend to alter in song is that pure vowels generally lend themselves better to singing than diphthongs do (whether for articulatory or acoustic reasons is an introspective question that I’ll leave on the side for now), so diphthongs tend to be reduced when people sing. That fits my Australian experience, but I’ve not really investigated whether it fits any universal tendency.

  3. trawicks says:

    @Adrian,

    There is probably some truth in that as well. I was trained in opera when I was younger (different genre, obviously), and the off-glide in diphthongs was treated as something an afterthought. What’s tricky, though, is that for decades African American Vernacular English was the standard dialect used for most pop music, and AAVE has a good bit of glide-deletion in its own right.

    To take the example of one of your countrywomen, look at Kylie Minogue. It’s hard to think of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” as remotely relating to African American culture (to say the least). And yet the accent Minogue employs in that song is often obviously influenced by AAVE, at least in the refrain. It’s such a widespread convention at this point that we hardly notice it. And because AAVE already tends toward glide-deletion, it’s difficult to deduce in popular music whether this is due to some natural property of singing or if it’s just convention.

    @’enry,

    Good point about the Ramones. I always detected a bit of Britishness in their singing, although they also had very strong New York accents, so some features (like non-rhoticity) could be chalked up to that. But “Blitzkrieg Bop” always sound very English to me.

  4. @trawicks I can give you an example from my own singing. This is a cassette tape recording from the late nineties, so it’s a bit scratchy, but: wp.me/p1XeM-Nm. For a recent and probably more typical recording of my singing, try: wp.me/p1XeM-1hW. Glide reduction is less pronounced there, but still present.

    (I’ve deliberately left off the http prefix so as to not trigger the default WordPress setting of queuing comments for moderation if they contain two or more links.)

  5. Erin says:

    Another modern English band who sing in their accents is the Kooks. Or at least, I assume it’s their accents. I’m not sure what people from Brighton usually sound like.

  6. Ed says:

    The folk singer Ewan MacColl used to sing in the dialect of the area from which each song originated. He covered quite a lot of ground. I have heard that his many Scottish songs do not sound authentic to a Scot.

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