Right Thurr

A few years back, the rapper Chingy had a hit track entitled Right Thurr. The chorus goes something like this (forgive the awkward transcription):

I like the way you do that right thurr,
Switch your hips when you’re walkin’, let down your hurr,
I like the way you do that right thurr,
Lick your lips when you’re talkin’, that make me sturr.

To get the full effect of the saliency of ‘thurr,’ check out the music video:

What’s with the pronunciation of words like ‘stare’ and ‘there’ with an ‘urr’ (ɚ) sound, you may ask? Some varieties of African-American Vernacular English exhibit a shift whereby such ‘-are/ere/air’ words (i.e, the SQUARE set) are pronounced with something like the ‘r-colored’ vowel in General American ‘nurse.’ Hence ‘there’ becomes ‘thurr’ and ‘hair’ becomes ‘hurr.’

This phenomenon seems to be in the early stages of academic recognition. Erik R. Thomas, a linguist who has studied AAVE extensively, has but this to say in his Phonological and phonetic characteristics of African-American Vernacular English*:

A recent development reported for some AAE (in Memphis, but likely found elsewhere) is centralization of the square and near vowels so that they approach or possibly merge with the nurse vowel (Hinton and Pollock 2000; Pollock 2001). Examples that Pollock (2001) gives are bear [b] and here [h].

So what’s going on here? Let’s turn to a different region of the world for a possible clue: Dublin, Ireland. Raymond Hickey, a linguist who studies Hiberno-English, notes a similar shift in middle-class Dublin accents in which the vowel in ‘square’ is pronounced (as in AAVE) with a vowel similar to American ‘nurse.’**

Hickey suggests this is due to a kind of hypercorrection, or an attempt to ‘correct’ a local dialect feature which takes this correction a bit ‘too far.’ Essentially, class-conscious Dubliners, trying to avoid the vernacular Dublin pronunciation of a word ‘early’ (it is pronounced something like AIR-ly), make the ‘mistake’ of lumping words like ‘square’ into the same set. Hence they pronounce ‘care’ and ‘cur’ nearly the same way.

My only guess for how this might relate to African-American English is that it’s one of America’s non-rhotic (r-less) dialects. Is it possible that, for African-Americans attempting to speak rhotic English, they somehow make the same hypercorrective ‘mistake’ that Hickey’s Dubliners do? Or is something else at play here?

*Thomas, E. R. (2007). Phonological and phonetic characteristics of African-American Vernacular English. Language and Linguistics Compass, 1, 450-471.

**Source: Hickey, R. (2002). Dissociation as a form of language change. European Journal of English Studies, 4, 303-315.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched 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.
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20 Responses to Right Thurr

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    NURSE-SQUARE merger occurs in Lancashire, England as well; very noticeable around Liverpool and Manchester, probably also in areas of which I’m less aware. In some locales and/or classes, both sound like NURSE; in others, both sound like SQUARE.

    I have no idea how this might have affected AAVE. My guess is not at all; and that these are independent phenomena. But I can’t claim to have investigated the possibility.

    • trawicks says:

      I think I also remember reading that there is some similar hypercorrection in Liverpool? Although he doesn’t mention hypercorrection specifically, John Wells (who despite being an RP speaker, grew up in Lancashire) spoke about the merger in this post a few years back. He mentions Scouse TV host Cilla Black pronouncing ‘Sarah’ [sɜːrə] — that strikes me as a definite hypercorrective distancing from the Scouse NURSE set, which is traditionally pronounced with a front vowel.

      • Megan Reardon says:

        I’ve also heard (possibly from Wells, but I’m not sure) that merging NURSE-SQUARE at [ɜː] is common in older Scouse, whereas merging them at a quality approaching [ɪː] is more modern. Paul McCartney pronounces them both as [ɜː] to this day.

        • trawicks says:

          I think Patrick Honeybone mentions the NURSE-SQUARE set has around 18 different allophones in Scouse! I’m not sure if [ɜː] is the ‘older’ one of these though, although it is the older variant in nearby rural South Lancashire.

        • Megan Reardon says:

          Well, I heard some expert say that [ɜː] was the older quality in NURSE-SQUARE words

    • Sam Huddy says:

      There is definitely a similar merger in Wales as well, albeit with the sound in “beer, year,” etc. Humourously referenced in an episode of Would I Lie To You:

      Rob Brydon: So you were in this plastics class for a whole yuhh?
      Lee Mack: No, A yee-ya!

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    On the other hand, Irish influence in Liverpool is well-attested; but I don’t know that it can be extended to include most or all of Lancashire.

  3. Brandon Hanson says:

    I don’t know how relevant this is, but in my own experience (for what that’s worth), this merger of NURSE-SQUARE is much more common in Belfast (Northern Ireland) than in Dublin. But even there it’s variable and I think speakers may still have the distinction at a deeper (phonological) level. I’ve never heard an explanation as to why it happens in Belfast though.

    BTW, in case anyone’s curious, Raymond Hickey himself now says that this feature is not as common as it used to be in Dublin (see “SQUARE-rounding”). He also says that PRICE/PRICE retraction isn’t as common as it used to be in Dublin either (see “AI-retraction”).

    • trawicks says:

      For the record, my impressions of Dublin SQUARE & NURSE are a bit more complicated. I went on an architectural tour last Saturday with a guide from Dublin. He clearly spoke with what Hickey terms ‘non-local’ or ‘fashionable’ Dublin English: RP-like LOT and THOUGHT vowels, a more centralized diphthong for GOAT, fronted GOOSE, retroflex /r/. But he still pronounced ‘early’ with a rather vernacular front vowel (ɛɚli).

      Conversely, I’ve heard Dubliners with more ‘local’ accents use a schwa-like vowel for the SQUARE set, much as Hickey describes for more ‘fashionable’ speakers. That’s not to say Hickey is incorrect, just that there are many exceptions to the rules in Dublin. And not many concrete rules to begin with!

      • Brandon Hanson says:

        Maybe your guide originally had a working class, “local” Dublin accent and he poshed it up. That could be why you can still hear remnants of his original accent like in early. Or maybe early is an exceptional word and pronouncing it with ɛɚ is more widespread.

        I’ve actually never heard any Dubliners use [əː ~ øː] qualities for the SQUARE set (outside of Hickey’s website). But I’ve heard many people from Belfast (Belfastians?) use [əː]-like qualities in SQUARE words, as in the above example.

  4. AL says:

    I’ve noticed this feature among some blacks in the Maryland/DC area. The character Cleveland Brown from the cartoon Family Guy (who is supposed to be from Virginia) exhibits it.

    • trawicks says:

      I almost mentioned that! The voice actor tends to exaggerate things a bit, but he definitely ran with that particular feature of AAVE (hence Cleveland’s pronunciation of ‘America’ as ‘A-myrrh-ica’).

    • Marlo Stanfield says:

      Interesting you mention that, I stumbled across a podcast recently about the pronunciation of “carry” like “curry” in black speech in Baltimore:

      http://baltimorelanguage.com/baldamor-curry-and-dug-podcast/

    • Ben W says:

      I was in DC last summer. At one point in the subway a black kid of about 17 struck up a conversation with me about careers and such, and told me he was about to enter college at “Merlin”. “Where’s that?” I asked and it took about 3 more questions before I realized he was actually saying “Maryland”.

  5. In Liverpool in the 1970s there was a hairdresser’s called “Her Cuts”, though if I remember my Scouse correctly, “her” on Merseyside has the “SQUARE” vowel, so the pun probably depended on “her” being pronounced like “hair” rather than “hair” being pronounced like “her”.

  6. Daniel says:

    Hello there!
    I think I may have introduced myself in the long long ago, but in case I didn’t; Hi! (Waves merrily at you).

    I think something else is going on here: Slang. Pronouncing things with ‘-urr’ seems to me to spring from the same place that adding ‘-izzle’ to words comes from. People think it sounds cool, and so keep saying it. Rather than being the product of gradual changes, these pronunciations were deliberately chosen so that the artist could have a distinctive sound (Or because Snoop Dogg does whatever the hell he wants to)

    Cheers!

  7. Rodger C says:

    The NURSE-SQUARE merger is common among white people in West Virginia but not everywhere in Appalachia.

  8. Danni says:

    The way Chingy pronounces “there” is common of natives of the St. Louis, MO area. I have three sets of friends from St. Louis and they all pronounce “there, here,” the same way.