Saturday, 21st March 2015

by Joshua Gaskell

I noted last month the American-influenced tendency uniambically to stress unstressed syllables. I wonder now whether this observation would be true if the word American were replaced with a more specific reference to America’s greatest and most influential cultural achievement: pop music.

My reasoning is that pop lyrics are, almost by definition, composed in everyday language, with all it’s truncations, apostrophes, schwas and short vowels; yet it is difficult, again by definition, to hold a note on a short sound. I’m suggesting that the need to adapt popular speech for the purposes of popular song has (along with spelling pronunciations) contributed to the increased stressing of conventionally unstressed syllables in popular speech. For examples, the two greatest English bands to play American pop music: when John Lennon sings ‘A soap impression of his wife, | Which he ate [/eɪt/] and donated to the National Trust’, and Mick Jagger sings ‘I have no expectations | To pass through here again [/əˈɡeɪn/]’, they’re both replacing the conventional short vowel /ɛ/ with the diphthong /eɪ/ in order to hold the note on it.

In sum, just as ‘You can’t dance to Beethoven’, you can’t croon a schwa – which, prior to the 1960s, I presume was pronounced /ʃwə/.

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