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Why Don't You Hear Someone's Accent in a Song?

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Reader Jared wrote in with this question: "Why do singers I perceive as having accents (i.e. Adele, Bono, etc.) have those accents when they talk, but not when they sing?"

I hear what Jared is saying. Or, rather, I don't hear it. While there are certainly exceptions, I've heard a thick accent on many European singers when they give interviews, but they sound as American as apple pie - which, to American ears, means "no" accent - when belting out their songs. (Except maybe these guys.) If I'd only heard Eric Clapton or Bono sing instead of speak, I'd believe you if you said they were from the States.

There are two main reasons, from what I can tell, for this perceived loss of accent.

One is technical. As Billy Bragg — a guy who's never had difficulty letting his accent shine through — explains, "You can’t sing something like 'Tracks of Your Tears' in a London accent. The cadences are all wrong." Different accents are often defined by their rhythms, intonation and vowel quality and length. For many accents, the tune and the rhythm of a song can constrain these qualities to the point where the accent seemingly disappears.

This is true even for certain qualities of the General American accent and regional American accents related to it. GenAm is a rhotic accent, which means speakers pronounce the letter r at the end of words like car and lover. But if most Americans sang those words the same way they said them, they'd sound like pirates. Instead, many songs force American singers to push the r more towards a vowel ah sound, the same way many Brits might pronounce it. (See Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" for examples of both sounds. In some performances he pronounces the r fully, and in others he holds back on it.)

Of course, it is possible for a variety of accents to maintain their unique characteristics within the constraints of song. There's no mistaking where The Beatles, The Proclaimers or The Pogues were from. So, if you can sing with your accent, why wouldn't you?

There also seems to be a social factor to the Incredible Disappearing Accent. I'm just speculating here, but if they have a very thick regional or working-class accent, some singers may want to drop it on their way to music superstardom in favor of a more fashionable or mainstream accent (the exception being American country and western music, where a down home Southern drawl gets you major street cred). Still others might have masked their accent's particular eccentricities in an effort to imitate the sound of their musical idols. This might help explain why the "British Invasion" bands, whose appeal to Americans was their very Britishness, largely kept their accents in their songs, but acts like Led Zeppelin, Cream and the Rolling Stones, heavily influence by African American blues musicians, had more American-sounding vocals.
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While we're on the topic, here's a question I'd love to see some input on in the comments: Is this apparent accent loss peculiar to foreign ears? That is, can Brits still detect the accent on Adele when Americans can't? Do foreign ears just miss the subtleties of Bono's accent still shining through when he sings? What about the differences in two regional accents? In that vein, even though I'm not from the South, I listen to a lot of country music, and can tell the difference between a singer from Texas and one from Tennessee. To my friends who aren't country fans, however, they both just sound "Southern."

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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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