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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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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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