Although they share most linguistic characteristics, standard British and American English differ in many ways, and one doesn’t need to be a native speaker to notice this. Differentiating features range from grammar rules to sentence structures but the most conspicuous ones are definitely pronunciation and intonation.
People all over the world tend to perceive British English as more pleasant to hear, more difficult to imitate and generally more “appealing” than General American. However, in popular songs, it’s not always possible to distinguish between the two and there are several interesting possible reasons for this.
Some argue that the British sing with an American accent, which is not completely true, although many foreigners perceive popular songs this way.
Adele’s 2012 soundtrack for the newest James Bond movie, Skyfall, seems to be an obvious example. When Adele sings, her voice is devoid of any dialectal features and she almost sounds like an American. This is interesting because, in speech, Adele exhibits a strong London accent.
Apart from Adele, many other popular British singers sound rather like North Americans. The Beatles were said to have experimented with using an American accent at the beginning of their career, following the influence of some popular blues and rock and roll singers from the US.
In fact, some even claim that the Northern British accent was associated with folk music and that this was the reason The Beatles developed their own American-like British accent. Revolutionary as it was, the band thereby influenced many British musicians who followed their lead.
When discussing The Beatles’ singing accents, David Crystal notes: “A Liverpudlian accent regularly stands out in The Beatles –such as (in ‘Penny Lane’) customer with a rounded first vowel and words like there and wear (in ‘Only a Northern Song’) with a central vowel (rhyming with her).”
- David Crystal
Imitating North American pop-stars remains a quite popular trend today but this doesn’t mean that all British singers have dropped their original accents. On the contrary, there are many who have retained them. Compare, for example, Adele’s voice to that of Lilly Allen and try to determine phonological characteristics that make them different.
Obviously, singers sometimes consciously make a decision to drop or retain their regional accent. Mainstream pop artists mostly choose the former in order to sound more fashionable, while it’s mostly musicians in the “alternative” genre that opt for the latter.
Additionally, there are some phonetic explanations for why accents get lost in songs. Singing involves different speech qualities, so one will actually have difficulty maintaining his or her accent or other regionally-specific speech features when vocalizing melodically.
According to David Crystal, the way singing voices sound is influenced by the fact that
- intonation and speech rhythm are lost in melody and
- vowel qualities are different (elongated).
Now, most people are not big enough linguistic nerds to pay attention to phonological features of popular songs but if you have ever wondered about it, I hope you’ve gotten your answer.
Do you have any examples of singers using their regional-specific dialects, other than London and Liverpool British? Feel free to leave your comment; we’d like to hear your thoughts.
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