Archive for Language and music

Bob Dylan's poetry and the Nobel Prize

A. E. STALLINGS says: "At the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, poets, at least judging from my Facebook feed, were either very much pro- or very much con- (often along generational lines), delighted or outraged…"

I found I fell into neither camp. At first, I was pleased to hear the news, and judged the Nobel committee's view of Dylan to be exactly right: although his early recordings suggest he could hardly win prizes as a singer, guitarist, or harmonica player (don't confuse being strikingly different and new with being highly skilled), he did deserve to be considered seriously as a significant 20th-century poet. So I started with no negative feelings at all about the decision.

And then I looked at some of his lyrics in written form to see if I could find good evidence to cite for this, and found that even my favorite songs looked truly feeble on the page. I responded to some of them when they were originally sung; but looking at them now, I couldn't find anything of high poetic quality at all. And mentally putting them back in their musical context didn't help.

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The sounds of Eurasia

A concert entitled "Sounds of Eurasia", held in a church, by a youth orchestra I'd never heard of from somewhere in the -stans region of Central Asia, admission being free and unticketed. It didn't sound too great. But I saw a flyer for it at local shopping center on Saturday, and the event was scheduled for that very evening. I showed the flyer to my friend Carol and we decided (since we could hardly complain about the price) that we would be adventurous and risk it. I wasn't confident; I stressed that in the worst-case scenario we might be in for a a slow and painful lesson teaching us only that Central Asian music was a cacophony of strange whiny-sounding horns and out-of-tune one-stringed bowed instruments and was not for us. "Doesn't matter; you can stand almost anything for an hour or so," she said, gamely insisting we should go.

Boy, did we ever misunderestimate. The Youth Chamber Orchestra of TÜRKSOY is stunningly good. It was an amazing evening.

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Rapping Karl Marx in China

In Sixth Tone, Fan Yiying has written an article that leaves me reeling:

"Hip Song Gives Karl Marx Good Rap:  Theme music for a Marx-focused television show is a hit with Chinese youth."

The video of the song is posted here (unfortunately, you have to wait 40 seconds to get through the ads). And here is the audio:

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Chinese-English rap

Thorin Engeseth writes:

I am a big fan of the English musician Tricky, who recently released an album with a song on it called "Beijing to Berlin".

According to an email his marketing team sent out:

The enigmatic voice on the single's A-side, "Beijing To Berlin," belongs to the Chinese rapper and producer Ivy 艾菲. Tricky explains: "I was in Beijing for a show and I met this guy who managed her. She's so different! So raw! The strange thing is, I've had the track for a while but I only just found out that she’s not rapping in Chinese. I ain’t got a clue what language it is. I have no idea. It might be completely made up but whatever it is, it sounds wicked."

I'm attaching a link to a video of the song here. I know very little about the languages of China, and am wondering if this song (a rap song) could just be in very heavily accented English, or is she making sounds up as she goes?

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Kongish, ch. 2

In "Kongish" (8/6/15), we looked at the phenomenon of extensive mixing of English and Cantonese by young people in Hong Kong.  We also became acquainted with the Kongish Daily, a Facebook page written in and about Kongish.  Many Language Log readers thought it was a satire or parody and that it was an ephemeral fad that would swiftly fade away. But here we are, half a year later, and the movement is still going strong, and even, it would seem, gaining momentum.

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Bob Dylan can't even

For Bob Dylan connoisseurs, the release of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 is a momentous occasion. It encompasses the studio sessions that gave us the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, and it's available as a 2-CD sampler, a reasonable 6-CD version, and an ultra-comprehensive 18-CD collector's edition for the true Dylan obsessives. The collector's edition, which compiles every outtake from those crucial 1965-66 sessions, may have been released by Columbia primarily for copyright reasons, but for those willing to slog through the 19-hour runtime, there are some unexpected pleasures.

For a Billboard review, Chris Willman listened to the whole 18-CD set in a marathon session. Here's how he describes one track:

Dylan grows increasingly frustrated by how he feels the Hawks are mangling "She's Your Lover Now." "Aw, it's ugly," he says. "I can't. I can't even." Did Bob Dylan just invent the 21st century catchphrase "I can't even"? I think he did!

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K-pop English

[This is a guest post by Alex Baumans]

I've been following the Kpop scene for a bit, and I noticed that there is a special flavour of English being used on websites and the like. This is different from the English being used in the songs themselves, which is also worthy of study. In the major websites (Koreaboo, Allkpop…) the English is basically OK. However, there are obviously specific Korean terms (oppa, maknae, aegyo), and English words that are used in a specific Kpop sense (visual, bias, schedule, stage…). This makes this English slightly strange, though not actually weird.

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The shawm and its eastern cousins

I have long been intrigued by the Chinese instrument called suǒnà 嗩吶 (double-reeded horn).  Because of the sound and shape of the name, and the fact that the characters used to write it both have mouth radicals, indicating that they are being used to convey pronunciation rather than meaning, I have always suspected that suǒnà 嗩吶 was the transcription of a foreign word.  This suspicion was underscored by the time (medieval period) and direction (from the Western Regions [as attested in wall paintings and plastic art]) that it entered the panoply of Chinese musical instruments.  There are at least half a dozen different combinations of various characters for transcribing the sound of this word (see Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 [Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic], 3.461b]).

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Transcendent Tonality

Since both consist of carefully managed and skillfully manipulated sound, music and language blend into each other.  This is most evident in song, of course, where language and tonality exist simultaneously.  But sometimes the human voice is treated as an instrument, and language recedes into the background.  On the other hand, something else human that is more ostensibly musical, namely whistling, can be used for the communication of ideas and information, tasks that are usually reserved for language.  See the great Wikipedia article on "Whistled language" and the masterful Wikipedia article on "Transcendental whistling", also this YouTube video:

"Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero". (10:20)

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Vocal gymnastics

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Musical discourse

Debating Vivaldi (and others), by Salut Salon:

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"Arirang" (Hangul:  아리랑) is arguably the most famous Korean folk song.  Indeed, "Arirang" is so well-known that it is often considered to be Korea's unofficial national anthem.  Yet no one is sure when the song arose nor what the title means.

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All the lonely Starbucks lovers

Melissa Dahl, "Why You Keep Mishearing That Taylor Swift Lyric", New York Magazine 11/24/2014:

There is a line in the newest Taylor Swift single “Blank Space” that I always, always hear wrong: Where Swift sings Got a long list of ex-lovers, for some reason I mishear, All the lonely Starbucks lovers. This makes no sense, but my brain persists in the misinterpretation, and apparently I’m not the only one. Over on Lainey Gossip today, Lainey herself writes:

At this point I think she should just change the name of the song to Lonely Starbucks Lovers. Yes, I can read the lyrics. But all I HEAR is “Lonely Starbucks Lovers”. And reading your emails and tweets, it seems you are the same.

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