Archive for Language and music

"Slide down my cellar door"

In a 2010 NYT “On Language” column, Grant Barrett traced the claim that “cellar door” is the most beautiful phrase in English back as far as 1905 1903. I posted on the phrase a few years ago ("The Romantic Side of Familiar Words"), suggesting that there was a reason why linguistic folklore fixed  on that particular phrase, when you could make the same point with other pedestrian expressions like linoleum or oleomargarine:

…The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the enchantment that C. S. Lewis reported when he saw cellar door rendered as Selladore — lies the sudden falling away of the repressions imposed by orthography … to reveal what Dickens called "the romantic side of familiar things." … In the world of fantasy, that role is suggested literally in the form of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a brick wall at platform 9¾. Cellar door is the same kind of thing, the expression people use to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience.

But that doesn't explain why the story emerged when it did. Could it have had to do with the song "Playmates," with its line "Shout down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door"? There's no way to know for sure, but the dates correspond, and in fact those lines had an interesting life of their own…

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Corsican polyphony

I spent last Thursday and Friday at a workshop on error analysis, and Thursday evening there there was a Corsican banquet, with a concert by the musical group Sarocchi. The banquet and concert were in honor of Joseph Mariani, who is originally from Corsica. Here's a video of part of an a capella duet, which I took with my cell phone:

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Ode to The Best I Ever Had

Cassandra Gillig mashes up Frank O'Hara's 1957 Ode to Joy (read in 1966?) with Drake's 2009 Best I Ever Had:

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Simply having misplaced modifier trouble

Why does Sir Paul McCartney's 1979 song "Wonderful Christmastime" (it was playing just now in a store I had to visit) make my teeth itch? It is catchy, and perfectly crafted to sound Christmassy, and I admire Sir Paul's musicianship and taste, and in every way his song should be placed in the upper quartile of the Christmas music you hear in every retail outlet now that December's here in the USA. (Think about it: What it's competing with is "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and "Jingle Bell Rock", and numerous other songs that make you want to think again about the merits of Vogon poetry.) So what is it that bugs me? I think I've figured it out. Misplaced adverb.

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"Oppan Chomsky Style"

Somehow, Language Log has yet to take notice of the international sensation that is "Gangnam Style," the deliciously weird Korean pop video that currently has more than 560 million views on YouTube. Here's a good opportunity to rectify that oversight: among the countless spoofs of the video is this one by enterprising MIT students, featuring a cameo by Noam Chomsky at 3:20.

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A life out of key

As I followed last month's big educational scandal in Britain, the story of the teacher who ran away with a young schoolgirl, a song was going round in my head. The obvious one (what else?): Sting's "Don't Stand So Close to Me," the last big hit by The Police back in 1980 (they recorded a moodier reprise of it in 1986). Sting's lyrics ("Young teacher, the subject // Of schoolgirl fantasy…”) are a remarkable piece of writing, telling their story in spare yet evocative phrases. But I've noticed something else: The grammar of the song's chord structure also contributes to the storytelling.

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"G-dropping" in songs and life

One of the requirements for the Introduction to Linguistics course that I teach is a term project, for which I ask students to

In plain language: explain something about how a piece of talk works.

More exactly: analyze the communicative effects of some aspects of one or more linguistic performances, attending to at least two different levels of linguistic analysis.

This is just one part of one introductory undergraduate class (it counts for 20% of the grade), but most of the 120 course participants do something interesting. This year, two students looked at the differences in g-dropping rates between musical performances and interviews, for two quite different performers.

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Life's twists and turns

Swiss Life, the insurance company, has a series of advertisements (see them here) in which the punchline is always "For all life's twists and turns: flexible financial plans", and the main text, in large print to catch your attention, is a non-sentence with weird structure. For example:

I love my house now belongs to my ex-wife.
I never want children are great.
I'm not interested in getting married in church is more romantic.
She's my everything went wrong.
I like working with you is impossible.
You are the only woman I love a man now.

A reader named Shreevatsa wrote to ask me what kind of structure these lines have. Well, no structure that English syntax permits. But I've seen this kind of thing before, and I'll tell you where.

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She's got two sibilants, no bilabial plosives

Time for some pop-music phonology! Erin McKean directs our attention to a video for "Saskia Hamilton," a song by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby from their 2010 album Lonely Avenue. The video is performed by Charlie McDonnell, known on YouTube as "charlieissocoollike."

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Rap scholarship, rap meter, and The Anthology of Mondegreens

Paul Devlin has a fascinating series of articles at Slate on transcription errors in the recently-published Anthology of Rap.  Well, the first one starts out as a review of the book, but after the first paragraph or so, it's all about the Mondegreens: "Fact-Check the Rhyme (The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?)", 11/4/2010; "It Was Written (Why are there so many errors in The Anthology of Rap? The editors respond)", 11/10/2010; "Stakes Is High (Members of the Anthology of Rap's advisory board speak out about the book's errors. Plus: Grandmaster Caz lists the mistakes in his lyrics.)", 10/19/2010.

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Boldog születésnapot!

To mark 20 years of the Theoretical Linguistics program at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, our friends there celebrated with remarkable panache:

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"Bohemian Rhapsody": Bismillah or… Mitch Miller?

The Associated Press obituary for Mitch Miller includes this highly questionable tidbit:

Miller's square reputation in the post-rock era brought his name and music to unexpected places… During Queen's nonsensical camp classic, "Bohemian Rhapsody," the group chants "Mitch MILL-uh!" as if to affirm the song's absurdity.

Surely that's a mondegreen. The AP would have been well-served to consult Am I Right or Kiss This Guy, online repositories of misheard lyrics. It's not "Mitch Miller" that Queen is singing, but bismillah, the formulaic utterance in Classical Arabic that introduces each sura (chapter) of the Qur'an. (It means "In the name of God"; the full formula is bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.")

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ommmm picToday's Guardian offers Improbable research: The repetitive physics of Om. Tantalizing. In turn, this links to Ajay Anil Gurjar and Siddharth A. Ladhak, Time-Frequency Analysis of Chanting Sanskrit Divine Sound "OM" Mantra, International Journal of Computer Science and Network Security, VOL.8 No.8, August 2008. Even more tantalizing. A new field of theophonetics!

Unfortunately,  the article is not divine.

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Modal deafness

The business about musical modality and emotion reminds me of an amazing unpublished experimental result.  At least, it's amazing if it's true; and I think it probably is.

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Indie-pop Manglish

Over the weekend, one of the guests on the NPR show "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" was the Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi, who has managed to convert YouTube buzz into an indie recording contract and a well-received debut album. Most of her lyrics are in English, but one of her songs, which she performed on the show, code-mixes Malay and English. As she explains, the song "Kantoi" (meaning "Busted") is in "a hybrid of Malay and English called Manglish." I talked about Manglish a few years ago in the post, "Malaysia cracks down on 'salad language,'" where I discussed measures taken by the Malaysian government to ban Malay-English mixtures. I wonder how government officials feel now that Manglish is getting international exposure, thanks to a diminutive, ukulele-strumming songstress.

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