She's got two sibilants, no bilabial plosives

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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."


This ode to the poet Saskia Hamilton, from the perspective of a young lit nerd, has a number of suitably nerdy jokes in it, such as "My teacher just told me that she's dactylic!" (Pronounced as "SAS-ki-a HAM-il-ton," the name is a double dactyl.) The phonological bit comes in the line, "She's got two sibilants, no bilabial plosives." For the charlieissocoollike video, Erin observes, they use entries for these terms from the Mac OS X version of the New Oxford American Dictionary. (Erin was editor of the 2nd edition of NOAD.)

When I first encountered the song, I was under the impression that the line was "She's got two sibilant bilabial plosives," since I had consulted a faulty online transcription of the lyrics. That wouldn't make any sense, because a plosive is a stop consonant, in which airflow is completely closed before its release (e.g., /k/, /t/, /p/, /g/, /d/, /b/), while a sibilant is a fricative consonant in which airflow continues through a constricted passage (e.g., /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/). Fortunately, the lyricist Hornby (better known for such novels as High Fidelity and About a Boy) did his homework, and the actual line is correct: there are two sibilant /s/ sounds in "Saskia (Hamilton)," and no bilabial plosives (e.g., /p/ or /b/). (The /m/ in "Hamilton" is a bilabial nasal, with the airflow released through the nose.)

So, with the lyrics transcribed correctly, the song is a better guide to phonological terminology than Vivian Stanshall's 1970 single "Labio-Dental Fricative," mentioned by Arnold Zwicky in a Language Log post last year discussing linguistics-related pop songs. As commenter Chas Belov noted at the time, the lyrics for the song, co-written by Stanshall with his Bonzo Dog Band colleague Neil Innes, don't have much in the way of labiodental fricatives (e.g., /f/ or /v/), instead involving alliteration with other consonants (e.g., "Cannibal chiefs chew Camembert cheese 'cause chewing makes them cheeky"). And I see on YouTube that the group Portable Jesus has a song called "Voiceless Labiodental Fricative," but it's an instrumental.

Moving away from phoneme-rock to phonologically minded songs more generally, a commenter on Erin's Dictionary Evangelist blog mentions "What's Your English?", a rap song commissioned by Macmillan Dictionary, pitting Baba Brinkman of Canada against Professor Elemental of the UK:

You can follow the lyrics here. A sample:

Professor: Oh, what a mistake to give our language to the colonies.
Baba: What are you saying?
Professor: You’re not using it properly!
It’s simply not cricket, your slang is unclear!
The R is intrusive, you have no idear.

Nice to have some musical recognition of intrusive /r/ (though, to get technical, the non-rhotic Professor Elemental would more likely have the intrusive /r/ than the rhotic Baba Brinkman). Still, for my money, the best treatment of the rhotic/non-rhotic dialectal divide in a pop song is The Proclaimers' "Throw the 'R' Away" (1987), in which the Reid brothers sing about anxieties over their Scottish rhoticity:

I've been so sad
Since you said my accent was bad
He's worn a frown
This Caledonian clown

I'm just going to have to learn to hesitate
To make sure my words on your Saxon ears don't grate
But I wouldn't know a single word to say
If I flattened all the vowels and I threw the 'R' away

Here's an acoustic performance from 2007:

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13 Comments »

  1. Kobey said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    don't forget about the Jos van Oss (slightly NSFW) song:
    Zachte G Harde L

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzN3CttekBs

  2. Mark F. said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    I notice the animated background spelled "tomahto" as "tomarto", so I'm guessing Tommy Nagle, who is credited with the animation, is British. Of course nobody pronounces "tomato" the way most North American English speakers would pronounce the string "tomarto".

    Also, I have the impression the normal pronunciation of Saskia is sas-KEE-a, and I think that's even how it's pronounced in the song (It's hard to tell with the staccato delivery, but the vowel of "Sas" sounds very schwa-like). So not really dactylic.

  3. John Cowan said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    A neat but rather squicky video: YouTube meets RP slash. One wonders what Saskia Hamilton thinks.

    The link to the "What's Your English" lyrics is 404. [bgz: Sorry, fixed.]

  4. m.m. said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    hmm, what are "flattened vowels" to scottish ears? haha.

    Mark F. said,
    April 17, 2011 @ 1:24 pm
    I notice the animated background spelled "tomahto" as "tomarto", so I'm guessing Tommy Nagle, who is credited with the animation, is British. Of course nobody pronounces "tomato" the way most North American English speakers would pronounce the string "tomarto".

    Also, I have the impression the normal pronunciation of Saskia is sas-KEE-a, and I think that's even how it's pronounced in the song (It's hard to tell with the staccato delivery, but the vowel of "Sas" sounds very schwa-like). So not really dactylic.

    a. I noticed the 'tomarto' too, their 'ar' for/ɑ/ is like rhotic's use of 'ah', ie 'tomahto'.

    b. I'd agree with your dual impressions re: Saskia. The vowel to me sounds [ɐ] like.

  5. Keith Ivey said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

    But the "ah" spelling works for rhotics and nonrhotics. Nonrhotics should give up on "ar". It just leads to things like Americans thinking the singer Sade pronounces her name "Shar-day" with an "r" in the middle. Not to mention "Myanmar" (though I guess "Burma" is an earlier instance of a similar problem).

  6. Keith Ivey said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 4:40 pm

    Mark F., the first time I remember noticing the name Saskia was on "Eastenders", and there it was pronounced with first-syllable stress—for example, at about 1:50 here.

  7. Bobbie said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    SAS-kee-a according to this site: http://inogolo.com/pronunciation/Saskia

  8. Ellen K. said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

    @Mark F.

    In the song, I defintely hear SASkia. Can't vouch for the vowel quality with all the noise going on, but definitely accented on the first syllable.

  9. chris said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    The name Saskia seems to have come to English-speaking countries from the Netherlands, and there it is certainly pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

  10. Mark F. said,

    April 17, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    Shoulda Googled before commenting. Been guilty of that before.

  11. J. Goard said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 12:13 am

    Hornby's poetic impression that there are "no hard consonants" is certainly not mine. I think of sibilants first, and especially voiceless clusters, when I think of a line sounding "hard". My favorite example comes from Aimee Mann's "Save Me":

    (save me)
    from the ranks
    of the freaks
    who suspect
    they could never love anyone

    My impression is that the first three lines ("from…suspect") sound fittingly harsh with the /s/s, /f/s and /k/s, while the last line with its /v/s, sonorants and glides sounds deflated and resigned.

    So the song's premise really fizzles for me. "Saskia" is a harsh-sounding name, and "Hamilton" is about as random as English phonemes get, thus isn't a very poetic word at all.

  12. S. Norman said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    She Speaks the Vulgar Tongue

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45nGnJVG8Kw

    " when I talk back to her I have to use the vernacular…"

  13. dw said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    nobody pronounces "tomato" the way most North American English speakers would pronounce the string "tomarto"

    Although when the word was borrowed into Hindi, it became [ʈəmɑʈəɾ] with a final rhotic.

    [bgz: See also the character Mater from the movie Cars ("like 'tuh-mater' but without the 'tuh'"). And of course there's tater from potato.]

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