Jersey Boys and the bullshit letter

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In London en route to give a talk at a conference in Spain, I took an evening off to give my excellent brother Richard (he has done me so many favors) a really good birthday present. Richard is a long-time fan of the Four Seasons, so it couldn't have been clearer what the birthday present should be: center front-row dress-circle seats for Jersey Boys at the Prince Edward Theatre in the West End. It's an extraordinary production, extremely fast-paced, highly entertaining, and musically authentic. Nearly all of the greatest of the Four Seasons' hits and Frankie Valli's solo songs are performed in the course of a high-speed presentation of the group's life story. It's a wonderful night out.

The linguistic relevance of this, you ask? Well, of course there are linguistic aspects. This is Language Log, not Frankie Valli Log. Two linguistic points occurred to me.

First, the minor one: for anyone who was worrying that the British cast might not be up to the demands of thick New Jersey working-class accents, or that the extraordinary qualities of Frankie Valli's voice might impossible to emulate: don't worry. Get your tickets. I have a pretty good ear for bad British attempts at American accents, and the converse, and the young cast of Jersey Boys do the accents for the spoken dialog just about perfectly. As with Renee Zellwegger (a Texan) doing Bridget Jones in London-area British English, it is possible to learn accents across the Atlantic without the result being embarrassing. One would need to look in the cast notes even to tell that these actors had not been shipped in from Atlantic City. Even more surprising is how well the astonishing timbre of Valli's voice is imitated by the lead actor Ryan Molloy.

And second, there is a lovely bit of dialogue about linguistics in the first act, when the girl that young Frankie eventually marries tells him that "Vally" (his idea) is not the right spelling for his proposed stage name. It should be "Valli", she insists. And why? She tells him emphatically:

Because y is a bullshit letter. It doesn't know if it's a vowel or a consonant. You're an Italian. You have to end in a vowel. Like pizza. A vowel says, "This is who I am. If you don't like it, you can go fuck yourself."

Well spoken. The letter y is indeed anomalous in English orthography: it represents a vowel (the vowel of high) in fly; replaced by a vowel letter in inflected forms of that same word (e.g., flies); it represents a completely different vowel (the vowel of he) in happy, where again it is replaced by a vowel letter in derivationally related words like happiness; it is part of a vowel representation in buy and Jersey and boy and say; but it stands for a consonant in you . . . This is a letter with no self-image and no sense of self-worth, and it was good to hear it denounced from the stage in a West End musical. (And Language Log has commented before on final vowels as a signature of Italian-American identity.)

It is good that Frankie stuck with Italian spelling for his invented name (he was born Francis Stephen Castelluccio, which ends nicely in vowels but was a little long to put on marquees and 45 r.p.m. record labels). It is good that instead of spending his life doing B&E's (breaking and entering jobs — a normal occupation among the guys he grew up with) he met Bob Gaudio and produced several dozen of the most extraordinary pop recordings of the last fifty years. (Barbara and I saw Frankie do an extraordinary show in Las Vegas in 2003 in his 70th year, and I sent Language Log a postcard.) It is good that the story of the Four Seasons was turned into a musical so successfully

The show was casually damned by the most disgusting columnist at The Independent, Cooper Brown, whose schtick is being a repellent sour negative shaven-headed low-life drunken American expatriate liar. Ignore him. Ask my brother Richard. The production is superb, a worthy tribute to one of the all-time greats of popular music. And if Cooper Brown doesn't like it . . .


  1. Bloix said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    Frankie Valli may have borrowed his name from the 30's and 40's crooner, film star, and heartthrob Rudy Vallee. Vallee came by his name honestly – he was born in Vermont of French Canadian immigrant parents.

  2. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 11:23 am

    Which is ironic because the name ("Vallée") is pronoucned very similarly to English… It's my stepfather's family name, incidentally.l

  3. Vance Maverick said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 11:51 am

    Is it possible he borrowed it from Alida Valli? Also a stage name, but designed to make her sound more Italian.

  4. Josh Millard said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

    Geoff, the thought of you maintaining a Frankie Valli blog in your spare time is kind of adorable. (The question that remains, for me, is what you would call it. Frankie Valli Log is too derivative, I think. Let's Be Frankie? Or maybe Castelluccio No You Didn't.)

  5. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    I would just like to come to the defense of the letter y, and say that I for one applaud its rather unique ability to choose its [syll] value. Let's see the letter i occupy an onset.

  6. R N B said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

    That explains a "miraculous" incident.

    I was one of only five consultants on a project. Five apparently random names. But remarkably, in order of seniority, the surnames of the five of us ended with the letters A (the managing partner), E (me), I (the lead technical analyst), O (the lead business analyst), and U (the lead programmer).

    What were the chances of our surnames ending with those letters in that particular order?

    Not so surprising when you consider that 2 were Italian, one was Spanish, one was Chines and one was Indian.

    Reference is here.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    Let’s see the letter i occupy an onset.

    OK. In As you like it, Rosalind says:

    O most gentle Iupiter, what tedious homilie of Loue haue you wearied your parishioners withall, and neuer cri'de, haue patience good people.

    Or, to quote a better known and older phrase, "alea iacta est".

  8. John Cowan said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    It's unlikely I will see this production to check for myself, but I harbor a dark suspicion that the alleged authentic accents are overdone, too "thick". Leastways that's what usually happens in these things.

  9. mollymooly said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    Poor Y! Other "vowel" letters besides Y represent glides without being denigrated as mongrels. U is /w/ after Q, and in other words like "langUage"; arguably E is /j/ in words like "fEud", "Euphoria". And waht about the O in "one"?

    In French, Y is always considered one of the six vowels. Dead right to keep it cut-and-dried: otherwise, in "foyer", /fwaje/ which letters would be vowels and which consonants?

    In the 18th century, U and V (and W) were split, and so were I and J: maybe we need to split vowel-Y from consonant-Y. I propose using the Dutch IJ ligature for consonant-Y.

  10. Acheman said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 9:29 pm

    Speaking as a Londoner, I have to say that Renée Zellweiger's accent didn't sound terribly good to me, though I'm not sure whether it's better to say that it was the wrong accent; Renée performed her as a super-Sloane, whereas Bridget Jones in the books always seemed – given her speech patterns, employment, family history and so on – more like she'd be speaking the 'meeja' variety of RP. Still, it was an exceptionally stilted version even of Sloane. It was better than Sean Astin in Lord of the Rings, but it wasn't all that it's been cracked up to be.

  11. john riemann soong said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 10:35 pm

    Isn't the "w" in "quest" actually more of a secondarily-articulated labialisation.

    I really have a trouble with distinguishing consonants, semivowels and vowels and at times it seems the distinction is rather arbitrary. "Valley" after all, ends in a long /i/ that at times I have seen represented as /i:/, /iI/, /ij/ or /i^j/. My French phonetics textbook (which is more concentrated in the French than the linguistic theory) presents the English /u:/ phoneme as /ɯ^w/. While apparently I have come across dialect tables that make a distinction between /aI/ and /ai/ (apparently it seems that some Scottish English dialects might be more inclined to use /ai/?), I have come across texts that represent the new diphthong that emerged from Middle Englih long-i as /aj/, with "house" transcribed as /haws/.

    In the case of diphthongs, is there any real basis to making a distinction between vowel and semiconsonant (or even consonant)? It is commonly stressed to me that there are no diphthongs in French, but gee, with that semiconsonantl at the end of that vowel it seems you just as well might have a diphthong.

  12. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 10, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    Jersei Bois? That would be somewhere in France, Geoffrei?

  13. Christopher Stone said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 2:48 am

    This reminds me of the Family Guy bit about 'Y'…

    Stewie: When I'm finished with you, you're going to hate me more than the other vowels hate 'Y' .
    (the "A" "E" "I" "O" and "U" are in a meeting)
    A: Well, for our next activity-
    (the "Y" comes in talking on the phone)
    E: Well, well, well. Look who decided to show up.
    Y: (on the phone) Well, no no, I could do that for you, yeah…oh that was a good one. Better I´ll call you later for some reasons. Ok, bye.
    (his phone rings again)
    Y: (answer the phone) Yeah, hello? Oh no, I can talk, F.

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