Tempest in a cuppa

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Olivia Rudgard, "Why you put on an American accent when you sing", The Telegraph :

Even while singing that most British of songs, her own country's national anthem, it seems Hertfordshire-born Alesha Dixon couldn't resist the temptation to slip into an American accent.

The pop star was ridiculed after performing God Save the Queen at the British Grand Prix on Sunday with a distinctly US twang.

She claimed it was 'soul', and deliberately done. But she wouldn't be the first to fall foul of an urge to put on the voice. It's pretty common for non-American singers to sound like they're from across the pond while singing.

A lot of the reaction seems to be focused on her pronunciation of "God", though she also apparently sang "… save our queen" instead of "… save the queen":

It wasn't just the Torygraph that reacted. Some other coverage:

Imogen Calderwood, "'Gahaad save our Queen!' Alesha Dixon sets Twitter alight for singing national anthem at British Grand Prix with an American accent (and getting the lyrics wrong)", The Daily Mail;

Simon Keegan, "Alesha Dixon's National Anthem slammed on Twitter as she sings in dodgy American accent at Grand Prix", The Mirror;

Jack Shepherd, "British Grand Prix 2015: Alesha Dixon criticised for 'forgetting words' to national anthem – Viewers also quick to point out a put-on American accent", The Independent;

Duncan Lindsay, "Alesha Dixon is getting some hate for her American accent while singing the national anthem", Metro;

Annie Price, "Alesha Dixon slammed for singing national anthem in AMERICAN accent at British Grand Prix", The Express;

Rachel Blundy, "'Gad save our Queen': Alesha Dixon mocked for 'awful' performance of British national anthem after singing in American accent", The London Evening Standard;

Carla Callahan, "Alesha Dixon slammed for rendition of national anthem at Grand Prix", The Daily Record.

Bob Shackleton writes:

My personal favorite example of this phenomenon is the Kinks’ album “Muswell Hillbillies,” which has many songs about working-class Cockneys’ feelings about rural America.

Here's the title track — Muswell Hillbilly (lyrics):

They'll try and make me study elocution,
Because they say my accent isn't right,
They can clear the slums as part of their solution,
But they're never gonna kill my cockney pride.

Cos I'm a Muswell Hillbilly boy,
But my heart lies in Old West Virginia,
Though my hills, they're not green,
I've seen them in my dreams,
Take me back to those Black Hills,
That I ain't never seen.

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Bob observes that "Throughout the album – even in a single song – Ray Davies slips back and forth between Cockney and American ‘redneck’ speech." As an example, "Have a Cuppa Tea":



  1. Sean Bentley said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    Fair play, scads of American singers continue to fake their accents, long after The Beatles woke us to the joys of Britspeak.

  2. Levantine said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

    This is simply the default accent used by the vast majority of Anglophones singing standard pop fare. It's clearly modelled on the American accent, but it's so normal in commercial music that even I as a Brit find it slightly artificial when British singers consciously avoid it. Sam Smith's "I Know I'm Not the Only One", for example, is basically sung in an Americanised accent, but he insists on pronouncing "can't" as in a Southern English accent, which sounds quite jarring.

    What makes Alesha Dixon's use of the accent notable (and open to ridicule) is that the national anthem belongs to one of the few categories of music that we Brits agree shouldn't be sung in the generic American-ish accent that prevails in pop. Hymns and Christmas carols constitute another of these categories, and even Americans seem to veer towards a British accent when singing them.

  3. S Frankel said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    It happens in other languages, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzlILU_A0Ig

    In the translated lyrics, Anglesey stands in for the original's West Virginia, and God only knows what the saguaro cactus is doing there. Anyway, some of the singers affect a nasal twang that's not at all characteristic of Welsh, but presumably is thought to be a component of the musical style.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 7:09 pm

    Part of the jokiness of Muswell Hillbillies etc is that the Kinks were one of the more self-consciously British British bands of their generational cohort and had put in less than a median amount of effort early on in trying to imitate an American sound. Although Muswell Hillbillies came out in or close to the period in the band's history when Ray Davies would introduce the various other members at concerts and then conclude by saying "and my name's Johnny Cash."

    Most Rolling Stones songs are sung with Generic-Mick-Jagger pronunciation, which may have originated in the early '60's as MIck's version of something vaguely AAVEish based on an attempt to imitate the vocals on the American R&B records he was listening to, but now sounds just like one expects Mick Jagger to sound. But there is a subset of the Stones canon performed in a country & western style (examples would include Dead Flowers, Faraway Eyes, and No Spare Parts) where Jagger instead sings in what is clearly intended to be his Rustic White American Hillbilly Accent and . . . it's not very close to any actual American regional accent, or even a stylized/standardized singing accent he might have heard on records made by white singers in Nashville rather than black singers in Memphis.

    There is a perhaps less prominent phenomenon in the other direction: American rock singers affecting a not-very-authentic British accent in homage to one wave or another of popular-with-Americans British bands. Joey Ramone did this intermittently and I was listening the other day to an anthology of mostly-obscure Cleveland-area punk rock bands recorded between '75 and '82 and there were some examples there.

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 7:32 pm

    @Levantine: Thank you. What you say is very insightful and it clarifies for me much that has puzzled me until now.

    I am still puzzled, however, over the pronunciation of "God". I find that in British churches – a hundred miles from pop music – the pronunciation of "God" can be markedly Americanised. Not quite the American [ɡɑd], but still a longer vowel than British "cod" [kɒd]; almost [gɒːd]. Has anyone else noticed this, and if so can anyone shed light on it?

  6. Chad Nilep said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 7:38 pm

    I don't even think of this as American most of the time; it's simply the Pop Music accent. Thus Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians, and Swedes all sound more or less similar when singing soul, rock and roll, hip-hop, etc. I admit, though, it does sound odd to hear this variety used for God Save The Queen.

  7. Rebecca said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 7:48 pm

    Wait. Other countries do the national anthem before sporting events? Based on absolutely no evidence, I always thought that was just an American thing.

  8. Levantine said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

    Eric P Smith, I'm glad my comment was helpful. As for the pronunciation of "God" in British church music, could it simply be the elongation of the word that results in the sound you're hearing? I'm not a Christian, but I sometimes attend church services for the music, and I've never noticed "God" being pronounced in a way that sounded American(ising) (which would come close to rhyming with the Southern English pronunciation of "guard"). I have noticed, though, that British choristers singing in a highly formal non-rhotic accent (complete with trilled Rs) avoid even standard instances of intervocalic R between separate words, so that the second R in a phrase like "my brother is" would not be sounded. I wonder if this is a hyperocorrection or some choral rule of pronunciation that people are taught.

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    July 6, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    Levantine: Sorry, what I said was most unclear. I meant to say it's the pronunciation of "God" in speech that seems to me to be almost [gɒːd], not the pronunciation in song where of course the length of the vowel is determined by the length of the note to which it is sung. I'm sure that if I asked my church friends to read a passage containing the words "cod", "nod", "rod", "sod" and "God", the last of these would have a longer vowel than the four others. In fact I might do just that: my church friends know me as eccentric enough for them not to be surprised by such a request.

  10. phspaelti said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 12:23 am

    Does any of what Ray Davies is slipping in-and-out of really qualify as "Cockney"?. Muswell Hills isn't exactly East London. For a true example of Cockney in rock music I'd suggest listening to the Small Faces' Steve Marriott.

  11. Jeff W said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 12:28 am

    @ Levantine

    This is simply the default accent used by the vast majority of Anglophones singing standard pop fare.

    @ Chad Nilep

    Thus Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians, and Swedes all sound more or less similar when singing soul, rock and roll, hip-hop, etc.

    Just a day or two ago I was actually listening on YouTube to some 40-year-old songs of The Seekers, the “Australian folk-influenced pop quartet” (according to Wikipedia), and noticed how Judith Durham pronounced world (“The Music Of The World A-turnin'” here) and pearly (“Open Up Them Pearly Gates,” a bluegrass gospel song, here)—as distinctively non-American or non-“pop” as can be. The fact that I even even noticed it shows how out-of-the-norm I found it to be.

  12. djbcjk said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 1:06 am

    Eric P Smith: Perhaps the pronunciation [gɒːd], as you note, is what earlier writers tried to convey when they wrote 'Gawd'.

  13. Levantine said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 2:12 am

    Eric P Smith, that's even more puzzling to me. I would go with djbcjk's explanation, though I associate that pronunciation with jocular cockney or very old-fashioned RP.

  14. Andrew McCarthy said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 2:26 am

    Speaking as an amateur in the field of linguistics: I suspect that much of the perceived problem in this particular instance lies in the *tempo* chosen by Alesha Dixon, not just with her accent.

    Usually when I listen to videos of people singing "God Save the Queen", it sounds slightly slower than normal English speech rhythm, as one might expect for such a stately quasi-hymn.

    But here, Dixon sounds like she's drawing out her vowels and pauses rather more than usual, resulting in a cadence more appropriate to the lugubrious pace typical of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

    The association (whether intended or not) with that particular anthem might explain where the peculiar charge of an "overly American accent" comes from.

  15. Keith Clarke said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 3:23 am

    Rebecca: according to Wikipedia –


    the first occasion a national anthem was sung at a sporting event was at a Wales v New Zealand rugby match in 1905.

  16. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 3:54 am

    It seems to me :) that, at least in some genres, British acts have toned down the fake American twang over the last thirty years or so. But I have to say I was almost shocked when I heard can't and class with the START vowel from Passenger and Ed Sheeran in a cover of an American rap song, no less. Within the first minute or so:

    Ed Sheeran feat. Passenger: No diggity

    Probably because this is a deliberately non-commercial "singing away at home" rendering…? And I don't find it jarring the way Levantine does above…

  17. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 3:56 am

    Oh, plus a glottal stop in "get it[ʔ] out of my mind"…

  18. Bean said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 5:58 am

    @Rebecca: Yes, at least in Canada…but even then, I found it peculiar that we sang O Canada before a kids' triathlon two weekends ago. (Mind you, we were was approaching the Canada Day holiday at the time.) I have been a spectator at several triathlons and that was the first time we sang the national anthem (FWIW, accompanied by a recording).

  19. Robert said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 6:22 am

    Not every genre uses the same accent. The native accent of European "new wave" music seemed to be (southern) English, at least from the examples of:
    Video Killed the Radio Star (… we /kɑːnt/ rewind. we've gone too far …) by the Buggles (British)
    Forever Young (Let's /dɑːns/ in style …) by Alphaville (German)
    Take on Me (… say /ɑːftə/ me …) by a-ha (Norwegian).

  20. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 8:23 am

    I think that some of this results from the demands of singing vs speaking. The need to keep the mouth wide open on sustained notes means that you can't form diphthongs in the usual way.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 9:06 am

    Ray Davies (and his brother/bandmate Dave) grew up in Muswell Hill in a working-class family (the neighborhood may have subsequently gentrified). It is pretty easy poking around youtube to find audio of him being interviewed so you can judge his non-singing accent for geographical/class markers (I guess you could also look for interviews with Dave to see if they're the same or perhaps one or the other has shifted over the years). Of course, just because Ray may sometimes sing in a more "British" accent than the default for British rock singers of his generation doesn't mean he's singing in his "natural" voice; it might be a "mockney" sort of thing chosen for aesthetic effect or to reflect the particular character who is the protagonist of the particular song.

  22. Levantine said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    Jarek Weckwerth, I suppose what I was getting at in my earlier comment is that the pop singing accent isn't really a "fake American twang" at all, even if it is Americanising. It's so well established and widespread that I think most non-American Anglophones effortlessly adopt it it when singing in a pop style. As you yourself acknowledge, it's the alternatives that often call more attention to themselves, and for this reason, I find that it actually sounds more artificial when a British singer insists on a Southern English pronunciation of "can't" while singing everything else in the usual pop manner. Conversely, songs like the national anthem sound highly fake when sung in anything but a British accent, and I would expect a pop singer to know this and adjust his/her pronunciation accordingly. It's really a sort of code-switching.

    I'm not convinced by explanations that suggest that this sort of accent just happens to sound American but is actually the (physical) product of singing slowly and/or loudly. Is "can't" pronounced the American way really any easier to sing audibly or with a wide mouth than its Southern English counterpart?

    Jeff W's comment raises an interesting point about rhoticity in this pop accent. I've found that American singers tend to minimise their rhoticity, whereas non-rhotic Anglophones do the opposite. What makes The Seekers' pronunciation of "world" and "pearly" stand out isn't really the elision of the R (such elision might well have occurred had the singers been American), but rather the resultant inconsistency with other words in their music (such as "for") that are heavily rhoticised.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    Perhaps there's a subtle increase in rhoticity (viewed as a continuum rather than binary on/off feature) in the singing of some/most British rock/pop singers compared to their speaking voices, but it still ends up sounding very non-rhotic to my rhotic ear, such that variations from that norm are quite notable. The Jagger-faux-hillbilly accent I referenced above used on a minority of Stones songs is quite self-consciously rhotic in a way that's a bit off (probably a common feature of Brits trying to "sound American"?), but I have noticed more recently (and it's one of those things that once you finally notice you can't un-notice) that there are unselfconscious instances of rhoticity in Robert Plant's vocals on the early Zeppelin recordings. I found this unexpected (particularly when you assume that he was like many others trying to model his singing on that of non-rhotic American bluesmen) but it turns out if you look at the historical maps put out by dialectologists that the particular bit of England Plant grew up (just west of Birmingham) was "border country" that may have still been majority-rhotic when he was a boy although the frontier has shifted further west since then.

  24. mollymooly said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    Country and Irish singers have some interesting accents.

  25. Boursin said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    Still unsurpassed as a minor classic in the field is Peter Trudgill's "Acts of Conflicting Identity: The Sociolinguistics of British Pop-Song Pronunciation" in his On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives (1983).

    Among other things, he draws attention to the curious phenomenon of singers using a kind of syncretistic fantasy dialect, with several different phonemes connoting "Americanness" that do not actually occur together in any one real-world sociolect.

  26. Rebecca said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

    However natural it might be now to always Americanize pop singing, it seems like it was more a conscious choice in the 60s. One thing (ok, the only thing) I like about Herman's Hermits is the fact that they so strongly resisted the trend: http://youtu.be/lv8k0VI9tBc

  27. Jeff W said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

    @ Levantine

    Thank you for that interesting observation regarding the inconsistency in rhoticity—perhaps that’s what made it so notable for me.

    I agree completely with your comment to Jarek Weckwerth about that singing style being a “pop style” that happens to be Americanizing rather than an effort to sound “American.” To me, it’s rather like US airline pilots speaking in the style of Chuck Yeager—they’re not trying to sound West Virginian (they probably don’t even know that’s where the accent originates)—they’re just speaking in a way that is now (or maybe was) considered “genre-appropriate” for US airline pilots.

  28. Lazar said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 6:07 pm

    @Andrew McCarthy: Guh, almost everyone sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" too slow. It's supposed to be rousing!

  29. maidhc said,

    July 7, 2015 @ 6:16 pm

    In the genres of traditional folk song and Irish pub music (e.g., the Dubliners), American singers often adopt a fake English, Scottish or Irish accent, usually not very successfully. You might say they're just trying to sound like the records, I suppose.

    I started out speaking with a non-rhotic accent, but later in life I switched to being rhotic, so I suppose I could sing either way and claim it was authentic. If I sing a song I learned when I was six years old, shouldn't I sing it with the accent I had when I was six?

  30. joanne salton said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 10:08 am

    It is all very well to avoid an American accent while singing popular music if you are a cockney. If you sound as if you attended public school in the home counties it is a different matter. In that case your karaoke version of Guns'n'Roses may remind people of God Save the Queen.

  31. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    @Robert: I don't find it unusual to hear southeastern English accents from European pop groups because this is the most popular accent among Continental speakers generally. But it is true that this accent became associated with New Wave music to the point that even several American artists who performed in the genre adopted it. For instance, I remember one of my college roommates disparaging the way Ministry front man Al Jourgensen (born in Cuba but raised mostly in the Chicago area) sings "can't" in the 1984 single "(Every Day Is) Halloween": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFPI9b9N6CQ. (Jourgensen moved away from this accent as he left behind synthpop for the harsher sounds of industrial music.) Other examples that come readily to mind include New Jersey synthpop trio Anything Box and LA's Animotion (who, from their singing accents, I originally thought were Australian).

    Non-rhoticity is so widespread in pop music generally that some people I know found it jarring to hear the strongly retroflexed /r/ in songs from Irish rock band The Cranberries. (It didn't help matters that their debut single was titled "Linger", a prominent word in the chorus.)

  32. Levantine said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    Jeff W, I'd always wondered why American airline pilots all speak alike — thanks! Their British counterparts generally sound quite posh; perhaps some of them are also conforming to what's expected rather than speaking as they normally would.

    Daniel von Brighoff, I actually thought of The Cranberries when writing my earlier comment on rhoticity in this pop accent. I think there may be other elements of their singing accent that betray their Irishness.

    It just dawned on me that the very title of this post bears on the question of US-UK differences, as the British version of the idiom is "storm in a teacup" (I've never heard the "tempest" version in the UK).

  33. Bean said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

    I was going to say something about the way the Cranberries' diphthongs come out that make them sound so Irish to me. I would have to twist my mouth quite a bit to sing the word "like" the way they do.

    @Levantine: if you haven't already check out the blog: Separated By A Common Language (http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.ca/). It's a great read and written by a linguist.

  34. Jeff W said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

    @ Levantine

    Their British counterparts generally sound quite posh; perhaps some of them are also conforming to what's expected…

    Yeah, I have a feeling that a lot of this has to do with expectations and “genre appropriateness”—that’s the way we’d like/expect/want these people to sound (or the way they like/expect/want to sound themselves).

    It’s not just pop singers and pilots, obviously—it extends to the “folksiness” of Presidents; the r-lessness of early-to-mid-20th century radio announcers; and the British accents of Hollywood villains, characters in fantasy worlds, and ancient Romans who, apparently, all graduated from Cambridge or Oxford before returning to the Eternal City.

    My own completely lay hypothesis is that a lot, but not all, of that has to do with people’s (US media/communication types, mostly) implicit theories of power distance—“American”/folksy = more on the same level; “British” = at a higher level (that villain is meant to appear “superior”); the “fantasy world” thing is a little different—it seems like there is a faux-medievalism going on there. On one level, it’s all pretty ridiculous—the ancient Roman characters could be speaking with Brooklyn accents, given that, obviously, once they’re speaking English, all bets are off—but that just goes to show how embedded these expectations are.

  35. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 8, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

    The Cranberries are such a prominent exception even among Irish rock acts (you won't hear that kind of diction from Bono, Sinéad, or Glen Hansard) that I wonder if it might have something to do with them wanting to foreground their origins in the West. (All four current members are from Limerick.)

  36. Jacques Willemen said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 8:45 am

    Keith Clarke:
    You mention an international sports event.
    In the USA the anthem is sung at national events.

  37. H said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 4:27 pm

    @Levantine: in my experience, the chorister r-non-sounding is deliberately taught.

    @JWB: As you probably know, Davies deliberately cultivated Britishness after being banned from touring America. Given that the US is the major market for popular culture, perhaps British pop singers either deliberately try to make themselves seem more local or – more likely – the millieu they're in, as they grow in success, is very US-centred, and so pop singers subconsciously try to adapt their accent; perhaps it indicates you've somehow made it, an option Davies never got (fortunately for his music, to me; just about everything from 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion' onwards would not make sense to any American, and how could Village Green or Arthur have been made?)

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