One English to Rule Them All?

Please don’t think that there is only one correct version of English. There isn’t. English flourishes in a multitude of dialects and accents. Each one is a perfect form of English in itself.

Listen to Kurt Cobain’s cover of The Man Who Sold the World. Knowing that the song was written by David Bowie, a Londoner, does Kurt’s American accent ‘spoil’ it?:

David Bowie is from Brixton. You can see him interviewed on television at the age of 17 here. As you’d expect, his vowels are rounded London vowels. He’ll have written the song with his own voice in mind :

You can hear David’s London vowels clearly in alone, face or gazed. Kurt’s West Coast vowel sounds are flatter (except when he sings roamed or alone)Does it matter that Kurt’s vowel sounds aren’t exactly like David Bowie’s? No, it doesn’t.

Is British English more correct or somehow better than American English? No, it isn’t.

Each singer breathes life into The Man Who Sold The World with their own personal style. If they are native speakers, no matter where they come from, their English will naturally bend to fit the music.

As a non-native singer of English you have extra responsibilities. Make sure that your English is understandable. Make sure that your words fit the musical phrasing of the song.

Milliseconds matter. Songwriters choose words for their meaning, sound, value, stress pattern or length of vowel sound.  Each word and each sound strengthens the mood and supports the rhythm of the music. If you place stress in the wrong place or if you sing the wrong vowel sounds you will unbalance and then break that close connection to the music. It will begin to slip away from you and you will find yourself sliding, note by note, out of time and out of control.

Do your homework when you want to sing in English: use your ears first and your eyes second. Kurt Cobain and David Bowie sound very different, but both sound very right. Why? It’s part of your job, when you sing in English, to work out the answer.

© Sing Better English, 2014

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4 thoughts on “One English to Rule Them All?”

  1. I have always been interested in language development. Afrikaans (initially known as kitchen Dutch) developed fully in 400 years. It was clearly distinguishable from Dutch in less than 200. I actually find it quite curious that American English did not deviate more substantially from its British origin, as it developed roughly at the same time. The advent of the “global” generation will in my opinion very likely stunt the development of new dialects and (from there) of new languages.

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    1. Interesting. Afrikaans is not a language that I know a great deal about. I suppose that the life the Dutch speaking Afrikaaners led in South Africa must have been so utterly different from their life back in Holland that they needed to mould their language to their present needs quickly. They must have had to invent words too, just to communicate about the new life they shared.There were Huguenots, Germans, Scandinavians and slaves mixed up in their world too, weren’t there? I wonder if that made a difference.

      Saying that, yes, America is quite different from the England that the first settlers left behind. But I wonder whether the fact that the first settlers came as religious refugees meant that their language was an important identity marker and, as they huddled together against the difficulties of survival, it was important to maintain their community feeling. So the language would have stayed pretty constant, with a few new developments to encompass their new life. They didn’t have such a mix of language groups at the beginning as the Afikaaners, did they?

      It will be interesting to see what the future brings. Have you read Denis Johnson’s book Fiskadoro?

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      1. Well, the Dutch came to South Africa to flee religious persecution, so it is a very similar story.

        Although there were some indigenous people in South Africa, the tribes were initially quite far apart. The land wasn’t heavily populated – the population explosion only happened later during times of political protest. So, the peoples the Cape of Good Hope Afrikaners came into contact with were initially mostly the Koi and the San. When the Great Trek happened, they also came into contact with other tribes, the most notable of which were arguably the Zulu in the then Natal region. Although it is very likely that the language of the Koi and the San influenced the development of Afrikaans in the sense that Dutch was “simplified,” the Koi and San languages are actually very much click-based – something that is not found in Afrikaans at all.

        Afrikaans may be said to be the closest in its construction to Sotho, but the settlers did not come into contact with the Sotho for quite some time, as they were primarily based in the Free State. To give you some idea, the settlers initially settled the Western Cape, then moved towards the Eastern Cape (where they were engaged in border wars with the Xhosa), up into then Natal, then to the then Transvaal and only then down again into the Free State – which is somewhat of a spiral route inwards. Zulu is probably the most complicated of the indigenous languages and it shares almost no similarity in its sounds or constructs to Afrikaans – which is probably quite understandable because there is a very bloody history between the Afrikaner and the Zulu.

        The Dutch who came here lived very much the same lifestyle as they did in Europe – generally as farmers, bakers and other types of working class occupations. My own maiden surname actually means “Farmer” and this occupation has been the norm in my family up to my own generation (which is actually quite young!).

        My theory, and you may be able to tell me how likely you think it due to a measure of shared history, is that the American settlers may have had more contact with England than the Afrikaners had with the Dutch. Many of the early Afrikaner settlers were also illiterate – and Afrikaans started as a language for the working class, hence the disparaging term of “kitchen Dutch”. Because these people did not pronounce Dutch words very well and did not understand (or perhaps even wish to understand) the intricacies of sentence construction, a distinct dialect developed which, as a show of national unity and pride (refer here inter alia to the poet Langenhoven and his contemporaries), developed into an entirely separate language.

        So, I guess this begs the question of whether the American settlers had significant direct or indirect contact with England and whether they were, in general, more educated?

        I have not yet read the book, but I will try to do so as soon as I get some time.

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      2. Wow. Thanks for that.

        I was talking about your original post about Afrikaans with my son and he agrees that, yes, as the English settlers in the US kept a connection with the Old Country then their language had no real impetus to change. I’ve heard it said that American English is closer to Shakespeare’s English than modern British English https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s

        I read on the wonderful Wikipedia that the translation of the Bible into Afrikaans gave an impetus to the recognition of the language as something other than ‘kitchen Dutch.’ What do you think?

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