Cool cat, looking for a kitty

Which word feels more uncomfortable in English – gritty or kitty? 

If I assured you that a gritty was as soft as a kitty, your brain would need to come up with something like this:

'Where The Wild Things Are' by Spike Jonze, based on the book by Maurice Sendak
‘Where The Wild Things Are’ by Spike Jonze, based on the book by Maurice Sendak

Where is the discomfort in gritty? It’s in the clogged sound of the guttural gr. That gr is heavy enough to force the tt into a solid lump that squashes all the air out of the y. You don’t need to know the word gritty in English to ‘get’ it. The shape of the sound does all the work. Perfect for another uncomfortable summer’s day in the middle of New York City.

The of kitty is a light, quick touch. A puff of air. It skips onto the tt and bounces up and away into the floating vowel sound of its y. Perfect for a city night that cools and expands into unlimited opportunity and excitement.

And city? With its smooth beginning, city can sound heavy or light, oppressive or liberating, hot or cool. City slides between feelings, depending on how you shape it to sing it. The central vowel can be stretched and filled with emotion. Think of Stevie Wonder and Living for the City

Sing city abruptly and it suits a sweaty, hothouse atmosphere. Slow and expand its vowels, especially the and hear the word lighten and spread to float up into the cool night. It can all happen within the same song. City will do whatever you want.

Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City plays with the hot/cold possibilities of the word city, with real traffic sounds (a la Gershwin) and with the surreal fun of being trapped miming to your own song with your braces on backwards:

When you’re writing a song in English, its worth thinking of words from both ends, not just the rhyming end. Gritty has a different ‘feel’ to kitty. That feel feeds the picture your audience build in their minds as they listen to you.

It’s worth thinking of the temperature of the words that you use in a song. Watch the mouths of the Lovin’ Spoonful as they mime Summer in the City. When they get to the cool, relaxed, loving night-time, their mouths have to slow, relax and open wide to sing the rounded vowel sounds of words like townsummer, out, world or corner. The songwriter has loaded the slow, romantic nights with slow, relaxing words. The tone of voice you’d use to woo a girl.

In the uncomfortable heat at the beginning of the song, the words bang out like jackhammers: back, neck, hot and pity. New York at working speed, not romancing speed.

If English isn’t your first language: be careful with the hot that opens the song. It’s strong, but it’s still an English h. If you don’t have a sound like the English h in your own language – if you’re a native Spanish speaker, for example – check that you’re pronouncing it correctly here. The first sound of a song is important and in this song it’s especially important because its forcefulness attracts the listeners’ attention to the extreme heat of New York City.

When you’re singing in English, take all the hints that the songwriter leaves you. Make the most of your opportunities. A word like city is there for you to play with – do you want your audience to think of the concrete or of the romantic opportunities? It’s up to you.

© Sing Better English, 2015

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