Why British Singers Lose Their Accents When Singing

Deborah Honeycutt 77
Amy asks: Why is it that when you hear a British musician sing, their accent disappears?

eric-claptonMick Jagger, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Ed Sheeran, Phil Collins and George Michael all grew up in or near London and have very recognizably British accents.  Once on stage, they sing like someone who grew up in New England rather than old.  Yet another example is Adele, who has a lovely speaking voice, a very heavy cockney accent, yet her singing pipes do not indicate her dialect.  One might argue that Adele’s speaking and singing voices were two different people if listening without visuals.  Going beyond the British, we see the same thing with other non-American musicians, such as the Swedish band ABBA, and many others singing in English, yet from various places around the world. It seems like no matter where you’re from, if you’re singing in English, you’re probably singing with an American accent, unless you’re actively trying to retain your native accent, which some groups do.

There are several reasons we notice accents ‘disappearing’ in song, and why those singing accents seem to default to “American”.   In a nutshell, it has a lot to do with phonetics, the pace at which they sing and speak, and the air pressure from one’s vocal chords.  As far as why “American” and not some other accent, it’s simply because the generic “American” accent is fairly neutral.  Even American singers, if they have, for instance, a strong “New Yorker” or perhaps a “Hillbilly” accent, will also tend to lose their specific accent, gravitating more towards neutral English, unless they are actively trying not to, as many Country singers might.

For the specific details, we’ll turn to linguist and author, David Crystal, from Northern Ireland.  According to Crystal, a song’s melody cancels out the intonations of speech, followed by the beat of the music cancelling out the rhythm of speech.  Once this takes place, singers are forced to stress syllables as they are accented in the music, which forces singers to elongate their vowels.  Singers who speak with an accent, but sing it without, aren’t trying to throw their voice to be deceptive or to appeal to a different market; they are simply singing in a way that naturally comes easiest, which happens to be a more neutral way of speaking, which also just so happens to be the core of what many people consider an “American” accent.

To put it in another way, it’s the pace of the music that affects the pace of the singer’s delivery.  A person’s accent is easily detectable when they are speaking at normal speed.  When singing, the pace is often slower.  Words are drawn out and more powerfully pronounced and the accent becomes more neutral.

Another factor is that the air pressure we use to make sounds is much greater when we sing.  Those who sing have to learn to breathe correctly to sustain notes for the right amount of time, and singing requires the air passages to expand and become larger.  This changes the quality of the sound.  As a result, regional accents can disappear because syllables are stretched out and stresses fall differently than in normal speech.  So, once again, this all adds up to singing accents becoming more neutral.

So at this point, you might be wondering if the musicians actually know they are losing their accents when they sing. Working in radio, I’ve contemplated how accents seem to disappear over my 20-year career.   Keith Urban isn’t British, though fans of the Aussie singer swoon over his speaking voice (many women could listen to him read the dictionary) and have noticed that he sounds more American when he sings.  I have spoken to Keith a few times and decided the good-natured Keith wouldn’t mind me posing the question:  How is it you sing differently than you talk?  (Certainly not wanting to offend Keith, I began with a few genuine compliments admiring his genius guitar skills.)  He took it all in stride, laughed, then responded, ‘I don’t know.’  (More like kneh-owww)  ‘Good question,’ he said.  Though I don’t think I have an accent.  I think you do!’  It’s quite reasonable to believe that a Hoosier like me sounds a bit hillbilly to a guy from down under.  Keith could not really explain the mystery behind it, and instead went on to explain why he was wearing black toenail polish the last time I chatted him up in person.  (His wife, Nicole, has since been his inspiration to stop, he says.)  So it would seem, that at least with this sample size of one, the artist in question is not aware of any accent change when he sings. So what about others?

Andy Gibson, a New Zealand researcher at AUT’s University Institute of Culture, Discourse & Communication also believes the change in accent between speaking and singing is not a deliberate one, nor are artists even aware of the change.  A 2010 study he conducted of singers with speaking accents showed indeed that they were not aware that they sounded any different; they felt they were singing naturally.  Crystal says it is unusual for a singer to hold a regional accent through an entire song, resulting in what he calls ‘mixed accents’ for most.

And then there’s Kate Nash, the anti-norm.  The English-singing sensation was an unknown until Lily Allen mentioned her on a MySpace page and now she boasts more than 100,000 followers on twitter.  She didn’t know she had talent until she picked up her first guitar two years ago, and the rest is history.  Nash has garnered success on the music charts, accent and all, and flat out refuses to even attempt to sing with an American accent. She makes no apologies for her background and even themes her lyrics toward an English audience.  She is as English as tea in the afternoon and proud of bucking the trend that so many British artists seem to follow, whether intentionally, or more likely in most cases, not.

Thanks for reading this article!  If you liked it, please share it.  Also, here are a few more you might enjoy:

Bonus Facts:

  • Eeyore’s name is based off the British Cockney dialect version of the phrase “hee-haw”.
  • The guy who did the voice for Optimus Prime also did the voice for Eeyore and was the first person to voice Nintendo’s Mario character.
  • Similar to how their are numerous accents within the generic “American” accent, it’s not quite accurate to simply say “British accent”.  There are quite a few British accents- an amazing amount actually, particularly considering the entire UK could fit into Texas, and England itself is only about the size of Alabama.  A few of the most common “British accents” out there include: Cockney (which was butchered by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins), Estuary English (Southeast British), West Country (Southwest British), Midlands English, Northern England English, Geordie, and Welsh English, among many others.

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77 Comments »

  1. John August 9, 2013 at 2:46 am - Reply

    It’s a bit ethnocentric to say the American accent is a neutral one. Neutral to Americans, perhaps.
    Maybe American songs are more prevalent and so are considered ‘standard’, or maybe it’s equally neutral sounding in most accents.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey August 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm - Reply

      @John: It depends on your definitions and context. To linguists, it’s not ethnocentric at all, evidenced by the fact that both the linguists Crystal (Irish) and Gibson (New Zealand) both use the term “neutral”, as well as “homogenous”, here and equate it to the American accent. Certainly there is neutral British English and neutral Australian English and the like. But when linguists refer to global neutral English, this is more or less the generic American accent. Of course, there are numerous accents within America. But, as noted, even when those with heavy accents within America sing, they still generally default to mostly “neutral”. Essentially, when you lengthen out the pronunciation of words, all those singing in English usually speak with a very similar accent, which is thus considered “neutral”. What would be fascinating is to read a research paper on why exactly the generic North American accent has developed to be mostly neutral on the whole. I’ve not yet been able to find such a paper, unfortunately.

      • Thomas October 24, 2014 at 12:51 am - Reply

        David Crystal is a Welsh linguist, not an Irish one, haha. His two main languages are English and Welsh. His accent when in interviews is a very melodic Welsh one, too.

      • Adam October 24, 2014 at 9:13 pm - Reply

        Such misuse of the word “accent”. Shame! Accent refers to the effect of one language on another. The word this article is searching for is DIALECT. And by the way, with the American’s hard Rs (arrrrgh I’m a pirate), how is it neutral? I eliminate those Rs when I sing and adopt a sort of mid-atlantic sound, if not go full RP british (when I’m doing Opera). So not even some (at least this one) Americans retain their native accents when they sing.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey August 9, 2013 at 1:22 pm - Reply

      @John: And if you’re curious, neutral British English is known as the “Queen’s English” or “BBC English”. Neutral American English is known as “General American” or “Midland Accent”, owing to the fact that it’s the accent generally found in the regions around Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Illinois. And to be clear, there is still some debate among linguists whether it’s accurate to say that General American is the global neutral English accent today. But even those dissenters usually think that at some point General English will be global neutral, even if it’s not already, simply because the General American accent is what’s taught in the vast majority of countries in the world when teaching English, particularly in Asia, but also elsewhere. But, again, I’d love to read a paper on why General American is so globally neutral, seemingly by default. From Gibson (New Zealand), he states that General American is simply the “easiest” way to pronounce things, so when putting in extra pronunciation effort when singing, people naturally gravitate towards this. So, perhaps with the melting pot of America, and general lazy American pronunciation throughout its history, perhaps it just all shook out that way. But it would be fascinating to read a technical explanation from a linguist-historian on this matter.

      • Heilwig August 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm - Reply

        Standard American English and Received Pronunciation (“BBC English”) are only “neutral” in the sense that they are socially perceived as the neutral, “default” variety. They got this way because they were the dialects of the most socially powerful groups (i.e.the upper-class southern English and Americans from the mid-Atlantic states). Other people adopted the accent to advance in society.

        This is all just due to historical accident–if Manchester had become the capital of England 1000 years ago, instead of London, the queen would speak like Noel Gallagher. Global English sounds most like Standard American English because the US is the most powerful country in the world and people worldwide are exposed to American media, not because American English is inherently superior.

        Also, the stereotype that American English is lazier than British English is baseless.You can find examples of “laziness” in any dialect–the British even leave whole syllables out of words like “category” and ‘literally”!

        It is true that singing forces you to lose certain phonetic and phonological features you use in normal speech for the purposes of rhythm, melody, etc. But there’s no inherent reason for it to sound American overall.

        • Stig781 February 10, 2014 at 4:32 pm - Reply

          It’s not anything of the sort Heilwig, the “most powerful and most influential” bunkum is delusional.

          ENGLISH, i.e. correct English, spoken as the English of England speak it, is what permeates far more through the Globe (due to the Commonwealth) than the “Standard American Accent” nonsense ou spout.

        • Kabal July 30, 2014 at 6:00 am - Reply

          We don’t leave syllables out of words, you just assume we do. Personally, 90% of people I know pronounce every syllable in ca-te-go-ry and li-te-ra-lly.

          • Adam October 24, 2014 at 9:25 pm -

            Not every English person does, but I’ve heard some shortened words/combined syllables; same with every other language and the dialects thereof, it depends on the person. My stage dialects teacher always tried to get us to over-emphasize those traits, but I opt for a more realistic approach, to base it on the circumstances, and the character, and only use a different dialect if my own doesn’t work for the role.

      • Kevin August 9, 2013 at 8:04 pm - Reply

        I think you mean that the standard British accent is called the “Received Pronunciation,” not the “Queen’s English” or “BBC English,” both of which refer to the language.

    • TChristy March 20, 2014 at 6:23 am - Reply

      That’s a good point, John. American accents may be “neutral” to Americans but, they are certainly not to English and other British people. They are as distinctive as other, non-English and non-British, foreign accents.

      It’s just another example of American arrogance, thinking that the whole world revolves around their country and that somehow, they own the English language. Here’s a free bit of advice for the article’s author and any other ethnocentric Americans. The English language does not come from America. It comes from England in the UK. The clue is in the name!

      An actual, neutral English would be more like English pronunciation in England, without a regional accent.

      • daooch April 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm - Reply

        And you get your linguistics degree from ….. where? smh

    • Victoria April 20, 2014 at 10:20 am - Reply

      To be honest, I already knew this – it’s generally easier to reach notes and particularly pitches with an ‘American accent’.

      THat being said, there are plenty of British etc. singers who do sing with their natural accents, e.g. Lily Allen, Kate Nash, Bat for Lashes, David Bowie etc.

  2. MarkS August 9, 2013 at 4:16 am - Reply

    I don’t accept this explanation at all, because there are large numbers of singers with British regional accents, and have always been. Perhaps they just don’t sing the kind of songs the writer of this article listens to.

    The real explanation is simply that they want to sell to the American market, or that they think that sounding American is ‘cool’.

    • Kevin August 9, 2013 at 8:17 pm - Reply

      Good grief, why so defensive? How does one deliberately sing in an “American” (or neutral) accent?

      The article makes some good points about how singing lengthens many of the sounds, which makes the pronunciation sound more neutral. Something interesting that differentiates many accents is rhoticity, or the pronunciation of the “r” sound. Many accents, including the Received Pronunciation (i.e., “British accent”) and American accents such as the New York (“New Yawk”) City and Boston accents, don’t pronounce the “r.” Yet the “r” is actually two sounds! You have to pronounce it as “ah-rr.” Now imagine singing that for a long note!

      Celine Dion clearly has a French-Canadian accent in her speech and singing. In “My Heart Will Go On,” she sings with a non-rhotic accent, as it should be sung. But I’ve always felt that she mispronounces a single word, “there’s.” (In the line: “You’re here, there’s nothing…”) See the part beginning at 3:15 in the video linked below:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmbw8OycJrE

      • MarkS August 10, 2013 at 11:43 am - Reply

        If you think that’s defensive, I wonder what you’d call attacking? :)

        I felt provoked to respond by the combination of massive arrogance and massive ignorance in this article.

        “How does one deliberately sing in an “American” (or neutral) accent?” Easily! Some non-Americans do it all the time. It’s easier to do it in singing than in speaking, but I’ve heard both. Do you honestly imagine that people can’t fake accents?

        Secondly, an American accent is NOT, repeat NOT, neutral… except to Americans!

        Everybody, from every country and with every kind of accent, considers their own speech neutral. Everybody feels that they don’t have an accent themselves, only others do. But I guess most Americans are too insulated from the rest of the world to know this.

        • Daven Hiskey
          Daven Hiskey August 10, 2013 at 4:56 pm - Reply

          @MarkS: I think you are misinterpreting what “neutral” means to a linguist.

          • Heilwig August 10, 2013 at 6:44 pm -

            Actually, the idea of a phonetically/phonologically “neutral” language variety is utterly meaningless to linguists.

        • TChristy March 21, 2014 at 8:14 am - Reply

          That’s an excellent point, Mark S. American accents are certainly not neutral, to English people. They stand out as foreign, just as much Indian and Mexican accents do.

          It’s a matter of perspective. From an American perspective, they will seem neutral because that is what Americans are used to hearing and using themselves.

    • Adam October 24, 2014 at 9:27 pm - Reply

      And can’t forget where it all started: ITALY!!! They certainly don’t sing with “American” accents. Their language is practically BUILT for singing!

  3. MarkS August 9, 2013 at 4:45 am - Reply

    Just to add to that:

    Ever heard Gilbert and Sullivan operettas sung by British singers?

    Opera in English sung by British singers?

    Scottish and Irish songs sung for the Scots and Irish themselves, not for Americans?

    Victorian songs, sung full-voice in cut-glass accents?

    Her’s one to start you off. “I’ll Walk Beside You”, sung by Webster Booth
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrLBbznmCt8

  4. MarkS August 9, 2013 at 5:02 am - Reply

    How about a Scottish accent?

    The Corries singing Flower of Scotland to a Scottish audience.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vyx1xeZo_tk

  5. MarkS August 9, 2013 at 5:05 am - Reply

    Irish?

    Clancy Brothers – “The Rising of the Moon ”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwHm18K3kjs

  6. MarkS August 9, 2013 at 6:20 am - Reply

    This is a good one!

    Mary-Jess Leaverland singing “Abide With Me” at the FA Cup Final last year. (Traditionally sung before major sporting events in the UK, if you don’t know.)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSKlNobo-Ck

    Did it really not occur to you that Keith Urban was embarrassed and changed the subject because he didn’t want to admit deliberately singing in an American accent for American audiences?

  7. Heilwig August 9, 2013 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    There are several obvious reasons why this doesn’t make sense.

    1) Classical singers generally have better technical vocal skills than pop singers. So if this phenomenon is due to the *technical* requirements of singing, why don’t British opera singers, church choirs, folk singers, etc sing in American accents like the pop singers?

    2) This phenomenon only dates back to the 1950s/60s. Did the technical requirements of singing suddenly change in the middle of the 20th century? Is it just coincidence that American pop music became popular in Britain in this period?

    3) Just because some singers do it unconsciously doesn’t mean there must be a physical, technical explanation. People unconsciously switch dialects all the time–you might use a regional accent with your friends but a standard accent in formal situations, without necessarily noticing that your speech has changed. There’s no physical reason for this.

    4) Do you really think that the dialect which is most socially powerful and internationally widespread due to US media just so happens to also be objectively the most neutral and natural?

    5) What on earth would it even mean for a dialect to be phonetically/phonologically “neutral”????
    Is it neutral compared to other languages as well, or just other varieties of English?

    It is possible that the mechanics of singing favor certain phonetic and phonological features which happen to be present in Standard American English. But that doesn’t mean that Standard American English as a whole is objectively superior for singing.

    A phonetician could probably point out some more technical reasons why this is nonsense, but the social reasons seem obvious enough.

    • this guy makes sense December 19, 2013 at 3:50 am - Reply

      Through all the noise lacking any logic or rationality ()including the article) this guy cracked it. Any brits trying to put it down to technical reasons are singers that attain (whether intentionally or not) an america accent. Denial is a fascinating thing.

      Ps. Im british. Go on Kate nash and arctic monkeys!!!

  8. TJ August 9, 2013 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    The old rockers had to Yankeefy their voice and songs to get played on the US radio. Back then and even now most new singer in English copy from old singer and they all had American accent.

  9. jules August 10, 2013 at 10:23 am - Reply

    i’ll be cross-posting this to a bad linguistics website, and tagging it ‘US Vanity’

    • MarkS August 10, 2013 at 10:31 am - Reply

      :-D

    • Thomas October 24, 2014 at 12:53 am - Reply

      If you’re calling David Crystal a “bad linguist”, you probably won’t find much of an audience that agrees with you on a website for people in the know. The dude is incredibly well-respected in the field.

  10. anon August 10, 2013 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    Oh, bull. *Some* accent reduction is just because of how music is, but my accent mostly stays when I sing. If an American regional accent won’t totally disappear, a non-American one sure won’t!
    Also, a lot of music is sung non-rhotically (without Rs at the end of words), and thus technically would make American singers sound British. Personally, I just sing how I speak, rhoticity and all, and don’t try to sound like music is “supposed” to.

  11. Warren August 11, 2013 at 8:45 pm - Reply

    It would appear that a tender english nerve has been touched by the author. As an American, I have noticed and often wondered why so many British pop “singers” don’t actually sound very British. This article merely attempts to offer a reason beyond the untenable notion that it’s always deliberate. There is absolutely NOTHING mentioned or hinted in the subject matter to suggest a superiority with regard to the American accent. Scots and Irish singing Celtic verses with their native accents does NOT explain why Elton John or Dire Straits often sound as if they hail from rural West Virginia. English accents are the grandiose and abominable product of petty one-upmanship in that society involving the grossly affected use of speech that has truly spanned the centuries, and hence forms the very substrate of english culture. Articles like these give no offense to a rational people. The english should finally grow the f@%k up!

    • Kabal July 30, 2014 at 6:05 am - Reply

      Read Heilwig’s comment. And FYI, you might not realise it but you (not you in particular but you Americans) generally do come across as extremely ethnocentric and narrowminded.

  12. MarkS August 13, 2013 at 1:53 am - Reply

    Is this a typical American response? If you can’t come up with rational arguments, then descend into abuse, insults, arrogance and swearing.
     
    You seem to be under the impression that non-American accents are ‘affected’ while the American accent is ‘natural’. This is simply ignorance. Speaking and singing in British accents is as natural, normal and unaffected to speakers of British English, as South African accents are to South Africans, Australian accents to Australians, and American accents to Americans.
     
    And, yes, Americans DO speak with an accent as far as other English speakers are concerned. To many non-Americans, the American accent sounds harsh and twangy, besides being spoken too loudly and too slowly. I’m not trying to be unpleasant. That’s a plain fact, not a value statement. That’s how American sounds to non-Americans.
     
    I wonder why you find the idea untenable that non-Americans use fake American accents to sell their performances to Americans? Is it that you don’t like the idea of smart foreigners tailoring their accents to fool Americans and make more money?
     
    Let’s consider actors as well as singers, because that shows the situation even more clearly.
     
    Compare Emma Watson’s natural accent in the Harry Potter movies with the American accent she puts on in “The Bling Ring” or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”.
     
    Or listen to Charlize Theron’s flawless American accent when working in America, even though she grew up speaking English with a South African accent. She reverts to her normal, unaffected South African accent any time she visits her home country.
     
    How about Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kate Winslet, Heath Ledger, Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, etc.? They all work in fake American accents so successfully that I suspect the majority of Americans don’t even realise they are British.
     
    Compare Christian Bale in this interview as a teenager, using his natural, unaffected accent, with his American accent in the Batman movies.
     
    Notice that he is speaking much more softly and much faster than the American interviewer. This is why, for non-Americans, American accents sound too loud and too slow.
     
    Dozens and dozens of prominent actors use fake American accents with great success. It’s no different with singers.
     
    There is more money in American accents, that’s all there is to it.

    • Warren August 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm - Reply

      Here’s another “typical” American response:

      Aware that your own pop singers often sound American while singing, frightened of any American use of the English language, or anything American at all, taken as an international standard in lieu of looking to the British by default, never skipping a beat in assailing Americans online to offset frustrations arising from cultural insecurities further inflamed by the still fresh amputation of worldly influence and importance, resentment that any residual influence that you can yet project is so much dependent upon its propping up by Hollywood/American media as well as by letting England tag along with our latest military adventures – as if some charm dug from the dirt of a by-gone era; (There wouldn’t even be that were you not, as well, pained with our singular development as a country with such considerable political autonomy.) the admittedly ill-conceived use of the word “neutral” to describe the Standard American accent by an amateur American author so arouses your ire, you demonstrate your misapprehension of his point and bless us all with a series of dull emotional yammering. The tone of each typifies the English superiority complex with which your people so often and disingenuously obscure with ceaseless knee-jerk impugnation of Americans.

      We Americans do have an exaggerated opinion of ourselves on some seemingly holistic level. It was likely necessary for the successful amalgamation of settlers from so many different European countries. It had the curious effect of turning our gaze inward relative to the sniveling pompous outward side glances that mark your own view of the world around you. It does seem to shock you that we are in some ways so alien to you.

      Your excessive striving for superiority as compensation for nagging fears of any possible evident inferiorities is a habit the English have demonstrated repeatedly over the years in internet forums and chat rooms.
      You and others sought either consciously or otherwise, to give offense while comfortably enveloped in a safety blanket woven of righteous pretenses. You succeeded. I merely wanted to bring that to your attention and you’ve no need to thank me.

      • John August 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm - Reply

        *Assumes all these writers are English (what, other countries speak English?)
        *Assumes comments are due to English inferiority complex rather than American superiority complex
        *Only has to bring up WWII to complete the predictable response checklist

        • Daven Hiskey
          Daven Hiskey August 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm - Reply

          @John: The funny part is about half my writers are British, and this sort of thing comes up a lot on both sides of the argument. You should see the comments on the article on the origin of the word “soccer”. ;-) Needless to say, what I’ve learned from this is that a small percentage of each of the American and British populations absolutely nail the stereotypes, but most on both sides of the pond are more or less the same- we all also can at times be pricks. ;-)

      • Stig781 February 10, 2014 at 4:27 pm - Reply

        America is the colony, Warren, it has tagged along with Britain’s “military adventures” for nearly 150 years, and has nothing to do with Hollywood. Your inferiority complex is rather bizarre; your importance is propped up by British culture and language.

        • Warren April 5, 2014 at 5:06 am - Reply

          stig781, tag along for “nearly 150 years”? There were no military joint ventures between the USA and Britain prior to the latter drawing Americans into WWI – to avoid bending to very fair but humiliating peace overtures from Germany in 1916. How bizarre and vainglorious is your England-centric world view. It appears none of your sniveling compatriots (assuming you’re english) descend on your comment like flies on rotting meat to challenge your farcical vanity. Could you explain in some detail your premises, if you dare? I’m curious to know more about your own little world.

          • Kabal July 30, 2014 at 6:11 am -

            There’s a reason most of the world (that’s right, not just England, most of the world) assume that American’s fit the arrogant, narrow minded sterotype. Not to forget overweight, that’s also a stereotype that (from what I’ve seen, admittedly I’ve only been to Florida) seems to hold true.

        • Chistopher August 6, 2014 at 6:51 am - Reply

          @stig781: You still think America is a colony??? LOL! What rock have you been under? We ceased being a colony over 200 years ago. That we WERE a colony of England is well known-DUH. We’re aware of our Western roots and glad we’re a part of Western civilization. Or at least we used to be until the modern fads of “diversity” and yada-yada came into being. Your comment about America tagging along with Britain’s military adventures can you elaborate? That makes no sense at all. We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in 1898 during the Spanish-American War (when Spain thereafter ceased being a naval power). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in WWI (until Germany sunk our submarines). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in WWII (until Pearl Harbor even though Churchill practically begged). We didn’t “tag along” with Britian in Korea (US dominated and led action). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in Vietnam (US was virtually alone in defending against a Communist invasion). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in Grenada (Britain whined it was not informed first and condemned the action). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in Panama (Britain didn’t say much). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in Gulf War I (US led and dominated the coalition and actions). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in Somalia (US left after a few casualties). We didn’t “tag along” in Haiti (Clinton returned Aristide to power). We didn’t “tag along” with Britain in Kosovo (US again led and dominated the action). And of course everyone knows we didn’t “tag along” with Britain in Afghanistan and Iraq here recently. Britain has been known as “America’s Poodle” for over half a century now. It’s not a nice nickname and I wouldn’t ever say that but Britain’s Empire days of power are gone. Our country’s importance is based on it’s economic power and political and cultural influence, not Britain. Very little “British culture” remains in the nation today. English people are outnumbered by the other European peoples that migrated. All those different influences melted together into a culture that was new. It is hardly like Britain’s. We just so happen to speak English due to our past ties but our languages are not the same. Divergence has occurred. You seem to be absurdly suggesting that Britain is the REAL power and pulling America’s strings like some midget trying to leash a grizzly bear. You sir are quite deranged if you think

    • Adam October 24, 2014 at 9:37 pm - Reply

      Heath was actually Australian…RIP. Great actor. AMAZING potential.

  13. MarkyMark September 30, 2013 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    Well I’m Irish so I’ll give a fresh perspective. I think the American accent has permeated our culture through TV and radio. Here in Dublin, gaggles of middle-class school kids have developed a strong twang to their accents and inflect towards the end of every sentence, making them sound like vapid sorority girls. This has only happened in the last 2 decades with more and more exposure to American reality shows, sitcoms and pop music.

  14. Sahar October 10, 2013 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Adele does sing in an accent that sounds American, but only because she rolls her “rs” the way americans do, BUT, you can tell she’s English by the way she pronunciates certain words such as “love” and “us”… and any other word with U in it… also have you heard her albums? Such as “Melt my Heart to stone”? She clearly sounds English.
    Also… Ed Sheeran? REALLY!? Have you actually listened to ANY of his songs? You need me, I don’t need you, Lego House, The A-Team… and so on. ” ’cause we’re jUst Under the Upper hand, go mad for a coUple grams…” quintessentially English my friend. Also, why are we forgetting about David Bowie, Coldplay, The Smiths, Lilly Allen, Kasabian, The Clash, The jam, The Coral, Arctic Monkeys, Blur, Oasis, Radiohead, The BEATLES, The Cure, T-REX, Frank Turner, Kate Bush, The Kinks, Stone Roses, Joy Division, Jamie T, Sex Pistols, Laura Marling, Ian Dury, The Fratellis, Belle and Sebastian, The Wombat, Happy Mondays, Mumford and Sons, Pulp, the Buzzcocks, Echo and the Bunnymen, MIA, New Order, the Specials, The Libertines, and so many more… naming 7 acts, two of which are a shamble, and saying that Kate Nash is the only exception is shoddy research… terrible article.

    • Adam October 24, 2014 at 9:39 pm - Reply

      Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins!

  15. Pierre January 31, 2014 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    Some singers do sound british, like lily allen or kate nash

  16. Marie February 11, 2014 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    I don’t understand the complexes, either. America doesn’t see Britain as a tag-along war chum and you guys don’t look anything like a puppy! It’s a terrible thing, this perception.

    But I agree. British singers sound American in song, even when they are not trying to. People have known that for forever and I think it’s adorable. We can’t sound British, without much effort, if our lives depended on it. It’s just one more cute connection between the countries.

  17. Yacin February 20, 2014 at 8:14 am - Reply

    I’m french and the canadians singers ( like Celine Dion) who sing in french have no accent when they sing although when they speak it’s totally different, they have a very strong and different accent. So, I guess it’s the same in english :p

  18. Miguel March 9, 2014 at 9:53 am - Reply

    “She is as English as tea” – does it mean she isn’t english at all?

    The 5 o’clock tea tradition was a portuguese court tradition. It was introduced in the UK by the portuguese princess Catarina de Bragança, after her arrival to get married to King Charles II.

    Along with her other belongings, was a trunk full of tea and it’s said that a cup of tea was the first thing she asked for, when she set foot in the UK for the first time, in May13th 1662.

    She also took the orange jelly that gave rise to the English “marmelade” which name derives from the portuguese word “marmelada” a jelly made from quince (marmelo).

    She also introduced some more civilized habits like the use of porcelain dishes as a substitute of the silver and gold ones, where food became cold quickly, used until then, in the british court…

  19. Lewis March 18, 2014 at 2:13 am - Reply

    No – else they would sound like rednecks.. Its obvious their accents complement the British because obviously we are far superiour haha.

  20. ThisnThat March 18, 2014 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    People getting defensive about the American accent being considered ‘neutral’:

    Stop being butthurt. I have several English, Irish, and French friends, and I have several friends who love to sing. I once asked why they sang in an American accent, and all their answers were the same: It wasn’t intentional. Their response was ‘it’s just the easiest way to sing.’ It just so happened that it sounded American to me. They’re not doing it to make big bucks in America, they’re not doing because they think American is cool, they just sing that way. If you guys have such an issue with it, get over yourselves and listen to people who deliberately keep their dialect. American is Neutral- how do you think it was developed in the first place? All the cultures that came in over the years developed a mixed dialect that is as neutral as possible. If you don’t like that, get more immigrants in your country and see what happens after a hundred+ years.

    • Evan March 18, 2014 at 8:55 pm - Reply

      > Implying that American accent being neutral is a foregone conclusion and not the very thing being argued here
      > Assuming that America is the only country to take large numbers of immigrants
      > Ignoring the fact that a truly ‘neutral’ accent would have a non-rhotic /r/ as few accents outside America and Canada pronounce final r.

    • kn April 4, 2014 at 10:32 am - Reply

      I would say that ‘neutral’ is a rather relative concept. Basically, what’s neutral is what most people feel to be most ‘natural’, or least marked. Though ‘general American’ English might appear ‘neutral’ to many people, I would definitely react to any claim that it completely lacks regional markedness. I’ve grown up in a non-anglophone country, and the English I have been taught in school has been almost completerly based on (Southern) Standard British English – and lots of people in many places of the world would undoubtedly regard that accent as the ‘proper’ or ‘standard’ way of pronouncing English. And lots of people arriving in the US have noticed that their way of speaking is totally different from any form of English they have been exposed to previously. So even if General American may have a wider global currency than any other form of English, it does hardly lack regional connections.

  21. Eileen April 11, 2014 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    In “The Story of English” documentary, they explain that English people speak from the front of their mouths, and Americans from the back of their mouths/throats. That could be why singing from the throat or lungs sounds “American”.

  22. Hayley May 11, 2014 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    Most music that is considered ‘popular’ in England is sung in American accents, whether they’re American or not. Personally, most of the music I like is sung by people singing in their own accents. Adele sings, like many others – in an American accent because the style of music she loves and makes originated in America. Of course English people who sing in American accents know they’re doing it, how absolutely absurd to suggest they don’t. Oh, and a neutral accent to me would be a standard English accent, because I’m English.

  23. Ahms May 18, 2014 at 9:39 pm - Reply

    Ed Sheeran sounds American?? What planet do you live on?

    About the accent thing- There’s a wide gap between pre-90s artists and new artists here in the UK… The old generation of British singers sung with US accents because prior to the mid to late 90s as it was considered a way of forging fans across the pond, (as well as a result of all the Cold War tribalism of identity that the US and USSR camps brought with them)..

    It died out in the late 90s as Brits felt they needed to regain their own separate identity, and a lot of it has to do with how you express yourself to the world.. Britpop, UKG, jungle, neo-wave, developed independent of American influence.. I was born in the mid 80s, so I am part of the post Cold War 90s to 00′s raised (anyone between 25-35 in 2014) generation and can speak for the overwhelming change in our music scene.

    When I was in Reception, Shakin Stevens was still popular (Cringe. Shudder.)… 25 years later, and you’d be hard pressed to find ANY British A-list singer/band singing in anything but their own local UK accents and singing about subjects specific to their UK audience, whether in their vocabulary, their delivery, topics or their very musical sound.. Ed Sheeran, (he doesn’t sing it as “she’s in the ‘Cleyss Ey-teeeam’” like American Eng, he sings it in a London accent’.. And would Americans even know what the term “class A team” even means?.. Hint, it has something to do with the British govt classification of drugs) Ellie Goulding, Lorde, Lily Allen, The xx, 1D, Emily Sandé, the Wanted, Jessie J, London Grammar, name them…

    And it’s paid off for our own sense of confidence as the Cool Britain thing has come back, but with more to offer the world especially in the arts and music…

    American singers are now copying British accents or bring in Trans-Atlantic sounds and themes in their music (see indie, folk-rock, glo-fi, dubstep, D&b, and Edm, all British genres, now entering into the very American genres of Pop and Hip-hop for reference).
    The ‘hipsters’ in the US take a lot of their style, music-tastes, references and attitudes from the UK..
    US rappers and urban artists are discovering the very different sound and focus of the urban UK scene, and now aim to do collaborations with British singers and artists like Kanye West did with Estelle and her “American Boy” hit, or UK artist Dizzie Rascal and Tiny Tempah’s fad popularism in the US.

    American artists and celebrities are even wearing modern British style clothes: with all it’s triangles and geometric lines, done up collar buttons, African design-prints and monochrome colours..

    Sooner or later we’ll have to have an article on why American artists are copying British accents..

    • adamant May 27, 2014 at 4:09 am - Reply

      I was with you until you said Lorde.

      She’s from New Zealand, and definitely doesn’t sing in an NZ accent. It’s very much an emulation of an American accent.

  24. Ken May 25, 2014 at 8:04 am - Reply

    How ethnocentric and chauvinist you are.

    English people speak English. There are regional and even social class accents, but not English accents.

    Americans speak English with an American accent.

    Singers who emulate American idols copy the American accent when they sing in the same way that American opera singers generally sing in clear English without an American accent.

    And it’s British, not Briddish, and Beatles, not Beadles. A beadle is an official from a Dickens novel. Look it up on Google if you don’t read books and don’t already know this.

    • adamant May 27, 2014 at 4:03 am - Reply

      What are you on about, Ken?

      An English accent is an umbrella term for the various regional accents across the country of England.

      There are ‘English accents’ in the same way there are ‘American accents’, or Spanish accents, French accents etc. etc.

      I’m British, living in England, speaking with an English accent (West Country to be exact).

      You sound like you are a bitter and have some issue with Americans in general.

    • Kabal July 30, 2014 at 6:16 am - Reply

      Ken,

      I’m sorry but your comment is so stupid it hurts. Of course there’s English accents, my dad is from north England, my mum from London and believe me they sound nothing alike.

  25. adamant May 27, 2014 at 3:58 am - Reply

    It’s all down to the ubiquity of American pop music and its dominance within the music industry. If non-Americans grow up singing along to American songs (or songs sung in an American accent), their ‘natural’ voice is inclined towards American affectation.

    Since there’s the old fashioned view that you haven’t made it until you’ve made it in America, and since America is fairly hostile towards unfamiliar accents, emulating a US accent can allow penetration into the mainstream commercial market.

    Some have said there’s a neutralising quality in singing that means non-American accents inevitably lean towards an ‘American sound’. However, this doesn’t account for singing which imposes an accent on what would otherwise be a clean, flat sound. You hear this in British pop music all the time – phrases and words sung with an overt American accent (just listen to Amy Winehouse).

    It’s kind of sad that in order to make a lot of money across the world, non-Americans have to resort to eschewing all signs of their national heritage.

  26. Murray August 1, 2014 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    I started to read the entire column, but the vitriol began to make my eyes water. So, pardon me if I’m repeating anything.

    I first heard this very discussion of British singers losing their accents on the BBC. September, 1987. Day One of my holiday to the Isles, while on the train from London to Brighton. Two British fellows, one the radio host, the other a linguist-scientist, concluded pretty much what this article did. The voice projection and cadence and the breathing all contributed to the effect. No mention whatsoever of doing it on purpose to pander to the American market.

    (Odd, what I hear isn’t any “American” accent on these songs. It’s pretty much Canadian. Just thought I’d correct you there…)

  27. Dot August 11, 2014 at 2:47 am - Reply

    I’m really interested in this topic and would like to follow up the academic discussions you refer to. Can you tell me where David Crystal and Andy Gibson have published these findings? (Crystal is unbelievably prolific and also has a blog so it can be quite an issue tracking particular pronouncements down.) (Also, Crystal isn’t Northern Irish, though I believe he had an Irish father. He spent his early years in Holyhead, Wales, and has had most of his career in England.)

    I agree with other commenters that there’s no such thing as a ‘neutral’ accent of English, but I’d like to know more about the idea that the process of singing itself produces vowels that apparently sound American. A thing I have noticed is how many singers become rhotic when singing, even when their normal accents aren’t – that probably is influence from the American dominance of popular music, I would have thought,

  28. TD September 13, 2014 at 2:51 am - Reply

    Seriously. WTF

    Why is everyone so bent out of shape about this? The authors are not American. The authors do not say American English is superior. The artists listed do in fact sound American when singing. What is the fucking problem? People spewing bullshit about Americans having no concept of dialects and that we think we’re normal and everyone else is weird is complete bullshit. Where ever did you come up with that?

    I’m from midwest US (near Detroit). I moved to LA. First day I was in CA someone asked me, “so how long til you lose that midwest accent?” It was a fucking joke! It wasn’t that this guy believed CA-American English is the norm. I have relatives from the rural south, we tease each other about accents. No normal fucking person in America is unaware of the concept of dialects.

    Someone said “grow the **** up” directed at the “Proper” English snobs who are getting bent out of shape on this. If you want to claim all Americans are ethnocentric and this is some kind of propaganda, whatever, go ahead. The fact remains. It was non-American linguists who made the claims in this article, none of which were about superiority, and the artists listed do in fact sound American despite not being so. It does not say ALL ARTISTS SING AMERICAN ALL THE TIME. So the rattled-off examples of non-American singers sounding non-American is fucking dumb. You might as well say, “This article is stupid, because chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream”. It’s fucking irrelevant.

    For the record, some American singers even sing like they have English accents. I’m not butthurt about it, because it doesn’t effect me. I cover some folk songs from across the pond and find myself adopting some of the pronunciations used by the original singers.

    FOR FUCK SAKE THIS SHOULDN’T BE A NATIONALISTIC DISASTER.

    Good grief….

  29. Lucy W. October 8, 2014 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Neat article! I actually came across this piece in an odd (possibly ironic?) way though… I was surfing YouTube the other day and found a band called Twin Atlantic (I specifically listened to their song “Human After All”). The band is from Glasgow, Scotland; and the singer has a very thick Scottish accent. Is there an explanation for this?

  30. Mary October 15, 2014 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    Granted, Linguistics is a rather liberal artsy science, linguists ARE experts in their field. As someone with a BA in linguistics, this makes sense to me. Neutral vowels doesn’t mean “most perfect English vowels”, so there’s no need to get sore over it. Before you start commenting “these linguists don’t know what they’re talking about”, maybe try to learn what they are talking about.

  31. Ani October 17, 2014 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    Look, it essentially comes to the market. Music is an entertainment business and since most pop music is American. I agree with adamant – when people grow up with that kind of music it appears to be more natural to fit that accent. It’s kinda similar with older music, especially theatre. Those musicals are mostly still performed with the British accent,

  32. Tallen November 11, 2014 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    I would like to point out that perhaps it comes down to vowel inventories. All languages have their own set of vowels and each vowel has a certain distance from one another phonetically. perhaps to some degree, singing (because of the ideal pulmonic voicing pressure, height, and roundedness of the vowel, removing rhoticity to some degree to soften the harsh sound of the American ‘r’, etc.) has, perhaps, a type of vowel inventory which is effected by the singers place of origin. I feel this could very well explain this question, but I have not done the research myself yet. English uses vowels that are almost equidistant from one another. Despite the “standard,” where those vowels are located differs not only among dialects from east US to western US, but from person to person. and yes, country to country where English is spoken. not to mention that language is a living, breathing, ever transforming creature. but the US has been undergoing what is known as “the great vowel shift” It so happens that when a vowel such as the vowel schwa ‘ə’ as in /əndɹ/ “under” becomes əʊ almost like the vowel in “book” in American English and becomes, as in the british version of the vowel in “under”, would be pronounced /əʊndɚ/. a subsequent shift of the entire vowel inventory occurs over time and all of a sudden each vowel can nearly trade places with another vowel in the inventory, in an orderly succession.
    It is enough to say that this question is fascinating on the level of phonetics. It seems completely separate that it would be effected by political, social, cultural, and political situations, but it is so strongly connected with the passionate emotions of our own country. instances where it is tied together historically are numerous. The Irish English accent is one of these, the fact that they did not undergo a change in vowels after conflicts with England. in fact they use is so distinct because they resisted the change to British English vowels because they didn’t want to be associated with England in any way because they really didn’t like each other.

    Another thing is that in a research survey my linguistics professor at BYU shared with us, it was found in the European countries excluding the English language, that language dialect differences in vowels began in major cities and then spread within each country; not spreading from one country to the next. The Results today are intriguing. The survey asked several random people who only spoke one language and were asked after they were played sound bytes of native speakers in those European countries, all taken form different successive longitudinal regions, to identify when the sound of the language became a new language based solely on audio perception. What these volunteers identified as being the same languages were actually different languages but were samples taken from people living closer to the borders of opposite countries. what the people identified as different languages were often the same language, but simply different dialects. (people form different sides of the country).

  33. Theresa November 23, 2014 at 7:29 am - Reply

    The reason has zero to do with air pressure, linguistics etc. The fact is you speak from left side of the brain and sing from the right side. They can actually get stroke patients who had left side brain damage (speach side) to learn to talk again through singing.

  34. Shieri November 23, 2014 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    And there are arguments about this why? Personally I always thought that singing came with it’s own accent, and anyone who sounds “British”, “American”, or anything else follows pronunciation.

  35. Bernadette November 29, 2014 at 8:56 am - Reply

    Well that was an interesting fairground ride. I didnt learn anything about singing, but I learnt that a lot of americans hate english people and a lot of english people hate americans. If anyone cares, I have been taught by singing teachers (at a community choir level, not opera or professional) that you should lengthen vowels and cut off consonants – especially s and p – to make the sound clearer and the tone purer. that may be a vlaue judgement on singing, but shouldbnt be assumed to apply to speech.

  36. Otkon December 1, 2014 at 4:56 am - Reply

    It is simply amazing just how little people understand about linguistics. I am here to tell you: all that stuff you learned in English class about long and short vowels, double negatives, split infinitives, proper English etc. is bunk. An accent is based on phonetics only, i.e. the physical characteristics of your vowels, consonants and other meaningful units called phonemes that you articulate vocally as language. We categorize these sounds into phonologies, which can be generalized by languages or specified to an individual dialects and even speakers. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. We are not in the business of telling people how to speak – we just document, analyze and theorize.

    Someone’s accent is how they sound – mainly (but not only) what vowels they use – remember this, it’s kinda important. Dialect is accent plus vocabulary, syntax and a host of other criteria beyond vowel and consonant qualities.

    Now that that is squared away. Let’s get to the biggest misconception here: there is no such thing as a single English language – only English dialects under an umbrella of “English” – this goes for all languages. And part of what defines a dialect is its inventory of those meaningful sounds – the phonemes in the phonology.

    The issue at hand here has to do with tonal qualities of sung language – what happens to someone’s phonemes when they sing. In natural speech, sounds are identified by the relative frequencies of which they are composed. This is why the vowel /o/ will sound like an /o/ regardless of how deep or high the speaker’s voice is. Vowels like /o/ are made up of multiple frequencies whose relative distances define what it is. But for a given language even these relative distances have ranges – they are not set in stone. A collective speech community sets up the threshold of leeway around what constitutes an /o/, from, say, a /u/. There are lots of /o/’s but if the variation is not meaningful, they are classed together as a single phoneme. Natural speech sounds are about the relative.

    In song, pitch frequency is altered to conform to absolute frequencies, which are set in stone. Also in song, everything is voiced. It has to be.This too alters the quality of the underlying language. If your vocal folds are not vibrating, you are whispering not singing. And you basically sing on vowels. What consonants you can hold like /m/ or /s/ result in humming or hissing, not singing. Vowels are the core of both accent and song. Do you see where this is headed?

    The major difference between the general varieties of English and British accents occur in vowels pushed to the bottom of the mouth – the main class of these we call the “a” vowels. Like the one in “father” or when you say “ah” at the doctor’s. Things are muddy down there because the points of articulation are cramped. And the Brits make things more fun by rounding some of theirs. Also Brits have a tendency to produce most of their vowels (especially diphthongs) with their tongues placed or ending lower in their mouths. In singing, one has to project and enunciate while trying to hit absolute pitches. That means opening up the mouth and loosening up those cramped British vowels. That means losing that British accent and moving into acoustic ranges that are described as American. When a linguist says “neutral”, they mean “towards the center of the oral cavity”, i.e. not at the extreme front, back or bottom. The most neutral vowel is the much-maligned schwa.

    Next time you hear a British person speak, listen for their vowels and mimic them, especially their “ah”, “aw”, “oy”, “oh”. You can see where they are articulated and why holding them in song is less natural. Not that people don’t sing in British accents. The Clash did it. And Green Day does it in an affected pretentious way. But look at the style of music – punk is suited for those great tight vowels made down in the oral cavity. Singers can and do retain and/or put on accents. And that is a cultural aspect which is not the focus of this article.

    For those of you who still revel in the false notion that the Received Pronunciation of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the BBC and the House of Windsor is the one true English accent, I will hurt you with this. The General North American accent has far more in common with how the Bard’s plays sounded than anything you will hear coming from Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street. We Yanks and Canucks have older English accents than anyone roaming around the modern UK. We left at the time of Elizabeth I and avoided a series of vowel shifts that brought about current English accents in the rest of the world. So when you make Hamlet sound like James Bond, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    So be mindful that all these great and diverse mechanics are at work when you speak. There is more going on than you know. And we still haven’t figured out half of why. It would be a boring world if language had no variety.

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