April 04, 2004

No hurr in Nellyville?

A few days ago, I discussed a New Yorker article by Jake Halpern that mentions "a quirky St. Louis dialect whereby 'here' is pronounced 'hurr' -- as in Nelly's 'Hot in Herre' -- 'there' becomes 'thurr,' and 'everybody' is 'urr'body.'" I wondered at the time what this sound pattern really is. I still don't know, but I've learned a little more. To sum up: Halpern seems to have gotten it wrong. Initial listening reveals that words like there are pronounced in the way he indicates, but here isn't, at least not in the song that he cites. There are some sound clips below, so you can listen for yourself.

The point is not to debunk Halpern, who merely mentions this sound change in passing, in one paragraph of an interesting article that's mainly about other things entirely. But this striking set of pronunciations has made a big impression on the people who listen to St. Louis rap, Halpern included, and I'm curious about what's really going on, and what its history is.

Talking about sound change can be confusing, especially sound change in English, which has lots of distinct vowels and a very phonetically-ambiguous writing system. As Halpern did, it's common to say "X becomes Y", where both X and Y are written in standard English orthography. But is X -- which changes its sound -- just a single word, or a class of words? Usually what changes is a whole class of words that share a certain sound pattern. But then what is the class of words, and what part of their sound pattern is affected? And when we say that in some English dialect "X becomes Y", where Y is just another English word, whose pronunciation of word Y are we talking about? If Y is not a word, but an attempt to use the conventions of English orthography to depict a sound, the situation is worse, because the reader has to decode the spelling as well as allowing for the speaker.

Over the centuries, linguists have worked out some ways to talk about these things without getting too confused. I'm going to use three of these methods here. First, in talking about classes of words that change, I'll start with J.C. Wells' idea of "lexical sets" -- a set of 24 classes of English monosyllables, divided up according to their vowel sounds, in a way intended to work across all English dialects. We're dealing here with Wells' lexical set #22 SQUARE, which also includes words like care, air and wear, and perhaps with his lexical set #19 NEAR, which also include words like beer, weird and fierce, and his lexical set #9 NURSE, which also includes curb, turn, work and so on. Second, in talking about the way words are pronounced, I'll use symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet vowel chart, as well as expressions like "the vowel in the way that most Americans say stir" (FWIW, I was raised in eastern Connecticut, but have a few vowels derived from my mother's tidewater Virginia upbringing). Third, I'll link to short illustrative sound clips from the cited songs.

St. Louis hiphop certainly (sometimes?) features a centralized vowel in words from the lexical set SQUARE, as in Chingy's Right Thurr, whose chorus (in standard orthography) is:

I like the way you do that right there (right there)
Swing your hips when you're walkin', let down your hair (let down your hair)
I like the way you do that right there (right there)
Lick your lips when you're talkin', that make me stare

As you can hear for yourself, there, hair and stare are all are pronounced so as to rhyme with the way that most Americans pronounce the words in the lexical set NURSE . This is a rhotic (i.e. r-colored) central vowel, IPA [ɚ]. I don't know whether this results in a merger of stare and stir, bare and burr, etc., or whether the NURSE words change their sound to something else in a chain shift.

Bill Labov tells me that one of his students has told him that her roommate from E. St. Louis has this sound change, though "it is not one of the large battery of St. Louis features that have been remarked in the many studies of that city", and none of the four (white) speakers from St. Louis in his Telsur survey showed it. A plausible precedent for this sound change would be the dialect that variously merge various subsets of of marry, merry, Mary and Murray (although this doesn't apply in closed syllables like there or hair).

But Helpern also asserts that speakers of this dialect pronounce "here" as "hurr", citing Nelly's "Hot in Herre". This was more surprising to me. Does beer really merge with burr? or is there just something "quirky" about here? Well, neither one, as far as I can tell. Here's the relevant line from Nelly's "Hot in Herre", and it doesn't sound to me like much has happened to the vowel at all, compared to the general American pattern. If it's centralized at all, it certainly hasn't gone all the way to "urr". The centralizing glide at the end of the vowel isn't very strongly rhotic -- r-ful -- but that's not the feature that Halpern was ostensibly talking about.

I don't know whether Chingy's urrification of the SQUARE set is historically independent of the change that produced the pronunciations traditionally written "thar" for there, or "bar" for bear. It'd be nice to learn that Chingy is carrying on the tradition of Boggs in Huckleberry Finn, who "comes a-tearing along ... whooping and yelling ... and singing out 'Cler the track, thar.'"

If we take Twain's transcription at face value, then a hundred and fifty years ago, just a bit further down the Mississippi from St. Louis, there was a chain shift of front vowels before /r/ that would have brought here down to where hair had been, and hair down to "har". This is not quite Nellyville, either geographically or phonetically, but it's close enough to be interesting.

I really like this idea. The only trouble is that I don't hear any evidence of here shifting in Nelly's Hot in Herre. But I notice on amazon.com that Nelly sells two version of Nellyville -- Nellyville [Explicit Lyrics] and Nellyville [Clean]. Maybe in keeping with Barry Schwartz's theory about the Tyranny of Choice, Nelly has also produced Nellyville [Explicit Lyrics] [E. St. Louis dialect], Nellyville [Explicit Lyrics][South Side Chicago dialect], etc., and I somehow got the wrong one?

[By the way, here is a brief clip of J-Kwon's pronunciaton of everybody in the song "Tipsy", as cited by Halpern. It's hard to tell from a single, rapid, slurred rendition against a musical background, but it sounds like the "every" part has become a single rhotic vowel, which is somewhat centralized, though maybe it hasn't gone all the way to [ɚ] Note also that in this clip four and floor seem relatively r-less, and the pronunciation of here doesn't sound any more centralized than Nelly's did. But the way to characterize this way of talking would be to analyze some recorded interviews, not to puzzle over a few scraps of song. Finally, a fan site says that "cornell haynes" (i.e. Nelly) "was born in texas, but was moved to spain for three years", so who knows where his speech patterns come from? Chingy and J-Kwon seem to be St. Louis natives. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 4, 2004 07:18 AM