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Like for many listeners, there was one line that jumped out at me as seeming odd when I first heard the song Blank Space by Taylor Swift – and when I heard it again, and again, and again on the radio. The line occurs in the chorus:
Got a lonely Starbucks lover…
I assumed it was meant as a pop culture reference, or could even be part of a product placement deal with said coffee chain. It seemed odd and jarring in the song, but I processed it and continued about my business.
Imagine my intense surprise when, thanks to reading about the song online (e.g. here), I was informed that this wasn’t a coffee-based refrain at all, but that the actual line that Taylor sings is:
Got a long list of ex-lovers…
I decided to investigate the lyric further, because now I could hear both versions, where before it had only been the Starbucks one. It seemed to me that the sound spine could be causing the confusion. The sound spine is the sequence of stressed vowel sounds in a sentence. We rely on it when listening to English to be able to process what is said without catching every syllable and sound in a sentence. For example, in this sentence:
I went for a walk in the park.
The stressed syllables are:
I went for a walk in the park
and the stressed vowel sounds in these words are:
e or ar
which is the sound spine. (You can find out more about the sound spine and connected speech in my free book Talk a Lot Foundation Course.)
Without e, or, ar in this sentence, we might have problems understanding it. If you pronounced it with different stressed vowel sounds, e.g. o, er, ee, it would sound like this:
I want for a work in the peek.
which of course is nonsense!
So what about this line from the massive number one-selling hit single “Blank Space”? Here is what the sound spine should be (with British English pronunciation):
Got a long list of ex–lovers.
o o i e u
and here is the sound spine that we actually hear:
Got a long list of ex-lovers.
ar ar ii ar u
Part of this is to do with Taylor’s Southern accent. “Got” becomes “Gart” and “long” becomes “larn”. However, the main problem is that the lyrics do not scan properly. The rhythm demands a stressed beat on “of”, which is a function word, and not usually stressed. With Taylor’s accent pronouncing o as ar, combined with moving forward the st of “list” (using the connected speech technique of FCL – forward consonant linking), we somehow get the word “star” as a stressed content word. Taylor also changes the “ng” sound in “long” to n, which gives us: “larn lii” instead of “long li” (with those crisp British English vowel sounds) – which is very close to “lonely”. Because our brain does not get the correct vowel sounds to be able to process the actual lyrics, it gives us the nearest matches: “lonely” and “Starbucks”. It is as if our brain hears “Star” as the stressed syllable of a two-syllable word and speedily searches for a relevant match. Faced with this difficult task (starfish… starving… star-crossed…?), the brain lands on the familiar word “Starbucks”. We accept it because surely this is a topic that Taylor Swift could be singing about – a romantic liaison in a US-owned coffee shop. It doesn’t fit with the next line, but never mind. We are too busy thinking about the lonely Starbucks lover to hear the next line. We also hear the ks of “ex” and this matches the end of “Starbucks” perfectly.
So, the entire line as Taylor sings it can be written in Clear Alphabet (a new phonemic alphabet – more here) like this:
Gar d Larn Lii Star ve Kslu vz
We hear the final word “lovers” correctly because the stressed vowel sound u is sounded out clearly.
How could the line be easier to catch? If Taylor had squashed the “of” instead of stressing it, maybe by pausing on the word “list”, before jumping over “of” to the double stress of “ex-lo”. The two double stresses “long list” and “”ex-lo”, separated by the unstressed beat “of” (with a schwa sound instead of ar) might have sounded OK:
Got a long list, of ex–lovers…
But it might have been better to rewrite the line to fit the rhythm. Hmm. I don’t know – what about:
Got a lonely Starbucks lover…
It could even have been part of a tie-in promo with the coffee empire!
Does it matter? Only if clear communication matters.
Is it important in the grand scheme of things. Not really, but when I hear this song on the radio maybe 10 times per day, and I have to stop to think about the lyrics each time I hear the chorus (my ears are telling me “Starbucks” while my mind is telling me “No, no… it should be ‘long list of ex-‘…” which doesn’t fit) – it becomes a little annoying. However, I still love the album 1989.
The lesson for English students is: the clearer your sound spine, the more effective your communication.
You are welcome to join me for my next free live lesson on YouTube!
Click here to find out more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECj82eoY_ZU
We are really pleased to announce that we are now selling hard copies of 4 fabulous English Banana.com books:
Big Grammar Book, Big Activity Book, Big Resource Book, and Talk a Lot Elementary Book 1
There are lots of websites that have interactive quizzes for testing your English, but Mega Mega English is the first I have seen where you get to join in a conversation with an online character via listening. It’s ideal for practicing your listening and reading skills!
Webmaster Matthew Baxter told us:
“Mega Mega English is a great way to learn real English conversations skills. Players interact with a variety of characters in places such as hotels, restaurants and shops. They must answer and ask questions. The virtual characters then give unique responses. Some choices are correct, some are wrong, and some will make you laugh!”
Why not check it out and let us know what you think?
Screenshots from Mega Mega English.com:
Learn English with Exercises is the latest English language learning app from Creative Apps Lab. The app is packed with great exercises for practising English skills, including grammar, reading, vocabulary building, and communication skills. Better still, the app features many exercises from English Banana.com books, like Big Grammar Book!
The app costs $ 0.99 and can be downloaded from Apple App Store in any country worldwide. However, we have got hold of twenty free copies for readers of this blog! If you would like a special download code, please contact us and tell us why you enjoy learning with English Banana.com!
You can find out more about Learn English with Exercises app here:
You can order the app on iTunes here:
There is also a free starter version of the app, which you can get here:
This fantastic new app was produced via our Free Copying Licence, which allows anybody to use English Banana.com material for their projects – including commercial projects like this one – absolutely free of charge. To read our Free Copying Licence, please click below. Maybe you could make use of it…?!
This is a recording of a free class I taught on WizIQ.com on 28.02.13: http://www.wiziq.com/online-class/1140564-free-english-vocabulary-and-pronunciation-workout You can download the free material that we used here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/127589616/Auto-Mode-3-Example
You are welcome to join us for this FREE pre-intermediate English language class on the topic of “Clothes”. It was a pleasure to teach this class last night in partnership with MySchoolo.com
About the Class
We’re going to spend a whole lesson looking at final consonant linking in cv connections in English speech. For example, in the sentence “I like English” there is one example of final consonant linking: “like English” becomes Lai King glish
If you are interested in this kind of thing, you will be sure to enjoy this lesson! Make sure you have your microphone plugged in, so that you can speak during the class.
This class will be relaxed and fun, so please come and join us if you would like to improve your speaking and listening skills in a friendly class.
See you there! 😉
Introducing new material from English Banana.com that will give you some practice in using connected speech and stress in English. You can download the free .pdf worksheet pack here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/105327558/A-New-Series-of-Self-Study-Worksheets-Stress-Reduce-Merge
Any feedback would be most welcome! Thanks. 😉
Now you can practise your English pronunciation skills and get instant feedback with our really useful new widget:
It was great to have a chat about teaching with Nate Hill of Tweet Speak English recently. You can download the full interview as a FREE MP3 here:
You can now download the MP3 recording of our latest class.
Left-click to open in your browser and right-click to download to your computer:
by Matt Purland (4th June 2012)
Here is the first class from a short Talk a Lot Elementary Spoken English course that I taught online recently. The topic in this recording is “Town” and we’re working from Talk a Lot Elementary Book 1. You can find the links for the other four classes in the course below!
Many thanks to Ma3ali English for organising the course and uploading the recordings.
Class 2: Food and Drink