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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.
This Saturday 25th January at 6pm CET Nadia is teaching a free online English class using You Are the Course Book Method. All learners are welcome!
“This is a demo class on You Are the Course Book Method, developed by Matt Purland, England. Teacher Nadia from Russia will give a mock class using Matt’s method. This a speaking class for English learners, so everybody please get your mics ready.”
To find out more and to sign up for this class please visit the link below:
Try Dr. Ray’s English Clinic!
More about this service:
“Our study philosophy at Dr .Ray’s English clinic caters specifically to the student who is busy, and focused on RESULTS.
“We deliver targeted instruction aimed directly at what you need, and never waste your time on exercises or instruction designed to use up time for which you pay.
“STRAIGHT TO THE POINT – NO WASTED TIME – DIRECTED SELF-STUDY FOLLOWS EVERY LESSON.”
Why not find out more today, either via Facebook or through the dedicated website?
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:
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
Yesterday I was teaching a pre-intermediate class and needed a few general discussion questions on the topic of “Homes”, so I came up with the following. Maybe you will be able to use them in your class too!
You could include them in a lesson based on the “Home” unit in Talk a Lot Elementary Book 1, for example.
1. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?
2. Which is better – a house or a flat? Why? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
3. How many different kinds of home can you think of?
4. How will our homes be different in 50 years from now?
5. Which city in the world would be… a) the best, b) the worst, c) [insert other superlatives!] to live in? Why?
6. What are the most important factors in choosing a home?
7. Describe… a) your home, b) your grandparents’ home, c) [insert other!]. Compare them.
8. Who would you like to live with, if you could choose? Why?
Ah – silent letters. They’re so quiet that we can’t even hear them! They’re so quiet that we could question whether we need them in the spelling at all… but that’s another post!
Talk a Lot Intermediate Book 2 – Unit 2.2: English is a Big Boiling Pot of Delicious Steaming-Hot Word Stew!