Sunday, July 17, 2011

Did Rhoticity Kill The Hillbilly Cat?

Recently I found out that I'm not the only Elvis fan in the building where I work at the University of Gothenburg. One morning, I received an envelope with the internal mail. In it was a copy of a study in English, written by Mats Mobärg, a researcher and teacher at the Department of languages and literatures.

Turned out he'd read the article about me and my interest in Elvis in the official news magazine for the university, and thought I'd be interested in the study, titled "Did rhoticity kill the Hillbilly Cat?" that he wrote in 2001.

In short, what Mats Mobärg sets out to do, is trying to answer the question if Elvis Presley (a white pop singer) accommodates his singing pronunciation to a southern black model, in a way that resembles European singers aiming at an American target and northern American singers at a southern target.

He does this by investigating something called non-rhoticity, i.e. the absence of an [r] sound in words like arm and here. Non-rhoticity, he explains, "was traditionally a feature of black accents and white traditional upper-class accents, rhoticity being characteristic of white lower-class accents.

By comparing Elvis singing and speaking pronunciation he demonstrates that there is a dramatic increase of non-rhotic forms in his singing as compared to a spoken recording he used as a control (excerpts from an interview in Lakeland, Florida, August 1956, available on Elvis–A Legendary Performer Volume 3).

Mats Mobärg then goes one step further, checking out, among other things, rhoticity and period as well as rhoticity and tempo. It turns out that Elvis as the rock and roll hero of the mid and late fifties to a very great extent is non-rhotic, whereas Elvis the Hollywood crooner of the sixties puts his [r]'s in 50 per cent of the time. Also, that his up-tempo songs, especially the rhythm & blues songs, exhibited non-rhoticity to a remarkably high degree. Mats Mobärg has this to say on the last page of his study:
This would seem to indicate that there may indeed be a accommodation to a black model, since, among the genres tested, rhythm & blues by definition represents the black musical tradition, and non-rhoticity is a primary characteristic of black southern speech. It cannot be claimed, on the basis of the present analysis, that Presley consciously wanted to accommodate to a black style, but it is likely that there was a strong sense of appropriaetness of style in his adaptation of music, which led to the same result.
Are you with me? In any case I thought it cool that a fellow fan working in the same building as me has done scientific research on Elvis Presley.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your blog is always so interesting and readable. What is more, it defeats me how you can write in English better than 99.5% English people.