Doug and Adam have been watching the American Idol auditions for the past couple of weeks. It was Doug who wanted to do it, but I figure it’s a good thing to do just for socialization purposes, like learning to watch football. I didn’t figure out until my first year in high school that the reason I’d come to school some week and hear everyone singing some new song was that they listened to the radio! And not just when they were in the car with their parents, but in their own rooms, on stations they chose themselves! Oh, and they also watched some cable channel called MTV or something, I came to understand.
I can just imagine if these American Idol auditions had been on the air when I was Doug or Adam’s age. For the past two weeks, I would have been wondering, “Where the hell did this ‘pants on the ground’ song come from, and why is everyone singing it all of a sudden?” But not Doug and Adam: They laughed at General Larry Platt’s audition when it came on, chanted it with their friends at school the next day, and found a dozen clips of it on YouTube the next afternoon.
What, you haven’t heard “Pants on the Ground”? Well, watch the video! It’s a riot: a 62-year-old African-American busts out with a rap making fun of the more ridicule-worthy aspects of hip-hop culture. It’s like the kind of rant Bill Cosby sometimes does nowadays, except funnier.
So what’s the linguistic point of all this? I’ll start by writing out the first few lines, indicating the pronunciation. I don’t think I need to go so far as to use the IPA for it; I’ll just use an apostrophe to indicate a sound missing (from the standard pronunciation), and the in parentheses to indicate a nasalized vowel in pa(n)’:
Pants on the groun’
Pants on the groun’
Lookin’ like a foo’ with yo’ pants on the groun’!
With the gol’ in your mouth, hat turn’ sideway’
Pa(n)’ hit the groun’, call yourself a coo’ cat
Lookin’ like a foo’
Walkin’ downtown with yo’ pants on the groun’, get it up!
Platt’s pronunciation has a number of features typical of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). (The following is taken from Wikipedia, in an entry backed up by many academic citations.)
- “Homorganic final consonant clusters (that is, word-final clusters of consonants that have the same place of articulation) that share the same laryngeal settings are reduced.” Ground is pronounced groun’; turned as turn’: [n] and [d] are both made with the tongue tip; both are voiced; and the second one in the cluster disappears. Similarly for gold with its [l] and [d].
- “AAVE is non-rhotic, so the rhotic consonant /r/ is usually dropped if not followed by a vowel.” Platt pronounces your as yo. (This is not exclusively an AAVE feature; other dialects of English are also non-rhotic.)
- “/l/ is often deleted in patterns similar to that of /r/ and, in combination with cluster simplification (see above), can make homophones of toll and toe, fault and fought, and tool and too. Homonymy may be reduced by vowel lengthening and by an off-glide [ɤ].” Platt pronounces fool as foo (or maybe it could be spelled foow, to represent the off-glide).
- “[F]inal consonants may be deleted (although there is a great deal of variation between speakers in this regard). Most often, /t/ and /d/ are deleted. … Nasal consonants may be lost while nasalization of the vowel is retained.” Platt pronounces sideways as sideway, and pants in what I’ve written as the fifth line as pa(n)’.
There’s also the pronunciation of the suffix -ing as -in, but that’s so common in American English in general that I’m not putting it in the above list. However, there’s one feature of AAVE that Platt doesn’t have, or at least, doesn’t use when he performs this song. As Wikipedia puts it: “Word-medially and -finally, /θ/ is realized as either [f] or [t]….” I listened to Platt’s performance on American Idol and in The View, and he’s very consistent. As far as I can tell, he pronounces mouth as mouth, not mouf, and with he definitely pronounces as with, not wif or wit.
For speakers who do pronounce with as wit, there’s an interesting consequence when it comes before a y sound. In many dialects of English, the sequence [tj] becomes [tʃ] (especially when the following vowel is [u]), an example of a process called affrication. Thus, I know what you want becomes I know whatchu want; Tuesday becomes Chewsday; and (for some British English speakers) tune becomes chune. In AAVE, wit’ you / wit’ ya becomes witchu / witcha. (But wit me does not become *witch me, and wit her doesn’t become *witch her.)
I noticed Platt’s pronunciation of with from the first time I saw his audition, because I was expecting him to say witcha pants on the groun’, and in all the times he repeated that phrase, it was always with yo’ pants on the groun’. But when Doug sings it, he puts in all the AAVE features he’s absorbed from black classmates or rap songs, and corrects with yo’ to witcha. So do all his friends, he says. “It just sounds better,” he tells me, “along with foo for fool.” He agrees that that’s not how Platt actually sings it, but suspects that most of his friends probably think it is. There are certainly lots of people on the Internet who evidently think so.
If I were a sociolinguist, I’d probably have something interesting to say about construction of identity through use of various dialect features, but I’m not. If any sociolinguists are reading this, I’m interested to hear your opinion.