Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Twenty Wung Guns

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2012

Glen once noted that the trouble with being able to put all your favorite songs on one convenient device is that you have to consciously decide to listen to new music. Motivation to listen to the radio plummets: “Why listen to someone else’s lousy mix plus advertisements, when you can listen to the best mix ever without advertisements?”

So true, so true, as I concurred once before in this space. These days I get exposed to unfamiliar music only when something unusual is going on. As I noted in that earlier blog post, in 2010 I heard a few new songs I liked only because I made a point of listening to the pop station every day for two weeks while I was writing a column on the use of the word <I>Im(m)a</i> in popular songs. I’ve heard a new song here and there in the bowling alley with Doug and Adam, or in the movie theatre while I’m waiting for the previews to begin.

And, as it happens, in the roller skating rink, too. That’s where, at Doug’s birthday party later in 2010, I heard a song that I identified with my song-identifying phone app as “21 Guns” by Green Day. I added it to my iPod, and now, two years later, “21 Guns” has become just one more piece of music that I listen to to the exclusion of new stuff.

After a couple of years of listening to it, I’ve gradually become interested in the chorus:

Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

Two things are interesting about the chorus, one of them because of the way Green Day sing it, and the other because it brought back memories of writing Chapter 1 of my dissertation.

In English, the phoneme /n/ might be pronounced not only as [n], as in Neal, but also as [ɲ], as in In your face!, or as [ŋ], as in drink. That last assimilation is consciously known to most literate English speakers, some of whom had to be taught that ng was actually pronounced [ŋ], and not [ng] “nuh-guh”, as it was spelled.

In fast, or even normally paced speech, these assimilations can cross word boundaries, as happens in my example of In your face! Speaking carefully, I would pronounce 21 guns as “twenty [wʌ̃n] guns”. But speaking freely and easily, I would (and do) pronounce it as “twenty [wʌ̃ŋ] guns”. (The ~ is supposed to go over the ʌ in those transcriptions

In fact, Green Day sing it this way, too, as you can hear in the video. What I find unusual, though, is that they do this even though the song is somewhat slow (about 80BPM, the low end of “andante”, according to my metronome). Nevertheless, every time they sing that chorus, it’s a very carefully enunciated “twenty wung guns”. Why?


12 Responses to “Twenty Wung Guns”

  1. Dw said

    How did your dissertation phonemicize “finger” and “singer”?

    • Neal said

      Actually, my dissertation wasn’t about phonology; the thing that reminded me of my dissertation is coming in my next post.

      But to answer your question, the phonemic representations of finger and singer would be /fIŋgr/ and /sIŋr/, respectively.

  2. Jonathon said

    I don’t know why, but it’s not the first time I’ve noticed something phonetically weird about Green Day’s vocals. In “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” he sings “I walk alone” as something like “I walk [əˈlɑn]”. For a long time I couldn’t figure out if it was “along” with a develarized [ŋ] or “alone” with a lowered [oʊ].

    • In singing, vowels are treated differently. To help with the musicality/sound and often to mitigate diphthongs, the vowels become more open and rounded, which is why [oʊ] becomes more like [ɑ] that you’re hearing. I’ve noticed a similar occurrence as I’ve been listening to Yellowcard’s “Only One” again. A lot of “you”s as the end of phrases change from [ yu] to a more open [ yɔʷ ]. I considered it for a little while and I concluded that the song would sound a lot weirder if they sang the [ yu ] instead of the [ yɔ ] there. However, it’s not like that in every song. I don’t know if there are strict rules for musicality, but Green Day is definitely not alone (along :P) in their vowel changes in songs. In choir, my teachers would stress the importance of opening our vowels more, especially on held notes. It tends to sound better and they absolutely hated having those diphthongs there, which probably isn’t as much of an issue for pop music, but it’s still something to consider.

    • ruakh said

      @Jonathon: You are so right! Until I read your comment, I actually thought that some of the instances of “alone” were “along”.

      (Matthewnelson29 is right, too, of course; and I think that pitch is another factor, with higher vowels being avoided at higher pitches. But even so, this doesn’t fully explain “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, where successive instances of “alone” will sometimes sound one way, sometimes the other, even when they have more or less the same pitch and duration.)

    • I think what you guys are hearing goes far beyond a handful of songs, and I don’t think it’s a localized phenomenon or a melodic technique. This is something I’ve been listening for for a couple of years now, and I’m fairly certain that it’s in fact a specific style of singing. It affects more than just that single sound—it seems to affect most of the back vowels. When I first heard it, I dubbed it California Fronting, but upon further analysis, it seems to be something more like lowering. (Listen closely to the entirety of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”; you’ll hear it in words like “walk”, “one”, “boulevard”, etc.)

      I’ve been trying to cultivate a Pandora station that highlights this style. Artists like Colbie Caillat and Hayley Williams of Paramore make use of it (though Hayley is Canadian), as do a lot of young singers on shows like American Idol and The Voice.

      I don’t know if it’s related to a speech sound change in progress, but I think it is definitely a singing sound change that should be looked into more deeply.

  3. On a non-linguistic note, I find new music listen to mostly via my love of live music. Most new music I buy is bands I’ve seen live and liked. Other ones I buy are from artists I became a fan of long ago. Though I did actually get one new CD in the past year via hearing a song on the radio and liking it, though as a gift after putting in on my wish list.

  4. EP said

    California Fronting, that’s a good name for that. I think that’s the “problem” here. It’s a form of California-speak. I was born and raised there but when I hear young Californians speak these days, I ask myself where these strange sounds have come from. Language/pronunciation changes fast.

  5. punkadyne said

    I have nothing to constructive to add but this is one of the best blogs ever.

    My son and I had a discussion last night about how the English language can be broken down to root basics and manipulated. As a product of the US school system, he only recently discovered how grammar works at age 21. We were joking about how you could take a badly structured phrase, like “Him no go,” and people still understand it. Except certain grammar NAZIs, and I don’t mean the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, but the pedantic who act as if they have no idea what you are saying because, as Gene Wilder’s version of Willy Wonka stated, “you broke the rules.”

    “Him no go,” should be “He doesn’t go,” or perhaps a little less vague, “He doesn’t move.” The fact that “He” and “Him” are both nouns, but one is a subject and one is an object. So at what point, he asked, in the evolution of language (in human history), do we start specializing subject/object as separate words? Do other languages have less strict terms? Are their basic languages where pronouns are not developed at all? Like “Bob no go?”

    We discussed how many people have poor grammar online, and whether this is a temporary phase due to English globalization, or perhaps another reason? I said, “I know just the guy to ask!”

    What you say? English badly speaking ruins language, yes? No? Why care we when comprehensible may be?

    • Ran said

      > So at what point, he asked, in the evolution of language (in human history), do we start specializing subject/object as separate words?

      The earliest attested languages already have these sorts of grammatical niceties — they’ve been around much longer than writing has — so they evolved during prehistory. Very little is known about the early evolution of language, so this question can’t really be answered except with speculation.

      Incidentally, the tendency over recorded history (and recent prehistory) is for such specializations to be lost over time. In Old English, almost all nouns had this sort of specialization; for example, the word for “name” was nama if it was a subject and naman if it was an object. That distinction was lost almost a thousand years ago. Or, for a present-day example: the pronoun “whom” (the object form of “who”) is disappearing over time, and nowadays is fairly rare except in writing and formal speech.

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