Schwa Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to Us

Ever wonder why the English language is such a font of pop music, or why Europop and Cantopop has always sounded a bit, well, off? (Sorry 2008 Eurovision contestants).

One could argue that since rock ‘n’ roll has its roots in America and England, its progenitors simply have a leg up on the competition. But while we Americans and the Brits certainly have an impressive resume, there’s another explanation.

Turns out one of the main reasons is that English is a stress-centered (isochronous) language, meaning we stress or weaken the prominence of our spoken syllables depending on our intention. This is especially helpful when fitting snappy lyrics into easily digestible pop rhythms. Most languages spoken across Europe and Asia are syllable-timed — speakers pronounce each syllable fully — and so, are more intransigent.

The primary front on which the English language wages its campaign of funk is vowel reduction. Our Deathstar? The schwa, an unstressed phoneme (individual sound) heard in such words as alone, gallop, and circus. This pliant little guy gives way to stressed syllables in words and lets us collapse our speech to fit the beat.

Give it a try: Once upon a time ya dressed so fine / threw the bums a dime in ya prime, didn’t you?

The things you don’t learn teaching English to Vietnamese students…

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