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  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 6:00 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , if i was, if i were, mood, music, pop music, , subjunctive   

    If I were Justin Bieber… 

    If I was your boyfriend, never let you go
    Keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone
    I can be a gentleman, anything you want
    If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, I’d never let you go

    Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

    Truly stirring.

    According to English grammarians, “If I was your boyfriend” should read “If I were your boyfriend.” Bieber is describing something that isn’t true — he isn’t the girl’s boyfriend — so he needs to use the subjunctive mood. Here is a lengthier description of the subjunctive. (Not all big pop stars get it wrong, though: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” follows the rule correctly.)

    My problem with substituting “if I was” for “if I were” in songs is that it doesn’t cost anything to be grammatically correct — you end up with the same number of syllables and stresses. Why not follow the rule? Is there a social cost to using the subjunctive? Like, is it automatically less cool?

    There’s some evidence to suggest that the use of “if I was” is on the rise. Here’s the Ngram data for “if I was” (blue) versus “if I were” (red):

    When “if I was” occurs in the middle of a sentence, writers are almost as likely to use it versus “if I were.” But writers are less likely to use “if I was” if it occurs at the beginning of the sentence (second graph).

    The problem with this data is that “if I was” is occasionally grammatically correct, as in “If I was rude to you yesterday, I’m sorry.”

    So I tried narrowing the searches to eliminate correct instances of “if I was.”

    First, I thought of “if I was you” (blue) versus “if I were you” (red). But saying “if I were you” is pretty much idiomatic at this point. The data confirm that suspicion.

    Here is “I wish I was” (blue) versus “I wish I were” (red). They’re nearly convergent now. I thought that “I wish I were” was idiomatic, just like “if I were you,” but apparently that’s not the case.

    But maybe the subjunctive “was” isn’t really entirely encroaching on the territory of “were.” I compared the phrase “if I was your” to “if I were your,” thinking that a grammatically correct instance of “if I was your” was unlikely to occur. The difference is greater:

    Separating the correct instances of “if I was” from incorrect instances is a challenge. Does anyone have other/better ideas on how to eliminate grammatically correct instances of “if I was” to compare it to “if I were”?

    On a similar note, does anyone know of any studies that look at the loss of the subjunctive in English?

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 7:03 pm on September 16, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: carnatic music, jonsi, , music, non-lexical vocables, sigur ros,   

    Nonsense, utter nonsense! 

    Posted by Sandeep

    I’ve lately been listening to a lot of music by the Icelandic singer Jónsi and his band, Sigur Rós. Most of his songs are in Icelandic, but he does have a couple of songs in English, too. I’ve found his music to be a great study companion in law school because I can’t be distracted by the lyrics — I don’t understand a lick of Icelandic (although, as a Germanic language, it does have plenty of features in common with English).

    It turns out that Icelanders can’t understand a lot of his lyrics, either. In many of his songs, Jónsi uses a made-up language called Vonlenska in Icelandic, directly translated into English as “Hopelandic” (von ”hope” + -lenska“-landic,” from íslenska Icelandic). On Sigur Rós’s official website, Hopelandic is described:

    hopelandic (vonlenska in icelandic) is the ‘invented language’ in which jónsi sings before lyrics are written to the vocals. it’s of course not an actual language by definition (no vocabulary, grammar, etc.), it’s rather a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument.

    A Wikipedia author also described Hopelandic:

    … it consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes; in effect, Vonlenska uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language.

    Jónsi uses Hopelandic to create moods and exploit rhythms without the lyrical burden of language. It’s interesting to consider language a burden, rather than a vital component, in music — at least in some contexts.

    Here’s one of Sigur Rós’s biggest hits, “Hoppípolla” (literally, “hopping in puddles,” from hoppa + í + polla. Isn’t it crazy how similar Germanic languages are?). The lead singer Jónsi uses Hopelandic from 2:25-2:50 and again from 3:03 onwards.

    Hopelandic is far from the only example of “non-lexical vocables” used in music. In fact, we use these nonsense words in music all the time — we say “la la la” when we can’t remember the lyrics to a song, we sing scat in jazz, and we use nonsense words like “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” in famous songs!

    Perhaps most fundamentally, in Western music we use syllables like “do,” “re,” and “mi” to describe relative pitches, known as solfege. Indian classical music has an analogous system to describe relative pitches, using the seven syllables sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, collectively known as sargam(Strictly speaking, these syllables, both in Western and Indian music, aren’t random syllables — they are supposedly derived from longer words, but in the context of music they’re pretty much meaningless.)

    I wonder, too, if the use of non-lexical vocables in music hints at the origins of lyrical music — maybe our distant ancestors began singing using nonsense syllables, later moving on to actual lyrics.

    Indian classical music uses these non-lexical vocables quite a bit:  there’s a type of composition called a tillāna (in South Indian music) or tarāna (North Indian) in which nonsense syllables are used in lieu of actual lyrics, in order to exploit extraordinarily complex rhythms. Tillānas usually accompany dance. Here’s an example. The song is sung with these nonsense rhythmic syllables like dheemta-na, and jha:

    There’s also a whole type of performance in South Indian music called ragam-tanam-pallavi, of which the big middle chunk, the tanam, consists of exploring the mood of a particular scale solely on the nonsense syllablesta and nam, derived from the word and concept anantam, “without end.” To be able to do a proper ragam-tanam-pallavi is considered the pinnacle of musical performance in South India.

    In my experience as a singer, non-lexical vocables are incredibly emotive and liberating for the singer: we can focus entirely on the mood and the rhythm of the music, rather than the words. This is especially true in forms of music like jazz, which love to focus on the emotive and complex rhythmic aspects of performance. Indian classical music places an extremely high premium on the emotional power of music — often to the exclusion of the lyrics, especially in North Indian music. I’ve seen plenty of singers get so lost in the emotion of their performance that they resort to non-lexical vocables instead of the real lyrics. Audiences love it when that happens!

    Who knew that our hapless la-la-las had such illustrious cousins?

     
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