New Britneyology

Britney: her accent, pronunciation and enunciation

Posted by: Karenannanina on: October 6, 2012

Picture my conversation with my friend Daisy:
“I’m planning a Britney article called 100 Ways To Say The Word ‘Baby’!”
“But do you actually HAVE 100 ways?”
“I was going to exaggerate and lie…”
“But wouldn’t that undermine the integrity of your article?”
“Uhhhhhhh…. Yes, but a full article on her pronunciation and enunciation is going to mean a lot of work….”

But finally here we are. There was no easy way out after all. I had to listen to every word on every song on every album in a way I’d never listened before, and I must say, it has been a most enlightening exercise, and challenged many of my own preconceptions.

The inspiration for the project was a little moment on Britney’s video “Gettin’ In The Zone”. She was having some harmless fun over Fe’s accent: “She said ‘poo-er’ instead of ‘poor’!” This was something of an epiphany for me. Britney was not, in fact, some kind of wild, untamed swamp creature who played “Duelling Banjos” and ate tourists. Her years at Park Lane Academy had not been wasted and she was acutely conscious of the need to speak like a well-brung-up young lady. “Yes, I am a Southern Belle!” she told an interviewer.

Whatever you may have been persuaded to believe by a trailer-park-obsessed media, Britney Spears does not usually sing with a particularly deep South, country-fried accent. She’s no more Louisiana than Beyonce is Texas. Although she often slips into a countrified drawl, whether from carelessness or as a characteristic of a role she’s playing with her acting-in-song, she doesn’t slur her consonants. And you may point to her distinctive vowel sounds, but what’s going on there has little to do with where she came from and a lot more to do with enunciation.

In fact, contrary to many assumptions – and I have been as guilty as anybody – at the start of her career her singing was rather mannered, with self-consciously “correct” pronunciation. On the BOMT album, the “i” sounds as in “time” and “sign”, are sung open-mouthed and open-throated and not rendered as “tahm” and “sahn”. The way she delivers “time” and “find” in From the bottom of my broken heart is quite startling. She applies the same open voicing to “there” and “care”. Words that end with “r” are delivered conscientiously, and words that end with “ing” very deliberately, as in “fading” and “waiting” in I will still love you.

On the other hand, we get early glimpses of sounds she has always had problems with and has never been able to “sing out”. These are the “o” sounds in “supposed” and “know”, and even more so in “born”, “on”, “wrong” and “along”, which have always been Britney’s biggest weakness. To enunciate these properly requires a much more open mouth and throat than even the “i” sound, far more so than she has ever been either willing or able to provide, and it’s this one foible that makes her sound little-girlish, or, as veteran DJ Terry Wogan once put it, “like a chipmunk”. Oddly, though, she has many, varied and prettier ways of singing the word “love”.

Something you encounter on …Baby One More Time and nowhere else on her albums is the soul inflection she uses on Soda Pop and Thinkin’ about you. Here she produces the words from further back in her throat, with a more guttural tone and squeezed vowels. And, of course, there is heavy use of the signature “croak” that made some of her early reviewers think of gin-sodden angst and heartbreak and reflect with amazement that she was just 17.

On her second album, there is far less croaking, and we find her enunciation still notably clear and rather careful, but her pronunciation is becoming slightly more relaxed – more in line, perhaps, with her speaking voice. But her accent waxes and wanes in interviews, sometimes Southern, sometimes standard LA Girl, sometimes even English, apparently for no other reason than that what she’s saying sounds better that way. So it’s unsurprising that her accent varies from song to song throughout most of her recording career, and even more so as she begins to treat each song as its own little drama in its own little context. On the “Oops” album, she makes fairly consistent use of “ah”, “mah” and “mahl” for “I” “my” and “mile” (for example) and the final “g” usually goes missin’ from words endin’ in “ing”.

There are a couple of exceptions. Don’t let me be the last to know is politely sung, carefully enunciated and accentless, although “ah” for “I” does creep in here and there. The other exception is The girl in the mirror. It’s always worth noticing how fastidious she is in enunciating certain words, and “mirror” is an example. Words ending in “r” always receive special attention from Britney. Where most singers allow the “r” to drift into inaudibility, or render it as “ah” or “uh” in words such as “better”, Britney almost always articulates it fully, as you can witness with “hear” and “near” in One kiss from you and sometimes even wraps her tongue around it, as with “here” and “clear” on Everytime. One observer has mentioned the prominence of her “long, flexible tongue”, and this may have something to do with it. It certainly seems to contribute to her characteristic pronunciation of words ending in a double “L”, such as “all”, “hell”, “spell” and “wall”.

Her second album Oops I Did It Again reveals some more of the “o” sounds that she constricts – “more”, “door”, “know”, “somethin’”, “go” and “one”. If her singing coaches could teach her to open her mouth wider, use a rounded embouchure and keep her tongue down, she could avoid this issue. On the other hand she would lose some of her quirky, if controversial, individuality and that endearing projection of innocence and youth, but at the age of almost 31, perhaps she needs to.

Although her default pronunciation on her second album was a lot more relaxed and natural than on her first, it would be wrong to see this as one step along the road to total countrification. On her third album, “Britney”, her accent is extremely inconsistent and random throughout, even within individual songs. We may find “mah lahf” for “my life”, “sha” for “shy”, “dahm” for “dime” and “ah lurve rock an’ roll”, but in other places she pronounces her words with care, as with “mind”, “life” and “alright” on Cinderella. And every multi-syllable word on the album – such as “attitude”, “insecurity”, “philosophy”, “fantastic” and “compromise” – is clearly articulated.

One might begin to suspect that her accent becomes stronger when she has less time to think about it, since the ballads on the album are pronounced so neutrally. On I’m not a girl, not yet a woman, she only slips into the vernacular a couple of times, and on When I found you she is even more careful, while also managing to be thoroughly engaging and charming in her delivery. Yet some of the faster songs are relatively accentless too – for example Before the goodbye (all “ing” endings present and correct), Let me be (all “i” sounds sung out), and Bombastic love.

In The Zone is less inconsistent, and the choice of accent to suit the song less random, if not exactly methodical. Breathy, whispery delivery from the front of the mouth is the hallmark of this era. Her diction is naturalistic throughout, with just a few exceptions, but as a by-product, her enunciation loses some clarity. The ballads receive a fastidious treatment, and the potentially shocking Touch of my hand and Don’t hang up are sung so politely, sweetly, and with such restraint that hardly anybody has ever been offended by them. Brave New Girl is sung in quite an open-voiced manner that conveys an appropriate freshness. But all the rest of the songs are pronounced extremely casually, as if revealing a belief that urban-ish dance songs sound more credible that way. In passing, it might be worth noting that Britney’s signature croak has almost completely disappeared by this point – yet her sound is still immediately recognisable because of its other traits.

When I study my notes on Blackout, I find that a familiar set of observations emerges: diction less clear than at the start of her career but longer words clearly enunciated, compressed vowel sounds in some places but not in others, informal and casual pronunciation as the default, but, as usual, a lot of exceptions and peculiarities. However, as compared to In The Zone there is an even stronger sense of purpose in the pronunciation and enunciation she applies to each song, and it feels more like a series of conscious characterisations. For instance, in Break the ice she sings a little further back in her throat, and her accent steers carefully away from anything that might possibly sound Southern. But on Ooh Ooh Baby she remembers her Southern Belle persona and, for the first and only time on any of her recordings, pronounces “ears”, “fears” and “here” as “eahs”, “feahs” and “heah”. This from a girl who always takes such trouble to enunciate her “r” sounds! On Toy Soldier her accent goes right off the scale of bratty vernacularity, and is obvious role-playing. And, in complete contrast, on Heaven on Earth she sings from the front of her mouth, the words drifting softly out on her breath, almost an  ITZ-era whisper, creating a particularly intimate moment. Is there ANY other singer who uses her voice to create such unforgettable synergies between singer and song?

The process of characterization continues on Circus, and here we begin to make the acquaintance of the “sex kitten” with the annoyingly insistent, metallic voice who has led some observers to call Britney “the singer who autotunes HERSELF”. But an artist as subtle as Britney doesn’t merely have ONE of these kittens. It’s present in attenuated form on Womanizer, Kill the lights and Lace and leather, in a Marilyn-inspired version on Mmm Papi and in the most extreme of extreme forms on If you seek Amy. In complete contrast, Britney uses a gentler, sweeter delivery on Unusual you and My Baby, which is most gracefully and graciously sung, with the edges rounded off the consonants. Rock me in reveals something of an English accent, as if intended as a tribute to Girls Aloud, and Amnesia is delivered as a 60’s teen-drama, complete with street-girl attitude and a heavily exaggerated and very un-Britneyish“This is how I DOOOOO!” that reminds me so much of the Shangri-Las in Remember (Walking in the sand).

Femme Fatale brings the story up to date. If Britney has been on a journey, where has she arrived? Truthfully, it’s hard to say on the evidence of an album that operates within fairly narrow parameters. With an almost entirely dance-music oriented tracklist, scope for characterization seems to have been reduced somewhat, with widespread (some would say excessive) deployment of her multiple varieties of “sex kitten” on tracks such as I wanna go, (Drop dead) beautiful, Seal it with a kiss, Criminal and Up and down. In terms purely of accent and pronunciation, most of the songs display a compromise between careful and informal. One could describe the effect as moderately Southern vernacular but not exactly Louisiana indigenous. However, somehow her enunciation of vowels sounds even more constricted and compressed than in the past, which is probably why the average critic hears them as machine-made. It would be a shame if her identifiability and distinctiveness had transitioned from open voicings, polite pronunciations and a trademark croak through the introduction of a mildly Southern flavor, then breathiness and whispering, and eventually the full flowering of multiple characterizations in song, only to end up as little more than a bunch of carelessly formed vowels.

On the other hand, her other core values are, if anything, strengthened on Femme Fatale. She takes exceptional trouble over her consonants throughout, “ing” endings are fully enunciated, and key words are delivered with attentiveness and charm, as in “remember” (on Inside Out), “uncontrollably” (I wanna go), “forbidden” (Seal it with a kiss), and “everything” and “gasoline” (Gasoline).

He about to lose me is a notable anomaly. The reversion to long-gone BOMT sounds at the outset is remarkable, and, even though she compromises as the song proceeds, her voicing seems much more open and less constricted than elsewhere on the album. Her vocal on Don’t keep me waiting may not be classic last-century Britney, but it’s quite open-voiced too. The tantalising suggestion is that she can still produce those sounds when she wants to; when she judges that a song sounds better that way. It’s like the way she drops some dramatically odd pronunciations of words into her songs. “MEH!” on Overprotected, “Hayzaaay” on Hold it against me, and “gley-ee-ess” on Shattered glass come to mind. And there are many, many weird ways of saying “baby”. Maybe not a hundred… but that’s another story.

28 Responses to "Britney: her accent, pronunciation and enunciation"

I’m speechless! This is a truly brilliant piece of work, thank you! As I’m currently studying phonetics at college, this has been a really interesting read. It is not my favorite subject though — I wish we studied Britney’s pronunciation instead of random Eternal interviews lol.

Do a project on her! 😀

The syllabus is the syllabus!

If by project you mean final thesis though, I don’t find phonetics & phonology interesting enough to do an entire project about someone’s “accent, enunciation and pronunciation”.

I always found the way she said/sang O very distinctive and Britneyish.
Enlightening and brilliant article as always. Mind…blowwwwwwwwn

To illustrate the final point 😀 :

Notice the multiple pronunciations within just a single song at times.

After this article, I’m having trouble getting my mind around just how talented she really is. Not that I didn’t know but I think we’ve all had moments during discussion on this website where we’ve just gone “WOW” at what Britney’s capable of in any area of her talents. I think this was a great, fresh topic I hadn’t considered and it’s gonna be a lot of fun going back over her songs with this in mind from now on. I think the two songs where her pronunciation really stuck out to me were Perfect Lover and Toy Soldier. When she says “lookin’ delicious”, she’s playing the part so well it’s scary! And the way she says “sedUCtive” on PL, her choice on what part of the word gets emphasized is always fascinating. Her highlighting the “uc” part of the word allows her to rhyme “touch” with it so it flows better (“So sedUCtive/when you TOUch me”) and the slight force with which she pronounces it really establishes her as the lead vocalist (and shows why singers like her are front and center and not backup vocalists).

Did everyone see the X Factor snippet of her singing to LA Reid?

She’s a little nervous and carrying a rather large cake but in just a few seconds you can hear quite a few of the pronunciation choices/sounds examined here, even BOMTney makes a quick appearance!

It’s strange that nobody seems to have discussed this subject in any depth before, and any discussions that have been started on the forums have gone off track through prejudice and people thinking they’ve heard something that wasn’t really there.

I hope people will take this as a starting point for more detailed and informed debate. You’ve certainly done so!

Ohh Poor Karen! We loves your posts, This is my favorite fansite! Thank You so much for your Britneyology.

I thought more people would be interested in this topic! Bah! I feel like I’ve just wasted three weeks of my life….

Maybe it’s exam month or something.

For what it’s worth, I went and watched the ITZ special for the “poo-er” moment, which I loved btw, and ended up finding a few other moments where she politely insisted on Fe losing her Southern twang! Really neat observation and shows that her “image” was constantly on her mind back then. We already know she was the mastermind behind some of her more controversial BOMT moments too, an interesting article could be examining her position of power throughout her career, because I was surprised at how in charge she and Fe seemed through that ITZ doco (also Stages, since I can never just stop at ONE Britney special once I start LMAO).

Yes, she says something like “We don’t do the ‘ennnnggggg’ thing”! I seem to have lost my copy of the video, so I can’t be sure! I shall ask a kindly relative if they may happen to have it, on the grounds that it’s required for research purposes.

That’s a good idea about her position of power. It’s amazing how many people think she’s always been a puppet and something of a dumb bunny when ALL of the available evidence is to the contrary.

Youtube is a Britney fans best friend.

Here’s an account with many full length feature she’s done:

It’s a lot of information, worthy of a couple of re-reads and maybe a proper comment.

I love how she’ll say different intonations and different pitchs all the way through the song, like the Baby’s in Baby One More time in teh video above blow my mind!

Your proper comment would be very welcome!

I just read this morning that Beyoncé has dropped out of Clint Eastwood’s Star Is Born remake.

In light of Britney’s remarkable singular mythos (that her voice absolutely demonstrates – totally unique in the aural sense of Americana), don’t you think Jason should contact Clint and get some talks going?

I feel like Judy Garland would want Britney to bring the 21st century version of Vicki Lester to life.

I like the idea, but they’ll probably use Anne Hathaway!

That damnable Anne Hathaway! It breaks my heart she was cast in Les Mis because Britney Spears IS Fantine, as written by Victor Hugo – to the absolute letter. Trust Hollywood to give the role to somebody who couldn’t be further from Hugo’s vision of that character. Read on — this is BRITNEY:

“Fantine was one of those beings which are brought forth from the heart of the people… She was called Fantine because she had never been known by any other name…”

“As to Fantine, she was joy itself. Her splendid teeth had evidently been endowed by God with one function – that of laughing. Her thick blond tresses, inclined to wave, and easily escaping from their confinement, obligated her to fasten them continually. Her rosy lips babbled with enchantment. The corners of her mouth, turned up voluptuously, seemed to encourage audacity; but her long, shadowy eyelashes were cast discreetly down towards the lower part of her face as if to check its festive tendencies. Her whole toilette was indescribably harmonious and enchanting. Fantine was beautiful, without being too conscious of it. She possessed two types of beauty – style and rhythm. Style is the force of the ideal, rhythm is its movement.” (pg. 64, Hugo)”

“That evening she went into a barber’s shop at the corner of the street, and pulled out her comb. Her admirable golden hair fell to her knees.

“What splendid hair!” exclaimed the barber.

“How much will you give me for it?” said she.

“Ten francs.”

“Cut it off.”

She put on little round caps which concealed her shorn head, and in which she was still pretty.

Dark thoughts held possession of Fantine’s heart.

When she saw that she could no longer dress her hair, she began to hate every one about her. She had long shared the universal veneration for Father Madeleine; yet, by dint of repeating to herself that it was he who had discharged her, that he was the cause of her unhappiness, she came to hate him also, and most of all. When she passed the factory in working hours, when the workpeople were at the door, she affected to laugh and sing.

An old workwoman who once saw her laughing and singing in this fashion said, “There’s a girl who will come to a bad end.”

This is my kind of topic. I really wish she would do movies. I thought she said in an interview that she wanted to do movies. She has the personality and charisma for it!

Some years ago, she seemed to be all fired up and ready to go into movies big-time. She was ready to do love scenes, go naked…. da woiks! But this was at the beginning of her highly unstable period and it’s possible she was just daydreaming. But the snippets we’ve had of her in HIMYM etc have been tantalising. I think she has a great natural talent for acting, and I wish she’d start to make some use of it.

She rocks at comedy, She just has that sort of presence which makes people want to laugh along with her.
I love what she did with Will + Grace too.

Yep, Britney could definitely excel at the kind of Judy Holliday/Marilyn Monroe comedy roles. If Some Like It Hot had been made in 2012, she would have been a hilarious Sugar Kane, although obviously a different spin on the character, but just as memorable.
I can’t stand modern romantic comedies, they seem to lack the witty punch and the style of the older Hollywood classics – there’s an inane, anemic quick fix thing about them. The only Hollywood comedies of the 30s, 40s and 50s were done with care and vision. Britney belongs to that tradition. In the hands of the right visionary/mentor who sees in her what we see, the sky was the limit as far as what she could have accomplished in movies. I don’t think she cares to explore that now but what I’m saying is, the potential was absolutely there.

And what’s so annoying is that her talent is unique! She has that unusual ability to make people love her and, at the same time, smile while they’re watching her. On top of THAT, she has chameleon looks and a knockout body.

You’d think someone who acts out almost every song she sings would have a strong desire to act in movies, and I think her on-screen presence would be magnetic!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I love articles like these. In depth reviews of Britney’s songs and her vocal technique is something you won’t find on any other Britney fansite. Although, I might not comment on a particular topic, I do enjoy reading them. Thank you.

Thank YOU for your kind words and encouragement. Back in the PoorBritney day, PB always asked people to comment on my articles because she knew I was anxious for feedback – and I still am! xoxo

90% of Britney’s fanbase don’t deserve to walk the ground she stands on. This is the 10% that DO!

It’s an honor to have you guys here. xoxoxox

Thank you for this amazing article. I’m a bit too shy and lacking confidence to comment at times but I visit your website daily, and I am always thrilled to read your new posts. My lunch breaks take a whole new meaning when I discover a new ‘in depth’ or an article like this. It just completely brightens up my day. Please know that I truly appreciate and highly respect your work.
A fan from France. Xx

Aww thank you so much! And please don’t hesitate to comment – we’re all friends here, unlike some Britney sites!

I never really paid attention to how she sounds in her songs, i’ve noticed some things like how she say me sometimes, where it sounds like meh. I’ve definitely noticed the thing she does with her tongue with the L words, i’m sure most fans do that when their singing along with her songs, i know i do, lol

It’s when she speaks, that i’ve really noticed the different voices, she’s got her deep southern twang, she’s got the baby speaking voice, she’s got that deep, monotone voice she’s been using lately. I think it’s kind of sad that she feels she need to mask her natural southern voice, i love it, i think it’s soooo cute and it really gives her personality, it’s prolly cuz she always thought people would think she’d sound trailer park or stupid and the sad part it people would say that ignorant shit. Like that scene in Chaotic, where she says Eiffel Tower…but it comes out really southern…i can’t even think of a way to type it out, lol, but i love it…i get all happy when she lets the southern voice slip out!!

As for her acting, i think she’s a natural at comedy, she has such great comedic timing, i’d love to see her do more comedic acting!!

Comments are closed.

  • Karenannanina: I agree with you about the residency. It's the road to irrelevance for an artist. But a new album would be a golden blessing for her fans. Her albums
  • George: Spot on thoughts on the issue. Honestly, I don't... really care whether she does the residency or not? As long as there is new music, I'm fine. P.S: G
  • Sarah G: You should write an In-Depth of Glory or even Mood Ring (that's a groovy tune)