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  • Sandeep Prasanna 9:00 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?

    • johnwcowan 11:51 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      I think it’s hopeless to tease apart irrealis was from ordinary past-tense conditional was on the basis of string searches alone; you need too much real-world knowledge. For every If I were/was President, I’d balance the budget there is an If I was President, it was because the people voted for me as said by a former President.

      In any case, I don’t think you can call irrealis was ungrammatical any more. The language has moved on; objections to irrealis was are mere prescriptivist heel-digging.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:15 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        I sort of suspected that it wouldn’t be possible to fully parse out was/were, which is why I tried to get as close as possible. But I agree with you that we really shouldn’t care about the rise of the subjunctive “was” — but the prescriptivist tendencies latent somewhere in me still cry out.

      • stuartnz 3:33 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        I agree totally and, thanks for introducing me to “irrealis”. I think it quite possible that “were” will survive as a “museum piece”, perhaps particularly in lyrics and poetry. A fate similar to that which seems to be happening to “whom”, as discussed by Stan Carey at sentence first recently.

        • markonsea 9:06 pm on April 11, 2012 Permalink

          You think the particular loss of the subjunctive you complain about is bad? What about its loss – almost total here in the UK – in what I shall call an agendum clause? Standard usage here is eg “She insisted all her guests left before midnight”, which I’m willing to bet any North American reader would misunderstand as speaking about events in the speaker’s past rather than laying down a rule. Similarly, “The bank demands that all debts are paid.” Begins to sound Pythonesque, doesn’t it? (But you can’t halt Language Change …)

        • johnwcowan 3:31 pm on April 12, 2012 Permalink

          Markonsea, the nearly-complete loss of the mandative or jussive subjunctive in the U.K. is pretty well known. However, if there is a genuine ambiguity, as in this case, it can be solved transatlantically with “She insisted all her guests should leave before midnight”, which works for everybody. In North America, the mandative subjunctive forms are still current and well understood (for me, automatic); I don’t know what the story is in the other anglophone countries.

    • Lauren 6:13 pm on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      The subjunctive has been losing ground in English for a while now. As another datapoint see “If I were a rich man” from the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof and then Gwen Stefani’s 2004 cover “If I was a rich girl.” In Australian English at least the subjunctive construction these days sounds slightly forced and archaic to most speakers.

      • Sandeep Prasanna 12:48 am on April 11, 2012 Permalink | Reply

        Right — I had forgotten about the difference between Gwen Stefani’s “cover” (to use the term loosely) of the Fiddler song. I wonder why the word was changed. Perhaps it was for a reason similar to what you note — that “were” just sounds too archaic to use in a radio-ready song.

    • Hannah 11:37 am on April 21, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      Here is a small piece on the subjunctive mood from the New Oxford English Dictionary. It displays well why the subjunctive is vanishing. I agree with you that it ought to be retained for its own sake.
      “… if I were you; the report recommends that he face the tribunal; it is important that they be aware of the provisions of the act. These examples all contain a verb in the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive is used to express situations that are hypothetical or not yet realized and is typically used for what is imagined, hoped for, demanded, or expected. In English, the subjunctive mood is fairly uncommon (especially in comparison with other languages, such as Spanish), mainly because most of the functions of the subjunctive are covered by modal verbs such as might, could, and should. In fact, in English, the subjunctive is often indistinguishable from the ordinary indicative mood since its form in most contexts is identical. It is distinctive only in the third person singular, where the normal indicative -s ending is absent ( he face rather than he faces in the example above), and in the verb ‘to be’ ( I were rather than I was , and they be rather than they are in the examples above). In modern English, the subjunctive mood still exists but is regarded in many contexts as optional. Use of the subjunctive tends to convey a more formal tone, but there are few people who would regard its absence as actually wrong. Today, it survives mostly in fixed expressions, as in be that as it may; far be it from me; as it were ; lest we forget ; God help you; perish the thought; and come what may.”

    • llanarth 9:01 am on December 1, 2012 Permalink | Reply

      One problem with this research; you don’t distinguish between written and colloquial English. So while this is beautifully researched for written word, what about colloquial English? Personally, I haven’t got a problem with ‘if I was your….’ not that I particularly like Bieber’s songs. This is an interesting discussion, For another perspective look on Crystal’s blog http://david-crystal.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/on-if-and-waswere.html

  • The Diacritics 10:03 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 dheem, ta-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 syllables ta 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?

    • Dan 4:33 am on September 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Not so keen on the first video – it reminded me of an advertisement for a mobile phone company – but the second was truly astonishing. Thanks.

    • Bander Alfraikh 1:30 pm on September 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      You are right. The ancestor to these ” non-lexical vocables” may be found in Akkadian alala/ alalu which is simply a harvest, work song according to the Akk. Dictionary of the Assoc. Assyrophile de France. The same syllables are also found in Arabic songs.

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