Spoken tomahtoes, sung tomaytoes

tomaytoMy English has a Dutch flavour, especially in speech. I’m not much aware of it while I’m talking, but when I listen to my recorded voice (here for instance), I can hear the tell-tale signs. Scratch off that non-native layer, however, and you get something akin to British English. A deeply unhip variety that befits my greying temples, to be exact: something closer to traditional Received Pronunciation than to contemporary London speech.

However, some words are likely to come out in a more American way, probably depending on where I picked them up. I’m not trying awfully hard to be consistent, and if I say ‘din-asty’ and ‘add-dult’ one moment, ‘pry-vacy’ and ‘zeebra’ the next, so be it. Still, there are limits. My can’t never rhymes with rant, nor my dance with romance. I’m a ‘tomahto’ bloke, not a ‘tomayto’ guy. (Or rather ‘tomaydo’, as one commenter reminded me.)

Or so I thought.

This summer, I wrote a song in English, which has the words ask and masks on two long notes. And I can’t seem to get myself to pronounce them with the /ɑː/ of can’t and dance, even though that is what I would normally do. It just doesn’t feel right. It sounds pretentious, ridiculous, most inappropriate. Saying /ɑːsk/ and /mɑːsks/ while reading the lyrics? No problem. But singing /ɑːsk/ and /mɑːsks/ during six beats each? No way.

Which suggests that pronunciation standards are not merely regional, but also… what? Functional? Perhaps pop music is so thoroughly American, never mind the British Invasion and Britpop, that Received Pronunciation is badly out of place here. Or is it a class thing? Is RP a standard that I accept for conversations and public talks, whereas I want to sound folksier when performing my songs? All questions, no answers.

So now I’m keen to find out. Is this whole thing just a personal foible? Or do you, native speaker or not, feel the same way about it?

6 thoughts on “Spoken tomahtoes, sung tomaytoes

  1. Well, Gaston, if you were really wanting to sound (North) American, you would be saying a sound like “tomaydo”, not “tomayto”. And as for the English [da:nce] there are lots of places in the UK where the “a” is as short as “am”. But let’s accept that you normally use the [a:] sound for ask or mask. I’m not sure why you can’t (ca:n’t) use the longer vowel over several beats – I mean, if the song included a rhyme based on “car” and “ca:n’t go far” I don’t think you would find any problem in holding those sounds. This suggests to me that the problem, if indeed there is one, lies in the words themselves, and in the final consonants, not in the vowel sound per se.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Indeed, Gaston, as a native English speaker of almost ten decades, I can confirm that I have always found it natural to sing “tomaytoes” and to speak “tomahtoes”. So – as our American cousins might say – go figure!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think it’s more to do with popular music and what we want out of it, our connotations and also longings. If you listen to Neil Hannon singing, RP or similar to it is not at all out of place. Other UK bands just can’t help themselves sounding American, at least at the end of that chiming chorus etc.


Leave a Reply to Gaston Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s