Lena’s English/Lenas Englisch

Lena Meyer-Landrut has a strange English accent in the song she sang at the European Song Contest, ‘Satellite‘.

As far as I can judge, sometimes the vowels are a failed attempt at estuary English, and sometimes they sound like Yorkshire English ‘Love, I got it bad for you’. There’s nothing wrong with having a mixed accent, but this one seems to vary throughout the song, with the weird ‘ay’ in ‘just the other day’, it irritates me. ‘Can’t go a minute without your love’ is very odd. ‘I even painted my toenails for you’ actually reminds me of the voice of Lauren Luke, who does make-up videos (she’s from South Shields).

Spiegel Online had an article in English by a British writer, Mark Espiner, who totally rubbished Lena’s accent. I thought he went much too far. I was also surprised to see real English on Spiegel Online.

But contrary to the opinions of die hard fans who insist her accent is brilliant, Lena sounds really, really weird. Her attempts to adopt the street language of London — itself a hybrid of US slang, Jamaican argot, and East End vernacular and beloved of British pop stars like Adele and Amy Winehouse, who seem to be Lena’s heroines — end up with her sounding like a Swedish speech therapist imitating Ali G. …

Lena’s isn’t a mockney accent, the affectation of London’s working-class Cockney tone that the likes of Blur’s Damon Albarn were accused of using. Nor is it the full-on “jafakean,” the fake Jamaican accent you often hear on the top decks of North London buses, as the preferred slang of the school kids who like to sound like they’re from the ghetto. Instead, it is a mixture that borrows from the two, then adds a shot of mixed-up European, presumably made up of her native German and what sounds like Scandinavian. In fact, the Scandinavian accent could be a cunning plan to win over the Oslo crowd.

In fact, Espiner seems even more incensed by Lena’s imitation of other singers than by her accent (and he obviously doesn’t like Amy Winehouse).

Now Axel Stefanowitsch has entered the fray at Wissenslogs, with Wir sind Englisch. He rightly says that we need an expert to comment on Espiner’s remarks on London and Jamaican accents (he quotes the German version of Spon).

Stefanowitsch links to Tagesspiegel and Guardian columns by Espiner, in which he reports mainly on theatre. But it seems to me, looking at these articles, that as an Englishman giving his view of Berlin, or writing in the Guardian about Berlin, Espiner is drawn by his job to make generalisations, which I don’t think always work.

Stefanowitsch points out that British English speakers don’t have a right to decide how English is spoken. He thinks Espiner probably regards Oxford English as the only correct form.

This is all correct, but it doesn’t seem likely to me that the kind of weird mixed English Lena sings in Satellite is going to take over the world.

Axel says that his English is a mixture of what he learnt at school in Germany and England, and Lena’s English will be a reflection of her language learning biography:

Ich würde mich ja um eine stimmige Aussprache bemühen, wenn mir ein gutes Vorbild einfallen würde. Aber wie gesagt, Englisch wird weltweit von konservativ geschätzten 700 Millionen Menschen im inneren und äußeren Kreis als Muttersprache oder früh erlernte und alltägliche Zweitsprache gesprochen. Warum sollten Meyer-Landrut, ich, oder andere deutsche Englischsprecher sich also auf eine bestimmte Varietät festlegen? Meine Dialektmischung reflektiert meine Sprachlernbiographie (Schulzeit in Deutschland und England, Studium in Deutschland und Texas), und Meyer-Landruts Dialektmischung wird eben ihre Sprachlernbiographie reflektieren.

But there is an interview with Lena on the Eurovision Song Contest site, and her English accent is not at all mixed there.

LATER NOTE: The Verein Deutscher Sprache thought Lena had no chance at Oslo (quoted by a commenter at Wissenslogs). Walter Krämer says Lena definitely has the talent to win, if only she weren’t singing a song in English that has no connection to Germany and doesn’t invite anyone between Lisbon and Moscow to hum along or dance along (but Schunkeln isn’t really dancing, it’s the arm-in-arm swaying Germans sometimes do in beer tents):

Seit 2002 singen die deutschen Sänger und Sängerinnen meist englisch und schneiden damit deutlich schlechter ab als in den Jahren zuvor, bemerkt der VDS. „Lena Meyer-Landrut hätte wirklich das Talent, den Wettbewerb zu gewinnen“, sagte der Vorsitzende des VDS, Walter Krämer. „Ihr englisches Lied hat aber überhaupt keine Verbindungen zu Deutschland und lädt niemanden zwischen Lissabon und Moskau zum Mitsummen oder Mitschunkeln ein“, kritisierte der VDS-Vorsitzende.

20 thoughts on “Lena’s English/Lenas Englisch

  1. Just sounds like a 19-year-old German girl to me, with a mixture of influences but no particular aim to ape any particular accent.

    And what does a 19-year-old German girl sound like? Well, that can be mixed in itself. I taught one girl who sounded French, but who had only ever lived in Germany and had absolutely no French influence – but, when I spoke to her about it, she said she’d heard exactly the same from her teachers on a short English course in the UK, too.

    The ‘dayyyy’ thing struck me as a little odd, too, but some Germans do that, I’ve noticed – and not just the ones who’ve travelled round Australia. Overcompensating the diphthong? Or simply getting it all wrong? Who knows.

    • Have you compared the song and the interviews? I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a melange as the song. I assumed the ‘day’ was an attempt at London English – I’ve sometimes been taken for an Australian myself.
      I think what’s happened is that she has practised and practised the song and has inculcated some anomalies. Because it just isn’t the way she normally speaks English.

      • Certainly a lot of quite normal German-style English vowels and intonation here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mdw_DDXsdEU Well, she constantly swings between sounding more and less German, with bits of all sorts coming through. Not unusual. I’m sure my German sounds basically English to varying degrees, with the occasional parts of a sentence sounding quite convincingly German, and other parts with other influences. Same thing, basically.

        As for the noises she produced while singing, well, I think that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

        • Ah, I thought you were referring to the song. As far as I know, that’s what the song and dance are about (so to speak).

          • Ah – only my “dayyyyy” comment was about the song. The rest was from my memory of her being interviewed on stage. I can’t open the link on the Eurovision website for some reason, but I wonder if it might be the same interview that I put a link to.

            I didn’t follow your links earlier, and so I didn’t realise they were mainly about her singing voice.

            I think it’s hard to say much about someone’s accent from their singing voice – native speakers included. However, I had to laugh just now when I came across:

            “Ever since Swedish popstars Abba triumphed at the contest with “Waterloo” (with near-perfect accents) […]”

            Did this Espiner man hear the same ABBA as the rest of us?

          • Oh dear, I overlooked that ABBA reference.

            I did say in the first line that I am referring to the song. It’s obviously a topic that gets people so heated that they get carried away. I’m really not criticizing the way Lena speaks English, just commenting on the way she sings.

            But it’s always struck me as odd when I heard British singers putting on a US accent in songs. It’s natural (rhythm and blues in Oxfore English?), but it’s weird, because those songs should sound totally natural, and they can’t if you imitate another accent. And this song is even weirder!.

          • Yeah, I think I overlooked the first line, and assumed it was mainly about her spoken language, possibly due to the other comments I’ve seen online about it!

            I was actually reacting to the quotes, and not anything you wrote, M!

            As for her ‘singing accent’, she reminds me a bit of Bj

    • I completely agree with this post. I am not a linguist, but an expat Swiss living in England, studying a while in Germany, and having lots of German friends talking English with some quite different accents.

  2. I reckon she is a very good Cockney/ Essex Estuary cover of (Hammersmith-grown) Lily Allen, (Dublin-born/London-raised) Kate Nash and possibly – going back a bit – (London-liver) Lindy Layton. Mention of Adele and Amy Winehouse as Lena’s heroines may be a diversionary tactic.

    I actually thought she would lose if her Lily Allen etc. mimicry were rumbled. But obviously it wasn’t-like, Governor.

    • Sure, part of it sounds like Lily Allen (I agree, Amy Winehouse was a stupid reference by Espiner), but part of it sounds northern to me.

  3. Yes. She may be mimicking accents, north and south of England (and the US?).

    The late UCL Prof. of Socio-Linguistics, Basil Bernstein from the East End of London, if still alive, would no doubt have had a fun-theory to explain Lena’s ‘lower class’ English aspirations. Obviously, there are various levels on which her accent can be analysed – closely by contributors like David, fair enough, or superficially by the broad Eurovision TV audience: according to the German channel ARD, the biggest in the world.

    It seemed to me such a pity that more Eurovision contestants didn’t push their own native language when, paradoxically, the UK and Ireland entries in English fared disastrously.

  4. Someone somewhere wrote that next year the Brits should send Lily Allen to perform a German song with a bad accent – I would enjoy that a lot!
    I am German and I rather like it when people take a language and make it their own.
    I lived in Iowa and spent a lot of time all over the U.K., my teacher was from Exeter, I had a Welsh boyfriend, another was Australian and that’s what I sound like – mixed up – my German is similar: I use Austrian, Bavarian, Swabian, Berlin slang and any other expression that tickles my fancy.
    I think the world can profit from people who are not afraid to sound silly or different – I know plenty who are too embarrassed to use their school English and I think that’s sad!
    Language is an artistic tool and it’s amazing what it’s able to transport. Wise men say “Nobody’s perfect!” – why should language be? To me it’s a living, breathing thing and I love watching it transform! And that’s about it… : D

    P.S.: Wouldn’t it be great if all contestants had to sing a song in a language that is not their mothertongue?

  5. Lena has given a Lena style answer to the utterly boring and useless accent discussions some days ago on a press conference in Oslo:


    Anyway, her second language is French, she added English as a third language afterwards.

    She has never been to England but adopted the accent from her first English teacher Dr. Assing.

    She has explained that several times, for example in this interview, scroll to 05:17:

  6. Her voice quality sounds faucalized to me, so maybe that is what’s making it hard for some people to like.

    I agree with Jisa’s theory that she’s doing the best she can with her EFL training. She probably has close ties with Australia to get that kind of “day” and “and “go” which sound way out of left field to an AmE ear.

    • @Jeff: Thanks for the Dr. Assing reference (English teacher). I had missed that. I had heard her singing about her accent.
      But I still think Dr. Assing is responsible for the English she speaks in interviews, not the English in the song. I’m trying to concentrate on the latter. As for French being her first foreign language (it was mine too), and the fact that English isn’t one of her main Abitur subjects, I haven’t said anything about grammar mistakes in English. I don’t see the point of that.

      @Jisa / @Ellen I didn’t actually criticize the way she speaks (rather than sings) English. As I said ‘day’ with a diphthong is London as well as Australian.
      I had to look up
      [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faucalized_voice]faucalized[/url], so I can’t comment on it!

  7. @MM, Wikipedia falls a little short here, faucalized voice is basically defined as: “a distinctive voice quality sometimes heard from deaf speakers, in which the faucal pillars are moved laterally inwards, constricting the pharynx”. Think of PeeWee Herman at the extreme end, or Cher singing.

    I hear this when Lena says “Love, oh love.” In Korean, this type of phonation distinguishes phonemes, but is it a German or Scandinavian trait too? It’s so strange sounding. I’m not familiar enough with those languages to know.

    • No, not typical of German, and in any case, she doesn’t sound like this in her interviews, only the song – so I think she is copying something she’s heard.

  8. Holy shit Margaret, is this not a record number of comments on your blog?!

    I did think her English singing sounded weird and all over the place, but I don’t really have the background to categorize it further.

    • Thank God for that, Michele.

      I may have a function somewhere that tells me which entry had the most comments. It may have been one in the first year, or this. Fortunately I manage to drive most commenters away.

      Anonymous has given me some good advice in a recent comment that my English sucks and I should revert to German, so I mustn’t complain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.