People fool in love

The above video of Ed Sheeran’s song Thinking Out Loud has so far had over 1.25 billion views. Some of its viewers are puzzled by Ed Sheeran’s pronunciation of the line people fall in love in mysterious ways. Here is one contributor to a forum:

…he sings (or atleast it sounds like) “fool” instead of “fall”…
Why does he do that? Is it because he wants to be sing weird and different? Am I crazy or is that the worst thing? ugh it makes me angry just thinking about it.

To which someone replied:

He’s English, so maybe it’s that?

Here’s a clip of the phrase:

Pop singers do sometimes pronounce words in distinctive ways. There’s even an article at Psychology Today in which Siu-Lan Tan suggests various reasons, eg “To define their individual sound, like a sonic signature that makes them distinct.”

But it’s also likely that Sheeran’s English accent is involved. An increasing number of speakers in England, particularly southern England, give fall and fool the same pronunciation. This is visualized beautifully at the Our Dialects site, which is based on fieldwork carried out by Manchester University undergraduates. According to their data on fool and fall, in southern England “29% of speakers pronounce the two words the same.”

Our dialects – FOOL-FALL

Hughes et al. propose that, given its intermediate location between the South West and South East, Southampton features an accent with very distinctive Southern qualities; this is expressed by, amongst other things, a neutralisation of vowels preceding the consonant /l/ (2012: 90).

The site even lets us zoom in to reveal speakers with fool = fall only a few miles from the small Suffolk town of Framlingham where Ed Sheeran grew up (green dots for speakers with fool = fall, red dots for those who differentiate the words):
framlingham_ipswichSpeakers of this type may give the same pronunciation to other words which rhyme with fool and fall. We can hear evidence of this if we listen to Sheeran himself being interviewed. Here he might be saying Pool McCartney:

And this might conceivably be These a rule not conventionally attractive people:

but of course he’s saying These are all…

I continue this topic on my Speech Talk blog.

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