Fables of Linguistics—The Tale of the Family of (In)separable Particles—The Tale Teller of Tollerton Town SpecGram Vol CLXXXVII, No 1 Contents You Have Two Cows...—Beau Vign & Dogie Vheel

SpecGram Film and Media Club
Examines ‘Wannabe’

with Linguist to the Stars, Mr Manfred M. McManus

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends’ is among the most iconic lines of the 90s, up there with Hanson’s mighty ‘Mmmbop ba dupi dop, ba doo bop’ and, Whigfield’s celestial ‘Da ba da dan, dee dee dee da nee na na na’. And the video for the song to which it belongs, the Spice Girls’ debut single, ‘Wannabe’, has been credited with having had a greater impact on take-up in local sports groups than any single Olympics since 1908. But has the world of linguistics yet given this resonant piece of lyrical excellence its due? Let’s take a deeper look.

Of course, few song titles take the form of full conditionals. In a recent review of the uses of conditionals in popular songs from 1963–2012, those great critics of film, the twins Samuel and Samantha D’Quem-D’ancona noted that only 3.2% of titles in this period were conditionals, with an overwhelming 92% having the protasis before the apodosis. This was only slightly more than the smallest category: song titles beginning with existential ‘it’.

The line is also well known among syntacticians for exemplifying the much studied wanna-contraction, as well as its variant, gotta-contraction. As such, it has rightly appeared in many introductory linguistics textbooks on this important topic. However, therein lies a criticism: should the line not also have exploited the potential in English for havta- and shoulda-contraction? This seems a clear possibility lyrically as the following proposed rewrite of line 2 by noted lyricist Sigmund S. Smythson-Sigurd shows:

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends
Do we havta leave so early? We shoulda come in separate cars.

Most disturbingly, however, is the implicit tension between ‘being someone’s lover’ and ‘getting with her / his friends’. There is of course no logical reason why this should be the case: it’s perfectly possible to enjoy a romantic liaison with someone and never meet any of their friends. (I, for example, have met very few of Mrs McManus’ sister Elizabeth’s friends, and certainly not at the Imperial Motel at 3:00pm on the the first Tuesday of the month.) The song fails to explore this possibility and must be judged negatively for it. Smythson-Sigurd’s rewrite captures the lost possibility here:

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends
I personally hold the view that, oh baby baby
One can really get to see the authentic selves
Oooooooooooooooh, yeah
Of an individual to whom one feels attracted
If you wanna, if you wanna, if you wanna, gotta wanna
By socialising with them in a relaxed, informal but group setting, such as with friends

Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, we can all agree that the line, the song, the group itself and its legacy have shaped linguistic theory in ways that few pop cultural products of the 90s have.

See you next time at the SpecGram Film and Media Club!

Fables of LinguisticsThe Tale of the Family of (In)separable ParticlesThe Tale Teller of Tollerton Town
You Have Two Cows...Beau Vign & Dogie Vheel
SpecGram Vol CLXXXVII, No 1 Contents