Speech Accent Archive Speaks Volumes

Posted: January 3, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Collage of mouths and ears
George Mason’s Speech Accent Archive feeds the passion of linguistics researchers by actively collecting a chorus of voices to study accents and sounds.

By Tara Laskowski

Something can be learned from hearing nearly 500 people say the same few sentences. Although it might test some people’s sanity, linguistics researchers thrive on it.

At George Mason, the Speech Accent Archive developed by the Linguistics Program feeds the passion of linguistics researchers by actively collecting a chorus of voices to study accents and sounds.

These voices are recorded saying one elicitation paragraph – a polite series of requests that seem a bit strange, but serve a purpose. The paragraph, developed and written by students of Director of Linguistics Steven Weinberger, uses virtually all of the sounds of English:

“Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.”

Subjects are then asked a series of demographic questions about their native language, other languages they speak, age and how they learned English. Graduate students transcribe the participants’ recordings into the International Phonetic Alphabet, which lists every possible sound a human can make.

An Archive of Sound

The idea for the archive started in 1999 with Weinberger. As part of a regular assignment for his English phonetics course, he had his students record a non-native speaker and talk about what he or she did when speaking English. After a few years, Weinberger invested in two quality recorders so that the recordings his students were making were consistent and good. Advanced graduate students began collecting and analyzing the recordings online, and the archive was born.

In its six-year history, the archive has gone through several face-lifts, the most recent after receiving a Technology Across the Curriculum grant. The archive features different ways to browse for recordings: by language, region or native phonetic inventory. The site also details the methodology and goals of the archive and offers tips on reading and analyzing the recordings. It also has a powerful search engine.

“It is constantly growing and changing,” says Weinberger.

For linguistics students and professors, the archive is a tool. It allows them to understand the way people from other countries and backgrounds speak English, and it also allows them to study the way accents mold and change over time.

But the archive is not just for linguistics students. People can be judged – either positively or negatively – based on their accents. In America, foreign citizens might try to use the study of linguistics and the archive to try to lessen their accent in order to ‘fit in’ or be better understood.

Even Americans in certain regions of the country might find certain stereotypes against themselves based on their accents. In the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” for example, when the infamous Hannibal Lecter is trying to shake up rookie FBI Agent Clarice Starling, he hits low with a rude remark about her background: “Good nutrition has given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed? Pure West Virginia.”

Though the archive does not delve into the stereotypes or cultural feelings of certain accents, it can shed light on the actual sounds that create these accents.

“One of the goals of the archive is to show and advertise that everyone has an accent, and that it is systematic rather than merely mistaken speech,” says Weinberger. “This web site allows users to compare the demographic and linguistic backgrounds of the speakers in order to determine which variables are key predictors of each accent.”

There are many other reasons why people find themselves studying the accent archive. Others who might find it useful include:

  • ESL teachers who instruct non-native speakers of English
  • Actors who need to learn an accent
  • Engineers who train speech recognition machines
  • Linguists who do research on foreign accents
  • Phoneticians who teach phonetic transcription
  • Speech pathologists
  • Anyone who finds foreign accents to be interesting

Accents Around the World

The web site received more than one million hits last year and is one of the most popular George Mason web sites. Do a search on Google for “accent” and the Speech Accent Archive comes up first. The archive has also been written about in the New York Times and USA Today and has been a Yahoo! Pick of the Week.

There are detailed instructions on the archive about how to produce a good recording, and Weinberger is constantly amazed at how many people from all different places take the time to record and send their voices to him. He gets at least two or three recordings each week from people in all corners of the globe – Mexico City to Australia.

“It’s a nice hallmark that people are learning about us all over the world,” Weinberger says.

He also gets correspondence from people about the web site – some merely expressing kudos; others asking unusual requests. Often, doctoral students write to ask permission to use parts of the site in their dissertations. Weinberger recently got an e-mail from a music group in the United Kingdom who wanted to use part of the elicitation paragraph in a dance song. Portions of the audio selections were also once used in an opera.

“As long as it’s not for profit, we always give permission,” says Weinberger. “We want the site to be free and accessible and interactive.”

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