Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Six spoons of fresh snow peas

I've been spending a lot of time with phonetics and phonology lately - the study of sounds in language. My professor directed us to this website - the Speech Accent Archive - and I can hardly tear myself away from it. It is a treasure trove of accents in the English language. I've always enjoyed checking out the accents wherever we've lived (both in the US and out) but never have I been able to browse accents and compare them so easily at my leisure.

Check it out - you can choose which accent to listen to by the native language of the speaker, or by clicking on a map. All the speech samples use the same elicitation paragraph and most have an IPA phonetic transcription if you're into that kind of thing (I AM).

What was most interesting for me was that after listening to a lot of clips from all over the world, I went back and clicked on the sample speaker from Hillsboro, Oregon, which is very close to my hometown. I was amazed at how normal it sounded to my ears. I thought that over the years perhaps I had talked myself into thinking that Oregon had its own special pronunciation ever since my fifth grade teacher told me that newscasters use the English of the Pacific Northwest as a kind of received pronunciation (I have had no further verification on this point in the 20 years since then). But no - there really are differences in pronunciation, even within the Western United States. (Of course, I always knew Utah was special, but I thought maybe California/Washington/Oregon were a wash. Not so, apparently.)

Here are some of my favorites.

The aforementioned Hillsboro, Oregon clip. SO NORMAL to my ears, people. I don't get to hear this variety of English very much any more.

Syracuse, New York - when we first moved to Ithaca, I called the accent of the residents there "a wonky brogue." True, true.

After listening to West Jordan, Utah, you cannot tell me that guy is NOT Mormon. There's something so special about how Utahns speak. Just listening to it makes me think of big hair and Cafe Rio.

I think Edinburgh, Scotland is my favorite for pure entertainment value.

Hahahahaha, San Diego, California. Way to reinforce the heavy-lidded surfer stereotype.

I kid because I love. I am so fascinated by this stuff. And I didn't even get into the non-native speaker speech samples. Have a go and let me know what you think!

And if you've ever wanted a really comprehensive list of minimal pairs in English (a pair of words where one sound difference changes the meaning), look here. Just FYI.


BEN said...

Bridget, there is one problem with this website. It is shown the best with San Diego. It wasn't just the accent they were showing, but also their reading skills. Listening to Utah, he would put different emphasis on different words, not necessarily because he as a different accent, but because he was taught to read differently. I understand that you can pull the phonetics out of it still, but it is tainted by education.
I guess I am just so used to hearing people read to me that is what I pulled from this website...It is a great find though thanks for sharing!! (Ashley)

Bridget said...

I noticed that with the SD clip as well, Ashley, but after a few more listenings I think it's more than just his reading ability. Besides, people read in their accent.

The reading difficulties are even more apparent when you listen to the clips of the non-native speakers.

That's also why the info bar to the left tells you how old the person was when s/he started studying English, and under what circumstances.

In order to remove reading skills from the equation you'd have to somehow elicit the same speech sample from multiple people, naturally, which wasn't going to happen. At least not with "Please call Stella..." :)

Liz Johnson said...

That's so awesome. Strangely (or not), the St. Louis & Indiana ones sound most normal to me, but Chicago (which is closest to where I live) sounds ridiculous.

Ireland is not nearly as weird as I thought it would be. And Bucharest is not nearly as British as I would have thought... everybody I knew there who spoke English had an obvious British influence.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

I've only listened to some of Europe so far. The Irish speech is much milder than what you hear in the west part of the country where it's a strain to figure out what people are saying, and the Slovak was mild as well. Interesting to hear the same paragraph spoken over by varied people.

Becky said...

This was great fun. I don't think you could ever make it completely scientific--it wouldn't be just an issue of reading skill but tainted by an infinite number of other individual factors. It's a fair representative in general, though (at least from our experiences). It was very fun to hear the Milwaukee accent again that we enjoyed so much when we lived there! Listen to the way she says the word "bag". Classic. I wanted to hear the Boston one say "park the car in Harvard Yard".

Shannan said...

Love it.

After spending all of my adult life in the PacNW - I can really hear the differences in the readings of different parts of the country. However, growing up in Utah and still having family there, I can't hear what you are talking about with the W. Jordan guy. If he inserted a "special" or "gall" in his reading, then maybe I could have picked it out :)

If someone was from Salem, OR reading that piece, they would use incorrect grammar to giveaway their whereabouts. Holy Cow I am embarrassed for people here!


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