Monday, March 29, 2004

Don't Tell Me This Isn't the Coolest Thing You've Seen in Several Weeks Department

Tidying up the floor of my study a few minutes ago, I ran across this piece in the "Online Diary" from the New York Times of August 28, 2003.

The third item, "Accents Are Positive," reads as follows:

Accents Are Positive

"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."

This paragraph contains nearly every sound in English ("oy" is an exception, which may upset New Yorkers). At the Speech Accent Archive ( you can hear it spoken by more than 260 native and nonnative speakers of English and compare their accents, from Milwaukee to Zulu. The archive demonstrates the systematic nature of accents, according to Steven Weinberger, founder of the archive and an associate professor in the English department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Most of the speech samples are collected by Professor Weinberger's research assistants, but submissions are welcome. The archive is used primarily by linguists, speech recognition engineers, English-language instructors and actors, Professor Weinberger said by phone from Jerusalem, where he had just recorded a "very rare" native Yiddish speaker's declamation on Stella and Bob. (Actors are the intended audience of the International Dialects of English Archive, a similar site run by the University of Kansas's theater and film department at

Anyone who has tried to place someone's accent or made a social judgment based on an accent will find it interesting. Each speaker answered seven questions related to factors like place of birth, gender, and the English-learning method, and this data accompanies each sample. The most crucial predictor of an accent turns out to be the age at which someone learns English.


I am bookmarking that Speech Accent Archive quicker than a Fang can say "lickety-split"!