Monday, December 04, 2006

American Accents

I love American accents of all types. Absolutely love ‘em. Which is why I was delighted to find this website from George Mason University: the Speech Accent Archive. They have recorded a wide variety of Americans reading the same paragraph, so that you can get a flavor of different regional accents.

Some observations:

1. The guy from Connecticut sounds exactly like the sort of person who reads a personal essay on NPR.

2. The person from Beaumont, Texas sounds typical of a Texan. And I love the accent of the elderly woman from Arkansas; reminds me of my grandparents’ generation.

But some of the examples seem atypical, as if the person being recorded is trying to suppress an accent, or as if the person simply didn’t have a typical accent in the first place. Consider the samples from New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Alabama -- I’ve heard much stronger accents from all of those places.

If you want to hear a really strong Alabama country accent, check out the actor Lucas Black, who as a child starred in Sling Blade and the TV show American Gothic. (A great sample from Sling Blade is the 2.14 Mb clip available here.) At the same time, I’ve known upper middle class folks from Alabama who also had a heavy accent, but more genteel-sounding. I don’t really hear much of either accent in the website’s clip from Alabama.

As for Georgia, the researchers really need to get some clips from some of the country folk who grew up in farming towns in south Georgia -- I had a couple of friends in college who were from that background, and they had some of the thickest accents I have ever heard anywhere. (The thicker, the better, I say.)

The same is true of the website’s sample from North Carolina. The woman speaking in that clip has a very mild accent compared to some other North Carolinans. I’m thinking, for example, of one prominent North Carolinan, Judge David Sentelle of the D.C. Circuit. I distinctly recall one oral argument when Judge Sentelle asked a question of an attorney, but Sentelle’s North Carolina accent was so thick that the attorney obviously couldn’t understand what Sentelle had said. The poor attorney had to ask Sentelle to repeat the question, but still couldn’t understand, and so had to ask Sentelle to state his question a third time. In the meantime, Sentelle’s frustration became evident. It was slightly awkward. (I always loved hearing Sentelle ask questions at oral arguments, by the way; it’s not often you get to savor such a rich accent in a federal courtroom.)

UPDATE: One of the links on the website leads to this much more comprehensive resource: The International Dialects of English Archive, where you can listen to multiple samples from each state (some states have 10 or 20 examples of people of different ages and races, which is just perfect). It strikes me that older people often seem to have stronger and more distinct accents than younger people. For example, this white Arkansas female born in 1936 has a stronger accent than this white Arkansas female in her twenties. Similarly, this white Tennessee female born in 1934 has a wonderfully strong accent (I love it: “rare” is “ray-uh”) than this white Tennessee female born in 1979. I wonder what Americans will sound like in another 20 or 30 years.


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