'please Call Stella': The Speech Accent Archive, From Afrikaans To Zulu (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

'Please Call Stella': The Speech Accent Archive (Originally Broadcast 6/24/2011)

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're taking an audio stroll down memory lane and remembering some of our favorite stories from "Metro Connection's" past. Now, many of the stories we feature on the show have to do with the incredible diversity of our region. As you know, people come from all over the globe to work and play in the nation's capital. And in Fairfax, Va., at George Mason University...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1

00:00:32
We have Africans, Agni, Akan, Albanian...

SHEIR

00:00:36
...you can find something else that's pretty darn global, too.

MR. STEVEN WEINBERGER

00:00:39
...Armenian. Those are just the A's. Let me go over to the Bs, Bambara, Basque, Bavarian (unintelligible) ...

SHEIR

00:00:44
It's the world's largest collection...

WEINBERGER

00:00:46
...Bulgarian, Burmese (unintelligible) ...

SHEIR

00:00:48
...of English accents.

WEINBERGER

00:00:50
...Ga, Gaelic, Gamugna, (unintelligible) ...

SHEIR

00:00:53
And it's all thanks to this guy.

WEINBERGER

00:00:55
My name is Steven Weinberger. I'm the director of the Linguistics program here at George Mason and I'm the inventor of the Speech Accent Archive.

SHEIR

00:01:02
The Speech Accent Archive is a free online database of English accents. As of this broadcast, Weinberger and his graduate students have collected, what, 1,400 samples.

WEINBERGER

00:01:13
Today, we had two samples from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And that brings our sample size up to 1,484.

SHEIR

00:01:21
Okay, 1,484 samples from roughly 300 different language backgrounds, like the ones we heard earlier.

WEINBERGER

00:01:28
Lao, Latin, Latvian, Lingala.

SHEIR

00:01:31
You get the idea.

WEINBERGER

00:01:32
All the way down to Zulu.

SHEIR

00:01:34
In 1999, Weinberger and his students began inviting English speakers to go to the online archive and send recordings of themselves reading a certain 69-word English paragraph.

WEINBERGER

00:01:46
That had virtually every sound in English, difficult clusters of consonants like P-Ls and S-Ts, just about every vowel in English, just about every consonant. And if you'd like, I can read it to you.

SHEIR

00:01:59
Yes, please.

WEINBERGER

00:02:00
Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 2

00:02:04
...six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 1

00:02:09
...there may be a snack for her brother Bob.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 3

00:02:12
We also need a small plastic snack, sorry, and a big toy frog for the kids.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 2

00:02:22
She can scoop these things into three red bags and we'll go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

SHEIR

00:02:26
Those are just a few voices from the Speech Accent Archive. You heard some Lamaholot from Indonesia, a little Sicilian, then there were two American English speakers, one from Brooklyn, New York, and one from right here in Washington, D.C.

SHEIR

00:02:39
Are you guys at all interested in someone who was born in Cleveland, Ohio?

WEINBERGER

00:02:42
Not for (unintelligible) ...

SHEIR

00:02:43
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio.

WEINBERGER

00:02:44
...not a sample. You know how to do a report.

SHEIR

00:02:47
Yeah, speaking of that, when compiling all of these samples, Steven Weinberger says recording quality can be an issue. That's why he and his team vet all samples before posting them on the Speech Accent Archive. And once they're up, he says, all sorts of people use them. In fact...

WEINBERGER

00:03:04
We get a million hits a month on the archive.

SHEIR

00:03:06
Plenty of which come from everyday folks who are just curious and want to hear, say, a native speaker of Dinka.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 4

00:03:12
Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store...

SHEIR

00:03:19
And there you go.

4

00:03:19
...six spoons of fresh...

SHEIR

00:03:20
But Weinberger says, he also receives feedback from speech pathologists who use the archive.

WEINBERGER

00:03:24
Language teacher, ESL students, English learners.

SHEIR

00:03:29
Speech recognition engineers?

WEINBERGER

00:03:31
We also get mail from actors who need to learn an accent for their part.

SHEIR

00:03:35
Now, mind you, the archive does more than just provide audio recordings. Each sample, like, say, the one from our Sicilian fellow, is accompanied by all sorts of information, where he born, how old he was when he started speaking English, a phonetic transcription of his sample. And down below it says, generalizations and then there's a category called consonant, one called vowel and one called syllable structure with little notes underneath in bullet points. Can you talk about what's going on there?

WEINBERGER

00:04:01
Sure. These generalizations summarize the kinds of things that make him special.

SHEIR

00:04:07
In other words, the things that distinguish him from a generic English speaker. For instance, the way he inserts vowels.

WEINBERGER

00:04:15
You know, if you want to speak like an Italian, you add a vowel and, you know, at the end of a word. You know, something like that. And he's doing that a lot. And if we listen to enough Sicilians, we'll come up with a kind of pattern of what Sicilians generally do when they speak English.

SHEIR

00:04:31
And that, Weinberger says, is important because it can train your ear to hear regional variations of pitch, stress and tone. It can also test the assumptions you might make about someone.

WEINBERGER

00:04:43
About intelligence or social standing or class.

SHEIR

00:04:47
Based solely on his or her speech.

WEINBERGER

00:04:49
And those are usually wrong. This particular speaker that we just listened to from Brooklyn is a full professor at a major university on the West Coast.

SHEIR

00:04:57
So you know how you'll sometimes hear people talking about bad accents, oh, he has such a bad accent, she has such a bad accent. Well, Weinberger begs to differ.

WEINBERGER

00:05:06
In my view, there's no such thing as a bad accent. They're all good accents. The more accents that it is, the better it is for us. It just shows you the variety and the ways that speakers produce English. And we learn so much from that.

SHEIR

00:05:24
If you'd like to browse the Speech Accent Archive or play an online game inspired by the archive, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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