GMU Linguistics Dept. Archiving World's English Accents

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    Want to hear how someone speaks English with a Dinka accent, from Sudan? How about a Mortlockese accent from Micronesia? You can find out at George Mason University in Northern Virginia (and its website), which keeps the world's largest online database of English accents.

    Steven Weinberger, director of George Mason's linguistics program, started the Speech Accent Archive back in 1999. Since then, he and his graduate students have collected nearly 1,500 samples of spoken English from people of roughly 300 different language backgrounds.

    English speakers worldwide visit the free online database and send recordings of themselves reading a certain 69-word paragraph that had virtually every sound in English.

    "[The paragraph has] difficult clusters of consonants like P-Ls and S-Ts, just about every vowel in English, and just about every consonant," Weinberger says.

    Here's the paragraph:

    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.

    Once samples are up on the archive, Weinberger says all sorts of people use them.

    "We get a million hits a month on the archive," he says.

    Many of the links are from everyday folks who are just curious to hear, say, a native speaker of Dinka. But Weinberger says he also hears from speech pathologists who use the archive.

    "Language teachers, ESL students, English learners," he says. "We also get mail from actors who need to learn an accent for their part.”

    The Archive does more than just provide audio recordings. Each sample is accompanied by all sorts of information: a phonetic transcription of where the person speaking was born, when he started speaking English, and a list of the specific ways that the speaker tends to change the standard spoken English.

    For example, "if we listen to enough Sicilians, we'll come up with a kind of pattern of what Sicilians generally do when they speak English," Weinberger says.

    And that is important, he says, because it can train the ear to hear regional variations of pitch, stress and tone. It can also test the assumptions you might make about people based solely on their speech.

    "And those are usually wrong," says Weinberger. "This particular speaker that we just listened to from Brooklyn, is a full professor at a major university on the West Coast."

    So, when people talk about "bad accents," this linguistics professor begs to differ.

    "They're all good accents. The more accented it is, the better it is for us," he says. "It just shows you the variety and the ways that speakers produce English. And we learn so much from that."

    And Weinberger and his team hope to make that learning even easier. They're developing an iPhone app, so you can record and immediately upload your "Please Call Stella" sample -- using just your phone, and, of course, your accent, be it Albanian, Zulu, or the nearly 1,500 accents in between.

    Listen to the complete story at wamu.org

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