Researching With an Accent

I’m not a language expert. In fact, there are only a few languages I’m able to identify when I hear them spoken. Dialects are different. My ear can identify dialects spoken by individuals from many English-speaking communities, provinces and countries.

Although some may not realise a person from the South Shore of Nova Scotia speaks slightly different than those on the Eastern Shore, and that folks in Saint John, NB sound different than those in St. John’s, NL, they do. Atlantic Canada is a treasure trove of dialects and each dialect is like a fingerprint of the homeland of the original settlers.

Using dialects or accents to trace a family tree is relatively new. Like anything, it’s not perfect, but it may provide a hint in the right direction which is all some individuals may need. In the past, anyone who had tried to use dialects and accents to help with research may have been limited to their own abilities to identify their origin. But help is here with a database called the Speech Accent Archive. It’s designed to trace accents of native and non-native English-speaking individuals from around the world.

The database was created by linguistics professor Steven Weinberger from George Mason University. It contains more than 1,550 recordings and covers about 350 different languages. To create recordings that help distinguish regional accents, participants were asked to read the same text: “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 …” The paragraph contains almost all the sounds in the English language.

Participants were also asked several questions, including:Diane Lynn Tibert

Where were they born?

What is your native tongue?

What other languages besides English do you speak?

The archive is constructed as a teaching tool and as a research tool. It allows visitors to compare the demographic and linguistic backgrounds of the speakers and demonstrates that accents are systematic rather than merely mistaken speech.

Researchers can search the database using several fields, including gender, age and region. Visitors can also browse by native language, native phonetic inventory or view an atlas to select a region. It’s free, but you’ll need to download the Quicktime plug-in to play the sound clips if you don’t already have it.

Not convinced this works? Search for dialects in your own province or across the country and see if you can identify them. There are 46 sound clips for Canada, including three each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Each clip includes a sidebar with basic biographical data on the speaker: birth place, native language, other languages spoken, age, sex, English learning method, residence and length of English residence. The phonetic transcription is also available.

If you’d like to participate in this study and have your voice archived, visit the How To page and learn how to submit a sample. Your name does not appear in the database, just your basic biological information as noted above. There are no samples from Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island, so there’s an opportunity to have your voice heard if you were born in one of those provinces.

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