A recent piece at WAMU profiles the Speech Accent Archive, an online database of accent samples compiled by the George Washington University‘s Linguistics Department. A vast collection of recordings of English speakers around the globe, this eleven-year-old resource is one of the first accent-centric websites I ever encountered.
A good example of the SAA’s unique format is this accent sample, from Kilkenny, Ireland. As you can see, the site provides a useful International Phonetic Alphabet transcription to go along with each subject.
I have tremendous respect for the people who’ve created this database. And I appreciate that the study focuses an uncommon amount of attention on non-native English speakers. As such, I don’t intend the following to be taken as outright criticism. But I’ve always been a little confused by the passage that the SAA’s subjects read:
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.
In the above-linked article, Steven Weinberger, director of George Mason’s linguistics program, states the following about the sample text:
“[The paragraph has] difficult clusters of consonants like P-Ls and S-Ts, just about every vowel in English, and just about every consonant …”
While it’s technically true that this passage features “just about every vowel in English,” the few omissions don’t strike me as exactly trivial. Notably, the passage lacks:
1.) “Mouth” words: house, loud, about, etc.
2.) “Thought” words: fought, caught, flawed, etc.*
3.) Words with stressed syllables that end in “r:” start, near, fair, etc.
I admit this sounds like nitpicking (or worse, backseat academia). But some of these phonemes are important, in my opinion, for getting the full picture of what an accent sounds like. For example, without “thought” words, it’s difficult to deduce if an American has the Caught-Cot merger. The passage doesn’t leave out too many of English’s vowel sounds, but those it does are pretty noticeable.
Conversely, what I do like about the passage is that the researchers seem to have geared it more toward consonants (particularly consonant clusters), which are often neglected in the face of English’s diverse vowel pronunciations. At the same time, the lack of some of English’s most important vowels has always puzzled me.
Again, I don’t mean this as any kind of take-down. I’m just a little shaky on the researcher’s methodology, and am perhaps unclear on the aim of this text in particular. Anyone care to enlighten me?
*The passage DOES have words like “small” or “call,” however. But due to “l-coloring,” someone with the Cot-Caught merger can pronounce these words in the same way as someone who doesn’t have the merger.