08 September 2008

Linguists Can Be Geeky Too

My how I love the Speech Accent Archive, which is, exactly as it says on the can, a database of hundreds of people from all over the world--native English speakers and non-native speakers -- reading out a short passage that begins, "Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store." It's such a simple but brilliant idea. Even within the native English speaker section, there are around 200 samples and each one tells you the A/S/L of the speaker, as well as which other languages they have learnt and the countries in which they have lived. 

I've always loved studying regional accents and dialects and while I would say that I can do an OK or better job of many accents, there are very few (other than the Black Country one I seem to have learnt innately given that despite their Pays Noir genes, my parents lost their accents before I was born) that I have completely nailed. The site also provides a narrow phonetic transcription for each recording, which means that if you can read IPA, it can also help you to imitate the speaker's accent as the transcription shows you what sounds you should be hearing.

As such, as soon as I came across this site, in my fourth year, when Facebook was already starting to lose its lustre, I would spend hours listening to the different recorders and trying to pick up some new accents. Naturally, as with everything else, I am far too much of a magpie to ever sit down and try to master one accent--instead, I flick and flutter among many different accents I might like to learn, becoming a Jacques of all and a maîtresse of none. (My floor-to-ceiling bookshelves back in The Shire reflect this inability to just pick one fucking language and learn it: Mastering Spanish Vocabulary, Portuguese for Beginners, Irregular German Verbs, Teach Yourself Romanian; I should add that apart from a school trip to Berlin in 1998 and three weeks in Cuba in 2005, I haven't been to any countries where any of these languages are spoken, in over ten years.)

You see, it was OK to procrastinate on the Speech Accent Archive! I was practising my phonetics (never mind that I wasn't taking the phonetics paper and that it constituted only a very small section of the general paper)! It's a better excuse than those taking the sociolinguistics paper who claimed to be studying the syntax of posts on Facebook walls... No, of course, no one really cared whether or not I was working or living out my secret desire to be a radio actress (got the face for it!) and although my motivation to get a good grade usually caused me to close the browser with the Speech Accent Archive in it before I completely destroyed my my chances of doing well, I do remember staying up late the night before my general linguistics exam, telling myself I really needed to brush up on my phonetics, even though I wasn't going to answer a phonetics question; I think I switched off Please Call Stella at about 1 a.m., at which point I started my manic schedule of last-minute memorisation.

Of course, now, finally, I have a mic (or a headset, at least), which means I can go one step further and record myself reading the passage in different accents and then play back to hear how good I actually was and which sounds need more work--I thought I had my southern US flattened diphthongs down perfectly, for example, and yet I was still saying five not fahhv.  Actually, though, my southern US accent sounded a lot better than I thought it would--Blanche DuBois, c'est moi?! 

I was going to upload me reading the passage in my regular accent but a) Blogger doesn't seem to allow this and I'm not putting it on YouTube and b) my recorded voice sounds the same as pretty much other generic, female Radio 4 presenter, so there doesn't seem much point.

Ah, the simple pleasures of the linguist...

No comments:

Post a Comment