LINGUIST List 7.1104

Sat Aug 3 1996

Sum: race and accent

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <dseelyemunix.emich.edu>


Directory

  1. Larry Rosenwald, summary on race and accent

Message 1: summary on race and accent

Date: Fri, 02 Aug 1996 13:26:02 CDT
From: Larry Rosenwald <LROSENWALDWELLESLEY.EDU>
Subject: summary on race and accent

	Dear LINGUIST subscribers,

	I got a lot of responses to my query about the FBI
report that the 911 call announcing the Atlanta bomb had
been made by a white male, responses that were both
interesting and contradictory. I'm posting a summary
now rather than waiting till more material comes in
because I'll be away from my computer for a while; if
there's more material when I return to it, I'll post a
further summary. Best, Larry Rosenwald

	Thanks to all respondents: Peter Daniels, Alice
Faber, Will Fitzgerald, Keith Goeringer, Ralf
Grosserhode, Marc Hamann, James Jenkins, Clodagh Lynam,
Johanna Rubba, Alain Theriault.

	Alice Faber writes,
 First, I would interpret the "white male" as meaning
that the caller spoke with no stereotypical Black
English phonological and/or morphological features, and
probably did not have an extremely bass voice. There is
actually research showing small differences between
blacks and whites in characteristic f0, and further that
shifting f0 can change listener percepts of race from
black to white. There is also research indicating that
most Americans, black & white, think that they can
identify race from audio presentation of speech alone,
and that there's a reasonable degree of accuracy. One
reference that I can recall off the top of my head is a
chapter by John Baugh in the book _American Dialect
Research_, edited by Dennis Preston (this is the
centennial volume of the American Dialect Society).
	The other thing I've been tracking on this is the
description of the caller as having no accent. After a
few days, this mutated to "light southern accent", which
is exactly what a southern white 911 operator would
describe as
"no accent".

	Marc Hamann writes,
	"Strangely enough, I too was thinking about that
very issue when the report came through. My own
conclusion was that there are actually two different
parameters that are commonly lumped together in the
American consciousness:race and culture. In the US,
especially in the South, it is fairly reasonable to
assume that someone who is black (i.e of African
ancestry) will also be a member of a particular cultural
group which is marked by a distinctive sociolect. Where
I grew up, though, (in Southwestern Ontario, the
terminus of the Underground Railroad ) there were many
people of African ancestry whose families had lived
there for over a hundred years and whose speech and
cultural identity would be indistinguishable from a
person of another "race" who lived in the same region.
Hence, it would be unusual there to hear the police
release such a description based on a phone
conversation."

	Keith Goeringer writes,
	"Actually, I have wondered about this as well -- I
have always been able to tell, with very few mistakes,
when someone is black, Asian, or Latino, over the phone
or just when I hear them speaking. (For the Asian and
Latino ones, I mean that they are Americans who speak
otherwise accentless English -- there are just a few
things that give it away. My family and friends have
always questioned it when I proclaim that someone I
heard speaking was x,y, or z when I haven't seen them.
For blacks, unless they speak a VERY white-i-fied (which
I do not mean derogatorily) dialect, I can tell. I grew
up in the DC area, and there are some newscasters there
who have purged the "blackness" from their TV voices,
much as other people try to eliminate regional accents
- but by and large, most people don't bother. I can
remember my family challenging me to identify people
from the TV without looking, and I was correct every
time (though we only did it for 10 or so people). I
can't really explain the specific features involved,
though I have never tried to categorize them. I would
be interested in hearing if this is an odd ability, or
if it is common -- from what I gather from my family and
friends, it's not all that common...though I remain
skeptical of that."

	Peter Daniels writes,
	"We went through all that during the OJ trial--
someone supposedly heard a "black man" on the phone, and
they got expert testimony that there were statistical
probabilities of identifying race by voice."

	James Jenkins writes, in what for me was the most
surprising of the responses:
	"Yes, the statement is well-founded. Sonja Trent
(of our lab) presented a paper at the Acoustical Society
in St Louis last fall. African American males and
females, Caucasian males and females, 10 each were the
speakers. Listeners similarly distributed. Speakers
selected for absence of black dialect...ie "standard
American dialect."
	1.Reciting the pledge of allegiance ... almost no
errors as to "race" no errors on sex.
	2.Single sentences ("I say the word 'beeb'
somemore") .. hit rates well above 80 %.
	3. Single words (excised from sentences, e.g.
"beeb") .. hit rates above 70 percent.
	Most errors involve confusing AA women with Cau.
women All listener groups about equally good at task.
We are now examining the acoustics to see if we can tell
what is being responded to. Literature suggests
(enphasis on suggests) that AA fundamental frequency is
the biggest cue due to actual structural differences in
vocal cord structure (ONE study). So, the FBI is
probably white and the caller (given the two wentence
sample) is probably white with a high degree of
confidence."

	Clodagh Lynam writes,
	"I heard part of a radio programme recently on BBC
radio 4, where there was a discussion about race and
racism in Britain. One of the speakers was an american
woman who was black and was a college professor. She
had recently (?) bought a house in a predominantly white
area of some city in the US. She was in contact with
the estate agent by phone and letter, but did not meet
them in person. At some point she was sent a form to
fill out, in which she was asked to state her race.
When the form arrived they had already filled in that
part - they had assumed that she was white. She
reckoned that it was probably partly because she was a
professor, but also because of her accent - she did not
have a "black" accent. As far as I remember she said
that she spoke a sort of standard American, roughly the
American equivalent of Queen's English."


	Johanna Rubba writes, in vivid contradiction to
James Jenkins,
	"I, too, noticed this apparent assumption on the
part of investigators. Of course it is not, in fact,
possible to determine race from accent; but an educated
guess can be made. I imagine that the FBI was making an
educated guess on race, just as they were on gender I
presume that they just didn't _say_ that it was a guess.
The educated guess relies on what we know about the
distribution of dialects in American society. I believe
it was an unsafe guess to make, since it is more common
for people classified in other races to master standard
American dialect than it is for native speakers of same
to master other dialects. The 'indistinguishable' part
also puzzled me. A really good dialectologist would be
able to detect at least some influences, by the vowel in
the word 'bomb', for example, which can be diagnostic of
several regional dialects. Not that that information
would help much -- if he said 'bomb' the way a Chicagoan
would, for instance, how does that help the
investigation?? He could be living anywhere now. It sure
would help in matching a particular suspect, but that's
the only real value I see in it."

	Again, thanks to everyone - I hope people talk
about this further. Larry Rosenwald
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue