How many people in the US don’t have an accent?

First, the linguist’s answer: none. Zero. Everyone who uses a language uses a variety of that language, one that reflects their social identity–including things like gender, socioeconomic status or regional background.

But the truth is that some people, especially in the US, have the social privileged of being considered “unaccented”.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been “congratulated” by new acquaintances on having “gotten rid of” my Virginia accent. The thing is, I do have a lot of linguistic features from Tidewater/Piedmont English, like a strong distinction between the vowels in “body” and “baudy”, “y’all” for the second person plural and calling a drive-through liquor store a “brew thru” (shirts with this guy on them were super popular in my high school). But, at the same time, I also don’t have a lot of strongly stigmatized features, like dropping r’s or strong monopthongization you’d hear from a speaker like Virgil Goode (although most folks don’t really sound like that anymore). Plus, I’m young, white, (currently) urban and really highly educated. That, plus the fact that most people don’t pick up on the Southern features I do have, means that I have the privilege of being perceived as accent-less.

You_all_and_Y'all
Map showing the distribution of speakers in the United States who use “y’all”.

But how many people in the US are in the same boat as I am? This is a difficult question, especially given that there is no wide consensus about what “standard”, or “unaccented”, American English is. There is, however, a lot of discussion about what it’s not. In particular, educated speakers from the Midwest and West are generally considered to be standard speakers by non-linguists. Non-linguists also generally don’t consider speakers of African American English and Chicano English to be “standard” speakers (even though both of these are robust, internally consistent language varieties with long histories used by native English speakers).  Fortunately for me, the United States census asks census-takers about their language background, race and ethnicity, educational attainment and geographic location, so I could use census data to roughly estimate how many speakers of “standard” English there are in the United States. I chose to use the 2011 census, as detailed data on language use has been released for that year on a state-by-state basis (you can see a summary here).

From this data, I calculated how many individuals were living in states assigned by the U.S. Census Bureau to either the West or Midwest and how many residents surveyed in these states reported speaking English ‘very well’ or better. Then, assuming that residents of these states had educational attainment rates representative of national averages, I estimated how many college educated (with a bachelor’s degree or above) non-Black and non-Hispanic speakers lived in these areas.

So just how many speakers fit into this “standard” mold? Fewer than you might expect! You can see the breakdown below:

Speakers in the 2011 census who…

Count

% of US Population

…live in the United States…

311.7 million

100%

…and live in the Midwest or West…

139,968,791

44.9%

…and speak English at least ‘very well’…

127,937,178

41%

…and are college educated…

38,381,153 (estimated)

12.31%

…and are not Black or Hispanic.

33,391,603 (estimated)

10.7%

Based on the criteria laid out above, only around a tenth of the US population would count as ‘standard’ speakers. Now, keep in mind this estimate is possibly somewhat conservative: not all Black speakers use African American English and not all Hispanic speakers use Chicano English, and the regional dialects of some parts of the Northeast are also sometimes considered “standard”, which isn’t reflected in my rough calculation. That said, I think there’s still something if a large majority of Americans don’t speak what we might consider “standard” English, maybe it’s time to start redefining who gets to be the standard.
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Can what you think you know about someone affect how you hear them?

I’ll get back to “a male/a female” question in my next blog post (promise!), but for now I want to discuss some of the findings from my dissertation research. I’ve talked about my dissertation research a couple times before, but since I’m going to be presenting some of it in Spain (you can read the full paper here), I thought it would be a good time to share some of my findings.

In my dissertation, I’m looking at how what you think you know about a speaker affects what you hear them say. In particular, I’m looking at American English speakers who have just learned to correctly identify the vowels of New Zealand English. Due to an on-going vowel shift, the New Zealand English vowels are really confusing for an American English speaker, especially the vowels in the words “head”, “head” and “had”.

tokensVowelPlot

This plot shows individual vowel tokens by the frequency of thier first and second formants (high-intensity frequency bands in the vowel). Note that the New Zealand “had” is very close to the US “head”, and the New Zealand “head” is really close to the US “hid”.

These overlaps can be pretty confusing when American English speakers are talking to New Zealand English speakers, as this Flight of the Conchords clip shows!

The good news is that, as language users, we’re really good at learning new varieties of languages we already know, so it only takes a couple minutes for an American English speaker to learn to correctly identify New Zealand English vowels. My question was this: once an American English speaker has learned to understand the vowels of New Zealand English, how do they know when to use this new understanding?

In order to test this, I taught twenty one American English speakers who hadn’t had much, if any, previous exposure to New Zealand English to correctly identify the vowels in the words “head”, “heed” and “had”. While I didn’t play them any examples of a New Zealand “hid”–the vowel in “hid” is said more quickly in addition to having different formants, so there’s more than one way it varies–I did let them say that they’d heard “hid”, which meant I could tell if they were making the kind of mistakes you’d expect given the overlap between a New Zealand “head” and American “hid”.

So far, so good: everyone quickly learned the New Zealand English vowels. To make sure that it wasn’t that they were learning to understand the one talker they’d been listening to, I tested half of my listeners on both American English and New Zealand English vowels spoken by a second, different talker. These folks I told where the talker they were listening to was from. And, sure enough, they transferred what they’d learned about New Zealand English to the new New Zealand speaker, while still correctly identifying vowels in American English.

The really interesting results here, though, are the ones that came from the second half the listeners. This group I lied to. I know, I know, it wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but it was in the name of science and I did have the approval of my institutional review board, (the group of people responsible for making sure we scientists aren’t doing anything unethical).

In an earlier experiment, I’d played only New Zealand English as this point, and when I told them the person they were listening to was from America, they’d completely changed the way they listened to those vowels: they labelled New Zealand English vowels as if they were from American English, even though they’d just learned the New Zealand English vowels. And that’s what I found this time, too. Listeners learned the New Zealand English vowels, but “undid” that learning if they thought the speaker was from the same dialect as them.

But what about when I played someone vowels from their own dialect, but told them the speaker was from somewhere else? In this situation, listeners ignored my lies. They didn’t apply the learning they’d just done. Instead, the correctly treated the vowels of thier own dialect as if they were, in fact, from thier dialect.

At first glance, this seems like something of a contradiction: I just said that listeners rely on social information about the person who’s talking, but at the same time they ignore that same social information.

So what’s going on?

I think there are two things underlying this difference. The first is the fact that vowels move. And the second is the fact that you’ve heard a heck of a lot more of your own dialect than one you’ve been listening to for fifteen minutes in a really weird training experiment.

So what do I mean when I say vowels move? Well, remember when I talked about formants above? These are areas of high acoustic energy that occur at certain frequency ranges within a vowel and they’re super important to human speech perception. But what doesn’t show up in the plot up there is that these aren’t just static across the course of the vowel–they move. You might have heard of “diphthongs” before: those are vowels where there’s a lot of formant movement over the course of the vowel.

And the way that vowels move is different between different dialects. You can see the differences in the way New Zealand and American English vowels move in the figure below. Sure, the formants are in different places—but even if you slid them around so that they overlapped, the shape of the movement would still be different.

formantDynamics

Comparison of how the New Zealand and American English vowels move. You can see that the shape of the movement for each vowel is really different between these two dialects.  

Ok, so the vowels are moving in different ways. But why are listeners doing different things between the two dialects?

Well, remember how I said earlier that you’ve heard a lot more of your own dialect than one you’ve been trained on for maybe five minutes? My hypothesis is that, for the vowels in your own dialect, you’re highly attuned to these movements. And when a scientist (me) comes along and tells you something that goes against your huge amount of experience with these shapes, even if you do believe them, you’re so used to automatically understanding these vowels that you can’t help but correctly identify them. BUT if you’ve only heard a little bit of a new dialect you don’t have a strong idea of what these vowels should sound like, so if you’re going to rely more on the other types of information available to you–like where you’re told the speaker is from–even if that information is incorrect.

So, to answer the question I posed in the title, can what you think you know about someone affect how you hear them? Yes… but only if you’re a little uncertain about what you heard in the first place, perhaps becuase it’s a dialect you’re unfamiliar with.

Tweeting with an accent

I’m writing this blog post from a cute little tea shop in Victoria, BC. I’m up here to present at the Northwest Linguistics Conference, which is a yearly conference for both Canadian and American linguists (yes, I know Canadians are Americans too, but United Statsian sounds weird), and I thought that my research project may be interesting to non-linguists as well. Basically, I investigated whether it’s possible for Twitter users to “type with an accent”. Can linguists use variant spellings in Twitter data to look at the same sort of sound patterns we see in different speech communities?

Picture of a bird saying

Picture of a bird saying “Let’s Tawk”. Taken from the website of the Center for the Psychology of Women in Seattle. Click for link.

So if you’ve been following the Great Ideas in Linguistics series, you’ll remember that I wrote about sociolinguistic variables a while ago. If you didn’t, sociolinguistic variables are sounds, words or grammatical structures that are used by specific social groups. So, for example, in Southern American English (representing!) the sound in “I” is produced with only one sound, so it’s more like “ah”.

Now, in speech these sociolinguistic variables are very well studied. In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English was just finished in 2013 after over fifty years of work. But in computer mediated communication–which is the fancy term for internet language–they haven’t been really well studied. In fact, some scholars suggested that it might not be possible to study speech sounds using written data. And on the surface of it, that does make sense. Why would you expect to be able to get information about speech sounds from a written medium? I mean, look at my attempt to explain an accent feature in the last paragraph. It would be far easier to get my point across using a sound file. That said, I’d noticed in my own internet usage that people were using variant spellings, like “tawk” for “talk”, and I had a hunch that they were using variant spellings in the same way they use different dialect sounds in speech.

While hunches have their place in science, they do need to be verified empirically before they can be taken seriously. And so before I submitted my abstract, let alone gave my talk, I needed to see if I was right. Were Twitter users using variant spellings in the same way that speakers use different sound patterns? And if they are, does that mean that we can investigate sound  patterns using Twitter data?

Since I’m going to present my findings at a conference and am writing this blog post, you can probably deduce that I was right, and that this is indeed the case. How did I show this? Well, first I picked a really well-studied sociolinguistic variable called the low back merger. If you don’t have the merger (most African American speakers and speakers in the South don’t) then you’ll hear a strong difference between the words “cot” and “caught” or “god” and “gaud”. Or, to use the example above, you might have a difference between the words “talk” and “tock”. “Talk” is little more backed and rounded, so it sounds a little more like “tawk”, which is why it’s sometimes spelled that way. I used the Twitter public API and found a bunch of tweets that used the “aw” spelling of common words and then looked to see if there were other variant spellings in those tweets. And there were. Furthermore, the other variant spellings used in tweets also showed features of Southern American English or African American English. Just to make sure, I then looked to see if people were doing the same thing with variant spellings of sociolinguistic variables associated with Scottish English, and they were. (If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details, my slides are here.)

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns. If you’re a researcher looking at sound patterns, that’s pretty sweet: you can stay home in your jammies and use Twitter data to verify findings from your field work. But what if you’re not a language researcher? Well, if we can identify someone’s dialect features from their Tweets then we can also use those features to make a pretty good guess about their demographic information, which isn’t always available (another problem for sociolinguists working with internet data). And if, say, you’re trying to sell someone hunting rifles, then it’s pretty helpful to know that they live in a place where they aren’t illegal. It’s early days yet, and I’m nowhere near that stage, but it’s pretty exciting to think that it could happen at some point down the line.

So the big take away is that, yes, people can tweet with an accent, and yes, linguists can use Twitter data to investigate speech sounds. Not all of them–a lot of people aren’t aware of many of their dialect features and thus won’t spell them any differently–but it’s certainly an interesting area for further research.