Accent Shift: January

Here’s the fourth installation of The Great Accent Shift project I’ve been working on since September. Recording and analysis were far too difficult over the Christmas period, but I’m back in 2014 with a list of words and a small bit of commentary on Labovian phonetics.

I am in the middle of exam period, and does it ever show in my voice. I hear a lot more vocal fry (creaky voicing) than is normal for me, even as a member of one of the speech communities that has a tendency to over use it (western US, young, educated women). I wrote a paper about epigenetics, human evolution, and language earlier this morning (all in one go) and last weekend was the hardest I’ve ever studied in my life. My internet was out, and  I was at the library open to close almost three days in a row (if you count being kick rout for trying to study too early on Monday…yes, you heard me). Further complication came on Saturday night, when I’d already spent at least seven hours pouring over my Syntax exam and a fight broke out in Pizza Express. I will write more about the situation later, but suffice it to say that I called a racist “a fucking arsehole.” To his face.

It was an exhausting weekend.

To analysis! Firstly, it seems that some words are drifting, although I sound very Statesian overall. I took the word lists from September and the one from today to run through Praat, the phonetics software. At first glance, not so different.

Waveform and Spectrographs for "cot, pillow, toothpick, aluminium"
Waveform and Spectrographs for “cot, pillow, toothpick, aluminium”

But then I looked at and listened to “cot.” In September, it had a dental-alvelolar ‘t’ with almost no plosion. Today’s had a fully plosive ‘t’ at the end of it (making a minimal pair something along the lines of <kɑt, kɔtˈ> in IPA).

Two different 'cots'
Two different ‘cots,’ today on top, September on the bottom

That’s strange. I’ve uploaded the two lists for comparisons’ sake. Tell me if you hear a difference, and if so, where?

Considerable debate rages in linguistics about whether this type of sociolinguistic ‘data’ (since it’s not really an experiment) is valid, or indeed whether it matters that accents and dialect choices occur. I say it matters; people notice immediately that I am different here the moment I open my mouth. There is far more than just accent at work, including the formality of the situation and especially whether I’m teaching or not…and how I feel at that moment. The vocal fry is indicative of how exhausted I am this week, after writing nearly 30 pages of text in a weekend for an exam (with tree diagrams!). My brain had to handle the Tree of Death, and I barely slept or ate during the whole time. I jokingly called it ‘Syntaxorexia.’ But seriously, I probably lost three pounds.

The Tree of Death. This isn't even it's final form...
The Tree of Death. This isn’t even it’s final form…

I can hear the creaky voice, and probably see it a bit in the graphics of my voice. Note the big fat striations on the waveforms here for the word ‘or’ in creaky voicing. You can hear ‘creaky voice’ a lot in GenAm accents, especially when people are tired. President Obama has it show up all the time, actually.

You can see my vocal chords snapping together weirdly in the striations.
You can see my vocal chords snapping together weirdly in the striations.

A big discovery in today’s recording; I’m starting to go non-rhotic for certain words. Rhoticity is a term for the ‘r’ sounds in dialects of English. In Southern Standard British English, there practically is no ‘r’ sound in the middles and ends of words, and it only appears at the beginning (or in strange places where there is no ‘r’ in the written word, like in ‘paster’ for ‘pasta’ almost like some Boston accents — Think JFK). Rhoticity is a hallmark of the General American accent I have from home, but I am definitely starting to drop more of the ‘r’ sound in certain words. Below are waveforms and spectrographs for the word <comfortable>.

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 08.43.25
The r is missing in the one from today!

As it turned out, my recording of my casual speech is too quiet to analyse. Oh well, next time. The beginnings of some change, perhaps. It’s unlikely that my accent will become fully SSBE, unless I make a conscious decision to do so. It’s likely to always remain mostly GenAm, with dialectical differences.

2 Comments

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  1. It’s all over my head, but you certainly look beautiful. Maybe you should be a model. Love, N

  2. This is quite interesting. I left Lancashire as a 9 year old boy in 1960 and have lived in Australia ever since. I still have an accent although it’s not as “e by gum” as it used to be. Oh I hope you kept a well modulated voice when you called that bloke a fucking arsehole. 🙂

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