Collecting accents

I wrote a thing. Two things, I guess: two short texts for eliciting useful accent samples. Here they are:

Dali’s Last Hurrah*

What frosty land is this?
How was its fate decided?
Coal-black mountains loom;Salvador Dali
Glassy pools reflect their huge, queer forms.
A bird-like woman searches slowly through the trees;
Flocks of trembling sparrows cluster about blood-red barns.
I feel the flashing claws of chalk-white terror rip at my breath.
My courage fails.
A furious, hoarse voice whispers from the inky shadows,
He knew his duty. We cannot be afraid.”

Fighting a fog of sudden nightmare visions—
Savage lambs,
Fork-tongued horses,
Sleek otters, subtle as jazz—
I struggle to recall the verse drama of old—
My heart turns to ice.

All About Foxes*

1. The quick brown fox took four small sips of strong coffee.
2. Oh boy, Kathy! Father is mad as hell! Why did you lie? You’re not even sorry.
3. Carry these cheeses to the train before it’s too late!
4. That fluffy little kitten slashed the cotton sofa apart! And now her poor paw is hurt!
5. Do you fear death, fair one?
6. Cut the flow! Now! The bathroom is flooding! Get the bags!fox
7. Where will you go, do you think, when the earth turns cold? Will you walk north?
8. Hurry it up! Sheesh. Does anybody take pride in their work anymore?
9. Two students planted big fir trees all around the zoo.
10. The abbot liked to fish without a lure.

These two texts have their own permanent page on the site. (You can also download a pdf version on that page, as well as a Teacher’s Guide to the passages, and a document about how to collect an accent sample, with details about interview technique, recording equipment, and more.)

Similar passages exist, of course. Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with Comma Gets a Cure, and perhaps The Rainbow Passage and Arthur the Rat as well. (Arthur was Dudley’s favorite of these passages, and appears in Speaking With Skill). The IPA (the association, not the alphabet) uses The North Wind and the Sun (translated into the appropriate language, of course) in their phonetic illustrations of different languages. And there are many more.

Comma Gets a Cure is a wonderful piece of work. It incorporates the brilliant idea of weaving John Wells’ actual lexical set ‘key’ words into a narrative. It’s an important contribution, and has deservedly become the standard text for Paul Meier’s invaluable International Dialects of English Archive. In addition to the lexical set words themselves, it includes many other tricky words (words whose pronunciation can vary unpredictably between accents), such as sorry, porridge, hurry, Mary, lawyer, huge, washed, territory, mirror, futile, new, Duke, and tune. Unlike most of the other passages, it also has the potential to elicit many of the contrasts one would wish for, things like Canadian Raising (price vs. time, mouth vs. around), or pre-nasal tensing (back vs. managed). Arthur the Rat includes many of these features as well (not including the actual lexical set ‘key’ words, of course—John Wells came up with lexical sets in the 1970s; Arthur was written in the 30s).

So why a new passage? Is there really any need?

I’ve always been a bit dissatisfied with the existing passages, Comma included. Most of them are fairly long. It can be tiring to record them—accent donors often start to flag before they’re halfway through. It can also be tiring to listen to them (especially if you listen to a lot of them). Taken as texts, they also, for the most part, just…don’t read that well. Unless you happen to have an unusually outgoing, expressive accent donor (who also happens to be a skilled reader), recordings of these texts usually end up sounding pretty flat. And in spite of their length, most of them (besides Comma) miss some important possible phonemic and allophonic contrasts that crop up in different accents of English. Length aside, many of the important words are not in stressed positions in the texts, which means they’re often given something less than a fully characteristic pronunciation of the allophone in question. Many of the sentences are also somewhat long and complex, and there are a fair number of unusual words (ether, anybody?). Length, complexity, and unfamiliar words all tend to cause accent donors to stumble and flail around a bit, especially non-native speakers of English.

Dali’s Last Hurrah comes in at 152 words. All About Foxes is 180. Taken together, they’re not that much shorter than Comma Gets a Cure (379), but the two passages are somewhat different from each other in tone and feel, and tend to elicit different kinds of expressiveness from accent donors. They each, in their own way, invite a somewhat more involved reading than other standard passages. It may just be my preference, but I find it far easier and more fun to work with samples where the speakers come to life a little bit. When recording samples, I don’t ask people to be expressive—I just let them do what they’re going to do. But I’ve found that donors (non-actors as well as actors) often get into Dali and Foxes in ways that theScreenshot 2016-02-08 22.39.10y don’t with the other passages.

Both passages also use fairly simple words and short sentences (Foxes especially so), and are thus, I think, less apt to provoke stumbles and confusion in accent donors.

The reading of a standard passage or two, of course, is not enough for a good accent sample. You need some extemporaneous speech as well, if the sample is going to be maximally useful. Ideally, this is speech in which the accent donor is engaged with the subject they’re speaking about, and forgets they’re being recorded. (The How to Collect an Accent Sample document includes suggestions about how to elicit such speech.) Prosody and intonation are vital aspects of an accent. Lively, engaged, expressive samples are much easier to pick these up from, and extemporaneous speech is much likelier to be lively and engaged than when someone is reading a text. But even if the reading portion of a sample isn’t mainly aimed at eliciting prosody and intonation, I find I much prefer to work with samples that include clear instances of characteristic patterns throughout.

Most of the existing standard passages also fail to include a variety of sentence types. Accents all have their own intonation systems, just as they have their own phonological systems, and it’s no less important to get a handle on these—you can’t get an accent right without absorbing them. And so it was important to me that my passage(s) include at least a few instances of different kinds of questions, commands, exclamations, statements, and descriptions.

Both Dali and Foxes include numerous instances of most of the lexical sets1 (possible allophones), most potential mergers and splits, and other potential features of interest, e.g. linking /r/, intrusive /r/, nasal plosion, /str/ consonant clusters, etc. In the end, I felt it was useful to have some extra coverage for many of these features, as well as to see what kinds of expressiveness each passage elicited, and so I think the two passages work best as a pair. If one were pressed for time, however, either passage would suffice to capture a fairly complete snapshot of an individual donor’s accent.

You can read more about various potential accent features, and where instances of them might be elicited in each text, in the Teacher’s Guide.

As the copyright accompanying the passages states, they are free for anyone to use, and it is our hope that people will use them to record a wide variety of speakers. Among other things, we’d like to build up a library of such samples. If you’d like to record yourself, or anyone else, please feel free to use them (I ask only that you give appropriate credit). If you’d like to share your sample with us, so much the better! If you or your accent donor would be willing to sign a release (granting us permission to publish the sample in whole or in part), well, then, I will need to buy you a drink.

* Dali’s Last Hurrah is Copyright © 2016 Erik Singer and Knight-Thompson Speechwork, All Rights Reserved, and may be used freely for any purpose without additional authorization, provided the present sentence accompanies the passage in print, if reproduced in print, and in audio format, in the case of a sound recording.

* All About Foxes is Copyright © 2016 Erik Singer and Knight-Thompson Speechwork, All Rights Reserved, and may be used freely for any purpose without additional authorization, provided the present sentence accompanies the passage in print, if reproduced in print, and in audio format, in the case of a sound recording.

1The exceptions are few: Dali has only one CURE word (furious), and Foxes has only one NORTH word (north), one PALM word (father) and one START word (apart). Both passages have only one FOOT word (woman, took), one CHOICE word (voice; boy), and one NEAR word (queer, fear).


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