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The southern drawl gets deconstructed

Understanding vowel sound diversity could improve Siri

3:14pm, June 30, 2017
pecan pie

SWEET AS PAH  Delving into the vowel pronunciations of Southerners, who, for example, turn pie into “pah,” reveals surprising linguistic complexity that could help make better speech recognition software.

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BOSTON — Some aspects of speech are as Southern as pecan pie. Consider the vowel shift that makes the word pie sound more like “pah.” While that pronunciation is found from Florida to Texas, a new study reveals a surprising diversity in Southern vowel pronunciation that’s linked to a speaker’s age, social class, gender, race and geography.

The research, presented June 29 at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, could help software developers create better speech recognition tools for smartphones and other devices.

To understand the medley of southern vowel sounds, linguist Margaret Renwick of the University of Georgia in Athens dove into the Digital Archive of Southern Speech. The archive comprises almost 400 hours of interviews with 64 native Southerners representing a mix of ethnicities, social classes, education levels and ages. 

Renwick’s analysis of more than 300,000 vowel sounds finds, for example, that Southern upper middle class women are often at the extreme end of variation in pronunciation. While Southern men and women are equally likely to shift the vowel in bet to “bay-ut,” upper middle class Southern women are more likely to stretch the vowel sound in bit to “bee-ut.” They are also most likely to pronounce bait as bite. The finding that women are more inclined to draw a sound out into two syllables — or change it entirely — is in line with other research suggesting that women are linguistic innovators, and less likely to adhere to the norms of standard American English, Renwick said.

The sound of I

While Southerners might sound uniform to an ill-informed Northerner, vowel pronunciations are definitely not monolithic, a linguist reports. The sound  “eye” in words like tide or ride can be pronounced “ah” by some speakers (red) who sound stereotypically Southern. But some speakers (blue) use the more standard American pronunciation,  “eye.”

Further Reading

B. Bower. Language learning may begin before birth. Science News. Vol. 183, February 9, 2013, p. 9.

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