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Linguistic profiling.
December 9, 2001 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Linguistic profiling. Take the test: can you tell a person's race or ethnicity by their voice? Also, a survey on the relationships one makes between voice and character; a survey on bidialectalism; an NPR feature in RealAudio format on the subject from September 7; and a Brazilian secondary school teacher's simple assessment of the disconnect between students who write well but speak poorly.
posted by Mo Nickels (32 comments total)

 
That linguistic profiling is rather disturbing...

I'm proud of myself for not getting answers right on the first try.
posted by jacobw at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2001


I'm proud of myself for not getting answers right on the first try.

Why?
Is there something wrong with recognizing certain vocal characteristics or accents?
I'd be more concerned about what happens in a person's mind after they recognize them.
posted by jheiz at 12:07 PM on December 9, 2001


Old story...see "Pygmalion" and later "My Fair Lady." Professor Henry Higgins earned his keep via linguistic profiling, with wit and sarcasm to boot.
posted by davidmsc at 12:18 PM on December 9, 2001


I always thought one of the more stupid things (and there were lots) about the OJ trial was the whole argument over whether someone could "sound" black.
posted by owillis at 12:18 PM on December 9, 2001


I missed one. they say #10 was indian, I said arab. interestingly, "arabic" is not acceptable, only "arab", although you must type "hispanic" on others to be correct. interesting standardization in the grammer department.
posted by presto at 12:19 PM on December 9, 2001


i got them all right, but probably because i am white, have a lot of african american friends, dated an arab, and lived in mexico.

it is a shame that people are discriminated against because of the sound of their voice, but... i do it too.
when a telemarketer calls me on the phone and i can't understand a word that they say because their accent is so thick, i get pissed. if you're getting paid to talk on the phone you ought to be able to speak clearly.

does anyone really catch everything ms. cleo says?
posted by sadie01221975 at 12:24 PM on December 9, 2001


yeah, i got them all right as well.

culture produces those characteristcs as well as race....my grandpa had a latino sounding accent, even though he was american of danish/german extraction...but he lived most of his life in L.A., and most of that in Maywood, which was mostly cuban. My uncles do as well, but not my mom. Strange. Any linguists in the house?

Mo Nickels?
posted by th3ph17 at 12:48 PM on December 9, 2001


culture produces those characteristcs as well as race

Actually, speech patterns are entirely cultural. Infants hearing and learning a language for the first time can distinguish all the sounds and inflections the human mouth makes (in any spoken language in the world). For example, some dialects distinguish between nasalized and un-nasalized sounds, and others employ clicks and "creaky" voices. Any human infant -- born anywhere in the world, and of any race -- will hear all these as distinct sounds that might be part of a language, the same way an English speaker distinguishes between sounds like /ti/ and /di/ and /es/. It's only after you learn a language that you think there's such a thing as a "normal" accent or inflection pattern (that's somehow "better" than other accents).

On the other hand, it's possible that "linguistic profilers" also pick out physiological variations that affect one's voice. Many black men seem to have relatively deep voices, for instance. It would be hard to construct a study to separate out the various factors....
posted by mattpfeff at 1:11 PM on December 9, 2001


I only got 5 of 10 in first try and it was pretty well balanced. I don't know what it says about me.
posted by tamim at 1:19 PM on December 9, 2001


I closed the test window thinking it was a popup. Heh. Silly me.

Didn't do too badly, but missed a couple for not knowing the proper categories, i.e. "Middle Eastern, Arab". It wouldn't accept "Arabic".

I also don't see anything wrong with being able to recognize ethnicity by voice pattern. Discriminating on the basis of it, however, is clearly wrong.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:44 PM on December 9, 2001


I've had some interesting experiences with this. Thanks to my mom who's super-strict about pronunciation, when I speak on the phone I sound like a "regular white guy" with nothing much of an accent (Northeastern, if any) and my name (Oliver) doesn't give much of a clue either. Then when I meet the person for the interview, I can usually see some shock when they meet a big black guy "behind the voice".
posted by owillis at 2:32 PM on December 9, 2001


I missed all the Hispanic ones, but got the rest right. I imagine that's because the only Hispanic voices I've ever heard were either those of actors and comedians, or of local folks speaking Spanish. I do find it interesting that they had no Asian voices, I wonder why?
posted by headspace at 2:48 PM on December 9, 2001


Many black men seem to have relatively deep voices, for instance.

One thing I vaguely remember from the distant days when I studied linguistics is that different languages and dialects have different typical pitches or vocal ranges. Eg, American men in general use a lower part of their vocal range than English men. So that seeming low voice might be physiological, but it could just as well be a dialect/cultural thing instead. A tasty topic for a doctoral thesis, I'm sure.

Also, don't forget the impact of smoking. I know my speaking voice raised in pitch and lost some edge when I gave up - a population that smokes heavily probably sounds deep-voiced. (Now that I think about it, I remember noticing this in Israel, where many men smoke tarry cigarettes and speak basso Hebrew...)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:25 PM on December 9, 2001


Another identification test, of English regional accents Yorkshire? Welsh? New Zealand? (the first sample doesn't seem to work)

Also, somewhat related (and fun to listen to)...
Dialects and accents of North America (organized by state/province)

Speech accent archive - 180 sound samples of people from different language backgrounds reading the same sample paragraph

(all via this great English accents resource page)
posted by jheiz at 3:27 PM on December 9, 2001


I'm such an idiot. I was going "American, East Coast, middle class", "Jamaican working class first-generation immigrant"... until I gave up and found out it was about skin colour. Which, I'm sorry, is ridiculous. Do vocal cords follow suit? Why continue abusing the words "ethnic" and cultural" if all you mean is race? What's the point in reviving all that discredited hogwash? Is a Chamberlain "ethnography" revival next?

Quite honestly, if we're going to be silly, I prefer that old 50's Thelonius Monk/Bill Evans/can the pianner tell who's black debate...

"Hispanic" is just as insulting. Am I Hispanic? Have you any idea how many countries and cultures you're talking about?
U.S. insularity sucks, once again.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 3:32 PM on December 9, 2001


Thanks to my mom who's super-strict about pronunciation, when I speak on the phone I sound like a "regular white guy" with nothing much of an accent (Northeastern, if any) and my name (Oliver) doesn't give much of a clue either. Then when I meet the person for the interview, I can usually see some shock when they meet a big black guy "behind the voice".

<humor>

owillis:

You don't type black either.

</humor>

Differentiating between voices based on race was a lot more difficult to me when I lived in the south (Texas) than it is now. All southerners sound pretty much the same to me, since I don't have my ear trained for southern dialects. All my southern-born-and-bred coworkers could tell almost immediately, though.

Not anything earth-shattering, just an observation.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:41 PM on December 9, 2001


Now that I think about it, there's been a fair bit of work in New Zealand on putative Pakeha (European-descended) and Maori speech characteristics.

It turns out that there are no distinctive Maori speech characteristics in English; what most people think of as a "Maori" accent is a product of a combination of social class, rural vs country, male vs female, and age. Once you normalise for these things, the ethnic component disappears. New Zealanders turn out to be quite unable to tell Maori from Pakeha speakers in audio tests.

Or at least that's what I thought right up until I found this link while looking for references for the above.

Hmmm. Hmmmm. Hmmmm.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:49 PM on December 9, 2001


Ok, I suppose it's ok to be able to recognize voice patterns, but...
does it or does it not make a person who can't recognize the voices less discriminatory/less aware of the stereotypes?

Of course, if someone is less aware of the stereotypes, this can also make them more discriminatory...

I think I'm arguing with myself...will be quiet before I get into a big fight with myself.
posted by jacobw at 4:20 PM on December 9, 2001


I think I'm arguing with myself...will be quiet before I get into a big fight with myself.

I think it's a valid question. You won't get a concrete answer, but it's worth thinking about< !--yes, i am the final judge what is worthy of consideration. bow before me.--!>.

I would guess that if a person was generally discriminatory in other ways (based on appearance, ethnicity, etc), if they recognized a voice as being "ethnic" or different from what they consider to be normal they would discriminate even if they couldn't specifically identify the background of the speaker.
If they weren't normally discriminatory and recognized the voice as different without knowing what the accent was, hopefully it wouldn't be a problem.

On the other hand, someone who can identify your background from your voice can still discriminate, easily. And they also may not.

So I suppose what I'm saying is I think it depends on the individual..
posted by jheiz at 4:51 PM on December 9, 2001


"New Zealanders turn out to be quite unable to tell Maori from Pakeha speakers in audio tests."

Cheh, bro.
posted by Catch at 5:35 PM on December 9, 2001


I have a telephone interview for a job tomorrow. I bet 50 bucks the person won't be able to guess my nationality straight off. Even with my resume sitting in front of an interviewer, it doesn't seem to help. I was 20 minutes in to a face to face interview last week when I was asked what sort of visa I had in order to work in the UK.

I moved around a lot as a kid and as a result, had no distinguishable regional British accent growing up, apart from the fact that it was "southern". I have spent a lot of my time over the past couple of years with Aussies, Kiwis and Africans and as a result have picked up different vernacular, a multitude of dialectic idiosyncrasies and some fairly wacky intonation patterns, all of which make my speech more broadly understandable. The happy by product of all this is an utterly unplaceable accent, though it sounds the same as it ever was to me.

This has been very useful whilst travelling. When first meeting people they tend to ascribe the wrong set of pre-conceived notions to me (ie, I am mis-stereotyped, a really interesting situation if you notice it and decide to play along). In Australia, I was frequently mistaken for being South African, in Africa I was often mistaken for an Aussie or Kiwi. It is a source of great amusement to me to keep a person's misconceptions going for as long as possible before I let slip the fact that I'm English.

does it or does it not make a person who can't recognize the voices less discriminatory/less aware of the stereotypes

Seeing as everyone does seem to begin pigeonholing with only the bare minimum of clues, intentionally or otherwise, I don't see that correctly determining a person's ethnicity by their voice makes you more or less discriminatory. Even if one were to wrongly judge someone's race, one would most likely act upon these false assumptions as if they were true.

You don't have to be right in order to discriminate.
posted by davehat at 5:54 PM on December 9, 2001


Catch - that's dialect, not accent.

The man sitting across from me, as I avoid work, is a lanky Anglo Celt, and will say "cher" at the drop of a hat, like so many other pakeha I know who grew up in the Bay of Plenty.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:18 PM on December 9, 2001


just trying to fix the formatting.

posted by mlang at 7:29 PM on December 9, 2001


almost got it...







if not now, i give up.

posted by mlang at 7:36 PM on December 9, 2001


They all sounded 'American' to me. Honest.

(Probably because I'm Australian. I'm going to have to try and find an Australian regiona accents test...)
posted by eoz at 7:48 PM on December 9, 2001


er, 'regional accents'.
posted by eoz at 7:49 PM on December 9, 2001


I_am_joe's_spleen:

I grew up in Tauranga!
(Falling off my chair laughing at myself).
posted by Catch at 8:12 PM on December 9, 2001


I meant.... my cheh.
posted by Catch at 8:14 PM on December 9, 2001


there was a linguistics professor at U of M who could talk to almost anyone and within a short time could identify where that person came from, even provinces, states, regions etc...he could tell by the language they spoke. i dont know about this magic guess test for race or ethnicity.
posted by clavdivs at 7:45 AM on December 10, 2001


Linguists are amazing people. One of my father's now close friends, upon meeting him for the first time, nailed the area he grew up in within a few blocks. He specialized in that particular dialect, which explains the accuracy, but still.. pretty amazing stuff.

I wasn't terribly shocked about linguistic profiling, nor was I disturbed by the fact that I got all of the answers correct on the little test. Am I a racist simply because I can often tell someone's race or nationality over the telephone? No. That's a ridiculous idea. That's like saying someone is racist because they can see that someone is black or indian or something.
posted by xyzzy at 8:08 AM on December 10, 2001


Administrator, please hope me!
posted by walrus at 9:43 AM on December 10, 2001


can you tell what country we're from by the size of our fonty?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:34 AM on December 10, 2001


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