Light & Verity

A pronounced effort

Photo illustration: Mark Zurolo ’01MFA

Photo illustration: Mark Zurolo ’01MFA

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You say to-MAY-to, I say to-MAH-to. But how do you pronounce "roof," "pen," or 58 other words that could help identify your native accent? Linguistics professor Claire Bowern is working with a pair of evolutionary biologists to collect recordings of North American English dialects from speakers across the country—the largest study of its kind, Bowern says, and the first Internet study to rely on recordings instead of written surveys. Using their computers' microphones, about 1,500 people have contributed samples online since the project started in July. Participants provide basic biographical data and pronounce a set of words that reveal differences in dialect, such as "foot" and "keep." The team will look for variations in vowel pronunciation—the hallmark of an accent, Bowern says—as well as patterns in geography, ethnicity, and gender. Users are contributing samples faster than anticipated: the original goal was 2,500 recordings, but the team now aims to collect 10,000 and may expand the project to English-speaking nations worldwide.

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