voice and race recognition

john at research.haifa.ac.il john at research.haifa.ac.il
Tue Dec 28 14:13:50 UTC 2010

I'm pretty familiar with sociolinguistic research on Black English (I was a
student of Bill Labov's) and to my knowledge there have been no
socio/linguistic studies of this issue relating to Black Americans at least. It
is kind of surprising, I know. One thing that is particularly striking is that
are many Black Americans (e.g. Barack Obama) whose speech has no grammatical or
phonological characteristics of Black English, who apparently do not even have
a natural register of their speech with such features, who are nevertheless
immediately identifiable as Black to essentially all Americans on the basis of
something in their voice quality. This is not to say that there is something
`racial'/physiological involved, because there are clearly Black Americans who
speak indistinguishably from Whites (I just saw Vanessa Williams on Desperate
Housewives, for example), voice quality and all--but at the same time there is
also something identifiably distinctively Black which is not just grammar and
phonology. Related to this, it seems to be practically impossible for White
Americans to convincingly mimic the speech of Black Americans, at least to the
extent that Black Americans think that they are actually Black on the basis of
their voice--a project I was working on during the 1980s spent a good deal of
time trying to find such White Americans with absolutely no success, I mean not
a single person.

Quoting "s.t. bischoff" <bischoff.st at gmail.com>:

> Hi all,
> I have been asked to comment on a research proposal in Sociology  that
> proposes to  determine if "voice-cued cognitive schemata (organized
> knowledge frameworks) leads to accurate identification of physical
> appearance and biographical background of a speaker."  The research is
> couched within larger questions of racism. My task is to determine if
> the project as outlined is feasible (logistically) not necessarily to
> comment on the design or research question. In short, participants
> will be asked to match the voices they hear, reading the same script,
> with photos. However, I was struck by the fact that there were no
> references to linguistics or socio-linguistics in the proposal. This
> is not an area I am familiar with, but thought that there must be a
> body of literature on this topic within linguistics. Because I am
> short of time, I just wanted to ask if there has been "significant"
> research in linguistics in this area, and if so is there is one or two
> key papers that are "required reading"?
> Thanks,
> Shannon

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