voice and race recognition

Johanna Rubba jrubba at calpoly.edu
Tue Dec 28 17:06:01 UTC 2010

As to identifying African Americans by their speech, I heard once  
that the structure of most AA men's larynx is different from that of  
whites, and this was responsible, first of all, for a deeper voice in  
many cases, and second of all, for that elusive quality that John  
refers to. I immediately pegged this as incredibly racist, but  
apparently, according to someone I respected, it was legitimate  
science. This was a long time ago. and I don't remember the details.  
This could account for a difference between black men and women.

I'm not sure I'd recognize that Barack Obama was (half) AA merely by  
his voice. I certainly have mistaken black speakers for white any  
number of times. I just listened to some clips of his speeches on  
YouTube and I do hear the voice quality I think John is talking  
about. He monophthongizes his /ai/'s sometimes, but also does  
Canadian raising on them. I don't detect any of the other cues that  
usually flag an AA voice for me (e.g., glottal stop at the end of  
words that end in /t/).

You've probably heard of John Baugh's personal experiment of calling  
about apartments for rent, sometimes using AA English, and sometimes  
standard English. He gets far more callbacks when using his "white"  

I'm a regular NPR listener and I often speculate on both the  
ethnicity and the personal appearance of their speakers. There are  
photos of all of the speakers (and some of the people you don't hear,  
like Kee Malesky and Doug Berman) on the NPR website, and I have  
checked several of the speakers that I suspected were AA. I was right  
about Korva Coleman, Cheryl Corely, Audie Cornish, Alison Keyes, and  
Juan Williams, but wrong about Ann Taylor, Barbara Bradley Hagerty,  
and Paul Brown. In general, most of the people I've checked don't  
look at all like I would have expected. Terri Gross and the Magliozzi  
brothers look pretty much like what I would have expected, but others  
do not look at all like I expected. Interestingly, I had pegged Steve  
Innskeep as being attractive, and got pretty close to his facial type.

A cool little experiment. Try it sometime!

Dr. Johanna Rubba, Ph. D.
Professor, Linguistics
Linguistics Minor Advisor
English Dept.
Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, CA 93407
Ofc. tel. : 805-756-2184
Dept. tel.: 805-756-2596
Dept. fax: 805-756-6374
E-mail: jrubba at calpoly.edu
URL: http://cla.calpoly.edu/~jrubba

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