Tag: Phonology

Bishes Vowel Chart

We were struck by how unmemorable and unfun the keywords of Wells’ Standard Lexical Set were, so we decided to come up with our own keywords using words that resonated more with us as extremely online types. Hover your mouse or click on the vowel sound to see an alternative word and accompanying emoji. (We chose these lexical items to correspond with our North American English dialects.)










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Dismantle the Native-speakerarchy Post 3: Sentence context influences the subjective perception of foreign accents

(This is part of a series. Check out the first post on lexical diversity here and the second post on vowel quality here.)

A commonly cited reason for why so-called ‘native speaker’ English teachers are superior to ‘non-native’ English speaker teachers is pronunciation. “How can the students learn proper pronunciation from someone with a foreign accent?” howl the haters. “Native speaker teachers speak correctly, so students will have an accurate model,” wail the whiners.

“What if accent is all in your mind?” says me.

JK JK, accents are real and we all have them. However, our perception of accents is driven by more than just the technical difference in sounds. Dr. Sara Incera and her team show that foreign accents can be wrongly accused as the culprit of communication difficulties. While most research has looked at how accent affects comprehension, this paper (2017) considers the reverse: how does comprehension affect accent perception?

They do this by looking at the effects of sentence predictability on how strongly an accent is perceived. For example, “Every morning I drink _____.” There are many things that could fit in that blank, and what your mind is expecting to hear populates as you’re processing the sentence in real time. Incera et. al hypothesize that if the sentence completion is something unpredictable like, say, “Every morning I drink… lamp”, then you will perceive a stronger foreign accent on the part of the speaker than if the completion was predictable.

What makes this study a special, precious, unique snowflake amidst previous work on accent perception is that it isolates the speaker-independent variable of sentence predictability from speaker-dependent factors. Umm… wut. Here is a nifty table to tablesplain:

These researchers conduct two highly-controlled experiments to determine the specific effect of sentence context on foreign accent perception.


Here is the recipe for the first experiment:

Step 1: Identify 24 freerange, artisanal sentences from Bloom and Fischer’s 1980 sentence corpus that have a highly predictable final word.These are the predictable sentences aka the snoozefest sentences.

Step 2: Chop off the final word of each sentence and swap it with another sentence. These are the unpredictable sentences aka the acid trips sentences. For example:

  • After dinner they washed the _ dishes (closet)
  • He hung her coat in the _ closet (dishes)

Step 3: Isolate the final word of the sentence by recording the sentence stem and final word with different speakers. Record the sentence stems in a ladyvoice by a speaker of American English. Record the final words in a manlyman voice by 6 speakers of English as a foreign language (2 Chinese speakers, 2 Hindi speakers, and 2 Arabic speakers). The gender difference is to make the final word clearly distinct so it alone will be rated for accent, but you could easily reverse the genders.  Splice the recordings together.

Step 4: Find 24 randos to be your participants. They are speakers of American English. Give them some course credit for their time, please and thank you.

Step 5: Have participants each listen to a mix of 12 predictable and 12 unpredictable sentences counterbalanced from all 6 of the foreign speakers. They click on a button on the computer screen that says “Weak Accent” or “Strong Accent.”  Instruct them to rate only the final word spoken by the male speaker.

Voila! You have a pile of data to eat for dinner! Bon appetit!

For the second experiment they did basically the same things, but recorded the final word with just two dudes. One dude is an American English speaker referred to in the paper as “native speaker,” and other buddy is a Hindi speaker called “foreign speaker.” This follow up experiment was to determine if the results from the first experiment extend to American English speakers.


Drum roll please…In the first experiment participants were more likely to rate the speaker of an unpredictable sentence as having a strong accent. Though the exact same recording of the word in a predictable sentence was more likely to be rated as spoken with a weak accent. In the second experiment, they found that the unpredictable sentences for the “native speaker” were also rated as having a strong accent.  Let us jump to conclusions:

Linguistic context affects perception of accent!  This study squares with my personal experience as an ESL teacher. On the occasions that I have difficulty understanding what my students are trying to communicate it is frequently because I don’t know what they are talking about rather than their pronunciation. I might not have the requisite background knowledge to understand, or the unpredictability (and magnificent creativity!) of their word choice as English language learners throws me off the trail. As a ‘native’ English speaker and an ESL teacher, I must unlearn that my accent is superior and that communication breakdowns are the result of others’ accents.

Flipping out about a foreign accent on an English teacher is not a good look FULL STOP. 1) English as an international language or English as a Lingua Franca make this moot as most English speakers globally speak it as a second language to others who speak it as a second language. 2) Accent discrimination is a thin veil for racism, sexim, classism, jingoism, and other bad-isms. 3) As this study shows, foreign accent perception is a lot more subjective than people realize. Some of it is in our heads.

Check out this paper if you are an accent perception bish or an anti-nativespeakerism babe!

Bloom, P. A., & Fischler, I. (1980). Completion norms for 329 sentence contexts. Memory and Cognition, 8, 631–642.

Incera, S., McLennan, C.T., Shah, A. P., & Wetzel, M.T. (2017). Sentence completion influences the subjective perception of foreign accents. Acta Psychologia, 172, 71-76.

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Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy Post 2: “The role of vowel quality in ELF misunderstandings”

(This is the second post in the series “Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy.” Check out the first post here.)

It’s time to pull another Jenga block out of the Native-speakerarchy tower. That block is vowel quality in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) interactions brought to you by the Asian Corpus of English.  


English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is often defined in juxtaposition to English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Yes, yes, the acronyms are irritatingly similar. Don’t shoot the messenger.

ELF refers to English used by speakers of other languages for intercultural communication. Think a French girl and Thai boy falling in love with English as their medium of communication. Or a Korean businesswoman negotiating with a Chinese board of directors in English. ELF prioritizes intelligibility and acknowledges that users will have variations (dropping articles, using relative pronouns like who and which interchangeably, etc.) that deviate from ‘native-speaker’ norms. The variations are a feature not a bug. A natural occurrence in language patterns, not a deficit.

Whereas, English as a Foreign Language is designed to prepare users for communicating with a ‘native-speaker,’ and implied is an attempt to conform to inner-circle (U.S., U.K. etc.) standards. Think a Japanese student studying English to matriculate in a Canadian university. Deviations from the standard are errors. English language instruction in an EFL model seeks to raise students’ accuracy levels to be accepted in academic and professional settings dominated by ‘native-speakers.’ Individual teachers of EFL might not have that philosophy, but mass market coursebooks, curriculum, assessments, and hiring practices demonstrate the pervasive nature of the ‘native-speaker’ norms.

Back to my bae, ELF. English as a Lingua Franca is a threat to the status of ‘native-speaker’ teachers as the gatekeepers of English AND I AM HERE FOR IT. ELF speakers bring the richness of their accents to English, and they don’t have time for all of English’s quirks. Third person singular ‘s,’ I am lookin’ at you.

The Paper

David Deterding and Nur Raihan Mohamed (2016) used the Asian Corpus of English (ACE) to investigate the impact of vowel quality on intelligibility. ACE is a collection of “naturally occurring, spoken, interactive ELF in Asia.” A veritable playground for ELF fanatics.

The OG ELF fangirl Jennifer Jenkins wrote the literal book on it and identified the Lingua Franca Core: a list of pronunciation features that are necessary to comprehensibility in English. Spoiler alert: it’s a short list. It includes “all the consonants of English apart from the dental fricatives,the distinction between long and short vowels, initial and medial consonant clusters, and the placement of intonational nucleus.” (Deterding and Mohamed, 2016, p. 293).  

Lemme ‘splain.

  • Most consonant sounds are necessary for intelligibility. However, the pesky sounds /θ/ as in thot and /ð/ as in that hoe over there are not necessary because substitutions like /f/, /v/, /d/ typically suffice.
  • Short v. long vowels. You know, your sheets v. shits, and your beachs v. bitches, etc. Mastering vowel length is considered important for intelligibility according to Jenkins’ research.
  • Initial and medial consonant clusters. Sounds like  /str/, /mp/, /xtr/, /pl/ /scr/, and so on at the beginning of words, and to a lesser extent, in the middle of words, need to be kept intact for the speaker to be comprehensible.
  • Placement of intonational nucleus: This is stress on a syllable in an intonational unit (group of words), and the wrong stress can throw off the listener, so Jenkins includes it in the Lingua Franca Core.

All other pronunciation features are deemed fair game in ELF by Jenkins, including vowel quality, which is what this paper focuses on. Vowel quality refers to what makes vowels sound different from each other: “I must leave the pep rally early to get a pap smear. Pip pip!”

Vowel quality is why JT’s delivery in “It’s Gonna Be Me” spawned this meme: 

From ACE, Deterding created the Corpus of Misunderstandings (incidentally, the name of my emo band) with data from exclusively outer and expanding circle English speakers.

This paper is building on Deterding’s earlier 2013 work that determined 86% of misunderstandings in CMACE involved pronunciation. He and Mohamed dig into vowel quality specifically because it was left off the Lingua Franca Core by Jenkins.  

Of the 183 tokens of misunderstanding in the corpus, 98 involved vowel quality. In many of those tokens vowel length and quality was an issue, but as vowel length is part of the Lingua Franca Core, they were not included in the analysis, leaving 22 tokens of short vowels misheard for other short vowels. Half of these tokens included /æ/ and /ɛ/, referred to as the TRAP and DRESS vowels in the literature, but what we will call the SASS and FEMME vowels.

When they analyzed each of the 22 tokens in context, they found other pronunciation features that probably caused the misunderstanding, and that vowel quality was indeed a minor factor. For example, “In Token 5, wrapping was misunderstood as ‘weapon’, but the key factor here was the occurrence of /w/ instead of /r/ at the start of the word” (p.229). Recall that consonant sounds are in the Lingua Franca Core and play a big role in intelligibility.


David Deterding and Nur Raihan Mohamed’s research supports Jenkins’ contention that conforming to ‘native-speaker’ standards in vowel quality is unnecessary for English users to successfully communicate. Let me put on my extrapolation cap because you know how I do. ‘Native-speaker’ English teachers don’t have a pronunciation edge over ‘non native-speaker’ teacher colleagues when it comes to vowel quality. It literally does not matter if someone pronounces it, “Thet’s eccentism, you esshet!”

Check out this article if you are a research bish that wants to see the kind of work that can be done with corpus linguistics. And if you’re a EFL bish or an ELF kween. And if you’re a NNEST.

ACE. 2014. The Asian Corpus of English. Director: Andy Kirkpatrick; Researchers: Wang Lixun, John Patkin, Sophiann Subhan. http://corpus.ied.edu.hk/ace/ (May 26, 2018)

Deterding, D. & Mohamed, N. R. (2016). The role of vowel quality in ELF misunderstandings. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 5(3). 291-307.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English and an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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‘First things first, Im the realest’: Linguistic appropriation, white privilege, and the hip-hop persona of Iggy Azalea

Although Iggy Azalea’s infamous demise makes her a dated reference for cultural appropriation,  Maeve Eberhardt and Kara Freeman’s thorough linguistic analysis in this paper is incredibly relevant in 2018. Just because Azalea went away certainly doesn’t mean ignorance and privilege did. Considering the number of white artists currently successfully monetizing hip-hop and black culture, I thought it was a good time to look at performance, persona, and linguistic blackface.

Eberhardt and Freeman provide a description of the state of white artists in hip-hop. They point out that since hip-hop’s popularity is global, white people now comprise the majority of listeners. However, their participation in the industry (and consequent success) has led to a lot of distrust from the hip-hop community. There have been many white rappers who have successfully avoided minstrelsy and mimicry by staying true to their own language backgrounds. These are artists who do not try to prove their validity as members of the hip-hop community.

Eberhardt and Freeman point out, for example, that the Beastie Boys had a specific high pitch and tonal quality that marked their whiteness and Eminem frequently refers to being white and only uses the linguistic features he grew up with. In short, while these artists may use normal code-switching, they never completely cross over into linguistic varieties from groups they don’t belong to.

Many white users of African American English (AAE) perform isolated linguistic forms, but ignore AAE’s grammatical rules. It’s Eberhardt and Freeman’s opinion that at best, an I be like here or a saucin’ there, when not commodified, isn’t a big deal, but at worst, it supports the racist status quo in the United States and is no different from the original blackface minstrels who perpetuated negative black stereotypes.

Remember Vanilla Ice? He created a fake “ghetto” background in order to endear himself to the hip-hop community. That was crossing and so was Azalea’s stage persona. Being not only white, but also Australian, she tried to flash her blaccent like a VIP member card. Ultimately though, it was rejected.

Azalea seems to be vying more for approval from the hip-hop community than most.

Freeman and Eberhardt’s study looked at Azalea’s entire discography of five albums from 2011-2014. The lyrics of all 48 songs were compared to her language use in five radio interviews.

They found a number of linguistic features in Azalea’s raps that show a near-native proficiency in AAE. She uses more forms than out-group speakers typically are able to gain from popular media alone. This sets her apart from other white artists who use AAE features. Meghan Trainor or Miley Cyrus, for example, dot their performances with just a few isolated features, but don’t use full native-like sentences. To Eberhardt and Freeman Azalea seems to be vying more for approval from the hip-hop community than most.

Phonologically, the features in Azalea’s music are consistent with southern US rap like her mentor, T.I. She performs morphosyntactic features like the habitual be (“My chat room be popping”), which white performers rarely use successfully, like a native speaker. On top of that, she not only uses current popular slang, but also more permanent non-regional lexical items like finna, grown, and thick to name a few.

One striking feature of Azalea’s performances is her copular absence, also an AAE feature. Compared to four other artists (3 black and 1 white) her copular absence is the second highest. The lowest is Eminem, despite growing up in the US with exposure to AAE. Azalea, who lived in Australia until she was 16 years old and only had mediated access to AAE in her childhood, uses copular absence at a comparable rate to the black rappers analyzed.

Figure 1 – Comparison of copula absence among five artists’ lyrics


In interviews, however, she has no copula absence. While it is not uncommon for rappers to code-switch between their musical performances and their radio interviews, Azalea goes further completely crossing from being a native speaker of AAE in music and a native speaker of Australian English in interviews.

Figure 2 – Comparison of copula absence among five artists’ interview speech


Beyond her blaccent, the content of her lyrics promotes many stereotypes including hyper-sexuality. When black women declare their bodies attractive, it subverts societal beauty standards. When Azalea, as the accepted archetype of beauty does this, she does not subvert standards, but supports them. In one interview she declares “everybody loves a pretty white girl” in admission of the fact that her appearance was not an obstacle to her success in hop-hop. Oh ya, she also has a lyric about being a slave master. Statements like this show that she is completely unaware of the importance of race in the US.

The linguistic analysis done by Freeman and Eberhardt revealed that Azalea’s mimicry of AAE exceeded that of black rappers. She overshot her attempt to appear authentic and completely missed the point. Using a fake accent to rap about tired stereotypes instead of her own personal experiences was inauthentic and ultimately led to her demise.

My major takeaway is that Iggy Azalea’s “overzealousness” as Eberhardt and Freeman put it, made her stand out from a crowd of artists who appropriate in smaller units. It’s easy to recognize when someone takes black cultural wholesale, but this paper is a good reminder to watch out for those who may be slipping just under the radar. To be sure, there are white girls appropriating black culture all around us.

This article is great for phonology bishes, dialectology bishes, and sociolinguistics bishes


Eberhardt, M., & Freeman, K. (2015). ‘First things first, Im the realest’: Linguistic appropriation, white privilege, and the hip-hop persona of Iggy Azalea. Journal of Sociolinguistics,19(3), 303-327. doi:10.1111/josl.12128

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