Speaking Volumes: Understanding the Accents and Melodies of African American English

Yu Team Pic

From left: Kristine Yu (Linguistics), Meghan Armstrong-Abrami (Languages, Literatures, and Cultures), Lisa Green (Linguistics) and Brendan O’Connor (Computer Science)

At the heart of African American English (AAE) lies a complexity of rhythm, melody, and accentuation. In this research project, IDS-funded students will dive into this complexity, hoping to understand the intricate ways in which vocal emphasis shapes meaning. By analyzing the patterns of AAE speech, they aim to shed light on linguistic distinctions and pave the way for greater acceptance and understanding of AAE in public American life.

Among the rich and diverse tapestry of American language, African American English (AAE) stands out with its unique sentence structures, sound patterns, and wordplay. AAE is a linguistic variety that dances to its rhythm, used by some African Americans to weave stories, express emotions, and create community in distinctive ways.

Take the word 'been' for instance. When accented, as in 'she BEEN married', it transforms from a mere marker of time to a testament of an enduring union – 'She has been married for a long time and is still married'.

But what does an AAE speaker do with their voice to produce an accented BEEN, and how does a listener perceive it? Such questions about the melodies of spoken AAE have been understudied.

In this pilot project, students of linguistics, communication, and computer science will collaborate to leverage previously collected but unexamined audio recordings. Combining the insights of their respective fields, the students hope to lay the groundwork for further exploratory research.

The team’s initial findings will be showcased at an international workshop on AAE speech melodies hosted at UMass in the fall of 2018. This event, along with further fieldwork informed by the results of the pilot, will guide the student’s pursuit of a comprehensive grant from the National Science Foundation to continue their investigations.

Understanding the melodic patterns of spoken AAE has far-reaching implications, from addressing linguistic discrimination to enhancing the functionality of speech recognition technologies like Siri and Alexa for AAE speakers. This endeavor is not just about linguistic analysis: by advancing societal equity and technological inclusivity through STEM research, the students will uplift people’s voices.