Researchers at the University of B.C. are looking for Okanagan residents to participate in a study of differing regional accents in B.C. (File photo)

DRAWL searches for Okanagan Valley accent

UBC study wants to hear from Okanagan residents

Do people from the Okanagan have a different accent from Vancouverites?

That’s a question two UBC Vancouver professors are attempting to answer with an online study of spoken accents in B.C., and they’re looking for Okanagan residents to participate.

It all started with Bob Pritchard, a professor with the UBC School of Music and a former Vernon resident, who became convinced he was able to tell that some of his students were from the Okanagan by the way they pronounced particular words.

His question for Molly Babel, a professor in the UBC department of linguistics, was “Is there such a thing as an Okanagan accent?”

Babel said the simple answer is “we don’t know.” There has always been a question of whether the Canadian accent is more similar to British or American English, but there’s also been a really strong thread in studies of Canadian English about how similar Canadian English is across the country.

“Which is, linguistically, an incredible thing. Canada is huge geographically,” said Babel. “On a basic level, we speak like those around us. How can we speak like people who live thousands of kilometres away from us, if we don’t have contact with them?”

The DRAWL (Determining Regional Accents With Literature) is looking for small differences, variations in the way we shape our words.

“There has been a little bit of study on the variety of English spoken in Vancouver, on the variety spoken in Victoria, but really we don’t know if there is going to a difference that we can measure between speakers in the Okanagan and speakers on the coast, and whether those differences are going to be things that normal people might be sensitive to,” said Babel.

Her hunch is they will find differences listeners who are sensitive to small inflections will be able to pick up on. Babel said it’s a basic question — whether there is going to be a difference — but it’s also an opportunity for discovery that could have some important implications, especially if they get some people originally from areas remote to the Okanagan. That difference in accent, Babel questioned, could play into how those people fit into the social structure or how much they are considered outsiders.

Okanagan Valley residents who are interested in contributing to the project can go to the website at http://blogs.ubc.ca/drawl, where they will be asked to register, then record themselves recording a short story.

Computers will play a big part in analyzing the data — Pritchard and Babel are hoping for thousands of respondents — and Babel likens the differences they are looking for to those produced by blowing across the top of a bottle.

Each bottle produces different sounds depending on the things like its shape, amount of liquid in the bottle, even the density of the glass. Likewise, our larynx, our throat, the way we shape our mouths produces a range of differences.

“You learn to make those sounds in accordance with what is spoken around us, who is in our speech community,” said Babel. “All those differences translate into acoustic measurements that can be made.”

The computing power available plays into the study in other ways, beyond just analyzing the data. Especially over the last few years, Babel said, there have been big advances in the study of spoken languages thanks to both speeding up and automating processes, but also gathering samples.

“The reason why we have kind of a limited understanding about the way English is spoken is because it has historically been kind of hard to get that kind of data,” said Babel.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get the, hopefully, thousands of speakers,” said Babel, explaining that online recording techniques allow researchers to cast a wide net now, along with the subjects access to technology.

“People have cell phones and computers that now have really decent microphones built into them,” said Babel. “Speech and language are fun. It is so fun, this idea that you can sound different from the person that lives up the road based on your life experiences.

“I just get excited about people having the opportunity to introspect about how crazy it is that we move our mouths in these patterns and we understand each other.”

Participants in the study have the option of receiving CDs or concert tickets from the University of British Columbia School of Music if they wish, while supplies last.


Steve Kidd
Senior reporter, Penticton Western News
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