A Sirious Problem Addendum

If you found our episode on ASR interesting, we have more information below. If you haven’t listened yet, find it here.

I’m interested in Rachael’s work on ASR and bias. Can you tell me more? Sure can: you can go to her own website or blog, or read some media about her work on regional dialects or gender. You can also find her on Twitter.

Where can I donate my voice if I want ASR to do a better job with other varieties of English? Mozilla. You can also read about it at the New Scientist.

What is the vowel merger you talk about in the episode? This is the ɔ/ɑ merger. Many English speakers make a distinction between caught [kɔt] and cot [kɑt]. Neither of us do. (In my version of Canadian English, both are [kɒt], and in Megan’s dialect they are [kɑt]. The difference is, my low back vowel is a bit rounded, and hers isn’t.) If you pronounce caught and cot the same, you have this merger too! (And if you distinguish them, you don’t.)

What are vowel shifts? Vowel shifts involve changes in many different vowel pronunciations. It’s a type of chain shift, where whole systems undergo a change together. The most famous shift is probably the Great Vowel Shift (around Shakespeare’s time), which is one reason the English spelling system is such a disaster.

What is the Northern Cities Shift? It’s a vowel shift found mainly in the Great Lakes region, including Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago. There are 6 vowels that undergo the shift: [æ] (as in ‘cat’), [ɑ] (as in ‘cot’), [ɔ] (as in ‘caught’), [ɛ] (as in ‘bet’), [ʌ] (as in ‘cut’), and [ɪ] (as in ‘kit’). ‘Cat’ sounds like ‘kyet’, ‘cot’ sounds like ‘cat’, ‘caught’ becomes ‘cot’, ‘bet’ sort of sounds like ‘bot’, ‘bus’ sort of sounds like ‘boss’, and ‘bit’ sounds like ‘bet’. It’s confusing for people without this shift.

The “normal” vowel space for North American English:

vowel chart.png
The Northern Cities Vowel shift moves the vowels around a little:

northern vowel.png
The Northern Cities shift as a vowel chart (Labov, Ash & Boberg 1997)

(For those who’ve never seen vowel spaces before: imagine the front of your mouth is at the left, the back at the right, the top of your mouth is at the top and bottom, bottom. If you pronounce ‘bee’ [bi], your tongue is highest and frontest it can be.)

What is a waveform? A waveform is a two dimensional representation of a sound. The two dimensions in a waveform display are time (horizontal) and intensity (vertical). There’s a fun example here.



If you have any questions or comments – especially if something isn’t clear – please let us know here, or by sending us an email at vocalfriespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on twitter @VocalFriesPod or instagram @vocalfriespodor on facebook at Vocal Fries Pod. Send us your questions or suggestions for possible topics!

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