Yolanda Holt1 -holty@ecu.edu
Tessa Bent2 -tbent@indiana.edu

1East Carolina University    2 Indiana University
600 Moye Boulevard           2631 East Discovery Parkway
Greenville, NC 27834            Bloomington, IN 47408

Popular version of 2aSC2 – Socio-ethnic expectations of race in speech perception
Presented Tuesday morning May 24, 2022
182nd ASA Meeting
Click here to read the abstract

Did I really have you at Hello?! Listening to a person we don’t see, we make mental judgments about the speaker such as their age, presenting sex (man or woman), regional dialect and sometimes their race. At times, we can accurately categorize the person from hearing just a single word, like hello. We wanted to know if listeners from the same community could listen to single words and accurately categorize the race of a speaker better than listeners from far away. We also wanted to know if regional dialect differences between Black and white speakers would interfere with accurate race identification.

In this listening experiment people from North Carolina and Indiana heard single words produced by 24 Black and white talkers from two communities in North Carolina. Both Black and white people living in the western North Carolina community near the Blue Ridge mountains are participating in the sound change event Southern Vowel Shift.

It is thought the Southern Vowel Shift makes the vowels in the word pairs heed and hid sound alike; and the vowels in the word pairs heyd and head sound alike. It is also thought that many white Southern American English speakers produce the vowel in the word whod with rounded lips.

In the eastern community near the Atlantic coast of North Carolina the Southern American English speakers don’t produce the vowels in the word pair heed and hid alike and neither do the vowels in the word pair heyd and head sound alike.  In this community it is also expected that many white Americans produce the vowel in the word whod with rounded lips.

Black and white men and women listeners from Indiana and North Carolina heard recordings of the eastern and western talkers saying the words heed, hid, heyd, head, had, hood, whod, hid, howed, hoyd in random order a total of 480 times.


The North Carolina listeners, as expected, completed the race categorization task with greater accuracy than Indiana listeners. Both listener groups categorized east and west white and east Black with around 80% accuracy. West Black talkers, participating in Southern sound change event, were the most difficult to categorize. They were identified at just above 55% accuracy.

We interpret the results to suggest when a talker’s speech does not meet the listener’s expectation it is difficult for listeners to categorize the race of the speaker.

In this experiment the white talkers from both communities were expected to produce the vowel in whod in a manner similar to each other. In contrast the west Black talkers were expected to produce several vowels, heed, hid, heyd, and head similar to their west white peers and differently than the east Black talkers. We thought this difference would make it difficult for listeners to accurately categorize the race of the west Black talkers by their speech alone. The results suggest listener accuracy in race identification is decreased when the speech produced doesn’t meet the listener’s mental expectations of what a talker should sound like.

Answer key to sound file (bb bb bb ww ww ww bb bb bb ww ww ww)

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