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Do You Speak Northwest?

Is there a Northwest accent? Ask a local, and they are likely to say they have no accent. UW linguist Alicia Beckford Wassink would disagree.

Wassink, associate professor of linguistics and director of the Department of Linguistics Sociolinguistics Laboratory, heads the UW’s Pacific Northwest English Study, which investigates the features of English spoken in the Pacific Northwest. She and others, including graduate and undergraduate research assistants, have recorded and analyzed the voices of more than one hundred Pacific Northwest residents and identified several unique traits. (If your pronunciations of “beg” and “bag” sound the same, you’re official!)

Alicia Wassink in her office in 2019.

Linguist Alicia Wassink (in the Sociolinguistics Laboratory in 2019) heads the UW's Pacific Northwest English Study. Media credit: KUOW/Deborah Wang

The Pacific Northwest English Study first focused on Caucasian speakers but has since expanded to include additional ethnic groups long present in Washington state, to explore how inter-ethnic contact may have impacted dialect formation in the region. Wassink has specifically sought speakers from Yakama First Nations, African American, Japanese American, and Mexican American / ChicanX communities.

“I tried to choose different groups who have a very longstanding presence in the Northwest extending back several generations, so I can track the progression of some changes in the vowel and consonant systems and track features that were probably established pretty early on,” said Wassink.

 

I tried to choose different groups who have a very longstanding presence in the Northwest...

Wassink is also using the voice recordings to help investigate racial bias in automatic speech recognition (ASR) software, an emerging area of concern in fields associated with human-computer interaction. To address the ability of ASR to understand speakers from various ethnic backgrounds, she tested one ASR system using a multi-ethnic sample of Pacific Northwest speakers. She found clear differences in performance based on ethnicity, pointing to racial bias in system output. 

In a 2019 interview with KUOW’s Deborah Wang, Wassink offers some specific observations about what makes the Northwest dialect unique. Learn more about her work at the Pacific Northwest English Study website.

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The Pacific Northwest English Study is funded by the National Science Foundation and involves collaboration between the UW and Heritage University, located on Yakama First Nation lands in Toppenish, Washington.