YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY TOM-AH-TO. Prof. Kara Becker [linguistics 2010–] is an expert on the social meaning of linguistic phenomena. 

YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY TOM-AH-TO. Prof. Kara Becker [linguistics 2010–] is an expert on the social meaning of linguistic phenomena. 

Social Sciences

The Accent Authority

Prof. Kara Becker examines how we convey power, class, race, and identity through the mechanics of our speech. 

By Marty Smith ’88 | November 14, 2017

In 1937, Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, launched a brutal program of ethnic cleansing to rid his nation of unauthorized immigrants crossing the border from neighboring Haiti. To pick out the Haitian immigrants, so the story goes, Dominican soldiers held up a sprig of parsley—in Spanish, perejil—and asked the captive to identify it. 

Speakers who pronounced their “r” in the Spanish fashion—trilling the tongue just behind the teeth—were judged to be native Dominican. Those who pronounced their “r” with the soft palate, as do speakers of French or Haitian Creole, were executed. 

Thankfully, it’s rare for an accent to have such gruesome consequences as the voiced velar fricative in what came to be known as the Parsley Massacre. Still, we pass judgment on others—and are ourselves judged—based upon tiny quirks all the time. A flat “a” here or a dropped “r” there may be all it takes for someone to label you as a sophisticate or a bumpkin, a superior or an underling, a comrade or an outsider.

Take the controversy over “vocal fry,” also known to linguists as “creaky voice,” a phenomenon where the vocals folds slow to produce a gravelly sound, especially when ending a sentence. (Check out NPR’s Sarah Vowell or the MTV sitcom Daria.)

This habit is perceived by some listeners as representing the end of civilization. NPR commentator Bob Garfield spent an entire episode of his Lexicon Valley podcast condemning creaky voice as “vulgar,” “mindless,” and “really annoying”—particularly when it is used by younger women. A Duke University study found that women who spoke with creaky voice were judged “less educated, less attractive, and less hirable.”

Enter Prof. Kara Becker [linguistics 2010–], who specializes in the social meaning of dialects and the rules that govern them. She has been studying creaky voice (with her colleague Prof. Sameer ud Dowla Khan) since 2014 and earned tenure at Reed earlier this year.

“It’s not the case that [creaky voice] is used only by young women,” says Prof. Becker. “Many people do it all the time. All young people do it. There may be reasons why it’s more noticeable when young women do it . . . . We police women’s language in lots of ways, and this is just the du jour way of letting young women know that we don’t value the way that they talk. As I tell my students: linguistic discrimination is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination.”

As a sociolinguist and dialectologist, Becker studies how elements of speech change from one social group to another, region to region, and era to era.

After becoming passionate about linguistics as an undergrad at Stanford, Becker made her first mark on the field with her NYU doctoral dissertation on the evolution of New York City’s distinctive accent.

Dialects and accents just seem to fascinate people. “Everyone has a grandmother who came from somewhere and learned English,” she says. “I feel like what I study is central to the human experience, because I can talk to anybody about it.”

Her work on accents has drawn considerable attention from the media—often with bizarre results. “My research was about classic features of the New York City accent that are in withdrawal—young people are doing them less,” she says. Horrified magazine writers interpreted this as meaning that New Yorkers were beginning to sound like everyone else. 

“[They] call me and ask, ‘Is New York City losing its accent?’ and  I say”—here she adopts a soothing tone—“‘No, no, no; it’s just changing. Let me tell you how.’ Then I’ll spend 20 minutes explaining. But the next day the headline is ‘Linguist Says New York City Accent Disappearing!’” she sighs.

Reporters also seek her out to comment on subjects such as Natalie Portman’s rendition of Jackie Kennedy’s distinctive way of speaking in the biopic Jackie, or to speculate on whether Hillary Clinton faked her dropped g’s when addressing Southern audiences. 

Away from the media spotlight, the actual work of dialectology is as rigorous—and labor-intensive—as that of any other science. At Reed’s Lab of Linguistics (LoL), for example, you’ll find students electronically synthesizing pronunciations of words to be played for test subjects. This project is part of a multiyear inquiry into characteristics of “Oregon English,” an emerging regional accent that may possibly be related to the influx of Californians into Oregon.

“The normal model is you’ve got a lab, and graduate students, and a very active research life,” says Becker. At Reed, with no graduate students to draw from, she’s created a comparable research environment for undergraduates. 

“Kara’s overall enthusiasm about the field of sociolinguistics and her ability to explain concepts ignited a fire in me like no subject ever has before,” says Caroline Wright ’18. “She is such an inspiration and I am very glad to be on my linguistics journey with her.”

In recent years, Becker’s students have designed questionnaires, conducted interviews, and extracted audio samples for acoustic analysis, eventually presenting work at several conferences. “I think students should be doing research,” she says. “This work is hard and technical, but you can also jump right in.”

At one conference, which took place shortly after she had given birth to one of her sons, she decided to let her students run the show. “I just sent my three undergrads up there,” she says. “And they did an amazing job.”

When the time came to publish their results, Becker offered her students the opportunity to join her as coauthors. The article, “Variation in West Coast English: The Case of Oregon,” was just published by the American Dialect Society. “I know how big of a deal that was for them, because I was them once,” she says. “I see the model of the teacher/scholar as the right way to do things. It’s not that your scholarship takes you away from your teaching—it makes you a better teacher, and vice versa.”`

Tags: Professors, Research, Students