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Web Site Offers an Earful of Accents | A Reading of Six-Word Memoirs

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: a collection of life stories told in just six words.

RS: But first, we have a report on a linguist in Virginia who collects accents from across America, and across the world, and posts them on a Web site. Reporter Nancy King spoke with him.

STEVE WEINBERGER: "Everybody has an accent. And if we simply listen to people, we get an immediate impression of them. We compute their sounds. And we make judgments about them."

NK: That's Steve Weinberger, a linguist at George Mason University. He believes we are taught early on in our lives to make biased social judgments about people based on their speech patterns. While this is normal human behavior, the results are frequently flawed.

STEVE WEINBERGER: "This will give you an example of how we judge accents. Let's listen to this Brooklyn speaker:

SPEAKER: "Please call Stella, ask her to bring those things with her from the store."

STEVE WEINBERGER: "It's a very, very distinct accent, and people might be startled to learn that she is a PhD and a professor of French at a major university."

NK: So much for the abused "Working Girl" stereotype. How and when do we learn our accent? Well, surprisingly, Weinberger says, it's not from our family.

STEVE WEINBERGER: "We get them from our peers, most linguists believe. Somewhere between ages two and five we develop our native language. And we typically get it from our playmates. If we got our accents from our parents, then we'd all speak like immigrants."

NK: Steve Weinberger runs the Speech Accent Archive, an online collection of nearly nine hundred examples of accents - from both native and non-native English speakers.

The site is used by linguists, researchers and the occasional actor who needs to master an accent. But Weinberger says that's one tough job.

STEVE WEINBERGER: "I'm sure these actors sound perfectly legitimate to listeners who aren't native. So, for example, maybe Dick Van Dyke sounds OK to us."


"That cockney accent goes over quite well for young American children who watch 'Mary Poppins.' But for any Londoner, it's just simply horrible."

NK: You can find the Speech Accent Archive at I'm Nancy King.

AA: That report came to us from the radio program "With Good Reason," produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

RS: Now, on to those six-word memoirs. Earlier this year on WORDMASTER, our colleague Adam Phillips told you about a book called "Not Quite What I Was Planning." It's a collection of more than eight hundred memoirs all six words long. For example: "Found true love. Married someone else." "Young, skinny: ridiculed. Old, skinny: envied."

They were chosen from among more than fifteen thousand six-word memoirs submitted to Smith Magazine, an online journal devoted to storytelling.

AA: The editors of the book, Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith, offered WORDMASTER listeners five slots in their next volume. Well, here's a bonus: we're going to read you seven of them.

RS: Grace Liu in Taiwan writes: "Unexpected, surprised, change, I love challenge!" Grace explains her six-word memoir this way: "Everything in my life is always full of the unexpected. I have to accept the world around me, but these challenges could inspire me to overcome!"

AA: Ki-Hong Park from South Korea writes: "I'm interested in learning English though I don't have any chances to use it. Anyway, here is my six-word memoir: Out of Here, but Still Here."

RS: A listener named Austin Garruba sent us this one: "Baptized: Conformed: Revolted: Disillusioned: Born ... Again!"

AA: From India, Karma Lhamo writes: "Was born confused, will die confused!"

RS: W. K. Eranda from Sri Lanka sent us this six-word memoir: "Listen to your mom unless deaf."

AA: Ali Almasi is a medical products engineer in the American state of Pennsylvania. He sent us a six-word memoir -- plus a title: "3T's law: Trust heart. Think seriously. Take actions."

RS: And Carmen McGee is a clinical supervisor in Texas at the University of Houston speech, language and hearing clinic. Her six-word memoir? "Master of none; okay with that."

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. To find Adam's original story, go to our Web site, With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.