Sound and vision blog

10 posts from July 2010

28 July 2010

Voices of the UK - Nuddies vs. Textiles

This week I’ve been listening to a group of naturists who live in Dorset and enjoy getting an all-over tan (weather permitting) on the nudist beaches at Studland. They all strongly identify as naturists, considering themselves to be part of a minority group that sometimes finds itself threatened by those who do not understand or approve of their way of life. For example they describe being called ‘perverts’ by a group of youths who, ironically, were watching the sunbathing nudists through binoculars from a cliff-top. One way that they express this aspect of their identity is through their speech. In one part of the interview they mention words that they use which are likely to be known by other naturists but not necessarily by people from outside of that group. You can listen to the audio clip here>.

The word ‘textile’ is used to refer to a person who wears clothes on the beach as opposed to a ‘nuddy’ who goes without. One speaker mentions the different connotations of ‘textile’, describing how it can be used either as an insult or to be purely descriptive depending on the context of the conversation and the company they are in. To a person not involved in the naturist scene the meaning of these words might be guessed but they would not necessarily feel comfortable actually using them themselves. Using language in this way enables the naturists to subtly exclude those who are not part of their group by making them feel like linguistic outsiders. At the same time, when they use these terms the naturists communicate to each other that they are insiders and belong to the group. Words are used to display to others their involvement in naturism, much like the brown bum which they describe as a ‘badge of honour’ for committed nudists.

21 July 2010

Voices of the UK - I'm making a statement but it sounds like a question?

This week's recording is of young speakers in the county of Devon, and it threw up some great examples of what is variously known as "uptalk", "high rising terminal" or, "the thing lots of characters in Australian soap operas did which somehow infected teen viewers in the UK" (we don't hold this opinion, by the way). It is the use of an intonation contour (the melody line of speech) that goes up at the end of a sentence or phrase.

These contours are linguistically significant to speakers of many languages, including English, because they can be used to signal that a sentence or proposition is a question without changing the order of the words in the sentence. For example, "You're coming" with a falling-off of intonation is a declaration. We can say, "Are you coming?" to turn it into a question, but we can also say, "You're coming?" and make it sound interrogative by applying the rising intonation pattern.

Have a listen to the way our speaker says a couple of the phrase-final segments like  "...I am" and "...London accent" in clip 1:

(Or play it in your default media player.)

The same speaker's intonation also goes up on "...understand her" and "...what she's saying" in clip 2:

(Or play it in your default media player.)

And her friend does something similar on "...totally hated that" and "... might like really like it" in clip 3:

(Or play it in your default media player.)

Uptalk is, like 'like', a characteristic of the speech of the young that older speakers often criticise. However as with many features of English accents that we're finding in our collection, it is not really new. Upward intonation at the end of 'statements' or declarative sentences has long been a feature of Irish accents, Bristol English and accents of the southern US.

There is a great blog piece on uptalk by the phonetician Mark Liberman, on Language Log here. It neatly debunks the idea that this phenomenon shows a rise in self-doubt or constant need for approval amongst those who use it. I very much like the response made by a reader of the blog, Kathe Burt:

"I have friends who talk this way, and it seems to me that they *do* expect me to say "uh-huh" or something else vaguely positive when they pause after the rise in tone. If I don't, they think I'm not listening.

As I understand it, uptalk is often intended (and understood) as an invitation for the interlocutor at least to signal attention and perhaps also to assent. The key thing is that "uptalk" is not a signaling [of] a question, in the literal sense of a request for information about the truth of the proposition being presented; nor does it (usually) mean that someone with low self-confidence is making a plea for reassurance. Rather, the studies suggest that it's usually someone who feels in control of the interaction and is inviting a response, as evidence that the interlocutor is going along [with them]."

I think she is right in drawing the distinction between (a) a speaker using intonation to ask a 'real' question and (b) a speaker checking that the listener is paying attention. These Devon teenagers are definitely using intonation to signal case (b). Furthermore, she points out that we are wrong to interpret this upward intonation as a 'doubtful tone' when in fact the speaker is probably covertly asking for a nod or an "uh-huh"”. This is not out of ‘neediness’, but because they assume that the listener agrees anyway.

19 July 2010

Recording of the Week: Alfred Cortot rides to the Abyss

Jonathan Summers, curator of classical music recordings at the British Library Sound Archive, writes:

Cortot recorded the complete Preludes of Chopin a number of times. This particular one comes from 1926 when he was at the height of his powers. He wrote that this particular prelude represented to him 'a ride to the abyss' (as in Faust) and he plays it with a fury and speed like no other pianist ever has:


Chopin 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Chopin collection.


16 July 2010

Why collect recordings of everyday sounds?

You are packed into paltry shells of brick-houses; every door that slams to in the street is audible in your most secret chamber . . . and when you issue from your door, you are assailed by vast shoals of quacks, and showmen, and street sweepers, and pick-pockets, and mendicants of every degree and shape, all plying in noise or silent craft their several vocations.

So Thomas Carlyle complained about London's hubbub in 1824. Later he settled in Chelsea, where he could escape the distractions of city noise in his cork-lined study.

Official attempts to control noise in urban settings had long predated Carlyle's complaints, but were parochial in scope. They addressed grievances over incessantly barking dogs, spurriers and other metalworkers plying their trade into the night, and the occasional firing of guns into the air by excited citizens.

Anti-noise action on the national stage had to wait until 1959, when John Connell wrote to the Times about the increase of noise pollution. Among the examples he cited were the growing use of portable transistor radios and the clattering of dustbin lids. In response he received some 4,000 letters of support and the following year the Noise Abatement Act was passed.

Until very recently, many investigations into urban sounds have tended to use the polarising filter of noise-is-bad versus silence-is-golden, and these assumptions were sometimes built into the experimental designs used.

The Dutch psychologist Charles Korte compared people's behaviour in quiet areas of cities with little traffic against busy, noisy districts, and found that an apparently lost person was helped by passersby more often when in tranquil surroundings. In a lab-based study in the US, participants were less likely to pick up books dropped by an experimental stooge, complete with one arm in a plaster cast, when ambient noise levels were high.

In contrast, there's a large body of theory and empirical data on which visual aspects of the environment people respond favourably to. These include architectural approaches such as prospect-refuge theory, investigations into patient recovery times in hospital wards which provide views over parkland or built-up areas, and the finding of reduced physiological stress when people look at pictures of the countryside.

One important strand of research into the environmental sounds people might favour began in 2006 with Positive Soundscapes, a project launched with backing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Among other results, factor analysis of listeners' responses to soundscape recordings identified the two dimensions of calmness and vibrancy as prominent in forming preferences.

The UK SoundMap aims to gather recordings from as many people as possible through the use of mobile phones. A large collection of such recordings could comprise a rich dataset of people's environmental sound preferences from all over the country, to be made available to our partners in the Noise Futures Network for further analysis and research, and which one day might help inform policy decisions on environmental planning.

Many of us already have our own private environmental sound policies. We try to replace the monotonous sounds of traffic with music from mp3 players, or liven up bus and train journeys with lengthy mobile phone conversations, sometimes with an element of public performance thrown in. We even invest in earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, the auditory equivalent of holding your nose when passing a rubbish dump.

Collecting and analysing today's environmental sounds could help make better soundscapes tomorrow, to be shared and enjoyed by all.

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

14 July 2010

How to reduce wind noise on your smartphone recordings

Just over 200 years ago Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort developed the Wind Force Scale for the Royal Navy. It was the first system for standardising observations of wind speed, and it did so in simple and clear language:

Leaves and small twigs in constant motion;
wind extends light flag.
Raises dust and loose paper;
small branches are moved.
Small trees in leaf begin to sway;
crested wavelets form on inland waters.

Anyone who's been out and about recording with their smartphone has probably found that wind noise starts to intrude by 3 on the Beaufort Scale: leaves and small twigs in constant motion. The dull, rasping sound of the wind moving chaotically over the microphone is distracting at best, and at worst will overwhelm every other sound present.

Smartphone manufacturers face a double problem with wind noise. Not only is turbulence present in the airflow at large, but the rectangular shape of a smartphone produces miniscule eddies around itself. The effects are least strong when the mic is positioned off-centre on the bottom edge of the phone.

With care, wind noise can be reduced further. Here are some tips on how to go about it.

First, don't rely on the sound of the breeze in your ears as a guide to how much wind noise your smartphone is picking up. It's better to attend to visual cues, like those described in the Beaufort Scale, or to how strong the wind feels against your face.

Second, trying to shield your smartphone by turning your back on the wind will help, but only a little. Walls, solid fences, and bus shelters all make much more effective windbreaks.

Third, you can use a woolly smartphone 'sock' as an improvised windshield. One with a fairly open weave will produce less muffled results than a sock with a microfibre lining. Pulling the sock about half way down the phone lets you get at the touchscreen and also creates a small but necessary air space around the microphone.

Here are a couple of short before-and-after examples. First, a smartphone recording made in St Pancras train station with some wind noise introduced by blowing on the phone:

Next, a recording made in the same spot using the smartphone sock as a windshield:

The sock produces some muffling but otherwise makes a noticeable improvement to what is probably equivalent to a slight or gentle breeze, and for not much money at all.

Hashtag: uksm

Ian Rawes
Editor, UK SoundMap

Voices of the UK - Rhotic accents

In the first or second post on the Voices of the UK part of this blog, we mentioned "speakers who pronounce the [r] at the end of words like 'car' and 'hear'." These are commonly classified as "rhotic" accents; for example most of the speakers of North American English are rhotic, as are those of Scottish and Irish English.

Within England itself, there are several areas where post-vocalic /r/ has been retained. The term post-vocalic is used because, of course, all /r/ sounds that occur before the vowel in a syllable (as in the words red and carry) are pronounced, whatever variety of English you speak.

The area of England that most British people associate with a rhotic accent is the South West, including (but not restricted to) Somerset, Cornwall and Devon. Recently we've been listening to recordings made in Devon, and in the Plymouth interview, all the speakers have /r/ colouring in certain of the vowel sounds that they make.

Have a listen to Karen from Plymouth and the way she pronounces the vowel in fart in this recording (we hope that readers won't be offended by the BBC's and our choice of this word in their online clip - Voices was a snapshot of real language usage in the UK!). You can hear that there is not a full consonantal [r] sound before the [t] at the end of the word, but the vowel is "coloured" by the rhotic sound.

However, older speakers in many counties of England also have /r/ colouring, as this example from Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire illustrates - listen to how Don pronounces the words worked, feather and farmer right at the start of the clip. Rhotic accents are becoming less common in this area but maintaining their strength in the South West.

07 July 2010

Voices of the UK - Goats and Prices

For each recording in the BBC Voices collection, we’re writing a linguistic commentary that summarises the main features of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. To describe the pronunciation of vowels, we are using a system of “lexical sets” developed by John Wells at University College London.

Wells’ system provides a neat shorthand for grouping together words that contain the same vowel sound (irrespective of their written form) and each lexical set has a keyword that can be used to refer to the group of words. So for example soap, joke, host, toe, mauve all belong to one set, which is indexed by the keyword GOAT. Sociolinguists then talk about ‘the GOAT vowel’ and can compare its different pronunciations in regional varieties of English. The list of 27 sets Wells proposes for English is on his website here.

This week I’ve been listening to a recording of a group of young dance students from Hull. The GOAT vowel has a quite distinctive realisation in the speech of the female speakers here, and in the sound clip on the Voices website you can hear the sound itself (in the words go and coke) as well as a Londoner’s reaction to it (click here to listen):

I find it a lot when you go on holiday and you meet different people from different places. It’s the Londoners really... like we’d go to the bar and say, “got half a coke?” And they just rag you all the time and, “it’s ‘coke’,” ’cause that’s how they would say it.

If you listened to the clip, does anything also strike you about her pronunciation of the word time?

In Received Pronunciation (RP) and many other accent varieties of British English, the words ripe, tight and bike have the same vowel sound as bribe, side and time. They all belong to the PRICE lexical set. But occasionally the sets need to be re-divided to reflect regional variations in the way that vowel pronunciations pattern together.

For this speaker (who is representative of working class females in Hull) ripe, tight and bike would have a pronunciation similar to RP, but bribe, side and time would be pronounced much more like the way she pronounces bar in “...we’d go to the bar…”. This phenomenon was described by the English Dialect Society way back in 1877, and there is a nice overview of it (with some modern updates) in a study by Ann Williams and Paul Kerswill that you can access here. The PRICE vowels are discussed from the bottom of page 16 onwards.

06 July 2010

Easy does it: adding to the UK SoundMap

The UK SoundMap has begun to collect sound recordings in the Sheffield pilot area, marked by a growing cluster of blue markers. When clicked, each marker creates a 'window' through which we can hear the varied sounds of Sheffield, from voices in the city centre's Castle Market:

. . . to the grinding of a metalworks:

Some of these recordings have been purpose-made to help seed the collection, while others have been kindly added to the cause by users of Audioboo, the application chosen by many as the contributors' gateway to the UK SoundMap.

Last week, I got the chance to try out Audioboo in Sheffield while using an Apple iPhone. I'm familiar with making field recordings involving digital recorders, external microphones, and time spent at home editing and tweaking the results on a computer.

This ease of access is central to the UK SoundMap as a collaborative project. We need as many people as possible to help build a recognisable sound portrait of Britain, drawing on their knowledge of the sounds around them. I'm looking forward to hearing recordings from all over the country in the months ahead.

Hashtag: uksm

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap