Sounding Black


Friday, October 24, 2008

Black is not just a skin color; it’s a quality of voice. Sarah Jones, the Tony Award-winning performer, talks with linguist John McWhorter about what it means to sound black today. They look at how Barack Obama has used “blaccent” to drive audiences wild. Produced by Studio 360's Derek John.

    Music Playlist
  • "Do You Know What I'm Sayin'"
    Artist: Ugly Duckling
    Album: Fresh Mode
    Label: Fontana
    Purchase: Amazon


Derek John

Comments [18]

Tina aka laidbackchick from

Wow, I had the same experience out of college being sent for and loved over the phone, nearly signed, sealed and delivered. The moment they saw me they repeatedly said "You're Tina Shoulders" they didn't even look at my portfolio and I traveled to interview. I was sick as I was sent packing in under 5 minutes.

Jan. 12 2009 08:16 AM
Mark G from New York

Can we just add simply that - Sarah Jones, you rock!

Nov. 08 2008 09:28 AM
Jessica Ley from Long Island, NY

This was the most riveting conversation I've ever listened to...I sat in the Trader Joe's parking lot until it ended, even though I had a lot of shopping to do in a short amount of time. As someone who has struggled to lose her Brooklyn accent since forever - and only occasionally succeeding - I could thoroughly empathize with the connotations of a "blackaccent." (An inspired term!) As it is, wherever I travel, be it Alaska or Australia, Minnesota or Morocco, as soon as I open my mouth I am identified as "from New York" and get treated differently - not necessarily badly, just differently. It's hard to put into words just what "differently" is...I get the sense that my hearers are suddenly wary of me. Paranoia? Maybe. Thank you for this program - it opened up to me a whole new world of verbal expression.

Nov. 05 2008 02:52 PM
Michelle Jones from Atlanta, GA

I have a dream that one day people will not be judged by the shape of their dialects but by the content of their characters. I have a dream. Of course, that has less to do with accents than it does acceptance.

Barack Obama will likely be president not "because of the way he uses English" but because he is a man who has patiently walked this country out of some of its fear of the uncommon and extraordinary without compromising either in his message.

The voice is not resonance. It is punctuation for expression. A southern mother's wisdom is made richer by her "leathery" expression, but the exact articulation of an empty-headed man makes his idiocy more pronounced. Ask Mr. Bean.

Nice show. I wish there was time to go deeper.

Oct. 31 2008 02:03 PM
Earl Newton from Destin, FL

A really fascinating piece. I do agree there is more to identifying a "black" voice OR "white" voice than just pronounciation. There is something about the timbre, as mentioned above. A follow-up to this story with an audiologist or sound expert would be terrific, guys.

Either way, I loved the relaxed conversation between Ms. Jones and Mr. McWhorter. This entire episode was terrific.

Oct. 30 2008 05:09 AM
Juan McGruder from Portland, OR

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I have updated a list of commonly used "blackcents" on my computer for about 20 years. I typically write a word, and ask the reader (Black, White, or any other race) to read it. Here's are a few examples: Praly, Amalance, Kilt, or se'um teen.

As an African American teenager in Texas, my mother demanded I attend White schools - to make myself more college and career savvy. It was all fine for me, until I returned to my neighborhood with words like "gross" or "neat." After a fight, for using such words in a football game, I subconsciously learned to code-switch in each environment - in order to be cool in each setting.

Some of my Black friends have scoffed at the list I've maintained, saying it insults our heritage. Our history is what it is; I embrace it all. If we can't learn and laugh at our differences, we routinely consider code-switching sad. My threes sons use code-switching everyday. I'm glad they understand the appropriateness of language in most settings.

Juan - Portland, OR

Oct. 29 2008 04:07 PM
Tinisha Nicole Johnson from Denver, Colorado

Sarah Jones is awesome. I could not believe how she could immediately change her voice in so many accents. This was a great show. It really answers the question "What does sounding black mean?" It means a lot of different things. Great educational show. More people should hear this.

Oct. 29 2008 01:32 AM
tony haynes from california

I listened to the show the other day and i was blown away by the talent of Sarah Jones. Abosultely brilliant.

Tony Haynes

Oct. 28 2008 10:04 PM
Afi Scruggs from Cleveland

I have got to reply to #8 who claims that "for whatever reason, have trouble pronouncing sounds that require putting the tongue against the pallet."

First, let me correct your terminology. D,T and N aren't palatals. They're dentals. Put the tongue behind the back of the top teeth.

Speakers of Black English Vernacular - also called Ebonics - drop dental stops in certain positions. Because not all African Americans speak Black English Vernacular, it's incorrect to say the blacks " have trouble pronouncing" those sounds.

I'm surprised, by the way, that John McWhorter is so forgiving of the "blaccent." Am I correct in recalling his opposition to the notion of Black English as a legitimate dialect governed by phonological, morphological and semantic rules?

Oct. 26 2008 11:39 PM
Dror Kahn from Brooklyn

Great show, but wish you also spoke about how "Nigga" relates to blaccent? What's with all the kids in the school where I work calling each other Nigga? There's more to black talk than just accent? What about the actual words that are common in the Nigga language I hear. Loads of profanity SMD, MF, FU.
Check out the site What can be done? Ideas? Help.

Oct. 26 2008 10:22 PM
Don Nichoalds from St. Louis, Missouri

One can almost always tell a black person when talking because blacks, for whatever reason, have trouble pronouncing sounds that require putting the tongue against the pallet, as necessary when sounding the letters D N L T. That's why a word like chiLDren will come out chiren. Just listen to black people talking. I don't know why this is and I do not mean to cast dispersions. For what it is worth.

Oct. 26 2008 09:09 PM
Dee from Vermont

I loved this piece. Born and grew up in the west, from a mix of southern and Native American folks (educated, I might add, but the accent and colloquialism we used as a family was different from the "normal" western drawl and syntax, which I learned when I started school. Later I learned to speak a so-called "standard" urban English, and as an adult, lived for a long time in a mixed white/black neighborhood, where I picked up the lovely and colorful "black English" from my neighbors, some of whom included my children and me as "family". One of Sarah's characters reminded me very much of my across the street neighbor!

How I speak now depends on where I am and who I am with. I am most comfortable speaking with interior westerners and southerners. Though I've lived in New England for several years, to my ear, I still retain the slow drawl in my voice (especially so after visiting or speaking with western friends or relatives). But I was stunned one day recently when someone told me they had thought I was a native Vermonter. This is an accent I could barely understand when I moved here. Oh, dear, time to go home.

Thank you, Sarah and John, for sharing a bit of a linguistic environment that brings warmth into an ex-pat's heart.

Oct. 26 2008 05:08 PM
Pat Kennedy from Virginia Beach, VA

I could have written a book...Perhaps I do drone on as my kids say, but I need more space!
I chuckled at the Guidelines and it saying if you have to scroll down, it's probably too much....I really enjoyed the program yesterday, you need not print this, it's just for you folks who edit....Have a great day! Thanks!

Oct. 26 2008 12:21 PM
Pat Kennedy from Virginia Beach, VA

The program yesterday really explained a lot about how and why I bristle at some southern accents and not others. I try very hard not to, but when I hear what the program coined as a Blaccent, I do go into auto-judge.
My current job, as an Instructor at a "Trade School" requires for me to hear many accents. We are in a very transient area because of the Military and I find that I still want to get the students to realize that unless they conform to the "standard" of well spoken language, immaterial of skin color,the job market is more likely limited to lower paying jobs, and that is not my word, it is a fact. Is it fair? Not necessarily, but the fact remains that I can't go to work in my pj's and bunny slippers. We all have to fit into a pigeon hole,or what ever we want to call it and like it or not. My husband, has a country (Southern Illinois) accent. Similar to if he had just fallen off a proverbial turnip truck, and despite the fact we have been married 26 years he still speaks,at times it grates on me. I thought I could change it. Ha ha and ha again. People have to want to change. I suppose I will live with his accent and his occasional use of "ain't". You know what I be sayin, yo?

Oct. 26 2008 12:17 PM
April Matthis from New York, NY

This is a topic I've discussed ad nauseum among my friends! Growing up in East Texas, I began code-switching from the black accent at home to the white one at school. I later abandoned the southern accent altogether in favor of the more socially legitimizing Standard American Accent I'd heard on national TV.

When I listen to Barack Obama, I don't necessarily place his curly flourishes as Black, but more pan-southern, like white people who fail at imitating a black accent. I find him far more sincere when he speaks flatly--a quality which I don't consider particularly "White".

I also question my own authenticity when it comes to the blaccent. Since I've beaten out of myself the accents I grew up with, I sometimes struggle to find my ear when I'm called upon to use them again. I wonder if this is what happens to other black actors, who I feel often adopt a pseudo-blaccent that has been watered down from TV-manufactured accents from other black actors who have long forgotten how to sound real.

Finally, regarding the timbre issue, I totally agree with Glen. I also hear a resonance in the voice that, regardless of accent, indicates to me whether or not a person has black ancestry (like Sarah Jones, whose normal voice sounds other-than-white to me). Still, I've been wrong: I initially mistook my husband, who is white French Algerian-Belgian, for a black man.

Oct. 26 2008 02:19 AM
Aliyah Phillips from Wahsington Heights

I loved this piece! And it wasn’t just the velvety middle-aged tones of a few of Ms. Jones and Morgan Freeman’s voices. Rather, the funny, frank, and insightful kitchen-table discussion reminded me of similarly playful ones that I’d had with my family, fellow students and friends at Barnard College, and even once in a “Sociology of Culture” class. I learned of the term code-switching during my first year at a meeting for a campus Black women’s organization meeting, and have found the term and the practice adaptable and useful ever since. I’m interested a point made by Dr. McWhorter toward the end of the piece about the efficacies of Obama’s code-switching and the increasing mainstreaming of blaccents (loved this word, btw) across racial and social groups. Why is it that all people, not just blacks, are so titillated when Obama punches up his speech inflections with a little flava? Is it because they feel closer to some morsel of his authenticity (or what they perceive as his authenticity)? Also, what do you think are the effects of the increasing mainstreaming of blaccents?

@ Glen in 1: I know what you mean? I’m agnostic on the issue. Though I once had a boss refer to the black voice timbre as “bass,” as in “Even though he didn’t speak black I could still hear the bass in his voice over the phone.”

Oct. 25 2008 03:09 PM
Buzz from Philly PA

I think Mr. McWhorter is on to something about winners and voices but I don't think it's the "blaccent". I think it's more timbre and intonation, like the crooners, Barry White, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. It's like a hypnotic effect and the words alone don't really matter. They could recite their grocery list!

I cound not wait for Hillary to drop out because she has this screech owl grate. McCain has a weasel like tone. I think only Dalton Thompson could give Barama a run in the vocal dept. in terms of command.

Though, I have noticed a shift in Barama's recent tones. When he mocks, he gets giddy sounding, sort of a slap happiness thing. And when he turns the volume way up he loses his intonation, as if the decibels take over and the quality suffers. His best voice seems to be the lower, softer bass tones. When he drifts into the higher pitches it's like he loses his command and that could lead listeners to question his authority as a commander in chief.

Oct. 25 2008 03:05 PM
Glen Hutcheson from bed-stuy, brooklyn

I enjoyed the show very much-- thanks. A question for Ms. Jones and Mr. McWhorter: do you think that there are qualities of voice, beyond learned accents, associated with specific ethnicities? I'm afraid it's a leading question, because I DO think so... for example, even if Barack Obama never used anything but a standard "white" accent, and I never saw him, I think I would hear him as black. Likewise I think I would know that Kurt Andersen was white even if he spoke with a strong blaccent. I don't know how to describe these qualities, exactly-- timbre?... it's a little like the difference between a cello for Barack and an oboe for Kurt. Of course it doesn't apply to every voice-- Ms. Jones, for instance, I don't think I'd be able to guess your ethnicity by voice, partly because you seem to be able to control every part of it. Mr. McWhorter, I found myself thinking that your "vocal ethnicity" was unguessable until you laughed.
Am I engaging in vocal racial profiling? Is there any credible, significant research about ethnic differences (or lack thereof) in vocal structures and timbre? Should there be? What do you think of this?

Oct. 25 2008 11:22 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.