July 8, 2008

Sounding black

Steven Levitt's Freakonomics column points to a working paper, Speech Patterns and Racial Wage Inequality, by a U. of Chicago researcher who collected audio samples recorded recently of 402 participants in the 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Youth cohort (The Bell Curve was based on the earlier 1979 NLSY cohort). Jeffrey Grogger had five grad students guess whether each interviewee was white or black.

Among whites, 82% were said to be white by at least four of the five listeners. Grogger calls these the "distinctly white" group. The other 18% were grouped as "indistinctly white." ("Indistinctly White" reminds me of Onion Opinion essayist Amber Richardson, author of "Why Somebody Always Around Everytime I Drop my Baby?")

Among blacks, 67% were "distinctly black." Grogger has the U.S. Military's ASVAB scores for all NLSY participants (although of the 10 ASVAB subtests, the most interesting are the four that make up the very IQ-like AFQT, but he doesn't report those). Converted by me to a conventional IQ scale with the national average at 100 and a standard deviation of 15, here are the ASVAB scores:

Race Accent ASVAB Sample
White Distinctly White 105 227
White Indistinctly White 103 51
Black Indistinctly Black 99 41
Black Distinctly Black 89 83

Grogger writes:

The final column indicates that the mean ASVAB score for blacks is 0.85 standard deviations lower than the mean for whites. This is similar to the racial differences that appear in many standardized tests (Jencks and Phillips, 1998).

Indistinctly identified whites score 0.16 standard deviations lower on the ASVAB than distinctly identified whites. The difference is greater for blacks. Distinctly identified blacks score .66 standard deviations lower than indistinctly identified blacks. It should come as little surprise that test scores differ between distinctly and indistinctly identified blacks, since test scores factored into the definition of the two groups.

What is surprising is the magnitude of the difference. To put it in perspective, the gap between distinctly and indistinctly identified blacks amounts to three quarters of the gap that exists between blacks and whites.

Similarly large differences appear in years of schooling. Mean highest grade completed among indistinctly identified whites is 12.49 years, compared to 13.22 years among distinctly identified whites. Again, the gap is larger for blacks. The difference in mean highest grade completed between distinctly and indistinctly identified blacks is 0.9 years. This is larger than the gap of 0.83 years between blacks and whites overall.

Keep in mind that the respondents are in their early to mid-20s, so many haven't finished schooling.

Table 7 presents the relationship between speech patterns and ASVAB scores somewhat differently. For each quartile of the ASVAB distribution (within the speech sample), it presents by race the share of speakers whose race was distinctly identified by listeners. The first column shows that the link between speech patterns and ASVAB scores is quite weak for whites. With the exception of the lowest ASVAB quartile, 81 to 84 percent of whites were distinctly identified as white. In contrast, the link between speech patterns and ASVAB scores is quite strong among blacks. In the lowest quartile, 82 percent of black speakers were distinctly identified. That share declines monotonically by quartile to a low of 25 percent among those at the top.

There are only 8 blacks in the top quartile of ASVAB scorers, but 6 of them didn't sound distinctly black. In contrast, of the 45 blacks in the bottom quartile of test scores, only 8 of them didn't sound distinctly black.

Together, Tables 6 and 7 show that skill and speech patterns are highly correlated among black speakers. At the same time, the correlations among white speakers are much weaker.

Levitt writes:

His main finding: blacks who “sound black” earn salaries that are 10 percent lower than blacks who do not “sound black,” even after controlling for measures of intelligence, experience in the work force, and other factors that influence how much people earn. (For what it is worth, whites who “sound black” earn 6 percent lower than other whites.) ...

In other words, Grogger has already adjusted for the big IQ gap between distinctly black and indistinctly black panelists, and there's still a wage gap.

(It turns out you don’t want to sound southern, either. Although pretty imprecisely estimated, it is almost as bad for your wages to sound southern as it is to sound black, even controlling for whether you live in the south.)

Unfortunately, Grogger appears to be lumping white and black Southerners together, which isn't that helpful.

And no, he doesn't tell us what the average IQ of whites who sound Southern is. I noticed when I was at Rice U. in Houston that a couple of my classmates had siblings attending local colleges who sounded much more Texan than they did.

Whether black or Southern, it's part of the homeboy phenomenon. Using a neutral national accent suggests you are willing to do what it takes to get ahead in this country, while using a subgroup accent suggests you are loyal to the values of your neighborhood and aren't as willing to make sacrifices.

33 comments:

simon newman said...

"Whether black or Southern, it's part of the homeboy phenomenon. Using a neutral national accent suggests you are willing to do what it takes to get ahead in this country, while using a subgroup accent suggests you are loyal to the values of your neighborhood and aren't as willing to make sacrifices."

From a British perspective it seems to me to be purely a class thing - sounding black or sounding Southern are proxies for working-class. My middle-class Tennessean wife learnt via education at the University of Tennessee not to sound too Southern in a work environment; in fact she only lapses into a heavy Southern drawl when drunk. Her 'neutral' accent got good enough that she fooled the Yankees she went to college with, who would make disparaging remarks about Southerners in her presence. The strangest thing was when she was introduced to my (British) parents for the for the first time, her voice became a strange strangulated Yankee accent, a kind of hyper-neutral.

BGC said...

I wrote this comment for Marginal Revolution:

My first thought is 'residual confounding' - but (although I found the paper difficult to understand) I suspect this was the author's view as well. I think he is saying that identifiably black speech pattern is a signal for lower productivity, which seems plausible.

I suspect that if better controls were used such as IQ (instead of years of education, which is a crude measure of ability) and the personality trait conscientiousness (which, like IQ, is known to predict salary) then the apparent effect of speech patterns would disappear.

In other words, the speech pattern is 'merely' a signal of underlying cognitive ability and personality type.

***

'Residual confounding' is a common problem in population studies - it refers to the left-over difference when a control variable is imprecisely measured (eg. when 'years of education' is used as a measure of cognitive ability instead of the much more precise and less biased IQ).

I personally believe that residual confounding is almost inevitably a problem when using multiple regression analyses (as virtually all economists do), because of the built-in assumption of a straight line relationship between variables - the straight-line relation is assumed but virtually never tested.

Anonymous said...

There definitely seems to be a correlation with accents and intelligence. I have noticed how english speaking people from all over the world, from england to australia to america, that more intelligent people seem to have a more neutral accent as opposed to dumber people having more pronounced and often lazy accents. It is amazing how different two different people who grew up in the same city like boston or new york, sound sometimes, with one having a strong eastern accent and another that sounds like they could be from the midwest.

Anonymous said...

I lived both in and outside the South while growing up. I lived long enough outside of it in my most formative (pre-teen) years that the attrocious "neutral accent" stuck, but I can venture into an authentic Southern accent easily, especially around family, and if I still lived in the South it's probably the accent I would adopt.

What I have to wonder is if the ability to adopt a new accent (especilly a more acceptable one)is part of the brain's learning process, and whether it's easier to do for smarter people. That would explain, for example, why Kevin Costner couldn't do an English accent to save his life in "Robin Hood."

John Mansfield said...

Don Williams had a song about this, Good Ole Boys Like Me:

When I was in school I ran with kid down the street
And I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and speed
But I was smarter than most and I could choose
Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news
When I was eighteen, Lord, I hit the road
But it really doesn’t matter how far I go

I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me
Hank and Tennessee
I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be
So what do you do with good ole boys like me

Concerned said...

Of course, there's always the exception: Bill Clinton.

Jeremy Wariner is really beginning to annoy me. He's trying to make himself into a black man: the shades, the monosyllabic cool talk. Very affected.

RedSalamander said...

Even Southerners are snobs about accents; educated Southerners will ridicule those who sound too "country" or "redneck." They also do not care for those "dreadful, harsh Northern accents," especially those of the New York or Boston variety.

Seems that in every area, a neutral or semi-neutral accent is seen as being evidence of higher intelligence.

A *slight* Southern accent can be helpful, however. I'm a native of Connecticut, but acquired a hint of a drawl during my time in South Carolina. It has saved me from a few traffic tickets, and I find it very useful in situations where I need to smooth things over and put people at ease (for example, trying to get a cash refund when I've lost my receipt). In many situations, crisper enunciation puts people on a bit of the defensive, whereas a few y'alls can soften them up.

A southern lady of my acquaintance used to refer to it as the "Triple-S" (Sweet, Southern and Sly) technique for getting what you want. It does work quite well, at least for women.

Here in Massachusetts, the heavy Boston accent is perceived as being uneducated (we don't like to say "lower class" in our egalitarian state). While everyone drops their r's to some degree, the thickest accents are found in places like Southie or Dorchester and are looked down upon by those with more neutral diction.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I live in Arkansas in the Northwest corner of the state.I'm right in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. I have, by local standards, a mild Southern accent. Wal-Mart is headquartered 40 miles from where I grew up, so the local population is changing very rapidly. I'm in sales and I have found that using my accent with the new Wal-Mart Yankees is really impressive to them. I think they're fascination with accents has to do with the "stuff white people like" obsession with being authentic.

Anyway, all that to say, there are situations where a hillbilly voice can be to ones advantage.

albertosaurus said...

The policy of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is that all pupils are equal and are to be treated equally. Hence, all pupils who have difficulty speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language and whose difficulties may deny to them the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in our society are to be treated equally regardless of their race or national origin.

Dmytro Kornilov said...

This is not surprising. If you are trying to improve your status and don't make the effort not to sound "distinctly black" you're either stupid or you don't car.

Steve Sailer said...

"there are situations where a hillbilly voice can be to ones advantage."

Especially when the hillbillies of Northwest Arkansas have built the world's biggest company.

AllanF said...

"neutral national accent suggests you are willing to do what it takes to get ahead in this country"

I think it is more sub-conscious. Smarter people intuitively notice other smart people mostly sound one way, while all their dumber neighborhood friends and extended family sound another. Dumb people a) don't notice the difference and b) associate with fewer smarter people, thereby getting less exposure to the "smart" accent.

I've lamented that TV has driven out so much of our regional accents. About the only way to hear them these days is go hang with the blue-collar under-class. They're mostly good honest people and quite fun company over a beer.

Ronduck said...

Wal-Mart is headquartered 40 miles from where I grew up, so the local population is changing very rapidly. I'm in sales and I have found that using my accent with the new Wal-Mart Yankees is really impressive to them.

Has Wal-Mart hired a lot of Yankees recently or have they always employed large numbers of Northerners? I've noticed their recent commercials have gone from the homespun message of always lower prices to winter scenes in northland showing upper class people giving expensive gifts.

Steve Sailer said...

Over the last 15 years, Wal-Mart's suppliers, like Procter & Gamble, have dispatched huge numbers of employees to sales and service offices near to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Also, I'm sure that Wal-Mart recruits more nationally now for headquarters jobs -- they'd have to, being so huge, but when I spent a lot of time in Bentonville in 1991-92, much of the corporate management sounded like they came from that part of the country.

Anonymous said...

I'm the anonymous poster from Arkansas. I'm only 30 so I don't have a long history of doing business with Wal-Mart; however, when I was a kid almost everyone who moved to Northwest Arkansas to work for Wal-Mart was from Texas, Oklahoma, or somewhere else in Arkansas. That migration led to some very interesting diversity in the accents here. People from East Arkansas have thick Shelby Foote accents. The Delta accent has a slow mellifluous sound to it. For example, in East Arkansas the word ON is pronounced OWN. The people from Texas and Oklahoma sound like cowboys, and they use phrases like, “This ain’t my first rodeo”. The hillbillies in the area usually have a rather nasal sound in their words and sound something like the stereotypical Ma and Pa Kettle characters.

There are now over 100,000 people here that work in the vendor/supply chain to Wal-Mart and they are from all over the country. The addition of these mostly Midwestern people is really changing the culture of the community and Wal-Mart itself.

Northwest Arkansas is also home to Tyson Foods. Tyson calls itself the world's largest protein producer. They have several kill plants in the area and that fact has led to an enormous influx of Hispanics. The Hispanics are bringing a hole new accent to the area too.

Curious said...

Is there any brain functional impact on these speech patterns, or are they just cultural?

Are certain features (e.g., drawling) of Southern/Black dialect signs of mental capacity (a super mild version of more obvious speech defects in seriously impaired people), or is it just that birds of an IQ feather flock together and the Southern/Black dialect happens to be a cultural marker for certain groups, which other folks sometimes pick up?

In her (first, and much more interesting) autobiography, the (white) TV newswoman Linda Ellerbee wrote that she got her first radio job because her Texas accent sounded Black to the radio audience (sought by that station). She later adopted a more general American speech pattern.

anony-mouse said...

Some people after they have had a stroke have accent changes.

It would be interesting what effect such changes have on them socially and economically.

travis said...

I'm a native of Connecticut, but acquired a hint of a drawl during my time in South Carolina. It has saved me from a few traffic tickets, and I find it very useful in situations where I need to smooth things over and put people at ease (for example, trying to get a cash refund when I've lost my receipt).

I grew up in South Carolina, moved away for a few years and eventually returned, minus the accent. Since my return, I've never found it helpful to affect an accent to gain an advantage in social situations, at least not that I'm aware of. I think your physical appearance might have played a bigger factor in smoothing things over than you realize. Some of us still harbor romantic notions about being a gentleman, especially when a purdy lady is involved.

I lived long enough outside of it in my most formative (pre-teen) years that the attrocious "neutral accent" stuck, but I can venture into an authentic Southern accent easily, especially around family, and if I still lived in the South it's probably the accent I would adopt.

In the future Idiocracy, the use of a "neutral accent" along with proper grammar and syntax will be known as "sounding faggy."

Steve Sailer said...

By the way, doesn't the word "Grogger" sound like the next Web 2.0 social networking sensation?

Tanstaafl said...

In the future Idiocracy, the use of a "neutral accent" along with proper grammar and syntax will be known as "sounding faggy."

That future is so yesterday.

Haven't you heard? Obama wants us to set aside ebonics and learn spanish.

Mark said...

I think they're fascination with accents has to do with the "stuff white people like" obsession with being authentic.

I've heard several times now that accents of anchors at the BBC, who used to deliver with the received pronunciation, has now turned to anchors with "authentic" accents. Not sure if it's true, but interesting if so.

I've noticed their recent commercials have gone from the homespun message of always lower prices to winter scenes in northland showing upper class people giving expensive gifts.

Yeah, their commercials also used to brag about how much of their stuff was American made," now thy supposedly encourage their suppliers to move manufacturing overseas.

WalMart did make a move for a more upscale clientele, but they failed miserably at doing so.

This is not surprising. If you are trying to improve your status and don't make the effort not to sound "distinctly black" you're either stupid or you don't car.

I noticed this on CNN today when they had a personal finance roundtable, with a white guy, a black guy, and a black lady. If you closed your eyes, the black lady could've passed for white - and her advice made sense, too. The black guy sounded black and, while he gave the right advice (I think), he didn't sound very smart doing so.

In the future Idiocracy, the use of a "neutral accent" along with proper grammar and syntax will be known as "sounding faggy."

So that's why guys hit on me all the time!

The Hispanics are bringing a hole new accent to the area too.

A "hole" new accent? That reads like a Freudian slip.

Talk about a hole...

I think a Southern accent is good for social situations, or when you're trying to grease the skids, while a New Yawk accent is good for when you need or want to be pushy.

Anonymous said...

Ooops. I just realized that there are several glaring typos in my posts. Sorry. Hillbilly education is still not up to snuff with the rest of the country.

Anthony said...

RedSalamander - lots of cops are ex-military, and Southern is the official language of the U.S. Army. So if you sound a little southern, the cop subconsciously thinks you're a veteran, and is more willing to give you a break.

michael farris said...

Linguists have yet to find any correlation between the features of various languages and the intelligence of their speakers.

Without looking at the link (short on that kind of time at the moment) I'm not sure how 'sounding black' is defined. Apart from vocabulary, morphology and syntax, Blacks in the US have a distince timbre (described by Maya Angelou in her second autobiography when she was trying to find out if her future white husband was 'passing' or really white).

If non-standard (an undefinable term for English) morphology and syntax are taken into consideration, the following is worth remembering.

What accent (native or foreign) is considered 'intelligent' is always an accident of history and has no basis in reality.

Also, different languages have different bars of entry for linguistic upward mobility.

It's easy for Italians and Poles to minimize local dialect features in their speech (due to very phonetic orthographies and good first language instruction at school). This historically and at present is much harder for English speakers (since English orthography conceals rather than reveals prestige diction and first language instruction in English is about the worst in the world (really, what passes for "English" instruction in the most prestigious private school in the US or UK is below third world standards, probably on purpose).

So while there has been significant reduction of local dialects in Italy and Poland over the last 50 years, while spoken colloquial English dialects drift further and further apart. Now, all but the most linguistically gifted are pretty much stuck with their birth dialects no matter what this does to their life opportunities.

Anonymous said...

Linguists have yet to find any correlation between the features of various languages and the intelligence of their speakers.

Nonsense.

1) Linguists have defined languages down till African American Vernacular English (aka Ebonics) and Chinese are on the same playing field. But try expressing the idea that two spheres are tangent to each other in AAVE.

2) Vocabulary tests are among the most g-loaded in all of psychometrics. It is thus unlikely that languages with larger vocabularies are properly spoken by low IQ groups (a restricted dialect is much more likely).

3) And of course there are undeniable examples like this:



http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,414291,00.html


The Pirahã people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. That makes their language one of the strangest in the world -- and also one of the most hotly debated by linguists.

steve wood said...

(really, what passes for "English" instruction in the most prestigious private school in the US or UK is below third world standards, probably on purpose).

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?

while spoken colloquial English dialects drift further and further apart. Now, all but the most linguistically gifted are pretty much stuck with their birth dialects no matter what this does to their life opportunities.

I don't think this is true in the US. As others have noted, accents are diminishing among better educated Americans. This is noticeable in the South, where college-educated young people typically have only slight accents. It is even more pronounced (heh) in the Northeast. Even a moderate NY or Philadelphia accent is enough to mark a person under 30 as being from a lower middle or working class background because natives from higher social classes have essentially purged the local accent from their voice. (New Englanders in their typically stubborn way seem to be more slower about this.)

In both regions, older people tend to have stronger accents, which suggests that regional accents are eroding with time, not that people are "stuck with their birth accents."

PIHATIL said...

I read once that in the Deep South the upper class and the lower class tend to have the deepest accents. I've found this to be true.

michael farris said...

"Linguists have defined languages down till African American Vernacular English (aka Ebonics) and Chinese are on the same playing field. But try expressing the idea that two spheres are tangent to each other in AAVE."

AAVE is not really recognized as a separate language by anyone who really knows what they're doing, so it would be expressed with the same vocabulary as in your English with some modifications in morphology and syntax.

"Vocabulary tests are among the most g-loaded in all of psychometrics. It is thus unlikely that languages with larger vocabularies are properly spoken by low IQ groups (a restricted dialect is much more likely)."

I'm confused. Are you talking about individual vocabulary tests or comparing vocabulary size across language?
A whole bunch of individual factors (including intelligence) limit the vocabulary of individual speakers.

"And of course there are undeniable examples like this"

Piraha is .... controversial and I'm trend to the skeptical side. The data I've seen don't really support the claim of no subordination - it looked like subordination to me but Everett kept saying it wasn't for reasons he doesn't really explain (except to repeat again and again that it's not). This doesn't give me confidence in a lot of the rest of his analysis (I'm not sure I buy his implicit claim that Piraha women don't know how many children they have).

michael farris said...

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?"

Blogger just ate my longer answer, so it'll have to wait for another day. (Short answer: the old teaching models are broken but there are factors that prevent anything better being put in their place).

"older people tend to have stronger accents, which suggests that regional accents are eroding with time, not that people are "stuck with their birth accents.""

No, that suggests that the baseline is slowly moving, not that individuals find it easier to change dialects of their own will.

Let's put it this way. An ambitious person in the US who wants to shed local and/or stigmatized features of their speech will have a harder time than most Europeans in a similar situation (the double whammy of unclear writing system and bad language instruction in schools).

Or, you notice that people smirk when you say certain words (like hairy or Harry or which or when) but you can't hear what the difference is. You can hear there's some difference but what is it?

The young fogey said...

Such an interesting topic and so much ground to cover...

Some accents might be connected to native intelligence.

I agree with the premise of this blog that some differences in innate ability are hereditary in groups and account in part for unequal outcomes. And that unequal outcomes based on merit are the natural order of things and good for society. The crucial difference with racism is you can't use that as an excuse to treat somebody as less than a person, denying equal opportunity. (And I agree that pushing the dumb into college isn't really equal opportunity.)

What I have to wonder is if the ability to adopt a new accent (especially a more acceptable one) is part of the brain's learning process, and whether it's easier to do for smarter people. That would explain, for example, why Kevin Costner couldn't do an English accent to save his life in "Robin Hood."

I don't know if it's easier for smarter people (I suspect so) but really learning and changing your accent, and I'll add imitating other accents convincingly, is just like learning another language. The same part of the brain handles it, and it's very flexible in children before puberty. That's why the commenter who moved away from the South as a kid speaks with a naturally 'neutral' accent. Immigrants who move to the US before they're about 14 don't talk with foreign accents. They end up sounding exactly like their friends not their parents (they can still speak their parents' language but they do it with an American accent).

After puberty most people can't learn another language with native fluency or convincingly imitate another accent without skilled coaching, which is why Kevin Costner couldn't put on an English accent for Robin Hood.

You may consciously change a few sounds and/or naturally pick up some local sounds but will never sound like a native.

(A perfect example is longtime British-TV host Loyd Grossman, who's lived in England for more than 30 years but still sounds like a tourist off the plane from Boston trying to sound like Prince Charles. A lot of British people laugh at him because of it.)

You're right that English throws up class barriers in speaking and (not) teaching the language.

michael farris said...

Traditionally (as long as I can remember) there are two layers of dialect in most of the US that correspond more with class than anything else.

There's a transient (from nowhere and sounds it) class that can be found everywhere and moves from Arizona to South Carolina to Idaho and there are locals who don't move around so much, being more or less stuck in one place and sounding it. Mostly blacks in the US fall into the second category, but there are also many blacks who can go back and forth (adopt their accent to the situation) some whites and hispanics can do this too but not as often.

Actors are an interesting case and British actors are more interesting than Americans who are seldome called upon to assume another accent.
Some Brits can learn to pass for American. Catherine Zeta-Jones wasn't so great at it in her first efforts but she got a lot better by Chicago (though there are still some stereotypically British features sticking out if you know what to listen for). Jane Seymour was so good that many people never realized she was English.
On the other hand, when I saw Hackers, I was wondering about the weirdness in the diction of the lead character and didn't realize at the time he (Jonny Lee Miller) was in fact British and having accent problems (manifesting themselves in unnatural pauses in strange places)
Others like Sean Connery and Michael Caine don't even try. But British actors who want lots of hollywood work mostly have to learn how to sound natively American and many can't.

On the other direction, a British co-worker told me she thought Renee Zellwegger has a much more believable British accent than Gwyneth Paltrow (she couldn't figure out what was wrong with Paltrow it just seemed a tiny bit off).

If I had to guess, I'd assume that those better at accent mimicry aren't so much smarter but are more likely to be aural/oral and/or kinesthetic learners while visual learners have a much harder time of it (that goes from my teaching experience and what kinds of students achieve good accents).

simon newman said...

I agree about Zellwegger and Paltrow. Zellwegger's English (London Received Prounciation) accent seems perfect to me; tone, cadence etc are spot on and to me it's indistinguishable from a native upper middle class Londoner speaker. Paltrow's is acceptable, but not at the same level.

The young fogey said...

The class-based transient (think TV newsreaders)/stationary (the underclass of any colour) theory of accent makes sense.

More British actors with coaching seem able to imitate an American accent than the other way round. Even after all of Zellweger's much-publicised immersion training (living in England and working in an office) I could tell in the first five words the accent wasn't real. Paltrow is much better at it but yeah, it's a little off and she stumbles now and then (I expected the man in the scene with her to say 'What?').