Pacific Northwest English Study

Is there a Northwest accent?

A University of Washington linguist is about to begin a new, three-year research project listening to voices from throughout the region and seeks participants.

Alicia Beckford Wassink, a UW associate professor of linguistics, is heading the Pacific Northwest English Study. She is looking for about 50 English-speaking study participants among people of color who have a long-established family presence in the Northwest, according to a news release.

Specifically, the study seeks adults with no known speech or hearing disorders who were born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and are from one of the following backgrounds:

  • Yakama First Nations
  • African American
  • Japanese American
  • Mexican American / “Chicanx”

“I tried to choose different groups who have a very long-standing presence in the Northwest extending back several generations so I can track the progression of some changes in the vowel and consonant systems, and track features that were probably established pretty early on,” Wassink said in the release.

Research participants will be asked to take part in a recorded interview of about 90 minutes in length. They will read from a list of words, read a brief story and answer some simple questions. Participants also will be asked about their family’s history, and experience of, the Pacific Northwest.

Study participants will be paid $15.

The first phase of the study, begun in 2007 — timed with the bicentennial anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition — focused exclusively on white speakers, the release said. A second phase broadened the ethnic representation of the study sample to include additional ethnic groups long present in Washington state, to allow the research to consider some of the ways that inter-ethnic contact has impacted dialect formation in the region.

White speakers who participated in the first phases of the study are also welcome to return for an audio test investigating perception of speech sounds, Wassink said.

Because participants so far have tended to be younger, Wassink is particularly interested in interviewing older individuals.

The story of the Pacific Northwest, she said, is one of constant settlement and immigration. And though there are a few historically isolated communities, most Pacific Northwesterners live where their voices intermingle with people of different backgrounds.

“Today, 200 years after Lewis and Clark’s historic voyage to the Pacific coast, has the Northwest been established long enough to have unique dialect features?” Wassink asks on the project’s website. “How much have Native Americans, Scandinavians, African Americans, Asians, East Coast Americans and other groups impacted the speech of this region? Or, has the history of ongoing settlement made the Pacific Northwest the truest of American melting pots?”

Of this new phase, “I want to open the doors widely because we need to get more information about inter-ethnic contact in people’s own social networks,” Wassink said.

“One of the things that’s been a problem for linguistic research is that there is a sort of assumption that if you are an ethnic person, you are going to have an ethnic dialect,” she said. “But in the Pacific Northwest, that’s patently not true.”

Wassink and her team of undergraduate and graduate students are looking for “natural speech,” and bringing people into a laboratory environment can make them nervous, changing their speech. The researchers are able to travel to some areas of the state personally to interview eligible participants.

“So, it is not a limitation if they can’t come to campus,” she said, “though if they would prefer to come to campus, they would be welcome to do that.”

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, involves collaboration between the UW and Heritage University, located on Yakama First Nation lands in Toppenish.

To learn more and sign up for this study, call 206-543-4647 or email pnweng@uw.edu.

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.