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Tracing Ancestors by Their Accent

At GenealogyInTime™ magazine, we are always looking for new and creative ways to help people find their ancestors. It is part of our passion for making genealogy better one step at a time. In this article, we are going to discuss another first, a radically new approach to helping people trace their ancestors. To the best of our knowledge, this method has never been explored or broadly discussed before by the genealogy community. Basically, it involves using an ancestor’s accent as a type of fingerprint that can be used to help trace someone back to a particular region within a country. This genealogy brick wall method works if you have a voice recording of your ancestor.

Everyone speaks English a little differently. In today’s modern world, though, it is sometimes easy to forget that accents are still regional. With a bit of practice, most people can recognize one regional accent from another.

According to linguists, where a person learned a language and at what age they learned the language are the two main factors that determine a person’s accent. In fact, regional differences in speaking English are even larger if English is not a person’s first language. As well, accents from given regions tend to be fairly stable over time. Think of a regional accent such as Cockney, which has been around for over 500 years. Thus, it should be theoretically possible to trace a person back to a specific region of a country based on their accent. This approach works well even if your ancestor comes from a non-English speaking country.

At GenealogyInTime™ magazine, we have always been intrigued by the possibility of tracing ancestors by their accent. The main stumbling block to using this approach has always been the lack of a database of accents to serve as a benchmark. A benchmark is necessary to allow genealogists to compare voice recordings of an ancestor to known regional accents. Such a database has now been created.

Linguistics professor Steven Weinberger from George Mason University has created an online database called the Speech Accent Archive. This is a special-purpose built database used to trace the accents of people speaking English from all over the world. There are over 1,500 recordings in the archives, with more being added all the time. Many of the recordings are from non-native English speakers. To help standardize the study of accents, and make it easier to compare regional accents, each speaker reads the same text. In total, the database covers some 350 different languages from many parts of the world, including regions where genealogical records are sparse to nonexistent.

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