SPeech Across Dialects of English (SPADE): large-scale digital analysis of a spoken language across space and time

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Critical Studies


Obtaining a data visualization of a text search within seconds via generic, large-scale search algorithms, such as Google n-gram viewer, is available to anyone. By contrast, speech research is only now entering its own 'big data' revolution. Historically, linguistic research has tended to carry out fine-grained analysis of a few aspects of speech from one or a few languages or dialects. The current scale of speech research studies has shaped our understanding of spoken language and the kinds of questions that we ask. Today, massive digital collections of transcribed speech are available from many different languages, gathered for many different purposes: from oral histories, to large datasets for training speech recognition systems, to legal and political interactions. Sophisticated speech processing tools exist to analyze these data, but require substantial technical skill. Given this confluence of data and tools, linguists have a new opportunity to answer fundamental questions about the nature and development of spoken language. Our project seeks to establish the key tools to enable large-scale speech research to become as powerful and pervasive as large-scale text mining. It is based on a partnership of three teams based in Scotland, Canada and the US. Together we will exploit methods from computing science and put them to work with tools and methods from speech science, linguistics and digital humanities, to discover how much the sounds of English across the Atlantic vary over space and time.

We will develop an innovative and user-friendly software which exploits the availability of existing speech data and speech processing tools to facilitate large-scale integrated speech corpus analysis across many datasets together. The gains of such an approach are substantial: linguists will be able to scale up answers to existing research questions from one to many varieties of a language, and ask new and different questions about spoken language within and across social, regional, and cultural, contexts. Computational linguistics, speech technology, forensic and clinical linguistics researchers, who engage with variability in spoken language, will also benefit directly from our software. This project will also open up vast potential for those who already use digital scholarship for spoken language collections in the humanities and social sciences more broadly, e.g. literary scholars, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, political scientists. The possibility of ethically non-invasive inspection of speech and texts will allow analysts to uncover far more than is possible through textual analysis alone.

Our project will develop and apply our new software to a global language, English, using 43 existing public and private spoken datasets of Old World (British Isles) and New World (North American) English, across an effective time span of more than 100 years, spanning the entire 20th century. Much of what we know about spoken English comes from influential studies on a few specific aspects of speech from one or two dialects. This vast literature has established important research questions which can be investigated for the first time on a much larger scale, through standardized data across many different varieties of English. Our large-scale study will complement current-scale studies, by enabling us to consider stability and change in English across the 20th century on an unparalleled scale. The global nature of English means that our findings will be interesting and relevant to a large international non-academic audience; they will be made accessible through an innovative and dynamic visualization of linguistic variation via an interactive sound mapping website. In addition to new insights into spoken English, this project will also lay the crucial groundwork for large-scale speech studies across many datasets from different languages, of different formats and structures.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?
The global nature of English means that our findings about Cross-Atlantic English speech across the 20th century will be interesting to a huge, international, non-academic audience, within and well beyond the sponsor countries. Our research tools and findings will be interesting to those working professionally with language and English at different levels, e.g. teachers and students, in industry those working with speech synthesis and recognition, in forensic speech practice, and clinical practice. More broadly, our spoken analysis tool has substantial potential for those working with spoken language in museums, informatics, libraries and schools, as well as the interested general public.

How will they benefit from this research?
SPADE make it possible to search spoken language in the same way as written texts, but without the need to listen to any speech whilst doing so. We aim to develop our spoken language analysis software and apply it to Old and New World (North American Englishes). our immediate findings will be useful and interesting to non-academic users of many kinds, but especially those who work with English. We will also make our source code publically accessible as we develop it, enabling all, including non-academic users, to test and use it for themselves. We will also develop an open access web resource, to make our results accessible during and towards the end of the project. In the longer term, SPADE will enable the ethically non-invasive inspection of speech and texts, and hence will allow analysts of all kinds, not just academics, to uncover far more about their spoken materials than is possible through textual analysis alone.

What will be done to ensure that they have the opportunity to benefit from this activity?
Our main specific outreach activity for SPADE is the creation of a digital media product, through which we will visualise both the spread of sounds and sound changes across the span of the Cross-Atlantic English varieties, and also the results themselves. With present technology we envisage creating a website with interactive (synthesized) sound examples, Mapping the dynamics of English. The large-scale, comparative nature of SPADE means that we can represent places not just with single examples, but with a continuous range of speech variants observed across time and social space at a particular location on the map, offering an innovative, dynamic, view of linguistic variation and change for English. The website will be designed with a responsive interface to allow easy access for fixed computers and mobile devices, and will be built and maintained indefinitely at Glasgow, given the strong expertise and experience within the GlasgowU Digital Humanities Research Network and GULP. Equally important, throughout the duration of the project, SPADE will ensure a lively and interactive relationship with the international public, through updates, announcements and activities via social and digital media (e.g. website, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress blog), and local, national and international public engagement. All members of the project team expect to take part in public engagement events, public talks, and media releases publicising the stages of the research project. We will also prepare and release our software as open-source with full documentation. We will work with both academic, but also skilled non-academic users, to ensure that we develop interfaces which are user friendly for a large range of users. The workshop in the final year of the project at a key Digital Humanities conference will ensure that we communicate effectively not only academic users, but also non-academic beneficiaries wishing to work with, and search through, spoken language corpora.


10 25 50