sounding black?

ok… Let’s see if I can get this answered without it turning into a racial debate… but back in the OJ trial, I remember Johnny Cochoran calling it racist to say that someone “sounded black” and that you couldn’t tell that someone was black just by their voice. I’ve thought about this from time to time when listening to someone I don’t know on the radio… and I think you CAN tell. Maybe not all the time, but it seems that there is a distinctive speech pattern that makes me think “black person”, or “white person”.

Is there any linguistic evidence to support ethnic group speech patterns? I don’t know much about this area (and isn’t THAT obvious), but I’ve asked some people I know this question, and they all say that, yes… often they can tell if a person is black or white just by their voice. Before you jump down my throat, I’ve asked both black and white friends this and they’ve all basically said the same thing. However, my study wasn’t very scientific. I wonder if there has been any real study done on this, or is it considered so politically incorrect to even think such a thing that no one will touch it?

Anyone care to share their thoughts and knowledge?


Chief Wiggum



I watched Johnny Cochran make that remark live during the trial and at the time thought it typical of the mealy-mouthed whoppers he foisted on the American public.

However, after some reflection, I came to the inescapable conclusion you cannot tell for sure if a person is black just by listening to his or her voice. And that’s just what the man meant, and he’s correct.

Yeah, there’s such a thing as sounding black. It’s definitely a way of talking rather than anything inherent about the voice, though. When my roommate talks on the phone, it’s usually obvious whether she’s talking to a white person (in which case there’s no way to tell she’s not white) or a black person. Also, she has different degrees of black speech: depending on how broad her accent is, I can tell whether she’s talking to a black professor or to a member of her family.

Since this is something she can turn on and off at will, I think it would be possible for a white person with a little practice to fake “black speech.” If I were Johnny Cochran, I would have stressed this point and laid off on the name-calling, but I guess that’s too much to expect from the legal system these days.

Sure people can learn other voices, some people actually get paid to do that.

Years back I remember a tiny DOS program called Jive. You would run a text file thru it and it would convert it to black-written slang. Kinda fun at the time.

Well, Johnny Cochran should know about racism ;), but I’d say that yes, you can tell if someone is black or white by the sound of their voice. I’m not sure if there’s any inherant tonal differences (nasal differences, perhaps?). It may just be differences in speech patterns. After all, I could tell that my neighbor was from the South by his accent.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island

I worked with a Black DJ in a Country format.
He used the standard Midwest “Broadcast English” pronunciation. He thought it was amusing when bigots would call him up and confide that N****** were the cause of all problems. They obviously didn’t know what he looked like. That’s the beauty of radio.
So I’ll have to vote for learned speech patterns.

My father was a poor southern white from the Georgia/South Carolina border. My mom tells me that in the pre-civil rights era, he had to go in person when looking for work, because from his voice alone people presumed he was black.

It is sometimes possible to tell what someone sounds like just by their voice…in the X-files (or maybe it was some other show…I think it was X-files), there is a white guy who’s voice is dubbed over by someone who is obviously black. Don’t ask me for an explanation, but sometimes you can just tell.

“It is sometimes possible to tell what someone sounds like just by their voice…”
Well, DUH. It’s ALWAYS possible to tell what they SOUND like. Oops.

Personally, I have always considered African-Americans, even if they had grown up in an environment with a normal “American” accent, to generally have a deeper voice, but not always.

You know, doing what is right is easy. The problem is knowing what is right.

–Lyndon B. Johnson

Does ANYONE remember Rick Astley?

Yes you can tell if certain people are black or white. But that doesn’t mean if a person sounds black he/she couldn’t disguise his voice to sound white or vice versa.

It is like handwriting experts will tell you it is impossible to tell if a handwriting sample is male or female but clearly random tests indicate an average person can distinguish with over 80% accuracy, if it was random it should be in the 50% range.

As for certainty it is near impossible to say with certainty that anything is always distinguishable.

You can sound black and not be black (lotsa white rappers and so-called “wiggers” fit this), and you can be black and not sound it… Whatever, I don’t think it’s racist to say this, but it can be inaccurate. Watch Rikki Lake sometime with your eyes closed and see if you can guess who is who…

Yer pal,

It has already been mentioned, above, but I think that most people in the U.S. can identify whether most people that they hear (without seeing) are black or white. There are speech patterns (that are definitely learned–but that are present for all that) in everyone’s speech. The word “honky” is usually ascribed to the idea that blacks considered the more nasal expression of white speakers to resemble geese honking. Conversely, black speakers are generally perceived to have throatier voices.

If there was not some truth in this perception, how could Eddy Murphy and Arsenio Hall pull off their “talking like a white man” shtick?

That being said, the idea that there is an inherent (not learned) quality of black people’s speech that any “intelligent” white person can use to identify a black person 100% of the time is obvious bushwa. As noted above, it is possible for blacks to sound “white” and for whites to sound “black” (even when they are not attempting to mimic the other’s speech paterns).


As someone weaned on North American media culture, where a lot of black people on TV do, indeed, sound black, I was startled the first time I heard a fellow, visibly of African ethnic heritage, speaking with a pronounced Newfoundland accent.

If you watch PBS (where alot of the programming is British in origen) you will, before too long, see a black person with an English accent. This was incredably strange the first time I heard it.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island

Curious topic and brings up something that I have always wondered about black people.

Does anyone know why many black people say “axed” instead of saying ask.

I have heard this often on US tv stations and always wondered why people say it.
Another common thing I hear from British people is “I have an idear” instead of saying idea. Where do they get the “R” from in the word “idea”?
I shall await the wisdom of the teeming millions. And yes I know us Candians say eh all the time and I’m not sure why…

Please feel free to email me

well I do agree with Satan on this one, today at work there was a girl I waited on that was white, but as soon as she opened her mouth she sounded black, just by the way she pronounced certain things. just goes to show you shoouldnt judge a book by its cover lol or sound I guess

Love Always,
Heather Lee

“Does anyone know why many black people say “axed” instead of saying ask.”

The pronunciation “ax” instead of “ask” is not of Ebonic origin but goes way back to certain dialects of Old English a thousand years ago that survived in regional dialects in England up modern times.

So if an English peasant says, “Let me ax you,” that’s not necessarily a reason to get frightened.