Illustration by Jason Arias.

Given that I am the kind of black person who is often termed “articulate,” it may seem surprising that I spend much of my life feeling quite thick of tongue. I am one of those unfortunate black people who sound white. It is, of all things, a social handicap.

“So white…!”, then, I seemed, years ago, to a black administrative assistant. I was told of the assessment some time later by an acquaintance of hers, but I could sense that this lady couldn’t stand me as soon as we met. This was long before I had any public notoriety for unconventional views about race issues; I was an utterly anonymous new professor of linguistics. That she found me so disagreeable must have had something to do with me as a person. I arrived into the situation with good intentions and was interested in ingratiating myself as much as possible with everyone there, so I have reason to assume that what repelled her is the way I talk, which does indeed sound “so white.”

Some will say that this woman was especially narrow-minded or ignorant, but she wasn’t—that’s just the thing. I could tell countless similar stories, about the couple of black listeners who liked my recorded linguistic courses in the Great Courses series but complained about the way I speak, one of them adding that a friend heard me and thought I lacked “swagger.” When I was twelve, a cousin of mine, not yet three, remarked that my sister and I didn’t sound like everybody else he knew. This kind of thing, for me, is and has always been just part of living.

I hardly consider myself significantly oppressed on this score. It is well documented that sounding black on the phone makes you less likely to be shown an apartment or house or to get a job interview. A black kid who uses Black English in school is often criticized by teachers and thought less intelligent. Classic experiments have shown that people’s evaluation of someone reading a passage changes according to whether it’s read by a white or black person. The black voice is rated less favorably—considered less bright, less friendly. My burden, in comparison, is a mere personal cross to bear, worse than having a hard-to-spell name but hardly on the order of being denied services and thought dim. Yet to an extent that few would have reason to know, I suffer.

When you’re black and you sound just like a white person, it puts a lot of black people off. The vast majority of black Americans, including educated ones, are identifiable as black from their speech; the “black sound” is a subconscious but near-universal hallmark of black American culture. This means that if you are black, upon meeting you, a great many black people will tacitly expect that the two of you will speak more similarly to one another—at the very least in terms of that certain “sound”—than either of you do to white people. That similarity is an index of acceptance and warmth in a society that looks askance on black people in so many ways. Then it turns out that you don’t sound similar, despite your black face. The wrong voice is coming out of you.

Although the expectation that you were going to sound black was not conscious, the fact that you don’t is processed quite consciously: it’s the discrepancy that elicits attention. You are heard as talking “like that,” though you know no other way to talk. It seems, perhaps, that you purposefully distanced yourself from the normal black way of talking in a quest to join whites. More certainly, you sound snooty, chilly, not like the type anyone would want to have a beer (or anything else!) with. To a black person who knows only other black people who speak with the same sound, your different sound is not just peculiar but, because it is a “white sound,” snobbish. The matter is not one of perplexity or discomfort, but irritation, even contempt.

Plus, these days, the “black sound” has acquired a certain cachet in mainstream society through the popularity of hip hop, so increasingly someone like me finds that even whites below a certain age process him as “square.” Call it stereotyping or call it progress, but a lot of white people happily anticipate a certain hipness, “realness,” from a black person. We’re so “down,” so approachable, so “the shit,” apparently. In talking to these people, just as to so many black people, I disappoint. I offend.

* * *

One of the hardest things about this is that so many people would be inclined to say that the problem—being read as not sounding black—doesn’t exist.

During the O.J. Simpson trial, in response to one witness who claimed to have heard a “black voice” at the scene of the murder of Simpson’s wife and her friend, lawyer Johnnie Cochran objected: “What’s a black voice?” The mostly black jury assented. Cochran was implying that the very idea that black speech has a particular sound is racist; often, people making the claim insist that black people simply talk like Southerners.

Most any American knows that a white Southerner is unlikely to sound like Chris Rock while a black person is unlikely to sound like Paula Deen. Black and Southern English overlap, but just that. Did the Reverend Martin Luther King and the white police officers beating and arresting him speak the same dialect? Yet the notion of a “black sound” smells like it could bring on accusations of stereotyping, so one is inclined to just step around the issue.

One worries that any characterization of black people’s speech will be a critique rather than a neutral description.

Black people’s own ticklish orientation when it comes to acknowledging a black way of speech is understandable for two reasons. The first is the racist past (and present) of this country—so often, that which is black is trashed as deficient; one becomes permanently wary. Then also, Black English is primarily associated with what are considered errors—ain’t, he be, aks, and so on. Naturally, one worries that any characterization of black people’s speech will be a critique rather than a neutral description. To many, the idea that even educated black people have this sound will seem like a prelude to the claim that even educated black people are incapable of mastering “proper language.”

But the same people who hotly deny that there is such a thing as a black sound will notice immediately when a black person “sounds white,” as countless black people teased about this as children can attest to. Logic dictates that if a black person can sound white—and this accusation is uncontroversial in black America—then the norm must be for black people to sound something else.

* * *

So what exactly is this “black sound” I am insisting exists?

I am not referring to black slang. Plenty of black people use little street slang and yet still have a black sound. The question is why you could tell most black people were black if they read you a shopping list over the phone.

Scholarship has confirmed what most of us sense intuitively: whites and blacks are very good at identifying black voices, even from an isolated word. The black sound is, though we don’t usually use the term this way, an accent. It differs from standard English’s sound in the same way that other dialects do, in certain shadings of vowels, aspects of intonation, and also that elusive thing known as timbre, most familiar to singers—degrees of breathiness, grain, huskiness, “space.”

Contrary to how some may read me here, I am not bragging about how “well” I speak. I’m not. The black sound has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one is capable of expressing their feelings elegantly, convincing others to their point of view, weaving an engaging story. It’s just a matter of some vowels—it’s like the difference between one carpet color and another, nothing more.

Black and standard English share the relationship of two sisters, not that of a mother and her wayward daughter.

But why is there a black sound? Well, in actuality, there is nothing inherently “black” about it. It isn’t genetic, of course, and it isn’t a degradation or departure from standard English. When English came to America, it developed in many directions, of which today’s standard and black varieties are but two. Black and standard English share the relationship of two sisters, not that of a mother and her wayward daughter. Sisters begin as different people, and over time become even more different. Dialects of a common language behave the same way. This is why actors in old movies sound increasingly weird to us; people who learned to speak in 1900 picked up sounds at a different stage of drift than they’re at now. Fred Astaire proclaims “This is revo-LYEW-tion!” where we would say “revo-LOO-tion.” William Powell as The Thin Man prepares to round up what he calls the “sus-PECTS” instead of the “SUS-pects.”

Sounds change. An ah might become an aw or an ay. A t might become a d or a ch. The way a sound progresses is no more meaningful in itself than changing hemlines, the fact that the fade-out on pop recordings went out of fashion, or that avocado was such a popular color in home décor for a while. But when these random changes happen at the same time to two different dialects, over long periods, they’ll seem more and more distinct. This is why black people have a different sound than whites.

The differences between the white sound and the black sound that tip an American listener off to a speaker’s race are subtle. I am not talking here about obvious, bluesy things, like saying thang for thing or mo for more, which are patterns less likely of educated people. One difference is that the eh sound before m or n sounds a little more like ih, so that, for example, mention sounds not exactly but to a whisper of an extent like mintion. Or, the er sound is slightly distinct: bird will sound a touch like buh-urd—not in a drawly way, but enough to alert the American brain. Then there is the timbre, fine-grained differences in vocal placement and texture that analysts have yet to characterize in detail, though the ear and mind can pick them up easily enough.

As dry as such details are in isolation, together they are why you might sometimes have heard a voice on National Public Radio and known the person was black, no matter whether they were talking about the latest doings in Congress or tomorrow’s weather. If you have ever had that impression, you may well have felt guilty about it, especially if you’re white.

The dominant conception is that only racism could create the impression that black people have a particular way of speaking. The assumption, roughly, is that educated black people talk just like educated white people, while less educated black people usually (but not always) speak a combination of Southern English and bad grammar. There is little room in our public discourse for the reality, which is that 1) almost all black people code-switch between standard and Black (not Southern) English to varying degrees, 2) even the most educated black people typically talk with vowel colorings and a general cadence that most Americans readily hear as “black” (and not “Southern”) after a few sentences, and 3) there isn’t a thing wrong with that.

* * *

The result of all of this, for me, is an ongoing cognitive dissonance in my relations with other people. Yet I stopped bringing it up long ago. You just hit a wall trying.

Though I often wish I did, I don’t have the vowels and cadence of the “blaccent.” I have lost count of how many times callers-in to radio shows I appeared on have assumed I was white (including plenty of black ones) or asked whether I was. Radio hosts often gently advise me to, when commenting on racial issues, mention my race on air—which indicates that it’s not evident from my voice that I’m black. Several listeners to my Great Courses lectures have written to me and mentioned that they didn’t know I was black until they saw my photograph. Once, answering the phone for a white roommate, I listened as an old man drifted, when a news event came up, into a diatribe about “niggers” coming over the horizon; clearly, he did not hear blackness in my voice. I barely code-switch—after drinks, awakened in the middle of the night, talking to my daughters, amused or angry, I sound pretty much the same: boring Mid-Atlantic American. I have written here and there about the fact that black Americans have a larger English than most white Americans. Alas, my English isn’t large at all.

My noting that I don’t have a black-sounding voice has, on a couple of occasions, seemed to peeve the black person I was talking to. I think they were wondering whether I was claiming that, unlike other black people, I speak “properly.” I mean no such thing—though much of what made it seem like I did was surely my “white” voice and the subconscious associations it brings up.

There has also been the occasional white person who has sincerely suggested that I just take on a black sound if I feel so uncomfortable. But they were unclear as to what I meant when I referred to “sounding black.” One white woman said, while making vaguely vernacular street gestures, “Can’t you just, like, ‘Heyyy…’?” Well, I suppose I could “Heyyy”—but, for one thing, it would be stepping outside of my natural self. The fluently “Ebonic” guy expected to speak standard English does not need to adopt a foreign code to do so—any black person can speak standard as well as Black English, even if they would rather dwell in the latter. I didn’t grow up saying “Heyyy,” and Rosetta Stone offers no materials that might instruct me in the art.

Somehow I came out sounding like an announcer in a 1940s newsreel.

Accent is the hardest thing to pick up in a new way of speaking after the age of about fourteen. The colorings that constitute a blaccent are subtle, deeply ingrained, and even harder to master for someone whose home base is standard English, precisely because Black English and standard English are so similar. And no, my being a linguist doesn’t help: we have neither the training nor the inherent talent that would make us better at this than other people. It’s professional actors who wangle it—Idris Elba and Thandie Newton have, dazzlingly, managed to learn a light blaccent for their roles despite growing up outside of the United States. I could no more master a subtle blaccent than I could learn to blink, lift a fork, or laugh differently. Your accent is your you.

* * *

Why do I sound so white when I talk? It’s a good question. Both of my parents were black (some people ask, and they must be spurred on by my voice, as I’m not that light-skinned). I grew up around plenty of black people—in an integrated Philadelphia neighborhood where my friends were all black kids, and then all-black Lawnside, New Jersey. Most of my friends were black until adolescence; my best friend had a working-class black Philadelphian accent himself. Neither of my parents were given to code-switching to full-blown Black English—but both of them used a somewhat more Black English-inflected way of speaking when talking comfortably with black people.

Yet somehow I came out sounding like an announcer in a 1940s newsreel. I’m tempted to say that as an inveterate nerd I identified more with the teachers and students at the private schools I attended, who were mostly white. But plenty of middle-class black kids—of whom, by the 1970s, there were more every year—went to school with whites and played at home with blacks and emerged sounding like home, not school.

I’m not a joiner, and people around me are more likely to pick up speech habits from me than I am to pick up speech habits from them. But then, my sister is more of a joiner than I am, and also had a richness of black experience at all-black Spelman College that I never had. She had an extremely light blaccent that she developed in those years to identify with her friends, but that was just a phase; on the whole, she has always spoken exactly like me. Truth to tell, I’m not quite sure why I sound like this. But I do.

* * *

It is more my curse than it is my sister’s. I know that, especially in school, black girls get teased for “talking white” as much as black boys do. But I submit that, particularly in adulthood, not having a black voice is less of a social stain for a black woman than a black man. Linguists have discovered that with almost eerie consistency, across societies, women tend to speak more “properly” than men. Certainly women use slang and profanity and say singin’ instead of singing—but less than men do. For this reason, the black woman’s “white” speech can be processed, for better or worse, as “ladylike,” sophisticated. However, sounding white is not associated with masculinity—if anything, when it pertains to a man it can be heard as suggesting effeminacy.

I thwart expectations in glum little ways. It comes down to the idea that black equals funky. A white woman I dated in the nineties watched me play a semi-classical piece on the piano and then smiled, “I’m waiting to see you really get into it.” “Into it”? It turned out she was waiting for me to play some blues. Of course, a black man isn’t “really” playing the piano until he “jams.” In the same way, another woman I dated said, about my lack of a blaccent, “I’ve been waiting for you to do it.” To her, my actual voice was preliminary, public, stiff. She assumed that once comfortable I would glide from Word! into “Wuh-urd!”—from no into “naw,” from hold on into a little “hode on.” I already was comfortable—and was talking the way I am comfortable talking. But to her, my vocal comfort zone constituted “not really getting into it.”

One of the strangest things about being a white-sounding black person is that, in one regard and only in that regard, I would have felt more comfortable in the past. Until the 1960s, the linguistic landscape in America was prissier than it is now. In public, language was to be presented in its Sunday best, and casual speech was only for off-time with intimates. Even grade school inculcated hardcore spelling and grammar rules, such that modestly educated soldiers during the Civil War wrote letters that sound practically Shakespearian (and sometimes quote the man). This divide between “high” and “low” was maintained as strictly in the black community as anywhere else, and what it meant was that it was not considered odd for an educated black person to not “sound black” at all.

One of the oddest things about listening to recordings of Booker T. Washington, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, civil rights titan A. Phillip Randolph, or operatic contralto Marian Anderson is that, in their public speech, at least, they did not have, or barely had, blaccents, where their equivalents today would. This is true of countless educated black people of the time, who surprise the modern ear listening to oral histories and other late-in-life interviews in that they sound so utterly white.

The social boundaries of Black English, which has existed since at least the early 1700s, expanded starting in the late sixties, when the counterculture encouraged a new informality and black activists and intellectuals taught black America to be proud of its vernacular heritage. A friend of mine, who was young at the time and has no blaccent, recalls a party in 1968 during which she sensed the change in the black linguistic landscape. Two black men of modest education teased her for not being able to enunciate “motherfucker” as they thought she should; she wasn’t speaking “blackly” enough. That scene would have been much less likely ten years earlier, and just about impossible twenty years before that. Newly, this woman was heard as sounding white rather than just well-spoken.

I don’t think I’m better than anybody and am quite aware that I am not white.

I certainly do not yearn for a return to the time when one had to work so hard on one’s speech patterns to be heard by wider society. Or to the time when black people were subject to such decisive segregation there was no question as to whether any black person “knew they were black” or not, no matter how they spoke. But I do envy that black people did not have a tacit expectation that all people of their color, regardless of education level, temperament, or socioeconomic background, would share a way of speaking. I would like to be able to have a conversation with a black person of whatever social position without worrying that he thinks I don’t sound black or that I think I’m better than him. I don’t think I’m better than anybody and am quite aware that I am not white.

Am I oversimplifying the problem? Maybe—I suspect many would say that the issue isn’t only that I sound white, but that I am reserved. That’s true; I know black men without blaccents who are heartier types than I am and who probably put black people off less than I do vocally. But: a reserved black man who does have the black vowels and cadence is read as contained, as keeping his own counsel, not as cold, unfriendly, classist, uptight.

* * *

Though my speaking voice often feels like a club foot, I do not hate myself. I also have black friends who do not hear froideur in the way I talk, sometimes because they themselves lack blaccents, and sometimes because they are just wired differently than that administrative assistant. And, as I am rounding fifty, my voice will increasingly come off as the fussiness of an “older” gent, quaint rather than offensive. I’m already sensing this with people younger than twenty-five. It’s the sole facet of aging I’m enjoying.

Still, when I read that Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century learning English felt like they might open their mouths to speak only for shards of glass to fall out, I identify. I all but stopped doing live talks on race years ago despite the money I could earn, out of a sense that using my “white” voice to have such discussions was ineffective and makes me sound disconnected from the issues. I mainly write on race instead; on paper my vowels and cadence don’t distort my message.

Sounding black? What’s that all about? Well, that. A minor problem in the grand scheme, I know. But I’m just saying. (Luckily, in print.)


John McWhorter

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University, and is the author of seventeen books, including The Power of Babel, Losing the Race, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and the upcoming Words on the Move. He writes for Time, CNN, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal.

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60 Comments on “Thick of Tongue

  1. Great piece, as always. It made me recall a somewhat embarrassing moment for me, as a white person. I was introduced to a black woman, and she said her name was Teresa Bale, or at least that’s what I thought I heard, yet I also felt like I didn’t hear because she spoke softly. So I asked, “Bale?” And she said, no, “Bale.” And I asked, again, “Bale?” and she said no, “BELL!”. Her name was Teresa Bell, but it sounded for all the world like Teresa Bale to me.

      1. I don’t understand how you read this entire article and that is your takeaway from Justin’s story. I’m hoping you’re being sarcastic, but if not obviously the point is she had a black accent and Justin had trouble understanding it.

    1. I had a problem with a black customer one time not long after Katrina. I live in Houston and the Houston “Blaccent” was different from the Louisiana “Blaccent”.

      A woman from Louisiana asked if we had a “Cuxkuh” Sounded like Cucks kuh or Cuxka…

      Anyway I had no idea what she was asking for. I tried to get help from another associate. The other associate, also white, had no idea either.

      The black woman looked angry, like we were making fun of her or deliberately not understanding her. I could tell she thought we were racist.

      I was upset because I wasn’t being racist, and I didn’t want to upset her, I just could not for anything understand what she was asking for.

      Finally after she repeated it about 10 times in increasingly angry tones, I got it.

      She was asking for a corkscrew.

    2. I don’t believe that it’s so much that talking white or talking black is a indication of intelligence. I’ve heard people that talk white that are ignorant as well as people that talk black who are ignorant. It’s more about WHAT
      they say not HOW they say it.

  2. Dr Mcwhorter,

    thank you for this article. I am an applied linguist with forty years of teaching english as a foreign language. Other than friends I have little experience hearing black english. However, i have always thought that i could identify speakers who are black.

    I have wondered what i heard that was so distinguishing. I am familiar with the accented english of many different languages and I can easily say what the native language is if I have experience with speakers of the language. I am pretty sure that I could describe the source of the accent differences because of my formal study of linguistics. but I have not been able to do so with black speakers with a blaccent. I wonder, Mr McWhorter if you could suggest an article or other source for a description of the features of Black english.

    I enjoyed this article very much. sharon bode

    1. I was just about to write a similar request to the article’s author! I do accent reduction coaching, and was once asked by an African-American man to help him “sound white.” I was at a loss to figure out what it was (beyond the obvious “mispronunciations”) that characterizes a blaccent.

      By the way, did you know that “ax” is the way “ask” was pronounced as long ago as the eighth century, according to Jesse Shiedlower (from the American Dialect Society)?

      Shiedlower also says: The pronunciation derives from the Old English verb “acsian.” Chaucer used “ax.” It’s in the first complete English translation of the Bible (the Coverdale Bible): ” ‘Axe and it shall be given.’

    2. I have black friends that speak the perfect queen’s English. I don’t think the “black” sound is as linguistic as it is biological. I believe that the muscle tissue of blacks is comprised of a thicker fiber ( the cells themselves) which creates a thicker timbre and intonation that is easily recognizable over the phone as a black person. I’ve rarely been fooled by a black person speaking “white “, as I as always hear the physiological difference in the vocal chords.

      1. This biological hypothesis might explain why there is random variation on instances when a black person cannot help “sounding white”, despite their best efforts to the contrary, they’re just “born to speak this way”. A genetic component might also answer why sometimes, but certainly not always, a lack of “blaccent” seemingly “runs in the family”.

  3. Interesting article, as are most of yours. I’m reminded of my cousin, who was raised in Texas but has spent the last 25 years in Boston. She’s married to a Boston native and has two kids. Her son speaks with no discernible accent, but her little girl has a thick Boston accent. I have no idea why two kids being raised in the same house with the same parents can sound so different. One of those linguistic mysteries, I guess.

  4. I wonder if these private schools were boarding schools. As is well known, 19C British men grew up with RP (or RP grew up with them) as a result of attending their public schools: indeed, one of the older names for RP is “Public School Pronunciation”.

  5. The bigger issue is within the black community which praises ignorance in speaking. Every time a black person speaks properly they’re accused of being an “Uncle Tom”. I’ve seen this before and it’s really a shame that black people feel persecuted by their own kind when they’re educated.

      1. I think Paul is not talking about accent but about dialect. African American dialect is (wrongly) associated by many people with lack of education, just as other non-standard dialects are in other countries. Try telling that to Peter Trudgill, who is very proud of his Norfolk (England) dialect.

    1. You hit the nail on the head. In my opinion, it is racist for a black person to expect another black person to “talk black”. The “black accent” may be viewed as necessary for “black solidarity” by other blacks, but to everyone else (i.e. whites) it’s just a warning sign that this is probably a substandard person best avoided.

  6. Professor McWhorter,

    I adored this piece, as I have so many of your books and articles. There’s one element of it, though, that I have to take strong exception to, and that’s the assertion that “I could no more master a subtle blaccent than I could learn to blink, lift a fork, or laugh differently. Your accent is your you.”

    In the Lexicon Valley podcast inspired by this article (which I also loved, by the way, as I have all your contributions to that excellent show), you similarly—and repeatedly!—stated that it was *impossible* or *near impossible* to pick up a subtle accent as an adult. This is wildly untrue. As a professional dialect coach, I would be out of a job if this were so! (Who do you think it is, by the way, who helps people like Idris Elba and Thandie Newton their excellent ‘subtle blaccents’?)

    Does it take work to learn a new accent, and then own it so that it sounds and feels completely natural? Yes, of course it does. Do some people have an easier time of it than others? Of course they do (again, I’d be out of a job if this weren’t so!). But it is by no means impossible, or even nearly so.

    I’m not suggesting that you should hire a dialect coach to help you learn the ‘subtle blaccent’ you semi-covet (though you could, if you wanted to!). I have two kids and a career myself, and understand how little time there can be for anything else. But it’s simply not true that it can’t be done.

    I’d also like to chip in my two cents about the question you pose for yourself: “Why do I sound so white when I talk?” There are two specific aspects of accent acquisition that bear mentioning here, since they are centrally-related to the specific subject at hand: identity, and the deeply related issue of socio-cultural permission. You certainly brush against these issues, and I’m sure you’re well aware of them (indeed, I imagine you’ve probably reflected deeply on them), but they bear highlighting, I think. One of the biggest obstacles to successful accent acquisition, I have found again and again, is when an individual can’t imagine themselves as a person who speaks with the target accent. Sometimes an American simply can’t imagine themselves as a London street tough, for example. A white actor who needs to learn a Black accent—whether Black African, Caribbean, or African-American (yes there are occasions when actors need to do this—think audiobooks & one-person shows, among other things)—often feels tremendously constrained. I think there’s a very good reason for this. We don’t want to offend, and a White person attempting an African-American (or Chinese, or Latino, etc.) quite justifiably feels she is treading on awfully thin ice. I’m sure that a lack of felt cultural permission is not at the root of your own accent, but I think it highly likely that your self-conception, your felt identity, *is* at the root of it—because that felt identity is at the root of how *all* of us sound. The most crucial period for this, of course, is our self-conception during those primary and secondary school years when we’re deciding who we are and who we want the world to see us as.

    You consider this:

    “I’m tempted to say that as an inveterate nerd I identified more with the teachers and students at the private schools I attended, who were mostly white. But plenty of middle-class black kids—of whom, by the 1970s, there were more every year—went to school with whites and played at home with blacks and emerged sounding like home, not school.”

    I think this is probably very close to the mark. And in answer to the second sentence, I would just say that those other kids, the ones who didn’t end up sounding White, made different choices. These choices about who we’re going to model our speech after are mostly unconscious, but they are no less profoundly at the core of our felt identity for all that.

    Thanks again for an excellent piece.

  7. An excellent insight on how pride and prejudice can work on the human voice. Old American film soundtracks featuring (often) New York stage actors sound bizarrely mid-Atlantic to me, and my own Canadian mother spoke with the precise and yet not very British accent of Canadian World War II newsreels. Both are nearly vanished. One wonders if the “blaccent” will modify further or gradually fade. It seems reputation and cultural affiliation play a greater role than education or aspiration, and this observation is the basis of the recent comedy “Keanu”.

  8. Dr. McWhorter:

    Two of my favorite black vocalists are Al Jarreau and George Benson. In recent years, while listening to the local jazz station, I attempted to describe exactly what, to me, is different (and slightly superior) about certain black professional singers’ voices. The first part of my explanation involved range. Black baritones seem able to hit lower bass notes and higher tenor notes than white or Latino baritones. However, there also seems to be a subtle black vocalist “accent”: cantaloupe twilight in the higher registers (sweet, yet not saccharine or screeching), and velvet dusk in the lower registers (sensual, not belting or booming). These differences may reflect early childhood vocal training. The children’s choir at First AME probably had a more demanding repertoire than the children’s choir at First Presbyterian!

    I know from reading some of your books that you have performed in the theatre, and this may be one reason why you have a “white” accent: you were trained to enunciate and PROJECT!

    My maternal grandfather (whom I never knew, as he died relatively young) was an immigrant from the rural UK who lived in Canada for a few years before coming to the USA. In addition, I grew up about 100 miles from the Canadian border; in my hometown, change often included at least one Canadian coin. According to my husband, some of my pronunciations (especially “about” and “hockey”) have a definite Canadian accent. Although my mother’s accent is not British, I’ve never heard anyone else with an inflection and dipthong pattern quite like hers. . .except me. When involved in theatre as an adolescent, I was trained to enunciate and PROJECT! Consequently, my stage/formal accent became somewhat British. After several minutes 1:1 with a UK native (I work with one), my stage accent slips out. . .

  9. When I moved to Iowa from Kentucky – kids knew right away I wasn’t from around there! They were kind of mean about the way I talked. I made it a point from then on out to change my accent. After I grew up I winded up not having much of any accent at all. Sort of the basic newscaster voice.

  10. It means that people who hear him but don’t see him, as over the phone or the radio, may think he’s white when that is not the case. Similarly, I know a man who sounds “female” in such circumstances. He too considers it unfortunate.

  11. I think there is a massive difference in timbre, on average, between black voices and white voices. Especially among men.

    I have spent a lot of time mixing voices in the studio where timbre (the spectral content) really matters. Many black men (who do not sing at all) have voices that have harmonics similar to white men who sing opera and are mature baritones, with a timbre that is husky, smooth, warm, and often slightly raspy.

    White men struggle to reproduce that timbre when singing pop and mostly fail (Justin Timberlake). If you want to hear two men who’ve succeeded, listen to Patrick Dopson or Wes Morgan. They are the only two white singers I know of who really have a black timbre. They are also the only two white guys that black folks allow on radio stations that play black-gospel.

    An example of a white female who has achieved a black timbre is Becky Hill

    The black timbre is huskier, and reminiscent of a white person who has a sore throat. (White people love to sing when they have a cold, and are sad when it goes away.) If the difference was not physical, you would expect whites to be able to reproduce that husky timbre at will, and for the most part they cannot.

    I realize I’ve spoken in absolutes here. In reality there is wide variation among different groups. White men in the south seem to have voices that are a little heavier than white men in the north (USA). Italians develop huskier voices than white american men. There are black men with reedy, weak voices, and white men with big voices. But on average the difference is pretty profound. Every single voice on the street in Nigeria has some of that huskiness.(listen to BattaBox on youtube)

    1. I have always wondered if the Black American speech pattern was a deliberate
      attempt to sound different and apart from non-blacks. One way to abolish racism is to stop trying to be different. I can see nothing wrong with everyone from a certain region sounding the same. All Londoners sound alike, all Parisians sound alike. Non-standard speech is one of many idiosyncrasies that keeps hyphenated – Americans from being 100% American. MLK said not to judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of his character. So why insist on being different?

    2. Sounds like a difference in average testosterone levels, especially during adolescence when the voice undergoes changes.

      I personally hear blackness more readily in the voices (timbre-wise, not accent) of certain black women; among women the racial difference seems more obvious.

  12. Living in Australia, I found this article fascinating! With so much American TV on our airwaves, Australians can identify & understand the various American accents quite well. What I find fascinating about the “black” accent is that it sounds (for the most part) fairly uniform across America, even when the prevailing local “white” accent is strikingly different. Sometimes there’s a stark contrast between the accents of people living in the same *city,* yet the “black” accent from ‘City A’ seems as though it could sound just as at home in ‘City B’ on the other side of the country, a uniformity of sound not found in the corresponding “white” accents. I myself used to live in South Australia, but have since moved to Melbourne (which is in a different state). While the regional variance in the Australian accents is not huge, people here in Melbourne do frequently ask me “What part of Britain did you come from,” as the South Australian accent is closer to “refined” English than the lazy drawl used here. The way you described that sense of social awkwardness that comes from people thinking you’re putting on a fake voice – as if you’re trying to make yourself sound more eloquent & fancy – is something I’ve experienced often. Although I am white, I am an European of the slightly darker variety, so while I can’t say that your experiences translate perfectly to my own, they certainly resonated with me. Based on that, I think it’s fair to say that the strange audio/visual dissonance you’ve described here isn’t unique to the USA!

    1. That’s because African Americans didn’t leave the South (the old Confederacy) in substantial numbers until 1915, when the Great Migration began. A century is not enough time for African American English to diversify very much geographically. The exception is New Orleans, which even before the Civil War had many free blacks (some even owned slaves), and where the “Yat” accent (from “Where y’at?”, a common New Orleans greeting) is used by both whites and blacks.

  13. Dr. McWhorter, please believe me when I say I understand what you experienced growing up as I went through the same thing myself, as did my siblings. I’m from a well-spoken, articulate family. The last time I was “accused” of “talking white,” that was the last straw. I replied “At least I don’t talk like a slave”. I nearly put my life in danger with that. Utterly ridiculous. And I, too, can detect a difference in the timbre and tone of many black voices, both male and female. Its nothing to do with language or intonation. It’s as if the structure of the vocal folds is somehow different — it’s the very sound of the voice. I’m glad I haven’t imagined this not-very-subtle difference. Thank you for a thoughtful, well written, eloquent article.

  14. What, exactly is it that you hate about white people that cause you to say you are ‘…one of those unfortunate black people who sound white.”
    You say in this article that you “suffer” from the attitudes of your peers… Are you saying that the mere act of stepping outside a black stereotype causes problems for those people who do. Further, you imply that there is so much hostility from other blacks that they do not like you simply because you do not have the usual black syntax. If so, why is that?
    Lastly if, as you say, your white syntax causes you grief what keeps you from changing that particular perceived handicap. Could it be that your white syntax affords you some benefit alluded to? Or, that you benefit in some unspoken way from the perceived whiteness of your speech?
    I ask these questions because you appear to have put yourself in a damned if you do and damned if you don’t predicament which seems remarkably uncomfortable for you.

    1. Of course not talking like your peers is a problem; I’m white, and I can assure you it was a problem for me growing up. And as for changing your syntax, *you* try it sometime. It’s very, very difficult.

      1. John, I agree with you. You cannot simply change your syntax. I am mixed black/white and speak with a “white accent”. I also speak two other languages. To master the language was one thing. To imprint on the accent and word formation was another.

  15. I Googled “Why do black people sound black?”, and it brought me here. I heard my new neighbor, who moved in this morning shouting to someone; and knew she was black. It made me wonder why I knew that without ever having seen her. It also made me wonder why noticing someone behaving in a stereotypical way — that is associated with their race — is deemed as jumping to a racist conclusion. Observing someone behaving stereotypically does not automatically deem the observer a racist. Based solely on my life-long observations of American southerners speaking, I feel that “sounding black” makes the same impression on listeners as having a thick “southern drawl” does. They both give people the impression that you have not received formal education, or that you are dim witted.
    Enunciating and sounding articulate are not “cool” in the “hood”, because it “sounds white”. But, when you’re interviewing at a fortune 500 company, sounding “hood” isn’t ideal. Hmmm.

    1. I too have wondered that and I don’t think it sounds hood like, we associate that with it because Hollywood has made it that way and we watch the movies. However, I have wondered why black citizens in American who are born and raised here and go to school with other American kids and learn the same English they do , do not pronounce words similarly . What even fascinates me more is that blacks in other countries do not pronounce words differently or sound differently then the citizens of those countries and what ever accent they have the black citizens have it too. In England they have an English accents. In America they don’t pick southern or New York accents they hold true to their very own English and dialect I have been to England, Germany and Ireland and the blacks sound like the citizens in those countries. So, Why do the blacks in American not pick up any accents of this country and pronounce words differently with what seems like their own type of English. Yes you can tell if they are black Americans when hearing them and not seeing them. It’s really fascinating. However, My best friend in grade school Annie was black and yet she did not have that dialect and yet her mother did. So the plot thickens.

      1. Having lived in the UK and France, I can tell you that there are also “black” accents. I’d say it’s not as common as in the US but they definitely exist.

  16. On a slightly humorous side note, I jumped into the article without looking at the author and it wasn’t until I got near the very end (“I know black men without blaccents who are heartier types than I am…”) that I realized you weren’t a women. I’d read the entire thing picturing a woman describing her experiences. That’s it’s own kind of double-take-inducing dissonance. Your gender-neutral writing voice is a nice complement to your oral voice.

    1. Same! Had to double back a couple paragraphs, and then adjust the ‘voice’ I was hearing in my head. Fascinating insights into not just accent, but attitudes and culture as well. Thank you.

  17. I just wondered why blacks have a different resonance. I’m from Ga.but moved to Fl at 11. People teased me about my accent.I tried to lose it & did. I think it’s something physical. I was court reporter& heard lots of accents. Jamaican was hardest to understand. I know blacks with & without this sound from same family. I’m curious. Mom said “curiosity killed the cat.” I left Ga.then came back. Have rentals & can tell over phone whose black. Is it physical like voice box, throat, tongue? Always looking to improve knowledge.

  18. I really appreciate your article. It is exactly what I wanted to discover as a half-White Romanian person. My father is Rromani and I live in a predominantly “g*psish” neighborhood as they clal us. In my young years I would always associate his personal flaws like unjustified anger, hatred towards me for being more educated than him(speaking about attitudes and ideas) and gross behaviors with his speech and since Rromani people have their own specific dialect and accent, I resented it although I lowkey loved it when my mostly Rromani friends spoke it. And as I grew up, thanks to my own situation and some time to reflect confered to me by some personal stuff, I understood that there is a deep connection between resistence, representation and apparently small stuff like dialect, gestures ans habits. As I grew older I became aware of Blackness as I questioned the suburban culture I saw in movies and I have always been fascinated, making conenctions with my own life. But recently I have been feleing this curiosity as I figured out I desired a real explanation about everything Black. And I thank you for disclosing this precious material. I am sorry for my snobbish dialect of American English as they are right, Whiteness sounds and IS snobbish, no matter where you come from. I am ashamed because it has no real flavor, it is so technical and sometimes it frustrates me that we seem so divided by language and that integration/ intersectionality is still slow and controversial. But i am coping and learning from everybody because my American Dream lies away in California and I also want to marry a beautiful Black conservationist Queen. It will take time to adapt, but I feel drawn towards this culture and I want to be as assimilated as a willing foreign guy can, because I want to be a representative model for my future mixed kids that will break away from my Romanian past and also from any trace of Whiteness especially American Whiteness. I want to see something fruitful and genuine being born, something noble. And that’s why I can’t fail at speaking to them the way they want their already “different” dad to address them. Or at least I want to feel them. I definitely want them to code-switch perfectly but I cannot accept them not to speak their native dialect with their mom. It’s part of the heritage I can’t offer them but want them to have.

    And don’t worry about the others, you are right to be calm and ignore it. These are stressful times. Less than before but not really. America has a long way to go. Your brothers and sisters just want you close to them. I have witness the confession of an amazing queer guy having a social YouTube channel that spoke about “putting people in boxes” and described Blackness as small things that hold great value, that make him feel naturally familiar to people, indipending on their ethnicity and race. And he also mentioned feeling insecure around Black peow l that seem whitewashed and safer and better around White people that speak or act like him. You just need to show them who you REALLY are. And surround yourself with the right handful of people. Right Whites and right Blacks. Only you can find those, it’s all about yourself, and don’t feel disappointed if they (almost certainly) unwillingly make you feel like you don’g fit in. There is no absolute need to be like most. I have never been, nowhere I went(hood, middle and high school). We’re just complex people, meant to meet special people, that are at the crossways of stereotypes and cultures. Have a wonderful day!!!

    1. What are you saying? Please, don’t confuse the Romanians with the roma. Romanians are not the same as gypsies….If you’re one of them, even if you aren’t, you should know.

  19. Excellent piece!! I am white, and have lived on the Virginia side of the DC-Metro area for most of my life; I’ve always noticed that black people tend to have a particular kind of vocal tone or timbre. And, as a connoisseur of singing voices, I can usually identify which voices belong to black singers. A couple of times, though, I’ve been wrong: when I first heard recordings of the historic baritone Lawrence Tibbett, I assumed Tibbett was black. In fact, he was white. Same thing with the still-active soprano Renee Fleming, whose voice I can get confused with Leontyne Price’s if I haven’t been told beforehand who is singing.

  20. I have gotten the same sort of comments from blacks, those who have a problem with it, are indeed ignorant..many of them believe blacks have to sound, think, speak, and behave a certain way- and if they do not, they are now “authentically black”.. Then they at the same time, talk about how blacks aren’t a monolithic group.

    It is ignorance, and subscription to a certain culture, and way of thinking, that has always aimed to remove itself from “mainstream America”. A lot of this way of thinking, is due to lack of knowledge about the history of blacks in this country, their dislike, or even hatred for whites, and idolization of hooligan culture, which we call “ghetto”. This isn’t new, or really has anything to do with, the ridiculous concept known as “race”. The British called this behavior “cracker culture”, when they saw it with the Irish, and Scottish in the hinterlands.. It can also simply be called “Redneck culture”.

    Within this culture, I have seen so much hate, foolishness, and intolerance, and it only seems to have gotten worse.

    1. Well it’s not about nothing if it impacts you directly. I still have an element ok blackness in my voice. My wife does not. Occasionally we get some flack from other blacks and it’s annoying. I think we can all agree that we would not like to be culturally assaulted by our own particularly if you feel like you are straddling expectations from black and white cultures. Or as you said, it could just be treated as nothing. Thanks for your comment.

  21. I stopped reading when you stated Black English. I’ve never heard of Black English. Why was the child not speaking just English

  22. This is equal parts hilarious and annoying. I grew up in Hawaii. I’ve kind of felt embarrassed about my “parochial” background (if they only knew the tiny speck-on-the-map towns *in* Hawaii I grew up in… ) and only recently, after being on the mainland (what we call “the lower 48”) for a few decades, have I told people I’m from Hawaii. I get reactions like:

    “You seem awfully pale!” – (Hm, at least I tan, and yeah, tans fade after 30+ years…)

    “How come you don’t speak pidgin?” – (No one would understand me here, lady, and besides, they’d probably chalk me up as less intelligent, like a heavy Southern accent does here on the mainland)

    “You wuz raised among ‘aborigines’!” – (This from a guy I know who comes out here to the west coast from New Orleans. Yeah, fellah, I guess I was.)

  23. The article was well written & very good! I am American black woman born of southern parents but raised in a northern Midwest state. I have been teased from many black folks about my correct English and tone. I have been asked to turn in my black card and can I cook collard greens, ribs, black eye peas, Etc? These are stupid and hurtful comments I have heard from church people, my supervisor, relatives, and coworkers. I do not sound black enough to them. I am so sick of these comments!! Anyone who sees my face and skin tone knows I am a American black woman. I have same challenges as anyone else living life here. But I refuse to change to fit some others opinions of my voice and past life experiences. Those who tell other black people they sound white in speaking are STUPID and way too judgmental!

  24. I wish you said Black American and not Black. This is not a global accent or dialect. The misperception issue you raise is also an issue for the children
    of black immigrants (who are a growing percentage of American blacks) who American listeners expect to speak with the accent of native Afro-Americans, simply based on appearance, but do not at all speak the accent natively unless they grew up
    in neighborhoods or attended schools with many native-born Black people. I am one of them and have been self-conscious about having no “Black” accent my whole life.

  25. I have black friends that speak the perfect queen’s English. I don’t think the “black” sound is as linguistic as it is biological. I believe that the muscle tissue of blacks is comprised of a thicker fiber ( the cells themselves) which creates a thicker timbre and intonation that is easily recognizable over the phone as a black person. I’ve rarely been fooled by a black person speaking “white “, as I as always hear the physiological difference in the vocal chords.

  26. Interesting read! I am a white male and although I don’t think I sound black, I’m also quit sure I don’t sound stereotypically white either. Although many people (black and white) think I sound black, especially on the phone or if I have been drinking alcohol. Most of my friends both black and white I think sound quit similar to me, none of us in my opinion sounding black or white maybe more “hood” but no stereotypical white or black voice and when I say voice I don’t mean grammar or ebonics I mean actual voice …. I feel like I speak normal and relaxed. The “nerdy” white voice or the “strange” black voice both to me sound fake like these people are purposely making their voices sound that way, although I notice its done to different degree’s (the lesser degree’s of either don’t bother me but I really don’t care too much for either of those voices).

  27. This article is so very well written and answers some pressing questions that most of us will never ask aloud. Bless the internet because I dated ask “why do black people have an accent” and, Eureka! Here I am being educated on the subject by a lifelong expert on the matter. Thank you so much for this piece and sharing your personal experiences as well as knowledge on the subject.

    One of many reasons why this query has been on my mind for so long began many years ago in the mid 90’s. I was dining at a restaurant when an angry customer clashed with an employee, perhaps the hostess. Both of them were black women, roughly the same age and build, both had a very nice appearance and dress.
    The angry customer sounded as though she were from a different planet compared to the hostess. She had a heavy blaccent, and the more angry she became the more apparent it was… “black slang” also came to the forefront with the building of tension.
    The hostess never had a discernable blaccent. She “sounded white” even when she was becoming increasing frustrated with the confrontation.
    If I had not looked, I would have assumed a white and black person were arguing.
    The hostess’ lack of “sounding black” eventually became a arguing point.
    The woman with the blaccent steered to blasting the hostess with a slew of race-based accusations and insults such as “tryn’ to be superior, you think you better cuz you play white”.
    Of course, this was a scene which doesn’t easily leave ones mind. I began to wonder if the hostess had, in fact, been making a deliberate attempt to sound more “white”, and could a person really master such a peculiar thing.
    Fast forward a decade later and I found myself working on the phone taking calls from people all around the country. I often spoke to the same individuals repeatedly, sometimes for over an hour at a time.
    When we speak on the phone to someone we’ve never met, we usually paint a mental image of that person as we speak to them. We imagine gender, age, build, personal style and most certainly…race.
    I spoke to a man at least 10 hours over the course of a year. I *heard* what I imagined was a mid-atlantic or great plains white man in his late 40’s or 50’s. I couldn’t be more wrong when he revealed that he was A. In his mid 30’s B. Fully black C. Originally from upstate New York.
    When I told him how I’d pictured him he chuckled, “That’s alright, at this point I’m used to it.” If I could’ve requested that he send me a photo of his driver’s license to prove his claim without risking insult, I would’ve. This man’s experience within the black community with his lack of accent was likely not unlike your own.
    He had to accept it. If listeners didn’t accept it, that’s their problem not the speakers. It’s not the speakers fault when a listeners expectation of them is maligned and doesn’t fit within their limited experience.
    Again, I greatly enjoyed and appreciated your article. I’m off to find you on youtube. I plan to listen to you for a minute or two before opening my eyes to look. Cheers!

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