Speech records rescued and restored

8 February 2011

Material from the first large socio-linguistic study of speech has been restored and made available online thanks to a University team effort over more than ten years.

The recordings were collected during a survey of the speech habits of young Australians carried out by A.G. Mitchell and Arthur Delbridge in 1959 and 1960.

The study, published in 1965, remains one of the largest of its kind and surveyed subjects across 6 Australian states.

Mitchell and Delbridge gathered the recorded voices of more than nine thousand secondary students in their final year.

Of each student it was known where she or he went to school, what type of school it was, his or her birthplace and those of the student's parents, as well as his or her father's occupation.

The recordings helped indentify speech variations within Australia, regional varieties of Australian English and differences across social-economic groups.

Mitchell and Delbridge, both members of the University's English Department, pioneered the use of reel-to-reel tapes during the study, as well as using SILLIAC - one of the world's first major stored program computers- to perform computer-based statistical analysis. They also made use of the relatively new process of spectrographic analysis in analysing vowel data.

Originally housed in the Phonetics Laboratory in the Quadrangle, by the 1990s the recording tape was deteriorating and in danger of being lost.

When the Phonetics Laboratory moved the tapes were stored under glass in a hot corridor. Brian Taylor, then Director of the Language Centre, moved them to an air-conditioned room at about the same time as Julie Vonwiller, a linguist working in Electrical and Information Engineering, began searching for them.

Taylor and Vonwiller, recognising the significance and potential research value of the recordings, obtained funds to preserve and re-issue the tapes.

They went sent initially to the National Film and Sounds Archives for re-spooling and repair and the material was copied to Digital Audio Tape (DAT), a medium now, 13 years later, considered on the way to being obsolete.

Once back at Sydney the DATs were transferred to disk and segmented by Electrical and Information Engineering to match the historical records and then made available through an online database.

The group who had undertaken the project was later disbanded and yet again, the recordings were looking to be without a home.

The Research Portfolio immediately saw the value of the historic data and in association with the Library, re-established and updated the speech database, including its web interface.

The Library and PARADISEC (led by Associate Professor Linda Barwick) are now in consultation with the key stakeholders regarding future funding to make the collection more useful, secure and accessible by imaging of the text transcripts and transferring the digitised audio from DAT to a more secure medium.

It is expected that more material such as these voice recordings will be preserved and made accessible through the University's eResearch projects.

Contact: Georgina Hibberd

Phone: + 61 2 8627 8627

Email: 511f223532301c0c5b2b242c21283d23781c14231c0d4c45522e415c0017