In 1983, The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, initiated the “Survey and Collection of American English Dialect Recordings,” which was undertaken to compile a directory of American speech samples, and ultimately to improve access to them. There were two parts to the project. The first part surveyed collectors of speech samples and resulted in a report entitled “American English Speech Recordings: A Guide to Collections” (PDF, 3 MB) which describes over 200 collections. The second part of the project was designed to select from the 200 collections a representative sample of recordings with the goal of “creating a centralized source of American dialect samples and to provide for the preservation of this valuable resource that might otherwise be lost.” Additional information about the project may be found in “A Survey and Collection of American English Dialect Recordings” (PDF, 6.1 MB).
The recordings from the project’s second phase were donated to the Library of Congress in May 1986, and comprise the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection. The collection contains speech samples from over 50 collectors. There are 405 recordings which average about 15 minutes in length. In addition to providing a wide variety of material for the study of American speech, the recordings capture a diverse range of topics and people.
Some of the voices will be quite familiar, such as those of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Other voices, despite the speakers’ fame, are seldom heard, such as those of Amelia Earhart, Jack Dempsey, and H. L. Mencken. Most of the recordings, however, are of the voices of people whose specific identities are unknown, but whose comments represent the richness of the American experience. There are Gullah speakers from coastal South Carolina, sharecroppers from Arkansas, Puerto Rican teenagers in New York City, Basque sheepherders from Colorado, Chesapeake Bay watermen, Vietnamese immigrants from Northern Virginia, and many others.
350 of the collection’s 405 recordings are available on this website; of these, 148 have accompanying transcriptions. The remaining recordings, which could not be posted due to copyright issues and other restrictions, may be heard in the AFC Reading Room in Washington, DC.
Users may notice that descriptive data for the website varies from recording to recording. That is a result of the collection containing material from a wide variety of collectors. The data presented, for the most part, is that which was supplied by the collector.