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Saturday, Sep 01 2012 05:00 PM

Researchers want to know: What does Bakersfield sound like?

BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

Where in California are "pin" and "pen" pronounced the same way?

Who says "apricot" with a long "a" and who say it with a short "a"?

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To volunteer to be interviewed for the Voices of California project, people can email vocbakersfield@gmail.com or call 650-906-0152. The research team will be in Bakersfield from Sept. 3 to 14 and will interview people at whatever time and place is most convenient to them.

These are just a couple of questons researchers from Stanford University are seeking to answer in an ongoing linguistics study. And the next stop on their tour of California is Bakersfield, from Sept. 3 to 14.

"The idea is to travel to lesser known areas of California and learn more about the state outside of the coast cities," said Katherine Geenberg, a doctoral student in linguistics who works on the project.

The project is called Voices of California. It started two years ago. Each summer, the researchers have gone to a Central Californian city, conducted one- to two-hour interviewers with about 100 residents and analyzed the interviews to find out differences in dialects among Californians. The first year the researchers went to Merced, and the second year they went to Redding.

When the group comes to Bakersfield, it will canvass the whole city looking for people to interview, Geenberg said. They were already in Bakersfield for a weekend in the beginning of August and signed up 24 people to be interviewed.

"We're immersing ourselves," she said. "We'll be all around town."

What they've found so far in Merced and Redding is that there is a heavy influence of Dust Bowl migration in the way Central Californians pronounce vowels, said Ed King, another of the doctoral student researchers. For example, the identical pronunciation of "pin" and "pen" is something more common in the South. But it's also found in Central California.

And the researchers only expect to find a heavier influence of Dust Bowl migration in Bakersfield, King said.

"People mention that stereotype," he said. "So we'll see if we notice more of a southern influence."

One application for this research would be to improve speech recognition software like Apple's Siri. Technology like that is generally programed to recognize a standard English. With the Stanford research, it might be able to be programmed to recognize more variations, King said.

But, more generally, the project is about giving people the chance to tell their stories and have their voices heard, said researcher Geenberg. At one point, the researchers plan to make the interviews available for public viewing in an online database.

It's also a chance for the researchers themselves to learn more about the state they live in. Marisa Casillas, another of the doctoral researchers, was born and raised in California. But before she started working on this project, she had only ever been to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

"I had limited experiences with other places," Casillas said. "This is an opportunity to get to know other places."

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