What allows people to know if a black person is talking, even if they are speaking standard English? They aren't using a separate dialect, nor have an accent, yet it's easy to know if they are black. I know some black people speak very well and it's impossible to know their shade. I tried researching, but only found this referencing a dialect, from "www.psychologytoday.com."

  • 1
    If the way someone - anyone - speaks sounds distinctly different, that's what 's called an accent. If you can't identify what's distinctive about it, that doesn't change the fact.
    – Joffan
    Jul 31, 2016 at 4:47
  • 2
    If indeed they didn't speak with a separate dialect and/or have an accent then it would be impossible, But for the cases where one can tell, it's precisely because they have a different accent and/or use a different dialect.
    – Jim
    Jul 31, 2016 at 4:48
  • 3
    "I know some black people speak very well and it's impossible to know their shade." For one thing, these things aren't necessarily the same. "Speaking well" is not a well-defined concept, and I think you're likely to offend if you say that people who do speak with an identifiably "black" accent are not speaking well. For another thing, doesn't this completely undermine the basis of your question, "What is it that allows a person to determine that a black person is speaking?" You've said it yourself: this can't always be determined.
    – herisson
    Jul 31, 2016 at 5:52
  • 2
    Your basic premise here is flawed. There's no way of knowing the race of a speaker without looking at them (and sometimes that won't suffice either). A good example would be James Earl Jones who voiced Darth Vader in the original Star Wars films. Only people who actually knew who he was and that he was the voice actor had the faintest inkling that Darth Vader’s voice was ‘black’—everyone else pretty much just assumed that Darth Vader was completely white. Jul 31, 2016 at 7:15
  • 2
    There are differences in tonal quality of the voice that are caused by the shape of the head, mouth, and nasal cavities (and possibly the lungs and windpipe). Since some black people have inherited such shapes that are different from the typical European-American shapes, sometimes such differences in tonal quality can suggest the racial background of the speaker. Beyond that, of course, ones cultural background often affects "accent" (eg, I can fairly easily detect the fact that a "normal seeming" person of apparent European-American descent is from certain parts of the US Southeast).
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 31, 2016 at 12:14

1 Answer 1


Numerous traits in speech provide clues to someone's background, be it accent, vocabulary, phraseology, or tone. These clues can be completely wrong, but they are also often right, based on the experience of the listener. Think of the stereotypical Scottish, British, American, Indian, South African, or Australian expressions of English, and it is not difficult to distinguish regional variation within, e.g., AmE that includes some racial or socioeconomic clues about the speaker's background. Such clues are often incorrect, because (I trust) social mobility is real, but we are all products of our upbringing. All of this is (I hope) rendered moot when we see the universal expressions of commonality in high-point moments like Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July 2016.

  • As a HS teacher in an all-minority neighborhood in NYC for almost 40 years, I can tell you that over the course of that time, the percentage of black teenagers who speak with noticeably "black" speech patterns has diminished greatly. Much of the reason is that these are typical Southern patterns, so their lessening just indicates that these families have been in the North longer. To some extent, it's the effect of mass media. (Similarly, "Brooklynese" has mostly disappeared.) BTW, anyone remember Julie Brown on MTV? She spoke with a typical British accent. Jul 31, 2016 at 13:17
  • That would be Downtown Julie Brown, not to be mistaken for Julie Brown, who appeared in Earth Girls Are Easy. Jul 31, 2016 at 19:29
  • I think maybe it is just an accent, but I was confused because the people live in the same exact area or city as me! So how can they have an accent?! But I think it's a separate culture so that imparts a slight accent, even if they don't use special vocabulary. Also HotLicks above had an interesting explanation.
    – Chloe
    Aug 5, 2016 at 17:51

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.