Monday, May 8, 2017

Accents and Dialects

Accents and dialects are one of the fun things an actor gets to do. When you do it, you always get the question "how did you get that accent?" It's probably one of the most common questions asked to actors, second only to "how did you memorize all those lines?" The answer, of course, is the same for both questions:

Hard work. Lots of hard work.

But there are some specific steps one goes through when one has to do accent work, so I thought I'd talk about it. 

Before I start, I want to acknowledge that there is more than one way to do this. Some people get someone with an accent they want to mimic to record their lines. Some people just watch a lot of TV or other media that feature the accent. This post is about how I approach it. It's not the "right way" or the only way. Also, I want to mention that I'm not a dialect expert. I have a fair amount of experience, and I know what works for me, but if you're looking for a technical discussion using the phonetic alphabet, well that's not me. I'll probably use some terms that describe things the way I think about it that will make experts cringe, so be warned.

Another preliminary matter - what's the difference between a dialect and an accent? Short answer is that an accent is defined by how words are pronounced and how they sound. A dialect also includes a system of speech (word choice, grammar, etc) usually associated with a specific geographical region. A slightly longer (and better) explanation can be found here.

So, let's get started.

My most recent role was Paravicini from Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. It's a fun role, and the character is described as "vaguely European" which leaves lots of room for interpretation. Partly because I liked the character choice, and partly because I was lazy, I decided that my character was faking the accent, so I didn't feel compelled to get it right (since my character wasn't getting it right, after all). It was fun, but my director Tim Wiest, probably wisely, told me to pick something more specific, since most people would just think I (the actor) was bad at accents rather than I (the character). 

So I decided to give him an Italian accent, principally because the name seems Italian, and we had decided to pronounce the name with a "ch" sound (as an Italian would), so it fit. 

The first thing I did was get a photocopy of the script so that one script page took up an 8.5xll piece of paper. This gave me room to make notes on pronunciation. I seem to have already thrown this away, so sadly I can't show you a copy of the notes I took. 

Once I had my large script for working on the accent, I started with the general points. The internet is great for that. Just google "Italian Accent" and pull up some videos. This is a pretty good one:


That's a great place to start. All the major sound substitutions are there.

1) Diphthongs (we'll come back to this)
2) Dropping the "h" sound.
3) Rolling the "r" (don't over do this, just a little tap or short roll)
4) Vestigial schwa (Use this where the rhythm of speech requires it. "Allow me to poke (a) the fire for you" was one of my lines)
5) The "i" to "ee" (for example - the word "hit" sounds like "heat")
6) The TH sound (or rather it's absence - she describes it as dentalized, but it's a bit more than that. Italian doesn't really have the sound, so it usually becomes more of a "d" or "t" and sometimes "s" - you have to play with it a bit - for example "this thing with" sounds a bit like "dis ting wis")
7) "ah to "eh" (the word "mat" becomes ... sort of "met" basically just soften this "a" sound a bit)
8) the UH to OOO sound (oo is always pronounced like "choose" not like "book")

That's a pretty good summary. But keep in mind, that's just one person. Here's a video of a real Italian making fun of the above video.


Notice that she seems to object that the video sounds fake - keep that in mind - because IT IS. The key here is to realize that the first video is exaggerating the changes to emphasize them so you notice them. But you don't want to sound like someone doing an accent demonstration.

So... once I had the basic sound substitutions, I went to my clean, full size copy of the script, and I made notes. Find each example of each sound and notate it (underline, circle, strike through, different things for different sounds usually). Then you need to start practicing. Practice, practice, practice so you memorize the sound and the oral movements with the words. It needs to feel natural.

And keep looking for more sources. One great source is the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA). This is a great resource because you can hear audio samples of the people from that country or region speaking English. It's great because (depending on how many recordings exist) there's a range of ages, sexes, and regions. It's really nice to hear the variety. This is especially important if you're doing a dialect rather than an accent (or rather a dialect accent rather than a foreign accent) as place and social status can have a huge influence on sound - think Cockney vs. RP - both British dialects, and both found in London). The Speech Accent Archive is also a great resource, very similar. Listening to a variety of the same accent can give you ideas and help you hear gradations (maybe this person doesn't drop their H, that one can pronounce the TH sound more cleanly,etc).

Finally, the last thing I did was listen to a lot of one particular person. I googled "podcast italian accent" and found History on Fire. It's a wonderful and entertaining podcast. I would recommend it based on content alone. But best for my purposes, the host Daniele Bolelli has a strong Italian accent. Listening to him for hours and hours - his rhythm and cadence and his idiosyncrasies really helped cement the accent for me. It also helped me become very specific. Accents share a lot of characteristics, but they are not uniform. They often depend on where the person is from within the country (which affects their sound choice and natural voice), their level of proficiency in English, and perhaps just how good their ear is. Listening to his particular accent enabled me to create an accent very like his.

One thing I noted - Diphthongs (see video). Contrary to the video, rather than replacing the diphthong with a single sound, I found that Daniele would instead pronounce both vowels (or pronounce the single vowel diphthong as if there were two vowels). So the "I" diphthong in a word like "right" (slow it down, or say it with a southern accent, you'll hear that there are two sounds "ah-ee") really becomes "ah-ee" almost two syllables. Similarly, the "ou" in words like "about" - you would hear both vowels "ahbah-oot." I also noticed that the sound would drop in pitch on the second half of the diphthong.

Another thing I noted - Italians pronounce each letter if at all possible (except "h"). The word "several" bedeviled me particularly - because the American pronunciation is really "SEV-rel" we elide the middle syllable. But an Italian speaker wouldn't do that. Multisyllabic words in general are tough, you find extra sounds you typically don't pronounce as a native speaker. My best tip: try to sound everything out as if you were reading the word for the first time to make sure you are making all the sounds, and put the emphasis on the second to the last syllable if possible. That helps a lot.

The other thing I really had to work on was keeping the accent "up" in my mouth. She talks about oral posture, keeping your tongue forward in the mouth. That's part of it. But I found I also needed to keep the sound in my mouth and nose, and not let it drop into my chest. The Slavic (Bulgaria/Romania, etc) accent has a lot of the same substitutions. Sometimes I would sound like Dracula if I let it drop into my chest resonances. The trick for me was keeping it light and forward in the mouth, and also not having a super wide variation in pitch. Going WAY up and WAY down slows the accent down and again sounded Transylvanian. Keeping the speed of speech up also helped create the right sound.

It is hard to do though! My tongue would actually be tired at the end of a rehearsal.

Ok, that's it. I hope you enjoyed this. I'll try to post a bit more regularly. It's a fun exercise, and I have a lot to talk about.

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