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Some thoughts on accents

Cross-posted from a (friends-locked) discussion on how US accents sound to non-US people, because I'm interested in further input, especially from those whom I purport to represent herein (and apologies if I have misrepresented you in doing so).

I would guess that since most of the American we hear is from movies based in either New York, Washington DC or California, the 'standard' American accent is deemed to be whichever one of those is on at the time. Certainly, when called upon to perform an American accent, most New Zealanders I know will probably hit somewhere around LA, but with a curious over-rounding of certain vowels: New Zealanders pronounce 'car' as 'kaa', not 'kar', but this leads to the over-insertion of Rs in unexpected and random places (like 'farther' instead of 'father') when putting on an American accent.

We read the same things, I think, into the Surfer Dude and Valley Girl accents, but there are some wider regional ones, I think, which are possibly less conscious? I base this list on my experience as an actor working in a company of improvisers who are constantly called upon to provide a variety of accents to portray certain character types, often in a shorthand or caricatured fashion. (Warning: some of these might sound slightly racist or offensive, for which I apologise profusely, but this is just my thoughts on the way these accents are perceived and the associations they entail.)

  • TEXAS: redneck, racist, bible belt, oil tycoon
  • ALABAMA: inbreeding, banjo-playing
  • MINNESOTA: slightly kitschy, family oriented, slow-witted but big-hearted
  • BOSTON: slightly quirky (viz., every Tom Hanks character ever, even the ones not from Boston)
  • CHICAGO: 1930s gangster
  • BROOKLYN: wise guy (seldom distinguished from CHICAGO)
  • QUEENS: Fran Drescher
  • NEW YORK JEWISH: New York Jewish
  • GEORGIA, KENTUCKY: Southern Belle type, or wealthy bourbon drinker, depending on gender.
  • MAINE: Rural type. Possibly about to die horribly.

I think this is most of the ones I would hear being used on a semi-regular basis, apart from GENERICAN, which is the above mentioned pseudo-LA accent. Sometimes we will do entire scenes in GENERICAN for no particular reason (and to the consternation of the Artistic Director). Other times, we will do scenes in our natural New Zealand accents, and a GENERICAN-speaker will crop up. When this happens, they are usually either some kind of rich, successful, famous person, a shifty snake-oil merchant, or THE VILLAIN OMG, in much the same way that many American movies and TV shows seem to use generic (and often awful) English accents to indicate varying degrees of oafishness or perfidy.

Last year I was cast in Catch-22, and had 5 roles. The easiest place for me to start was to pick five different accents, but in case this is interesting:

  • CLEVINGER (cynical, agitated, resigned to his fate): Boston
  • TOWSER (office lackey): Minnesota
  • FIRST DOCTOR (neurotic, ambitious): New York
  • FIRST INVESTIGATING OFFICER (cold, manipulative, evil): Ostensibly Kentucky. Actually, kind of a cross between Christopher Walken and Brian Cox, if you can imagine that.
  • SECOND M.P. (blindly militaristic, mildly thuggish): Alabama (N.B. I think I had a total of two lines as this character, one of which was almost certainly "SIR, YES SIR")


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 27th, 2008 11:45 am (UTC)
I'll try to shove my postgrad papers in sociolinguistics under the table for this... they're probably outdated anyway.

When I was last in NY ('99) everyone from Brooklyn/Queens that I met reminded me of characters from Seinfeld. I'd already had programmed into me that the nasal whiney Brooklyn/Queens voices = lower middle class Jews and their friends. When I kept meeting New Yorkers who fitted those shoes I was somewhat horrified to see the stereotype was, at that point, pretty damned close.

When I went to Boston with some friends from Manhattan they got all shitty over the Boston accent. To many New Yorkers it's seen as either "too Irish" or "snooty and elitist". I can spot a Boston accent a mile away (they say 'Car' almost like NZers do). American media does indeed seem to portray Bostonians mostly as being either Irish-ethnic or Snotty wealthy people with impressive Harvard connections... "Love Story", "The Boondock Saints", etc.

When someone is depicted as coming from Seattle, I interpret their accent as "GenAm" (official term, connected with newsreaders, similar to the UK's RP hierarchy: General American). There's never anything distinctive about it, nothing regional. If one were to draw the dialect/regionality pyramid, Seattle GenAm seems to be near the top - applied to almost anywhere that's just not distinctive.

That's my two pence. Cheers.
Oct. 27th, 2008 12:01 pm (UTC)
As a New York Jew, living in Queens, who spends a lot of time in Brooklyn...

There is actually a big difference between Brooklyn 'wise guy' and Chicago... A friend of mine from Chicago and I tried to figure it out once, and it's actually muscular. When you talk like you're from BRooklyn, you "tawk"... "dawg"... "cawfee"... "Oh my gawwd!"
Your lips move forward.

In Chicago, the lips move back, into almost a smile -- "Chi-KA-go". Ballerina sounds almost like bay-lerrina.

And so on. :)

I, for one, can not do an Australian or New Zealand accent to save my life.
Oct. 27th, 2008 06:33 pm (UTC)
Oh, I was certain there would be differences: it's just that, for our purposes, we haven't really needed to know what they were. We've developed the kind of vocal sneer that suggests a gangster (or film noir detective), and the locality isn't necessarily important. But now that I know, I'll try to be more authentic!

There's a big vowel difference between US and New Zealand accents. US vowels are very 'back' (i.e. formed in the back part of your mouth), while New Zealand vowels are quite 'forward' and less pronounced. New Zealand pronunciation is pretty lazy in general, which, I guess, is why Americans sometimes find it hard to understand us (I found it easier to fake an American accent when I was in Utah).

I'm sitting here trying to figure it out with my own mouth.
Oct. 28th, 2008 12:56 pm (UTC)
I've been trying to think of movies with good examples. You're right, Stephen King movies are good examples of the Maine Nor'east accents. For Boston, watch The Departed. For Brooklyn (while exaggerated, but not by much), My Cousin Vinnie.
Nov. 5th, 2008 02:48 am (UTC)
Hmm, the back/front of the mouth distinction sums up the difference very well. I was trying to think how to describe it.

Is there more than one NZ accent, btw? I've only heard the type that Lucy Lawless has, which sounds like what you're describing.
Nov. 5th, 2008 02:54 am (UTC)
There's not a lot of regional variation, except for what is known as the "Southland burr": a rhotic 'R' that seems to be a hangover from that region's Celtic roots.

However, Lucy Lawless has very good diction. On the whole, New Zealanders have lazy mouths.
Nov. 5th, 2008 05:32 am (UTC)
She can also do a near-flawless American accent, as can Sam Neill.
Oct. 27th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
Well those stereotypes are out there, although some of those states are missing quite a few key ones (Pageant Queens, Debutantes & Cheerleaders). Plus your generic trailer trash (this can also be hick). Every state has hicks though. When I think of Georgia, I think of Nancy Grace.

Not sure what type of New York Jewish person they are talking about, but I hope this includes some yiddish! Sarah Silverman, would be the most prevalent american jewish actress on tv here, but the stereotypical jewish woman can be found in old snl skits http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzK0G3WYqUE & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztCU7kunDKs

I've never met anyone from Maine, but I assume they sound pretty standard. They'd live in the woods or by the sea and eat lots of lobster :)

If you want standard American, the Pacific NW is good for that, almost everything is pronounced by the dictionary. Californians are pretty standard, but it is a huge state and south varies from the north. National news anchors are supposed to have non-regional dictation, so I would look to them for your generican.

Usually I think of the Englishman portrayal as being sophisticated & more trustworthy than those with a russian, german or cuban accent (basically the countries we've had major wars with). Which TV shows are you thinking of? I can only think of Family Guy ATM with bad bad british accents/characters going on (Nigel the brief neighbor). Any movie starring Mike Myers is also bound to have some bad brit.
Oct. 27th, 2008 02:56 pm (UTC)
As Eddie Izzard has pointed out before now, the Death Star seems to be staffed exclusively by the British.
Nov. 5th, 2008 02:29 am (UTC)
The Maine people I've talked to either sound GenAm, or very much like that accent in Stephen King movies. Maybe it depends whether they're from the city or more rural, or something like that...?
Oct. 27th, 2008 07:08 pm (UTC)
The fun thing with southern accents is they all have their little subtle differences; here in Georgia, there is more of a drawl, the speech is more rounded and drawn out, while in Mississippi, where most of my relatives on my mom's side live, they have a tendency to speak in a more clipped fashion. Like they were biting the ends of the words off with their teeth. 'Bama is somewhere in the middle of that, and Tennessee and Kentucky and South Cackalackie (Carolina) are more drawn out as Georgia is. Louisiana is great fun, as you have the Creole and Cajun flavorings thrown in and mingled with the southern drawl (which can make certain conversations incomprehensible), but at the same time it makes a lot of their words sound almost midwestern.

Etc and so forth. You should come visit us Matt :D Get some first-hand tongue-twisting. The colloquialisms alone are amusing, i.e., "He beat him like he was he a borrowed mule!" (heard at a College Football game on saturday) Fun stuff.

Also, other than the Valley Girl/Surfer Dude/Stoner type add-ons, I don't perceive the western states and some middle states as actually having an accent, so to speak, they actually sound more "Generican" to me than anything.

We think y'alls accents are *adorable* by the way :)
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 27th, 2008 09:13 pm (UTC)
haha! Yeah, we do tend to shorten the state, and I can see the "Miss Hippy" although I always thought it tended to sound like "missippi" but even saying it to myself I can hear where the "hippy" would come in. Fun! Alabama is also sometimes referred to as Aladamna and so forth. There's a lot of language mangling and wrangling 'round these here parts ;)

What's really fun is getting someone started on one of the (apparent) biggest pet peeves with the southern usage of the word "fixin", i.e. in the south a lot of people will tell you they're "fixin to go to the store" which drives a lot of my northern friends batty. They don't see what the "fix" part is.
Nov. 5th, 2008 02:33 am (UTC)
When I was the new kid in a grade school in Knoxville, TN, I was taught that "fire", "fair" and "far" were all homonyms, pronounced "far". That, combined with the fact that the kids kept telling me the state I'd moved from (West Virginia) didn't exist and therefore I was stupid, horrified me. That feeling lasted until I moved to Nashville. ;)

TN has three distinct accents - that I know of. The East TN accent is almost Ozarks/Arkansas - very hard Rs, very flat vowels. The Nashville accent is close to GenAm, though distinctly drawn and Southern. And then Memphis is closer to a Georgia accent, kind of soft and almost lyrical.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 28th, 2008 06:03 am (UTC)
HELLOZZZ we have tv shows in Seattle and ugh North Bend, I can do a twin peaks accent perfectly :) ALSO a very important US accent & stereotype is chola, dooon' be stupid, dey speak good an' everythin. Pretty much that is my fav to pull at work.
Oct. 27th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)
*sits in corner, quietly listening with interest*

I am hopeless at accents and have little experience with Americans... just wanted to say your observations were interesting!

Actually, I can add one point. It's something from when I took dance lessons this year from two Americans, one of whom was from the South. She had a very strong accent to all us Australians, but her teaching partner backed her up when she said that she had learned to hold back on it. Apparently if she was speaking in her normal accent, she'd add extra syllables into her words by inserting a 'y' in: e.g. 'well' becomes more like 'way-ull'.
Nov. 5th, 2008 02:39 am (UTC)
Yep, and "that" becomes "thay-yat". That's your basic Southern drawl, and it's actually hard for non-southern Americans to understand, too - at least until they've been around it a while.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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