A is for ... Accents
WHAT IS AN ACCENT?
The term 'accent' describes the combination of pitch, stresses and rhythm of someone's everyday speech, as well as how they pronounce their vowels and consonants. Everyone has an accent. You speak with an accent even if you speak like all the people around you and even if you speak modern (or traditional) received pronunciation; defined as: “the regionally neutral, prestige accent of British English",
An accent is not, strictly speaking, the same thing as a dialect though they are often confused and it is difficult to imagine a dialect that is not associated with an accent. Strictly speaking the definition of a dialect is:
‘A dialect (or patois) is a particular form of language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group.’"
Everyone has an accent to a lesser or greater degree – no matter in what language they are speaking; French with a Parisian accent is very different from French as spoken in the Marseilles, Catalonian Spanish is different from Andalucian Spanish; The American of the Deep South is very different from the accent of the New York suburbs … and so it is the whole world over.
Even the classic neutral voice as heard in news bulletins and documentary narrations, in theatres and on radio in every country in the world, is in itself a kind of ‘accent’.
We are all judged to some degree by our accent. Some judgements are positive, others less so. Certain accents are seen as more 'authentic' than others - but surely, your voice is your voice. Or are are we all naturally bilingual?
Listen to a child playing with their friends - they will almost certainly speak differently in the playground than they will when speaking with their parents or grandparents. I did when I was a youngster - my Northern flat 'A' 'bath' and 'path' with my friends, 'bahth' and 'pahth' at home. Both are my 'authentic' voice - I am not putting on either - it just depends who I am speaking to - and because of the kind of work I do - the neutral RP voice is the one I use most, though not exclusively..
As well as the many regional variations in the way words are pronounced in every language,. there are also different and unique words belonging to specific areas of each country. Some variations are very subtle, some are more obvious. I am not familiar enough with world languages to be able to comment on local anomalies in other countries, but in the UK for example, every area seems to have its own unique term of endearment; 'Hen' in Glasgow, 'Mi Duck' in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, 'Babs' in the Black Country, ‘Dahl’ or ‘Boyo’ in Wales 'La’ or ‘Kidder’ in Liverpool and 'Pet' or ‘Hinny’ in Newcastle to give a few examples.
YOUR NATURAL VOICE
Although linguists assure us that there is no such thing as a 'good' or 'bad' accent, it is perfectly normal for people to have favourite accents as well as accents that set their teeth on edge. Edinburgh is regularly judged to have one of the most 'pleasant' accents in Britain, while Birmingham, Liverpool and London tend to come near the bottom of the lists according to research by the BBC.
Your natural (native) accent says more about you than you realise, it defines you both within your community and to other outside that community … and that definition is not only an indication of where you come from; but also hints at your background and education.
Research reveals that certain accents are seen as more trustworthy than others … a fact that is exploited by people employing call centre staff and the folk casting commercials for television and radio. However, these prejudices only really come to light when the listener is familiar with the country that a person comes from. The dislike of a particular accent is really nothing to do with the sound itself as demonstrated by the attitudes of people from other countries when hearing a particular accent for the first time.
Dr Catherine Brown, a senior lecturer in English at London’s New College of Humanities, was recently interviewed for an article on Yahoo News recently. She believes that whether or not someone chooses to keep their accent is a matter of choice. “People can cling to regional accents for reasons of class or regional loyalty, consciously or not. Some choose to keep it, others try to lose it.”
Dr Brown also states that,
I think that in the United Kingdom at least, people still tend to make judgments about a person’s intelligence and credibility based on their accent, and the fact that your voice can reveal so much about you is one of the reasons why some, particularly those in positions of authority; politicians, doctors, teachers, lawyers and, of course, broadcasters and public speakers still feel it necessary to lose (or at least reduce) their unique voice when they are ‘on duty’ though perhaps not in private.
This ironing out of a local twang may be less common now than it used to be … but a survey for the BBC revealed than 4 in 5 people admitted to changing their accent on occasions, particularly when meeting people for the first time or when talking to more senior work colleagues.
Nowadays, those for whom giving presentations, lectures, or speeches, while probably not attending formal elocution classes, often take coaching from specialist voice teachers … and while the emphasis may be on learning how to motivate and inspire their work colleagues, I have no doubt that such training also involves smoothing the rough edges of a strong accent – not least in recognition that a strong accent may not be well understood by others.
There is no doubt that in some spheres of life judgements are made based on the sound of someone’s voice … In politics, there appears to be a kind of reverse snobbery about accents here in the UK. Recently a certain UK Tory politician, in an attempt to improve their rather negative ‘hooray Henry’ image modified their usual condescending and rather plumy tones and adopted a ‘mockney’ accent during a speech on Welfare in a vain attempt to identify with ‘the common man’! Needless to say, it didn't go down too well.
THE NEUTRAL ACCENT
According to research by the BBC, British people who speak with a received pronunciation (RP) accent are commonly perceived to be more authoritative and intelligent than - but not as nice or trustworthy - as people who speak in a local accent.
In 1941, the BBC first allowed a Northern accent onto the air waves in the shape of news reader Wilfred Pickles. According to the BBC, This was not an early attempt at appealing more to the general public, but actually a move to make it more difficult for Nazis to impersonate BBC broadcasters! The BBC voices website states that:
For many years, 'BBC English' was synonymous with Received Pronunciation … but even RP has changed over the years; there are now really two distinctly different versions in the UK. Traditional RP is the very posh, clipped upper class voice, spoken by earnest men in 1950s public information films, certain members of the Royal family, in comedy sketches and commercials, and by the art critic, the late Brian Sewell!
Modern RP is an unmarked, non-regional standard accent, predominantly spoken in England. Many people have it as part of their repertoire, and it's arguably less far removed from other accents than traditional RP.
A person speaking modern RP, for example, would pronounce 'handle', as 'han-dl'. Someone with a regional accent might well drop the ‘h’, pronouncing I as 'an-dl' or 'an-duw'. A traditional RP speaker would say ‘hen-dl'. House in the vernacular would be ‘aas’; traditional RP would be ‘hice’, modern RP, house.
GENERIC REGIONAL ACCENTS
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a generic regional accent, though in reality accents are often thought of as belonging to pretty broad geographical areas, so people think of ‘an Irish accent’, ‘a Welsh accent’ or ‘a Northern accent’, despite there actually being quite distinct differences in accent within those regions. There are some forensic speech specialists with a highly trained ear, (the aural equivalent of 'a nose' in the perfumery industry I suppose), who, just by listening to a genuine regional voice, can say not only which region that person comes from but also which town in that region, and sometimes even which area within that town!
ACCENTS FOR ACTORS
As a stage, film or television actor, the setting and the accents in a drama script are usually pretty specific … the drama may be set in a particular town and within a script there are often clues about accents not only in the character descriptions, but also from what one character says about another. For a voice actor working on a straight narrative read, there are often fewer clues. You get a script - or a job breakdown … occasionally, an accent is indicated in a character breakdown, or the script may be written in a specific 'dialect' using words, expressions or phrases that are used only in one particular area – in which case – an actor who is native to that region is much more likely to be cast than an actor who can ‘do’ that particular accent.
More often the character breakdown includes some rather general description like ‘light northern’, ‘mid Atlantic’; ‘North American’, ‘Irish’; Irish. None of which is a particularly meaningful description. In these cases, the client will often only know what they want when they actually hear it, so it is down to you as the performer to give the best read you can while keeping as close to the brief as possible. My advice would always be to do less rather than more with a note to the casting director or client, that you can strengthen the accent if required.
When a client or casting director specifies that they are looking for an actor with a native accent - then that is what they mean – they want the voice of someone who was born and brought up, or has at least lived in a specific area. If you think you can do the accent convincingly, unless you are sure that you can stand beside someone who was born and brought up in wherever it is and that no-one will know the difference, then my advice would be don’t even try to compete. You will only be putting yourself in a potentially embarrassing situation by pretending to be something that you are not.
If the choice of an accent is left to you, or if you are creating a recording for a reel - or even submitting a read for an audition, then a teensy tinge of an accent is often very effective and is often easier on the ear than a very broad or strong accent (unless of course that is what has been asked for). I quite often vary my neutral British voice (which can sound a bit posh) just a teeny weeny bit, flattening it out a little for a very slight northern industrial feel, or rolling it a little for a more ‘countrified’ effect. I am talking very subtle here - such a tiny difference so that my voice is still very much recognisable as my voice, I am not 'putting on' an accent, I am just very gently softening, or hardening, or flattening or adding lilt to my voice, in the same way that people often do in general conversation. They adapt their voice to echo the person they are speaking to.
Try it out .... think of a line in a script for an advert for example ... the line is,
'When nothing but the best is good enough - you know where to come'.
Now this could apply to almost anything - so think of some products and imagine what voice you might use to enhance and strengthen the message of the advertisement.
And of course … accents are not just featured in drama and advertisements. Even corporate and business voice overs, on hold and welcome messages, all can be brought to life by a touch of the appropriate accent.
ACCENTS IN AUDIOBOOKS
Accents crop up quite often in audiobooks, most obviously when a character comes from somewhere specific. In most audiobooks the narrative is read in a neutral voice and using a slight variation in accent can be a good way to help define and separate individual characters from the narrative voice - but beware of the ministry of silly voices! You're definitely not aiming for the Tower of Babel effect. All the characters must be believable so if an accent gets in the way of a character's authenticity, then you have to find another way. Of course it goes without saying that you must always be true to the author's intentions. If a book is geographically set in a particular area, then it's likely that most of the people living there, and especially those belonging to the same family or social group, (and if it's a period piece, of the same class) will speak in a similar way. In first person narrative reads when a book has a particular setting then I tend to infuse the narrative voice with the accent as well as in dialogue sections. use the 'character's accent' for the narrative voice as well.
Keep track of accents can be tricky over a long read, consistency is vitally important. If you are reading multiple voices keep an audio clip of every single character to refer back to whenever they crop up. There may be many chapters in between each character's appearance and being able to call up an MP3 file using the character's name as a reference will save you hours of hunting through previous chapters to find the write voice.
Speaking of accents in audiobooks - I think it's important to read the ENTIRE book and make character reference notes BEFORE you begin recording. Launch straight in and you may end up having endowed your hero with a soft Irish lilt - only to discover on the final page that he actually comes from Kazakhstan! The only exception to this might be when you are up against a very tight deadline when you're given detailed character notes from a production house and are working with a director who is keeping an eye on such things. A rarity these days ... and even if I have that support, I still prefer to have read the entire book to get the feel of the characters, their motivation, the subplot, the dramatic arc of the novel. More of this in detail later in the series.
COMING NEXT ...
A is for Acting ... Acting is the most important ingredient of every audiobook and every voice over job.
I've gleaned quite a lot of knowledge over the years, knowledge that might be of interest to others, especially authors, actors and voice actors. Because I read so much, for pleasure and professionally, I also occasionally write reviews of what I read - so they're here too.
All opinions and views are my own!