I have been with the family for a few days and haven’t got a chance to post anything substantial. So I figured I would quickly comment on the recent rash of “dialect savant” videos on YouTube. The most trafficked of them is this young woman:
But there is also:
- This young man doing “The English Language in 24 Accents.”
- This young woman doing another “The English Language in 24 Accents.”
- This guy doing 35 Accents of the English Language (including, bizarrely, something called “Medieval English.”
I mean no disrespect to the creators of these videos, but I am never all that impressed by the “around the world in x number of accents” routine. In my opinion, people are wowed more by the fact of somebody changing their voice repeatedly than the accuracy of the dialects being performed. Which is not to say that all of the accents in the above videos are poorly done.
What I admire in dialect work is endurance. If you can convince me you are from another country for an entire play, or movie, or TV show, that is much more impressive than rattling off a sentence or two in every regional twang under the sun.
I play the Amy Walker video for my clients during our first week of training (and sometimes the “Carlos Santos 21 accentos en espanol”). After the first viewing, I ask for general feedback. Many, many people say that they all sound the same, or that they can only hear one or two accents that sound different, or that they simply can’t understand her on most of them. At first, this blew me away.
On the second viewing (the same day), I play it silently and ask them to note if they see any physical differences — which they do.
The third time, I play just the first two London ones and the Seattle and LA ones and ask the clients to say what’s different physically and tonally between the English and the American voices. I ask them to draw a representation of the intonation/stress of each. Then I send them home with a link to the video and ask them to watch it repeatedly and tell me which one they think is her “real” accent. Results from this exercise are also widely varied.
Towards the end of our 15 weeks together, I play the video again for my clients and they are much better able to recognize the differences in her accents and can even mimic some of them.
Most of the people I work with have lived in the US for 10+ years, are pretty immersed in mainstream US culture, and work in an English speaking environment. And yet — many start off hearing no major difference between Amy Walker’s wildly exaggerated Scottish/Brooklyn/Cockney/Aussie accents and her modest London/LA/Seattle ones.
They also don’t know how different their own intonation/pronunciation is from (what we’ll just call for the sake of simplicity) a standard US English accent — and this is the crux of their communication problems. Interesting, eh?
That is interesting. I have often found people to be blind to variations in dialect outside of their own languages or countries. That’s what bothers me about the persistence of the “all Americans talk alike” meme: if you live outside America, you’re going to focus more on the obvious similarities (rhoticity) then the differences (the pronunciation of “goat”).
Hello, Ben. Your point about endurance is a good one. Although I’m a dialect naif, I generally fail to be overly impressed by these videos. I admire the rapid switching ability, and the enthusiasm and linguistic curiosity, but ultimately it feels more like a parlour trick than a persuasive ‘inhabiting’ of the various accents.
It’s very true. Part of that quality of inhabiting an accent for me is learning the entire dialect rather than simply how people pronounce things. The young man above, for example, uses “take the piss” when doing an American accent, which ruins my suspension of disbelief more than any pronunciation mistake.
A few years back I was acting in a production of Juno and the Paycock, with a mixed Irish and American cast. The actor playing Joxer was pretty much as close to being Joxer as possible, with one of the thickest working-class Dublin accents I had ever heard. I remember being rather dismayed because no matter how much I mastered every nuance of Dublin, he never seemed impressed. Eventually, when I asked him what I was doing wrong, he replied, in a quite astute way, that it was really about the words, the grammar, and what these things meant. Being an unusually linguistic-minded actor, I had seen Dublin entirely in terms of t-lenition, semi-rhoticity and cramped vowel systems, but I didn’t REALLY understand the dialect because I didn’t fully understand anything outside of mere pronunciation.
Thanks for the anecdote. It’s hard enough to imitate an Irish accent, let alone the all-pervasive Irishness beneath it!
Pingback: Learn an Accent in 3 Minutes! (A Rant) | Dialect Blog
It’s been a while since I first saw her, but I found your post from the “3 minute” rant, and thought it fair to say that she ALMOST nailed the Zild – for most of that bit I heard no accent at all, and for that rare feat, I salute her.
This is way too late a comment, but her Toronto is atrocious. I’m an Ontarian, and absolutely nobody from Toronto talks like that.