There has been a recent to-do over British actress Michelle Collins, who joined the Manchester-based soap opera Coronation Street. Collins was best known for her role in EastEnders (a soap set in East London), so her Manchester accent must come as a bit of a shock. Still, I can’t quite wrap my head around the 34 articles about the “controversy” (as per Google News) that this accent has inspired.
For reference, here is a brief clip of Collins’ first appearance on the show.
Given the bad press, one might expect some serious mangling. But really, Collins’ accent isn’t that bad. I suppose she sounds more generally Northern than specifically Manchester (for example, she uses a monophthongal “o” sound for words like “know” where Mancunians would probably use a diphthong.) But at worst, she overdoes the accent more than she completely botches it.
So why all the hatchet jobs? Well, Collins is a celebrity, and one whose fame came about from a specific role with a very specific accent (Cockney). A similar situation might arise in America if, say, Fran Drescher starred in a TV show as a Tennessee housewife or (conversely) Jeff Foxworthy played a Brooklyn construction worker. No matter how accurate the accent might be, the effect would be jarring.
Sometimes the problem extends to celebrities we associate with certain personas rather than accents. On those grounds, I am one of those who half-defends Brad Pitt’s Belfast accent in The Devil’s Own. Would I term it “good?” Noooo. But in the annals of bad accents in cinema, it doesn’t even belong in the top 20 for me. In the mid-1990s, however, Pitt was seen as a kind of handsome, all-American Ken Doll, and it’s likely this perception tainted viewers expectations going in.
In a very weird way, such prejudices remind me of certain socio-phonetics studies about dialects and race (stay with me here). Researchers have commonly found that when someone of a certain ethnic group speaks with an accent perceived as atypical of said ethnic group, the accent may be deemed wrong, unintelligible, or “fake.”* Since we associate celebrities with very specific voices (and in the case of Collins, a specific accent**), there may be a similar phenomenon when famous faces are accompanied by unfamiliar speech patterns.
As someone who has been an actor himself, though, I admit some sensitivity to such criticisms. At the very least, I have a problem with articles that deem an actor’s accent unworthy without giving any details as to what’s wrong with it. So if you have a problem with Collins’ Mancunian, here’s your chance to speak up. What is specifically un-Manchester about the accent she uses?
*One example: a 1992 study paired the same recording of a General American accent with pictures of Caucasian and Asian faces. The researcher found that when the recording accompanied Asian faces, the study participants described the accent to be less comprehensible (Rubin, D. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education, 33 (4), pp. 511-531.)
**Ironically, although Collins is from East London, her real accent is not particularly Cockney. This radio interview with the actress reveals an accent that lies closer to the Near-RP/Estuary border. I’m not sure if she altered her accent later in life or if this is how she has always spoken.
Her accent from the radio interview sounds like a southerner who’s had the distinctive regional features of her accent beaten out of her at acting school.
She doesn’t have TH-fronting or R-fronting. This might be due to her age (born in 1961) as much as her training. Much more striking to me was the lack of L-vocalization, which I would find astonishing in any southerner (even of her age) without vocal training.. She does have a back and slightly rounded onset for PRICE, which sounds southern. She says “psychopath” with the TRAP vowel, while I would expect a southerner to have PALM.
Listen to the way she say “murder” twice at around 1:45. The first time it is markedly R-colored! She then repeats herself without the R-coloring.
She’s obviously been trained to use several different accents, and as a result her speech on the interview sounds somewhat neutral. I find it quite pleasant (I must admit to an aesthetic bias against most Londonisms).
As to the “controversy” about her Northern accent, you’ve covered it pretty well in your main post. Don’t forget that there is a huge socio-political (as well as linguistic) North-South divide in England, which is currently being accentuated by the government spending cuts of the Cameron government (the North relies upon public spending much more than the South).
There are plenty of Tories in the north as well. North Yorkshire is almost all Tory. On the other hand, East London is almost all Labour.
Accent is a more politicised in Britain than in America. People often presume that someone with an RP accent must be politically conservative as well, which is strange when you consider that Tony Benn (long-term left-winger) is as aristocratic as anyone can sound.
@dw – I am pretty certain I’ve never heard anyone pronounce ‘psychopath’ with PALM, and sure enough LPD gives TRAP as the only option. You a Northerner? 😀
I think the biggest difficulty is indeed Collins’s strong identification in the public mind with Cindy, the role she played on EastEnders. It was an important role with several strong story arcs, and the memory of the character was kept alive by frequent mentions on screen, long after the character and Collins had departed the show.
I’ve read numerous criticisms of various inauthentic accents on Corrie over the years. Relatively few of the cast are native Mancunians, though many of the original cast were from somewhere in the North Country. It seems to me that Collins is doing a passable job, and may well improve when she settles into the role. As it is, in my opinion her accent is more convincing than that of Jane Leeves ever was on Frasier (to say nothing of the odd lot of accents produced by the actors playing her family).
Nice to know I’m not the only one who thought Brad Pitt got a bum rap for The Devils’ Own. I thought he did a creditable job for a non-native speaker, though admittedly not a brilliant one, and it certainly wouldn’t make any list of mine of dreadful accents.
I’d say that the /ɑː/ in PRICE is old-fashioned now. This used to be common in a large area of north-central England, but most people have some sort of diphthong in PRICE now.
I’ve never been clear on what Mancunian is. As trawicks suggests with the comment on diphthongs, it is more similar to RP than other Northern accents. I can’t think of a single thing that is unique to Manchester. Any suggestions?
I sensed a bit of that North-South tension in one article about Collins’ accent in which a producer of the show suggested that having a recurring character on the show with a Southern accent would be seen as a betrayal of sorts.
Very true about Jane Leeves. But as you suggest, what REALLY bugged me about that show was when Anthony LaPaglia showed up as her brother talking like Sid Vicious. A curiously multi-regional family indeed!
I’ve been curious about what is saliently “Mancunian” for a while now. It certainly doesn’t have quite the distinctiveness of Scouse. In fact, when people refer to features of the Manchester accent, I often find explanations for how it’s different from Scouse: t-glottaling, less of a tendency toward NURSE-fronting, etc. I’m also puzzled by what, exactly, “Mancunian” as an accent refers to: Greater Manchester (in which case do we exclude the exurbs of Cheshire?) or just Man City?
English people (I specifically exclude Scots and Welsh here) can be very protective of their historic county ties. A lot of people in towns in Greater Manchester still swear allegiance to either Lancashire (for towns such as Wigan, Bolton, Leigh) or Cheshire (places such as Altrincham, Stockport).
I would say that “Mancunian” is just the City of Manchester although I doubt that people in, say, Salford or Trafford (very nearby) speak much differently. In John Wells’s original article on accents (1970, Local accents in England and Wales, J of Linguistics), he mentions Manchester only to say each time that it is closer to RP than the surrounding Lancastrian accents (non-rhotic, diphthongs in GOAT and FACE, no NURSE-SQUARE merger).
There is a lack of NG-coalescence in Manchester, which is common throughout Lancashire and the West Midlands. This at least separates it from Yorkshire, where NG-coalescence is almost universal.
Bad grammar by me. When I said:
“There is a lack of NG-coalescence in Manchester, which is common throughout Lancashire and the West Midlands.”
I meant that lack of NG-coalescence is a feature that Manchester shares with the rest of Lancashire and the West Midlands.
Wells also makes the interesting point that he finds the Manchester accent closer to a Leeds accent than a Liverpool accent–despite the hilly terrain that separates Leeds from Manchester.
I agree. Leeds and Manchester are very similar. Dialectal features have survived more widely in Leeds though (most notably reduction of the definite article).
Liverpool is very different from Manchester. The area between the two is also different. Bernard Wrigley is a good example of an accent from the Wigan-Bolton area http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48YsjViM3EM
I’ve read that the Mancunian intonation pattern is similar to that of Liverpool though. So I think it’s the combination of features that makes Mancunian (somewhat) unique. In fact there is a great map and table that show this on pp. 70-71 of the book English Accents and Dialects. It puts Manchester in the region it calls the “north-west Midlands”. You can read it on Amazon.com. P.S. The part about the intonation is on p. 143.
This is a bit off-topic, but the other night I happened to struggle through the first 15 minutes of “A Farewell to Arms,” the 1956 Selznick vehicle with Rock Hudson and Selznick’s wife at the time, Jennifer Jones. Jones played a British nurse working at a military hospital in northern Italy during 1915. She was portraying, presumably, a fairly well-educated speaker of Standard British English. The on-screen result was less than limp at best; she made a slight attempt to broaden her A’s and mimic the prosody, but it didn’t wash. She pretty much gave it up after the first scene. Long story-short, in my opinion, non-native actors hardly ever made a successful attempt at replicating an accent until relatively recently. Whether successful or not, I think that most of them today make a good try, and I’m more than willing to exhibit a willing suspension of disbelief in most cases. If you want to hear the worst of the worst, re-listen to Leslie Howard pretending to be a southern gentleman in “Gone with the Wind,” and Spencer Tracy pretending to be a Portuguese fisherman in “Captains Courageous.”
While we’re on the subject of Frasier (well, at least some of you were): the actor John Mahoney, and this may come as a shock to some, is actually English. He originally had either a Lancastrian or Mancunian accent. Or maybe it was a mixture of the two. Anyway, he “resurrected” his original accent in this episode of Frasier.
Quick pop-cultural note to dw re two tokens of ‘murder’ in the radio clip. The first R-coloured token is surely a nod to Taggart (90s Scottish TV detective, catchphrase imitated far and wide as ‘There’s been a murder’ with pathological rhoticism). Collins’ repetition is her natural pronunciation.
I definitely agree with you there. I think dialect work for actors was fairly medieval before at least the 1960’s. Prescriptivist notions of how actors should talk still ruled the day, and people were simply less aware of different accents because they weren’t exposed to them through the media. Old movies require a certain suspension of disbelief in that way (for example, believing that the very British-sounding Robert Donat is a Canadian in the 39 Steps).
I was looking for that clip! I always wondered if Leeves’ accent was an in-joke related to Mahoney’s upbringing …
I must admit to being surprised by a person’s accent in contrast with their race. I was watching an episode of Cops and an officer was speaking in a Floridian accent, and I was extremely surprised when his face was shown and the officer was black. There was something vaguely incongruous to his accent because it was pure Floridian without any hint of stereotypically black accents such as AAVE or any Caribbean accent.
Culturally, I think its clear that we’re conditioned to expect certain accents of certain people, and Pop culture tends to reinforce our expectations. So when those expectations are upset, it can come as a bit of surprise, and people often react poorly to surprises. Like when IKEA announced they would be changing the font in their catalogue and there was an uproar from people who associated that particular typeface with IKEA and didn’t want their expectations to be upset.
Wells is quite correct in his comments about Leeds and Manchester being very similar, and Michelle’s accent exploits this. Stella’s accent is pitched between Deirdre Barlow and Vera Duckworth (Leeds). Stella (the character) has moved around and worked in the licensing trade, so she has smoothed out some of the hardcore ‘Mancunian’ sounds whatever such an accent might be. I agree with Ed’s comments about Salford and Trafford. Coronation Street is set in Weatherfield and while there is some suggestion Weatherfield is near Salford, the whole thing is a fiction.
The monophthongal version of the [OH] sound reflects the Bury/Bolton element of the the accent (where the tendency is to substitute [OH] with [OR]). The [OO] sound is preceded by a semi-vowel/yod sound specific to Manchester and its environs, but a sound that is weakening with the passing of each generation. Overall the vowels are more vertical in shape than lateral (as they would be in a hardcore Yorkshire accent) and tonally the accent is not as light as a conventional “manc” accent would be, but by no means is it estuarine in its tune.
It is interesting to note that nobody has accused Michelle of sounding cockney, they just don’t like her Mancunian accent, but the comments on Twitter really reveal an incredible bias against a southern actor playing a northern role, which seems to be at the root of it all. 1 tweet said she sounded as though she was from Burnley and yet the next complained about her not having a Lancastrian accent (go figure!) The furore is unfounded and the accent not deserving of the extreme criticism it has received.
What do you mean by “vertical” and “lateral” vowel systems? I’m an amateur and have not heard those descriptions before.
A quick search on Google Books found a reference in “Phonetically based phonology” by Hayes et al. It says that vertical systems lack front-back contrasts. From my hearing of the clip of Michelle Collins, she has a front /a/ in TRAP and a back /ɑː/ in PRICE, which I’d presume were a front-back contrast.
Where have I gone wrong?
You haven’t gone wrong at all, but I did talk about vertical and lateral shapes, not vertical and lateral vowel systems. It is about the instruction you give an actor (to translate the phonetic theory into practice). The Alexander Technique (which is the basis of most actor training programmes) talks about the idea of giving muscles instructions. For instance you cannot tell a muscle to relax because that is an instruction a muscle does not understand, but you can tell it to lengthen or shorten, fatten or thin. When training actors with dialects you simplify the phonetic theory into this kind of instruction, because when acting, what the actor wants to have is a physical sense of the accent rather than having to think about all the complex phonological theory – effectively it is kinaesthetic learning rather than theoretical learning. So when shaping an [AH] for instance, you would tell an actor to picture the back of the mouth as being a lateral shape if you were coaching a Leeds [AH] sound as in ‘car,’ or you would tell the actor to think of it as a vertical shape if you were going for a Sheffield [AH] as in ‘car.’ Both are still flatter sounding accents, and of course in the Leeds accent you effectively substitute [AH] with a sustained [A] sound (sorry I haven’t worked out how you put phonetic symbols on this site.) Manchester accents vary between the two depending on the speaker’s locale and concept of ‘class.’ Stella’s dauhgter Eva uses a more vertical shape, whereas Michelle Keegan uses a more lateral shape. Again I stress this is about shape not vowel systems.
That’s a good explanation. Thank you very much.
As I interpret it, you mean [a:] for Leeds “car” and [ɑː] for Sheffield “car”. There are some people in Sheffield who use [a:] but I agree that it’s much less common than in Leeds. Sheffield is getting towards the Midlands, in which this vowel is very back-of-the-mouth.
Hmmm, yes Sheffield has a wide variety and yes the feature is for the accents to fall back in the mouth (again an instruction one would give to an actor to help visualise the sound). However to my ear I notice more and more the West and East Yorkshire are flatter than South Yorkshire.