Language Log on the Accents in “The Wire”

West Baltimore

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Over at Language Log, Eric Bakovic has an interesting take on accent work in films and television. The first half of the piece discusses accents on the The Wire, one of the most linguistically fascinating series in the history of television (Thanks to Nancy Friedman for pointing the article out to me).

Quoth Bakovic:

Although I understand that many folks familiar with Baltimore-area speech could somewhat reliably distinguish the Baltimore-native actors from others, there were probably very few who would have picked out West as British or even as not American (or Idris Elba for that matter, another Brit who played Russell “Stringer” Bell on the show). These folks are actors, after all — really good ones who do what it takes to play their characters as authentically as possible, speech and all.

I have to second Bakovic on this point. I may have had my minor quibbles with Dominic West‘s accent in the first season of the series, but as a whole, The Wire is perhaps the most impressive body of dialect work I’ve  seen in film or television.

And I really do mean dialect work, with a capital ‘d.’ The language of the show was far more impressive than the mere fact of British actors playing Americans. The dialogue was bursting with unique syntax, morphology, and slang. Each episode’s unique blend of African American Vernacular English, Baltimorese and various professional jargons was part of what earned the show such a rabid following (even if the dialogue was sometimes so thick it strained comprehensibility).

And about those jargons: what I found particularly remarkable about The Wire was the way it treated the lingo of police, drug dealers, union men, and politicians as part of the same problem. Whether drug lord Stringer Bell talked about killing someone or a police chief discussed a case of police brutality, both men used highly codified forms of language as a way of softening the horror of the situation. Much like the “business English” recently discussed on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, language in The Wire was often used to sugarcoat cruelty and violence.

Any fans of the series out there wish to comment?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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18 Responses to Language Log on the Accents in “The Wire”

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    I liked the use of the word ‘police’. A character might say “He is good police” or “Are you police?”

    • trawicks says:

      I liked that too. It’s a similar construction as “he’s from good stock.” Almost as if “police” were a substance rather than a profession.

  2. Lane says:

    “Police” is a count noun too in the show – “I’m a murder police, dammit”, and so on.

    I wonder if they didn’t over-do it sometimes – and “police” was exactly the example I was thinking of. Do they never ever say “cop” in the Baltimore PD?

    • trawicks says:

      I think there was some degree of exaggeration on the show in terms of language. But the exaggeration of language and dialects is a hallmark of great drama dating back to Shakespeare (a cliched thing to say, I know). Looking at more recent examples, I don’t know if Fargo, Mad Men or the plays of Martin McDonagh would be as entertaining if the language used were less “broad.”

  3. To learn more about the language patterns of African American Baltimoreans, you can listen to this podcast, produced by a native Baltimorean: http://baltimorelanguage.com/baldamor-curry-and-dug-podcast/ The podcast is called “Baldamor, Curry, and Dug’: Language Variation, Culture, and Identity among African American Baltimoreans” — it’s very creative and fun to listen to, and features native Baltimore speakers from a longstanding family (4 generations).

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a great find, Christine! Thanks for pointing that out. Nice website too … didn’t know there was a site devoted specifically to Baltimorese!

  4. Dennis Baron says:

    I missed West and Elba totally, but my wife, whose ear is much better, got their Brit-ness immediately and couldn’t believe other people didn’t notice it. Nonetheless, those two do surprisingly good American accents (Hugh Laurie, on House, is another expert)–if British TV is representative, most British actors can’t do American speech well at all. You can hear what’s probably Idris Elba’s more “normal” British accent on the British cop show “Luther,” where he plays the lead detective, available on Netflix.

  5. meg says:

    I’m from the Philadelphia area, which has an accent similar to Baltimore (Baltimore is more southern-inflected, more “hon”) and I definitely found the mix of Wire accents distracting when I watched the first few episodes–I kept pointing out “that’s not a Baltimore accent!” to my boyfriend’s annoyance.

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  7. teekay says:

    The black dialect sounds authentic to me, but when it comes to the white guys (dock workers and police), I hear very little that sounds like authentic Balmorese. Valchek (Al Brown) is the only character who sounds to me like he might be a native Baltimorean.

    Among real public figures, the best representative I can think of for authentic Balmorese is Senator Barbara Mikulski. She grew up in Highlandtown where some of the Wire scenes are set. None of the Wire characters sound quite like that, with the possible exception of Valchek. It is believable that many of the poh-leese would sound like they’re from up Jersey but not a white labor union dock worker from Holluntown or Glimburny.
    http://wilk4.com/humor/humorm221.htm

  8. Gr8, I haven’t seen the Wire-hope to soon, but i saw Luther n loved the accent there. Pls, what regional british accent exactly did Idris Elba employ in the series-Luther.

  9. MikeyLV says:

    Al Brown, who played Valchek, just finished his new website at http://www.albrownisvalchek.com. He also has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AlBrownIsValchek.

    BTW, he’s actually from Philly.

  10. Marco says:

    Huge fan of the show. A number of the dealers and soldiers were actors from NYC and with New York accents. Method Man and Wee Bee were the big notable ones.

    Out of everyone’s, and for good reason. Snoop was the most authentic B-More product imo.

  11. Damon Levine says:

    I think Al Brown (Valchek) sounds like he’s from the Philadelphia area. IMHO, he’s got a very Delaware Valley accent. From what I’ve heard, Baltimore-area and Philadelphia-area accents are very similar with the exception that Baltimore’s accent has a slight southern thing happening, and Philadelphia’s accent doesn’t.

    John Doman, who plays Rawls, is an actual native Philadelphia.

  12. Travis Inman says:

    The accents of the actors who portrayed Lt. Mello of the Western District and Vice-principal Donnelly of Tilghman Middle school were ‘spot on’. Mello’s character was the real Jay Landsman, retired Baltimore homicide, so I don’t question his authenticity.

  13. Stephen says:

    As with all major cities there are ranges of accent too.

    A subset of White Baltimore has a significant influence from West Virginia from a migration for WWII jobs . . . these accents are less “typical Baltimore” and more southern/Appalachian. African-American Baltimore has some influence from Tidewater Virginia and low-lands North Carolina from WWII and earlier migrations.

    As a native Marylander, there were certainly times I was jarred by someone’s speech, but interestingly it was more often gesture and facial expression while speaking rather than the vocal production. (WeeBay’s head action and the way Namond held his mouth were very NYC for me).

    All in all it was a spectacular job, and while all weren’t distinctly and unequivocally from Baltimore, the vast majority fell into the range you would hear in the city.

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  15. Fred says:

    One thing I noticed is the police will frequently refer to the criminals as “people”, even if only in certain circumstances it was noticable (“we’ve got a wire on these people” etc), instead of something racist or pejorative.