I’ve recently been watching Orphan Black, BBC America’s sci-fi mystery about human clones. For reference, here is the guns-sex-and-intrigue-laden preview:
The show admittedly has its silly moments, but its lead actor makes up for these. Not only does one woman (Tatiana Maslany) play all the clones, but the clones themselves often play each other. We get to watch a Canadian actress (Maslany) play a British woman*, a “British” woman pretend to be Canadian, the same “British” woman play an entirely separate Canadian, a “Ukrainian” pretend to be Canadian, and a Canadian pretend to be British. Quite a tall order!
I especially love when “Sarah” (the British protagonist) pretends to be a Canadian clone, because Maslany deliberately chooses moments when Sarah slips up and misses North American speech nuances. For instance, she’ll “accidentally” distinguish the vowels in “cot” and “caught”, and will sometimes pronounce the vowel in “face” with a diphthong that’s slightly too open. It’s some of the most incisive vocal work I’ve seen from a TV actor.
Its this accent proficiency that makes the one moment I found Maslany’s dialect work unconvincing all the more fascinating. At one point, a North American clone named Allison must portray Sarah (the aforementioned British clone). Although Maslany makes the accent slightly “off,” I found Allison’s rendition of Sarah’s accent too deft for a dialect novice.
But I sympathize with Maslany. It’s hard to do an accent badly that you’ve spent countless hours mastering. For example, I once experimented by trying to speak British Received Pronunciation, with one difference: I pronounced the /r/ in words like “car” and “nurse.” Bizarrely, within seconds, I started unconsciously pronouncing /t/ with the Irish “slit t.” In other words, one altered phoneme made me slip into an entirely different accent (something like “genteel” Dublin English). My brain somehow unconsciously picked up on certain Irish “cues,” and shifted my entire phonological system in that direction.
So when I adopt an unfamiliar accent, I seem to adopt an entire package of phonological rules, rather than just changing a few pronunciations. In other words, it’s possible that when working within your own accent, it’s easier to switch out a phoneme or two. But when you’re working with imported “foreign” rules, it’s perhaps trickier to alter individual elements of that dialect.
I’ve said it before, but it’s for reasons like this that I would love for linguists to study actors. There aren’t many other professions in which people regularly overhaul their accents on purpose (except spies?). The fact that people can switch their phonological systems at will is, in itself, a pretty remarkable feature of the human mind.
*The main character, Sarah, is ostensibly from South London. She has spent most of her life in North America, however, so Maslany wisely adopts a conservatively modified Estuary accent. Hence, to her critics I would note that the accent she uses is almost certainly less muddled than it would be in real life.