“Orphan Black’s” House of Dialect Mirrors

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.

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About Ben

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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20 Responses to “Orphan Black’s” House of Dialect Mirrors

  1. m.m. says:

    Speaking of experimenting with british accents, in the past when i would affect an english one, it was vaguely south eastern. But when i affect one now, its more northern: no Trap-Bath split, backed occasionally rounded Strut [transitional foot-strut split?]

    as for the show, props to dedicated technique

    • That’s a good question. Assuming you’re not someone who’s spent a lot of time affecting dialects, it is an interesting question why people do the vague accent impressions they do.

      I was in a play many years ago in which a guy did a fairly uninformed version of a British accent (albeit not completely awful). Like you, he somehow pronounced words like “strut” with a very Northern vowel, which was odd since his accent was otherwise RP-ish. It was likely an unconscious choice, and I’m not sure where it came from. British movie habits that leaned toward Northern settings? Or perhaps the accent “interacted” with his own accent in a peculiar way (he was from Michigan)?

    • Tomasz says:

      In the RP chapter of A Handbook of Varieties of English, Clive Upton writes about RP STRUT: “There is an increasing appearance, however, of an innovation in which [ʌ] is raised and retracted from the centralized, towards (though not to) a half-close advanced position…the recent RP raising development might be seen as a ‘fudge’ between Northern [ʊ] and Southern [ʌ].” Maybe that guy heard an RP speaker with that sort of STRUT vowel and imitated it. Another possibility is that he heard a near-RP speaker* from the North like the gentleman in this video.

      * Wellsian terminology

    • When I fake an English one, it’s Northern by default – one of my very good friends is from the north, and I am very familiar with his speech patterns. One thing that I find is that getting my mouth into position for the strut-foot makes it easier to be in position for a lot of other british sounds, which seem to be produced more in the center and front of the mouth. Perhaps that’s part of it.

      • Ed says:

        I’ve attended a lecture by the man in that video. He’s from Castleford and works at the British Library. What I find most striking is his MOUTH vowel as [æʊ], which is more typical of southern accents and would be unusual in his home area. It’s a marked contrast to his [ʊ] in STRUT. There doesn’t seem to have been a chain reaction in his case.

  2. m.m. says:

    One could speculate that since the NCVS moves Strut back and can add roundness [ive read that it can also raise, which would add to the ‘northern’ quality], it could carry over to his faux english accent.

    But then the same couldnt be said for me and my native central vowel. I know i could use [ɐ] before, and could use it as a substitute now, but something about it in my faux english accent now feels… wrong. theres probly a mechanism that regulates ones faux accent as one does for their native accent. what im curious about now is how it maintains what is deemed ‘acceptable’ and its susceptibility to change.

  3. Rodger C says:

    In my generation, many young Americans used to imitate the Beatles’ accents, which of course have the Northern STRUT vowel. Perhaps this has come down through the decades as part of some Americans’ ideas of a British accent.

  4. Peter M says:

    There are some accents that are especially elusive for native actors. E.g. few British actors are able to emulate a rural East Anglian accent, and when called upon to do so will lapse into something entirely dissimilar, sounding distinctly southwestern. In fact, British actors tend to speak Zomerrzet for ALL rural pronunciations.

    I get the impression that Americans from north and west of Dixie have just as much trouble with most southern accents, ending up with a parody of what they imagine Scarlett O’Hara MIGHT have sounded like while having a fainting fit — Whale, I do declayah!

  5. Aussprache says:

    My favorite British accent is Welsh 😉

  6. Steve Bronfman says:

    At first I thought the show sounded cliched but gave it a go and loved it! She does a great job and the show’s addictive.

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  8. Sam says:

    Hi! So as an undergrad Linguistics major, I just wanted to say that I definitely understand your fascination!! I’m in the process of coming up with a thesis topic for applying to grad school, and one of the topics I mentioned to my adviser was Accent or Phonetic Imitation!! I was originally inspired by the cast of True Blood, namely Alexander Skarsgård. So I just wanted to say you’re not alone in that interest and hopefully one day I’ll be able to contribute to this topic~

  9. Becca says:

    As an English person, I started watching Orphan Black for the first time yesterday. I’ve watched about three episodes so far. I was expecting Sarah to be American but when she spoke I didn’t recognise the accent at all. She doesn’t sound British and I then thought she must be Australian. A lot of her speech sounds like the Australian accent. Her foster brother has the more realistic Southern British accent, where as she doesn’t sound British at all. This did make it rather confusing trying to work out where she was from, but then I realised that she was supposed to be British, she just does a really bad British accent.

  10. Londoner says:

    I’m a south east londoner, born and bred and agree with Becca about the British accent. I was trying to place the twang – was it Australian/N Zealand?? I didn’t realise Sarah was supposed to be British until they told us with the script. Perhaps it does get better as it doesn’t jar so much now.
    Not to say it isn’t impressive that she is playing all the different characters and accents though.
    Sorry Ben

  11. Steve says:

    Agree with Becca and Londerer above. I’ve only just watched the first episode and presumed Sarah was meant to be Australian. Perhaps to a non-Brit she may sound like she’s from the south east of England but she really doesn’t. I’ll give it another episode to see if it gets better but it’s hard to maintain the necessary suspension of belief when something fundamental jars you out of it every so often.

    As for Felix, his accent is better but what a ham! I presume he’s meant to be over the top camp but that and his accent feels very contrived (with random British slang thrown in) and not convincing either. I wondered at first if he wasn’t Sue Heck’s gay buddy from The Middle but seemingly not.

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  13. V says:

    Another English person here (who lived a long time in New Zealand). I definitely thought she was going for an Australian accent, I was confused as to why the rest of the family were British when she obviously wasn’t. If she’s actually going for an English accent of any sort she’s doing a terrible job.

  14. Plan says:

    Trust me, to Americans like me, we can tell the difference. Immediately, I thought the Sarah character from Orphan Black was either from Australia or New Zealand. It bothered me for the first three or four episodes, and then I just kinda decided that maybe she was born and partially raised in Australia before she was adopted by Mrs. S.

    I realize it’s a Canadian co-production, but still, it’s BBC America. That made it all the more strange that the two “British” members of the cast are actually Canadian.

    Then again, I can’t imagine anyone except Tatiana Maslany in the role of the clones now, and not only does she give each clone a different accent, they each have different inflections, different verbal and physical tics, and wildly varying personalities. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that Sarah, Alison and Cosima are actually played by the same actress. That is an amazing accomplishment.

  15. Nelly says:

    She doesn’t sound any form of Antipodean. Signed, an Antipodean.