Stray Thoughts on Theatrical Accent Traditions

Peter Pan

Paramount Pictures (Public Domain)

Slate ran a recent piece on the history of women playing Peter Pan onstage. This got me thinking about other theatrical or filmic traditions with regards to fictional characters. In particular, should we question why certain characters are played in particular accents? For instance:


I first experienced Peter Pan via the 1950s Mary Martin stage musical (produced for live television in 1960). I’ve long associated Pan with Martin’s homey Texas twang and, despite the character’s British provenance, have on some level never considered Pan anything other than American.

The strong American Pan tradition has a long history, actually, harking back to the earliest days of the story’s popularity: the first Broadway production of Barrie’s stage play starred Maude Adams, an actress from the then-frontier state of Utah. The tradition continues up to present day, of course, as the 2003 film featured young American actor Jeremy Sumpter in the role.

I find it difficult, in fact, to recall any notable British-accented Pans. And maybe that’s the way things should be. It’s hard not to see Neverland as a stand-in for America, or rather, a Victorian daydream of America in all its rugged beauty. (Note the presence of now-cringeworthy “Indians.”) So why wouldn’t Pan have an American accent?


Would Huckleberry Finn have had a Southern Twang? Or even much of one? Many film versions of the novel feature Hucks with Appalachian drawls, or something along those lines (I recall Mickey Rooney sounding downright Mississippian in the role). Still others (such as the adaptation starring Elijah Wood) feature Finns who sound more generally middle-American.

I’m of the opinion that the latter is more accurate. If Huck Finn supposedly resided in a fictionalized version of Mark Twain’s native Hannibal, Missouri, an especially thick twang might be inappropriate. Hannibal is a bit further north than one might expect (in modern times, the town is less than an hour from Iowa). Twain’s association with abolitionism and the often southern settings of his fiction belie the fact that he was more a Midwesterner than a Southerner.

That’s not to say that there would be no twanginess in Finn’s speech, just that it might be less marked as that of someone from, say, the Ozarks (Missouri is a big state). Of course, American speech has changed greatly since the 19th-Century, so it’s hard to say for sure.


Has there ever been a Scottish Sherlock Holmes? I’m curious why few actors have tipped his hat to the character’s Scottish creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet Holmes is invariably English.

As far as I can tell, however, there is little in Doyle’s work suggesting where Holmes grew up, although this interesting Wikipedia subsection suggests he had some French ancestry. (If any diehard Holmes aficianadoes know otherwise, speak up!) Regardless, Holmes is quite fictional and could very well be played as Scottish or Irish without destroying the character’s integrity.

Yet Holmes has usually spoken Received Pronunciation or related accents, a trend which continues even today with the contemporary adaptation Sherlock. James Bond has had a bit of flexibility in this regard (the character’s most famous portrayer was a Scot); why not Holmes?


Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged | 19 Comments

The “Awesome” Trajectory

Regarding the subject of my last post, I was struck this passage from Alice Munro’s story, To Reach Japan:

They opened the compartment curtain to get more air, now that there was no danger of the child’s falling out.”Awesome to have a child,” Greg said. That was another word new at the time, or at least new to Greta.

I don’t believe Munro means that “Greta” has never heard “awesome” before, but rather that the trend toward this particular use of “awesome” was a recent development. The story takes place in the early 1960s (I think; Munro loves chronological ambiguity), and I must admit my surprise that someone would use “awesome” in the “cool/neat/groovy” sense that early*. Yet the Online Etymology Dictionary backs up Munro’s passage:

awesome (adj.) 1590s, “profoundly reverential,” from awe (n.) + -some (1). Meaning “inspiring awe” is from 1670s; weakened colloquial sense of “impressive, very good” is recorded by 1961 and was in vogue from after c.1980. Related: Awesomely; awesomeness.

“Awesome” has remained related to “greatness” in North American English, but developed an explicitly positive connotation within the past fifty years or so. As this Google NGram chart suggests, the popularity of this sense perhaps led to the word itself increasing in frequency during the post-war era:

So why did I not expect the word to appear in such a way in a story set fifty years ago? Probably because I associate “awesome” with the Reagan years, part of a broader semantic shift common at the time whereby words suggesting “extremity” of various kinds came to adopt positive meanings, as was also the case with  radical.

When you think about it, “awesome” is a rather unlikely everyday word, though, since it was once relatively obscure (Google NGram suggests the word “incorrigible” was significantly more common in the 1940s). It strikes me as a cousin to words like “excellent” and “brilliant,” but those words have always been far more commonplace:

Of course, “awesome” seems to have undergone a further shift since the 1980’s, in that it now joins “nice,” “cool,” and other words which indicate “halfhearted assent.” In other words, repeated use has rendered “awesome” an appropriate response to “I bought a new carton of milk at the grocery.” An odd fate for a word which once connoted fearsome power.

*Of course, one could read Greg’s comment as meaning “it’s a great responsibility to have a child,” but the character is supposed to be a young, artsy drifter, so that seems unlikely.


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Canadian and American /T/

I recently read Alice Munro‘s famous short story collection Dear Life, my interest piqued after the Canadian writer’s recent Nobel Prize win. I enjoy watching interviews with authors I’m reading, so I looked up several with Munro on YouTube. I was also, I admit, curious about the accent of someone who grew up in rural Ontario before World War II:

Like several older Canadian I’ve heard, Munro’s accent strikes me as, in some respects, less marked (from an American perspective) than that of many younger Canadians; her Canadian Vowel shift seems rather intermittent. She exhibits, however, a feature that has always struck me as being a slight if inconsistent divider between Canadian and American English: she sometimes pronounces the /t/ in words like “later” and “writer” with an aspirated plosive where many Americans would use a tapped or voiced vowel (i.e. “writer” and “rider” would sound roughly the same).*

My impression is that Canadians these days more likely to use the same consonant in “rider” as the one they use in “writer.” But I can’t say how much of a change this is; it seems to me that there used to be more Americans who used un-tapped /t/ in these words as well, and it’s likely that, conversely, tapped /t/ has been a feature in Canadian English for a long time.

So all I can really say is that, impressions aside, Munro’s idiolect (rural southwest Ontario possibly influenced by decades living in Vancouver) often features an aspirated /t/ in this environment where, say, mine does not. There are clearly a large number of allophones for intervocalic /t/ in various dialects of English; why some accents and possibly even some people use certain variants where others do not strikes me as one of the more intriguing mysteries of English phonology.

*In some parts of the Northern US, however, there is a trend away from tapped /t/ and toward the glottal stop more typical of some British accents. Hence while back in a Connecticut recently I overheard someone in a restaurant pronounce the phrase “but it wasn’t” bʌʔ ɪʔ wʌznʔ.


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Pre-R Raising in Cleveland

One of my favorite Food Network personalities is Michael Symon, a decorated chef from Cleveland. Celebrity chefs, refreshingly, tend not to alter their accent much (all those fancy French terms belie the industry’s working-class ethos). Symon is no exception, with a Cleveland accent strongly influenced by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Beyond this generalized description, though, I find a particular feature of his accent  intriguing, one you might notice within the first few seconds of this video:

Symon (and other Clevelanders I’ve heard) raises the vowel in words like “fire” or “tire” (so it sounds a bit like “oyr” to outsiders). He also raises the related diphthong in words like “nice” and “slice,” you’ll notice, but one finds this among many Northern US accents. Raising the vowel in “-ire” words is quite a different story.

In other regions of the country, one often sees the opposite. In New York City, the mid-Atlantic,  and the American South, this vowel tends toward a monophthong (so “tire” sounds like “tar“). I’m not quite sure why “tire” falls in with the same group as “kite” and “right” for some Great Lakes speakers.

It is possible for this type of raising to “spread” beyond its original environment. This was one of William Labov’s famous findings about Martha’s Vineyard, where raising in words like “about” (i.e. before voiceless obstruents) had spread to words like “loud” and “found” due as much to sociolinguistic factors as phonological processes. But I would find it slightly peculiar for this to only occur before /r/. Is there some other influence at play?

This is a small reminder of just how much dialectal variety one finds in Ohio, one of America’s great linguistic border states. Within a state often associated with middle-American normalcy, one finds truly fascinating speech quirks.


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That Tricky “Oh”



Over the holidays, I watched Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, an excellent miniseries about a beautiful but troubled community in New Zealand’s South Island. American actress Elisabeth Moss plays the lead role of a police detective who has returned to her hometown after a spell in Australia.

I must confess to skepticism about Ms. Moss playing a Kiwi, if only because I’ve never seen her portray a non-American. But I thought she did a good job speaking with a kind of pan-Southern-Hemispheric accent (it’s in the script; characters comment on her character’s accent being muddled). Being a nitpicker, though, I noticed that she used a vowel in words like “goat” and “row” with a vowel a bit more “American” than one would find in either Australia or New Zealand (i.e. ).

Ms. Moss is hardly alone in this, it should be pointed out. As per my last post, one of Dick Van Dyke’s biggest blunders in Mary Poppins was to consistently use an overly back vowel in such “oh” words. Moss’ accent is leagues better than Van Dyck’s, of course, but it’s a quirk I’ve likewise noticed among other Americans attempting British or Australian accents.

One of the more fascinating examples of this “mistake” comes from, curiously, an actor who largely identifies as British. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, see if you can identify his provenance from this interview:

Is he Welsh? An Englishman returning after a sojourn in Ireland? Nope. Rylance grew up in Wisconsin (with British parents), and in interviews has attributed his unusual speech patterns to his upbringing in the Badger State. Rylance has specifically mentioned that*, even after decades of residence in the United Kingdom, he has trouble making the British GOAT vowel (presumably he meant əʊ).

What I think Rylance’s case suggests is that Americans can have a surprisingly hard time consistently producing the type of centralized or fronted vowels more typical of the UK and Australia. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I can attest that these diphthongs challenged me when I was first attempting such accents.

I suspect that a factor is Americans’ general inconsistency with this vowel in our own accents. I’ve heard some Southern Californians, for instance, who’ve pronounced “goat” got where others would pronounce this gəʊt, with fairly significant variations within single speakers. Such fluctuations would be tricky in New Zealand English, I would think, as more retracted variants could compete with the vowel in “caught.” In other words, this may not necessarily be a case of American English being too “conservative,” but rather that Americans tend to be more “liberal” with this vowel.

*I am fairly certain this statement occurred in this article of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, I no longer subscribe, so I’m wary of attributing it to that publication. If anyone can find the original quote, it would be much appreciated!


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The Van Dyke Controversy

Disney’s 1964 Mary Poppins adaptation has been in the news lately, in light of both film’s 50th anniversary and Saving Mr. Banks, a new film about the contentious relationship between Walt Disney and Anglo-Australian “Poppins” creator P. L. Travers. Of course, no discussion of Disney’s film would be complete without addressing Dick Van Dyke‘s Cockney accent, probably the most commented-on dialect in cinema.

Calling Van Dyke’s accent bad isn’t quite appropriate. It’s just very strange, an uncategorizable mixture of (yes) Cockney, Irish (maybe?), and American. To be fair, the film is set in an Edwardian London curiously free of pollution and Mediterranean of climate, so verisimilitude was not exactly what they were going for (the movie also has dancing penguins). Still, enough people have been offended by the Van Dyke’s accent that it’s still a conversation topic half a century later.

So who was to blame? Van Dyke has fingered his vocal coach, but history seems a more likely culprit. Dialect acquisition resources were simply much scarcer in the early 1960s than they are now. That’s why I measure most “dialect work” before the 1980’s with large amount of historical relativism. VHS changed things entirely in this regard, because it enabled private, repeated viewing of content in a way previously impossible on such a scale. An actor learning Cockney accent in 1986 could rent, say, The Long Good Friday at a high-end video store and rewind helpful scenes dozens of times. Only someone connected to a film archive and an obliging projectionist could do this in 1964. That’s not to overlook great dialect imitators of that era (the same year saw Peter Sellers’ bravura turn in Dr. Strangelove), but a dialect novice without a good coach would have had a steep uphill climb.

The internet obviously took amateur accent research to a new level. By the mid-90’s, you could categorize and contextualize accent-related content as never before. One might search IMDB to figure out where actors hailed from. Searchable speech and other recording databases became available. The explosion of streaming video content that accompanied YouTube in the mid-2000s, of course, led to unprecedented access to different dialects, news reports and almost anything else that might serve as a guide.

The point being, I don’t judge Dick Van Dyke and other actors from that era that harshly given the limited tools available. Van Dyke became a target, unfortunately, because a major American movie actor imitating a regional British accent was very unusual for the time*. And although I can’t say for sure, I doubt that most American movie stars of the time would have done much better.

*It was actually fairly common, in 1964, to simply import British actors to play British characters (as was the case with most of Mary Poppins’ cast).


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More on Young New Zealand English

Ubiquitous on the radio recently has been “Royals,” a minimalist anti-consumerist (I think) anthem by 16-year-old New Zealand singer Lorde (real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor). She been busy on the American interview circuit, revealing her non-singing, New Zealand-accented voice:

Something that struck me about Lorde/Yelich-O’Connor’s speech was her relatively “conservative” vowel in words like “right” and “kind,” which sometimes approaches the “American” . This feature strikes one as slightly different from “canonical” Australian English. Indeed, Macquarie University has an online set of vowel charts comparing Australian, American, New Zealand and British (RP) accents; for Australian English, they suggest the diphthong in “kite” starts with a nearly back vowel, while for New Zealand English, they represent this diphthong as starting at a point between central and front. (I’m not sure which data were used to construct the New Zealand English chart, but it matches my general impressions.)

I’m not certain this is an entirely youthful or Kiwi phenomenon, by the way; I’ve heard this more “genteel” diphthong in older New Zealanders as well as some Australians. The KITE vowel seems to exhibit a kind of spectrum in “Oceanic” English generally, ranging from markedly Cockney-esque variants (e.g. ɒe) to more the more RP/GenAm-like diphthong just mentioned. I will say, however, that I’ve heard the latter more commonly among younger Kiwis like Lorde. And more specifically,  strikes me as slightly more common in NZ than Australia. But I haven’t managed to find much scholarly research on this phoneme, so I can only offer broad impressions.

I want to be careful, as well, in suggesting anything along the lines that NZ English is becoming more “Americanized” or “Anglicized” or some other dubious “-ized” (especially based on this one feature alone). You’ll note that Lorde (who is still a high school student in her home country) speaks with strongly raised TRAP and DRESS vowels, and has a strongly retracted KIT vowel. As I’ve mentioned before, there seem to be some ways in which New Zealand English is evolving rapidly among younger people, but that doesn’t mean the accent becoming “milder.”


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Sick Speech

Photo: Andrew Filer

Andrew Filer CC BY-SA 2.0

I had tonsillitis last week. Throat maladies tend to endow one with a strange temporary “accent,” and this one was no different; the illness rendered my voice unusually nasal in this case. Such an affliction contrasts with typical head cold symptoms, which sometimes “denasalize” speech (for reasons I’ll get to). Still, when I first noticed that I was talking strangely, I didn’t take much notice. I was sick as a dog, after all.

Over a few days, however, I noticed a pattern. I only nasalized close and mid-close front vowels (those in FLEECE and FACE): ĩ and ẽɪ̃. The words “bean” and “bead” would normally involve slightly different phones in my accent (i vs. ĩ), yet with tonsillitis I employed the same, nasalized sound. This pattern did not seem to hold, however, for open or open-mid vowels like the “o” in “pop;” I could easily distinguish the first vowel in French encore (ɑ̃) from the vowel in (conservative) French pâte (ɑ). (The quirk affected the diphthong in the word “kite” in a particularly funny way, since the first vowel was oral while the latter was nasal: aɪ̃.)

The reason for this? I’m not quite sure. It’s possible my tonsils were inflamed enough to impact the movement of my velum and tongue. Although I’m shaky on the details (I’m not a doctor), I did note during a flashlight inspection that the tissues in the back of my mouth were so swollen they almost seemed fused together. So it’s possible the tongue gesture required for the vowel in “bead” shifted the velum enough to render the vowel nasal. There is, I’m sure, much more to the story, but I unfortunately own no home MRI equipment.

As I mentioned, the nasal affliction differs from your traditional cold or flu, at least in my experience. The classic “sick” accent is in a certain respect less nasal, not more. Because the nasal cavities are typically filled with mucus during such illnesses, they become less resonant, thus making phrases like “my nose” sound like “by dose.” However, tonsillitis is a very different beast, despite afflicting the same region of the body.

But everyone is different. I suspect a different individual suffering from last week’s illness may end up with a very different pattern of voice modulation. So simulating a “sick accent” (which actors and work shirkers alike must do occasionally!) requires very specific choices: Is the nasal cavity obstructed or free? Is there soreness in the larynx that might cause hoarseness? How does inflammation impact the soft palate? Is there any discomfort breathing which might diminish airflow? How sickness alters one’s manner of speaking is not such an easy thing to predict.


Posted in English Phonetics | Tagged | 3 Comments

“Nauseous” (Standard English’s Evolution)

Louis_6_medicin“‘Nauseous‘ doesn’t refer to being sick,” my 9th-grade English teacher told his class. “It refers to something that makes you sick.”

He sounded more apologetic than commanding; he didn’t seem to believe this “rule” any more than we did. Yet here we are in 2013, and the “nauseous/nauseated” beef remains. Type “common grammar mistakes” into Google, and the first result (a list titled “20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes“) contains this nugget:

Contrary to almost ubiquitous misuse, to be “nauseous” doesn’t mean you’ve been sickened: it actually means you possess the ability to produce nausea in others. e.g., That week-old hot dog is nauseous. When you find yourself disgusted or made ill by a nauseating agent, you are actually “nauseated.” e.g., … Stop embarrassing yourself.

Criticizing grammar absolutists is like shooting sleeping fish in a styrofoam barrel, yet I’m disturbed that anyone gives this dated rule credence. In The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly, author Charles Harrington Elster expresses a depressingly common attitude–“this rule is silly, but let’s follow it so not to upset anyone:”

This usage is so common today that it can no longer be called an outright error. But it is still a general misunderstanding–a “peccadillo,” as “Garner’s Modern American Usage” puts it–disapproved of by most modern authorities.

These aren’t “fringe” opinions. Bill Bryson gets into the act. And I have to confess that I have more than once eschewed “nauseous” for “nauseated” when writing. Most people can agree that this rule doesn’t much reflect actual usage, yet many of us are a skittish about letting it go.

I view Standard English as a dialect (or dialects, really), and as such, it evolves. American Standard English, in my opinion, has shifted over the past century so that “nauseous” refers to the state of being sick to one’s stomach rather that its cause. I can’t imagine there’s much debate about this, unless you think that “Standard English” has no relationship to spoken language.

It doesn’t require in-depth experiments with giant corpora to come to these conclusions. A mere search through the past three years of the New York Times produces 49 usages of “nauseous.*” Only 10% of the these (by my count) use the conservative meaning. It’s not just informal quotations, either. “Nauseous,” meaning “sick to one’s stomach,” appears in journalistic contexts as well. Here is a book review by Janet Maslin:

Ms. Brown deals seriously and convincingly with the illness, but she also uses it as a handy plot hook. So the pregnant Cordy is as nauseous as her ailing mother.

Here is Alexander Kumar in the Times’ science blog:

I will never forget that day — waking up unusually short of breath, later feeling nauseous and struggling for oxygen in between bites of lunch.

And for good measure, here’s a disinterested article about the Los Angeles bus system:

They hold their coffee cup several inches away from their seats — the start-stop of the bus means the coffee could spill at any moment. They do not read because the lurching bus too easily makes them nauseous.

As I said, some Times writers still use “nauseous” in the older sense. But it’s clear that at least some of the papers’ proofreading staff (hardly grammatical anarchists) accept “nauseous” in the way most Americans understand it. And why not? If we don’t accept the evolution of Standard English, we cause confusion, not clarity. If we actively try to preserve century-old definitions, how can we communicate to the readers of today?

*If you do try this yourself, you’ll notice that’s search will say it yields “300+” examples. I’m not sure why this is, since you only view 49. I can’t tell if the list is entirely complete or not, but even if it’s a sample, it’s a useful one.


Posted in American English | Tagged | 16 Comments

When Americans Imitate Canadians

Rob Ford

shot7photos CC-BY 2.0

Last weekend’s Saturday Night Live featured, naturally, a Rob Ford sketch. As SNL has (I believe) no Canadian cast members currently, American actors Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam played Ford and a CBC interviewer, respectively. (What might Dan Aykroyd have done with Ford in SNL’s early years?)

SNL is live and under-rehearsed, so I don’t expect its actors to nail unfamiliar accents in a week (although Killam is married to Canadian actress Cobie Smulders, perhaps explaining his basic Canadian Vowel Shift proficiency). So this really isn’t a criticism of Killam or Moynihan; as I’ve mentioned before, silly accents are part of the fun of impromptu sketch comedy. But because the actors weren’t going for 100% authenticity, the sketch illustrates some odd misperceptions that Americans maintain about Canadian speech.

First, both Killam and Moynihan used conservative, back variants of the vowel in “too” and “food.”  In fact, this vowel is the opposite in most “general” Canadian English; it’s noticeably fronted (especially after coronals; I’ve noted at least one Canadian pronounce “too” tʏ or ty̙). This would be an incredibly minor point were it not such a common mix-up; I’ve heard numerous Americans use cardinal /u/ when mimicking Canadians.

More tellingly, Moynihan answers a question posed by Killam at the sketch’s beginning with a Germanic-sounding affirmative along the lines of “yah!” There may very well be German/Scandinavian-influenced accents somewhere in Canada, but you wouldn’t hear “yah” from a Toronto native!

I think this suggests, however, that Moynihan (and I suspect this of other American Canadian-imitators) confuses aspects of Canadian English with aspects of other “Northern” accents. That “yah” seems imported from the Northern Midwest (Minnesota, etc.), and while both accents share a tendency toward conservative/back/monophthongal variants of the vowels in “goat” and “face,” that’s about as far as the similarities go if we’re talking about Canadian English in Toronto.

As I and others have pointed out, in fact, “Standard” Canadian English (such that it exists) is closer to marked California English, both sharing a distinctive counter-clockwise vowel shift. Keanu Reeves didn’t much alter his accent for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, yet Americans readily bought him as a California layabout (that’s not to say his accent was terribly accurate, just that many Americans assume Californians talk like Jeff Spicoli).

In other words, Americans often mix up “Canadianese” with a more general “Northernese” (I’ve heard people slip into Irish as well), possibly cued by the monopthongal vowels in goat and face*. That is why, I suspect, attempts to mimic our neighbors to the north sometimes fall short at Duluth, or else stray as far as suburban Dublin. Outside of certain renowned features, many of us don’t quite get what makes Canadian speech Canadian.

*Which, my impressions suggest, is seriously waning in urban Canadian English. 


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