Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Trippingly on the tongue

I'm going to try to be sensitive here. I have been a player/game master for a long time and an actor for an even longer time. One of the things that has recently been tugging at my sleeve and begging to be cranked about is dialects.

Many people in my humble opinion have trouble doing a credible dialect. It's always interesting to play a character from another place but if you do a terrible accent then you suffer from something I call Elmer Fudd Syndrome. You could be reciting the old testament with every bit of emotion you could muster but if you don't sound correct people won't take you seriously...Or worse, they'll snicker. So I have a few tips on how to use and get good with dialects,so that the snickering quotient dies down.

I don't dig snickering. It's just how I am.


One of the things that needs to be remembered is that the way a person talks can change over time. (compare Schwarzenagger in Conan to Schwarzenegger in the Sixth Day) People who live in an area for a long time can become conversant in the local lingo and in fact may have made an effort to eliminate any traces of their former accents. (Savvy vampires do this.) Most people don't lapse into their regionalisms unless they are upset or under some type of emotional stress. (Rednecks tend to sound more countrified the angrier they get.)

With this idea in mind. It is perfectly all right to play someone from a foreign country with no trace of an accent. (speaking in the accent might give something away after all...It also makes you easily remembered) This means that you only have to learn a few choice phrases (mostly swear words) in order to carry off the characterization. Once you get those down and get comfortable with them you might start learning a bit more.

Listen to Yourself

O.K. this will be traumatic but it's necessary. Go get a tape recorder and then read this article into it..And then play it back for yourself. I'll wait....

alright. I'm sorry you had to subject yourself to that. No! Come down off of there! You don't have to do it again. I merely wanted to illustrate a point.

Nobody sounds the way they think they sound. Every person has a different set of resonators and bone induction can make you think you voice sounds deeper or fuller than it really does.

Listening to yourself also forces you to recognize that YOU have an accent of some sort. It also forces you to come to terms with your use of verbal place holders like: Umm, Err, Ah, Like, and the ever popular, Ya Know? Get up close and personal with the way you speak because you can't really completely master a dialect until you understand the nuts and bolts of the way you articulate.

Don't Trust Hollywood, get good samples

Hollywood will not help you. Hollywood doesn't think you know anything about anything. Many dialects that you hear on T.V. or in movies are an exaggeration of an existing dialect. Heck, Hollywood thinks that Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder can do a British dialect in Coppola's Dracula. It is a tribute to the acting ability of Anthony Hopkins that he doesn't laugh in their faces. My god...Robin Hood:Prince of Thieves. Do I need to say more?

If you lean on movies for a good sample of dialect try to find one filmed in the country in question. The best example that I can think of is the Alan Parker film, The Commitments. I needed to learn an Irish dialect and I could find no better source than this movie. Filmed in Ireland starring a bunch of unknown Irish actors,directed by an Irishman. It didn't set off my bullshit meter once.

It's important to really listen to a language and get a feel for it's music and cadences. Once you can get that into your ear. The rest is just detail work. In fact, if you've got the music of a dialect a goodly portion of your work is done for you.

Have a Key Phrase

I've found as a dialect coach that it's helpful to try and come up with a key phrase that forces you to flip into the dialect in question in order to say it correctly. This is actually useful when you have to go from base speech to dialect or from dialect to dialect. Once I instructed a fella in a show who needed to get into an Irish brogue that he should say; "It's Magically Delicious." before going onstage.

Slow down dumbass

The rule is that if people can't understand you, they can't be affected by your performance. So when speaking, diction is important. Diction suffers in the face of speed and when the emotions are involved there is a tendency to speed up. If you're speaking a dialect on the fly and you get a little worked up, you might slide right by people with what you're saying. So my advice in this regard is this: If you're talking and you feel like you're talking too slow....Slow way the hell down! It's the same principle of being late somewhere and finding that you're going 96 mph and feel like you're going 25. Believe me. I know.

I saw a young lady at an audition once who was doing the dialect properly but she was doing it so fast that it was hard for the ear to process.


Certain dialects resonate in certain places in the throat. Feeling the differences in resonance can enable you to shift where your speech resonates. Being able to feel where a dialect is placed in the mouth enables you to develop a muscle memory for it. Many dialects, once you've learned the placement do much of the work for you. This makes it easy for you to maintain a dialect for a decent stretch of time, because you can feel when the muscles are changing and move to correct.

For me. Most upper class English dialects are set at the front of the mouth right against the teeth. (that's why they sound so clipped. Much of the consonantal action is actually biting of the elongated vowels.) Lower class English dialects tend to be slightly further back and the some of the consonant action is swallowed. (" 'Ow's it goin Guvnor?")

New Yorker accent slips out of the side of the mouth. (" Ay. He was like dat when I found 'im.")

Irish is a fairly singing sort of dialect and I can feel it ricochet off the top of soft palette as if I were singing. It's no wonder they're such a musical people. Irish, Welsh and Scottish are perhaps the most musical dialects I know.

Scottish tends to bounce off the top of the front of the jaw.

French or generic European dialects (most of which sound fairly homogeneous to my ear) tend to originate at the back of the throat.

And so on and so forth... Once you get placement down. The path to learning a new dialect is a simple as listening to it. (to figure out vowel and consonant changes.) and then trying to figure out the way to imitate it with your set of resonators.


Try not to be a putz. If I had to play a character of Indian or Persian descent. I would have to really start looking for a good sample in order to do it properly. The main reason for this is because the only accent of that sort that I can do is the jokey sort of caricature dialect you see on TV. This might be fine in a tabletop setting, if you're playing it for laughs, but is not helpful when you aren't going for broad comedy and is racially insensitive in a Larp which tends to be far more public. It's also insensitive to assume that foreign born characters have to speak broken English. This denotes stupidity. It's like assuming that black people can only speak or understand Ebonics.

Sono Finito


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