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"The key to any accent is to isolate the sounds that are specific to that accent"
January 2, 2011 11:38 AM   Subscribe

How to do accents. Gareth Jameson has made a number of videos on how to do different accents: Russian, German, Spanish, and more. Some of his accents are better(?*) than others. Some are terrible. If all else fails, he can at least teach you to yodel.

*As if I knew what a proper Scottish accent sounded like.
posted by Deathalicious (50 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
He is, in fact, doing the southern accent from Tennessee Williams plays, which has always sucked, especially his plays set in New Orleans, such as Vieux Carre, where people should sound like they are from Brooklyn, but instead sound like a film version of an infantryman from the Confederacy who is just taking time out from drinking mint juleps on the veranda to combat the war of Northern aggression.

I don't know why Williams encourages such bad accents. Perhaps because they are sort of campy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:51 AM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


His "New York" accent sounds closer to Boston than New York to me, I think because he drops too many R's. He also sounds closer to Tweety Bird than any actual New Yorker that ever lived, except maybe in Brooklyn in 1930.
posted by amethysts at 12:02 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


I look forward to the day when he tries his Noo Yawk accent in the wild. I'll have the ambulance on standby.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:03 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


From the description: Learn from a professional a convincing and very thick, old fashioned new york accent. Get into character and talk just like you hear in the old fashioned New York gangster films after watching this video.

So, yeah, not intended to be realistic.
posted by empath at 12:07 PM on January 2, 2011


His straight up American accent is good, though.
posted by empath at 12:11 PM on January 2, 2011


Which is, of course, English the way god intended it to be spoken, so it makes sense that it's easier.
posted by empath at 12:12 PM on January 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


Keyword: Convincing.
posted by amethysts at 12:16 PM on January 2, 2011


Having a Russian friend, and hearing a Russian accent daily, his Russian accent is more Boris Badenov-Hollywood-cliche... Zhere is nothink correct about his speakink!
posted by njohnson23 at 12:20 PM on January 2, 2011


In fairness, the typical stage Irish accent sounds as awful to most Irish people as his American accents do to American ears. But if you got onstage and did a proper, say, County Antrim accent, Americans might not know what accent you're doing, or believe it to be real.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:46 PM on January 2, 2011


Damn. His German accent belongs on 'Allo 'Allo.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 12:52 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


But if you got onstage and did a proper, say, County Antrim accent, Americans might not know what accent you're doing, or believe it to be real.

I can not only second this, I can also attest that genuine accent and dialect coaches sometimes teach this claim. The "stage Irish" I was learning at NYU bore little resemblance to what I'd been hearing for years out of the mouth of my friend from Cork.

The best accent advice I'd read, though, was from something I'd heard about Danny Thomas. He wanted to cover the fact that he was Lebanese, and "pass" as someone with a sort of "Jewish borscht belt comedian" background. So he wanted to adopt a convincing sort of "tone" to his voice. But secretly. He had the idea to actually study Yiddish and Hebrew, because -- if you think about it, don't some accents come from the application of one languages' phonemes to another language? So he started studying a little Yiddish and Hebrew, to accustom himself to the way those sounds were formed, and then applied a little of it to English, and -- there he was. I tried doing the same thing with an Irish accent - that's actually why I taught myself a little Irish.

I don't know if that's the sole reason, but today an Irish accent is the only one I really can "do". And it sure as hell isn't from watching anything like Darby O'Gill and The Little People or anything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:57 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


But if you got onstage and did a proper, say, County Antrim accent, Americans might not know what accent you're doing, or believe it to be real.

Yes, to be fair, I think he is approaching these as accents for the stage; they something to make the audience aware of a character's origin rather than a true representation. It is perhaps better to think of them as caricatures of accents.

I like his approach of focusing on which sounds change, though. He has a sort of "For an X accent, just use this bag of phonemes rather than that one and substitute as needed." approach.
posted by Avelwood at 1:07 PM on January 2, 2011


He is, in fact, doing the southern accent from Tennessee Williams plays, which has always sucked, especially his plays set in New Orleans, such as Vieux Carre, where people should sound like they are from Brooklyn, but instead sound like a film version of an infantryman from the Confederacy who is just taking time out from drinking mint juleps on the veranda to combat the war of Northern aggression.

I don't know why Williams encourages such bad accents. Perhaps because they are sort of campy.


Huh?

There are no accents in Tennessee Williams scripts. They are printed words on paper. In each production, the accents are different, based on the skills of the actors and various other factors.
posted by grumblebee at 1:15 PM on January 2, 2011


The Southern American one was a bit like the flip side of this US lady trying to do an English accent.
posted by greycap at 1:38 PM on January 2, 2011


Shit. Are Danny Thomas and Helen Thomas related? Never realized they were both Lebanese descent until now.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 1:56 PM on January 2, 2011


I've never heard anyone do a completely convincing Kiwi accent. Though this isn't bad.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:59 PM on January 2, 2011


Great news, everyone! I can do Professor Farnsworth from Futurama, in text! Read it again. I dare you.
posted by Splunge at 2:32 PM on January 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


There are no accents in Tennessee Williams scripts. They are printed words on paper.

In Vieux Caree, the artist who lives in the basement is specifically instructed to speak in a faux-English accent. I assure you that not only are accents strongly suggested by the background of Williams' characters (Blanche and Stella are from Laurel, Mississippi; Stanley Kowalski is from Faubourg Marigny in New Orleans), but that Williams will often specify how character are to speak.

You're strictly right that scripts cannot speak, and therefore do not have accents. But a good actor will pick the accent that is appropriate to their character.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:43 PM on January 2, 2011


I assure you that not only are accents strongly suggested by the background of Williams' characters (Blanche and Stella are from Laurel, Mississippi; Stanley Kowalski is from Faubourg Marigny in New Orleans), but that Williams will often specify how character are to speak.

So, how much background is a playwright allowed to specify? An actress is told that her character is from Laurel, Mississippi. It is then up to that actress to do the research and the work and come up with an authentic dialect. Or maybe we just disagree on a fundamental level about playwrighting. Should all of the characters be blank slates?

I have my copy of "Streetcar Named Desire" right in front of me. Here's one of Blanche's lines:

"I'm not - not sure I did."

If a playwright were really trying to impose an accent on a character that line would have been written, for example, like this:

"Ahm not - not sure Ah did."

Now I'm looking at the stage directions that accompany the characters' entrances. No where does it say, "Blanche speaks with a honeyed drawl" or "Stanley has the accent of a working class slob."

As for your example from "Vieux Caree" - Williams has the character speak with a "faux British" accent, because it's a character trait, like saying a character has a lisp. It informs the character. I don't think that's quite the same thing. And yes, specifying where a character comes from informs the character too, but that's very different than specifying an accent.

Now I'm looking at "Sweet Bird of Youth", with the exception of one black character who is given lines like "Yes, suh" and "No, suh", I still don't see what you're talking about.
posted by Evangeline at 3:08 PM on January 2, 2011


He shifts his eyes when he states that he's an actor, a behavior that leads me to believe that he works at Boots or Starbucks when he's not making these videos about campy accents.
posted by jsavimbi at 3:12 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


An actress is told that her character is from Laurel, Mississippi. It is then up to that actress to do the research and the work and come up with an authentic dialect.

Yes.

Most playwrights don't write dialect. Most journalists don't either. It reads odd on the page, as though the characters are being made fun of. Black characters were often written in dialect because there was not as much concern that they not be seen as figures of fun.

A character is just as much a blank slate as a playwright has left that character. If the character is from Laurel, choosing not to speak in a Mississippi accent -- and, moreover, a Mississippi accent appropriate to Blanche's pretensions of class -- would be rather confounding. I suppose the actress could choose to speak with a Thai accent, but it would be awfully confusing.

As to how much of a character a playwright should write -- depends on the play and the playwright. Williams preferred great specificity in writing his characters. We do not honor his writing by ignoring that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:29 PM on January 2, 2011


Well, there are two spectacularly bad onscreen accents I can think of - Natasha McElhone as Deirdre (and her male Irish colleague) in Ronin (her pronunciation of the word 'now' in a supposedly Northern Irish accent is enough to make us actually squirm with embarrassment over here) - and Leonardo diCaprio's supposedly Irish accent in Gangs of New York. Oh god. Ugh. :o)
posted by paperpete at 3:40 PM on January 2, 2011


Astro Zombie, I think we're having some sort of confusion.

You wrote "I don't know why Williams encourages such bad accents." How is he doing that? I assume you're not claiming that certain ACTUAL accents are intrinsically bad? I don't get what you're saying. If Blanche is from Mississippi, how is it "bad" or "campy" for an actress playing her to sounds as if she's from Mississippi?
posted by grumblebee at 3:46 PM on January 2, 2011


If the character is from Laurel, choosing not to speak in a Mississippi accent -- and, moreover, a Mississippi accent appropriate to Blanche's pretensions of class -- would be rather confounding.

Well, yeah, I think we both agree on that. What I don't understand is why specifying where a character is from, and thus in some way dictating a particular accent, is a bad thing. Maybe I misunderstood you, but that seems to be what you're saying.

Also, what grumblebee said.
posted by Evangeline at 3:56 PM on January 2, 2011


This guy from the duck tales thread does a very good british accent.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 4:02 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


You wrote "I don't know why Williams encourages such bad accents."

No, I don't mean he actively encourages bad accents. I mean something about his plays seem to inspire them. The worst southern accents I have heard in my life have all been deployed in Tennessee Williams plays.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:08 PM on January 2, 2011


With the exception of the character in Vieux Carre I mentioned above, whose accent is actually specified to be bad.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:09 PM on January 2, 2011


Ohhhhh! Okay, that makes sense.

Well, I think I know why this is. Many (Yankee) American actors THINK they can do Southern and British accents. They think they can do them, because they spent years in high school doing Monty Python sketches and talking like Foghorn Leghorn. And all their friends laughed and applauded.

I've found that it's much easier for me to get actors to work on, say, Spanish accents than it is to get them to work on British or Southern. They think they're experts when they aren't. They think they don't need to do any work when they do.
posted by grumblebee at 4:13 PM on January 2, 2011


I am sure you're right. I was in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, playing the gardener Noakes, and decided he should have a west country accent. I worked very hard at this, despite (or perhaps because of) living in the west country when I was a boy. The accent coach later told me that every other actor had given up on learning the accent about halfway through. They all thought they did theirs well enough. They were all wretched.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:19 PM on January 2, 2011


Got it.

Yeah, I was born and raised in Alabama, but I've been through so many voice classes to eliminate my southern accent, I think if I were going to do a Williams' play I'd have to put in some dialect work.
posted by Evangeline at 4:25 PM on January 2, 2011


People's reactions to accents are funny, too. I just directed a play set in Ireland. I'm not from there and don't have the best ear for the dialect. So I used a dialect coach. Plus we had two Irish actors in the cast. They were Irish Americans, but both had spent time in Ireland and both were very into their heritage. We also used TONS of dialect tapes and other resources. We worked really, really hard on the accents.

In the end, because I'm not an expert, I don't know how good they were. They sounded great to me, but I don't trust my ear.

What was funny were the remarks from audience members and critics. We got both praised and chastised for the accents. One reviewer said they were flawless. Another said they were "all over the place."

I've started to notice that ANY play with dialects gets this mix of reviews. I'd LOVE to play a prank and do, say, a British play with a cast of British actors but tell everyone they are American actors. I bet I'd still have critics saying "The accents were all over the place" and "They slipped in and out of accent at times."

I think some critics write things like that because it's an easy thing to write. It's just bullshit filler for their column. You can't really call them on it. It's subjective. (Another thing I've read over and over is "The play was great except for some opening-night jitters." Reviewers LOVE to imagine opening-night jitters for some reason.) But many reviewers are probably being honest. People hear the same things differently.

I do wish I could have asked all the critics -- both the ones that praised and panned the accents -- what they were basing their remark on? Years spent in Ireland? A gut feeling? Their take after having watched a bunch of movies with Irish characters in them?
posted by grumblebee at 4:35 PM on January 2, 2011


A Minnesota critic complained about a recent production of Streetcar, saying that nobody in New Orleans sounded like they were from the south, but instead from Brooklyn. People think they know what accents sound like, but unusual regional dialects rarely sound like what we expect. Craig Ferguson is forever complaining that most Americans tend to do something that sounds Indian to him when they try a Scottish accent. But, then, most Americans couldn't understand Spud in Trainspotting, despite repeated redubbing, so eventually they subtitled some of his dialogue.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:50 PM on January 2, 2011


The question has been asked: "So, how much background is a playwright allowed to specify? "

I'd hazard a guess: "A Field. A Tree." These being the total stage instructions for the opening of Waiting For Godot.

Now lets get into a discussion into how to pronounce that play.
posted by Sk4n at 5:19 PM on January 2, 2011


I can also attest that whether or not a production follows playwright's instructions on things also depends greatly on the actor and director anyway. I've seen some that definitely paid attention to everything a playwright suggested or even hinted at when it came to characters' background -- while other directors and actors felt free to ignore large chunks of it.

(One actor in a show I stage managed even coined a phrase for it -- he dismissed all the italicized stage directions and character descriptions and etc. as "squiggle writing," and told us in one of the early rehearsals that he always ignored it and did what the director said instead.)

So I'd say that the bad accents people may have heard in Tennessee Williams may be more a function of inexpert directing than anything else.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:03 PM on January 2, 2011


I tried doing the same thing with an Irish accent - that's actually why I taught myself a little Irish.

That's interesting. Did it help? I just finished up a first-year Japanese class at the local CC. When I was trying to do my Japanese reading and homework, my English got more Japanese-accent-y just because of the way sentences are put together, different stress patterns, etc. Restricting your sounds to the hiragana set makes English sound Japanese-like all on it's own. Or maybe it's just the S-O-V sentence structure puts characteristic thinking-pauses in different places.

Convincing to a real Japanese speaker, probably not. It would probably be good enough for a stage production aimed at English-speakers, though.
posted by ctmf at 6:22 PM on January 2, 2011


This guy does an accent journey down the length of Italy and up again. It's gibberish, so no points for saying you understand what he's saying, but you may be able to hear Neapolitan and Sicilian in the mix even if you just live in NY.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:24 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


ctmf, I don't know if I'd lay sole claim to my Irish accent on learning some Gaelic -- I also have spoken a lot with a friend who IS Irish (and she's where I learned some more of the Gaelic, actually), so it could just be a good deal of exposure as well.

I also think there's a lot of different ways to learn accents -- I can echo things I hear (sometime in middle school someone once told me I had Perfect Pitch), so I can fake a different accent if I'm echoing something I've heard someone say IN that accent (...I can only do a Scottish accent if I'm quoting a David Tennant interview, say). Other speech teachers in college used a phonetic-alphabet method, and some people had greater success with that while I floundered. I think it depends greatly on the learner, in other words.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 PM on January 2, 2011


Did it help? Ignore that part, I can't read.
posted by ctmf at 6:31 PM on January 2, 2011


Oh, I can't even reliably copy the sounds of someone speaking in a different accent, no matter how hard I try to abstract it from "language" into "just noises to copy." My language filter gets in the way and pronounces it the way I "read" it in my head as if it were text. Somehow switching to "Japanese mode" does the same thing in reverse for me, so I completely believe the Danny Thomas thing. I wouldn't be able to quote back the Scottish accent even immediately after I heard it without sounding like an idiot, and practice would just make it worse (trying too hard effect.)
posted by ctmf at 6:47 PM on January 2, 2011


He totally nailed that English accent.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:56 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting. When he says that the key to doing an accent is doing sounds that pertain to that language… what he really means is "when said in English". An accent isn't just the sounds that a native speaker CAN make. It's also the sounds the a native speaker CAN'T make in the target language. Like the classic "th" sound that so many non-English speakers have problems saying. Because the sound isn't in many of these other languages, the speakers go with the closest approximation in their native language. Hence the "zee French"… and "I know nosssing" of Shultz. So, it's pretty tricky to get an accent right. Fun videos nonetheless.
posted by readyfreddy at 7:57 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm like EmpressCallipygos. As a kid I'd occasionally get in trouble for speaking in the accents of those around me when, say, ordering at a Chinese restaurant or something, but it wasn't at all intentional - I just wasn't thinking about it and would be echoing the accent back.

I practiced English accents all through childhood, but my best by far is Scottish. I was obsessed with Trainspotting in high school and did a scene from the book for drama competition, which required not just getting the accent down (Irvine Welsh helps a bit by writing it all phonetically, of course) but getting it down enough to do distinguish multiple characters. The "tapped" Rs came fairly naturally to me. The toughest part, actually, was learning to do the "havenae"s and "didnae"s and so forth without hesitation.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:18 PM on January 2, 2011


I assure you that not only are accents strongly suggested by the background of Williams' characters (Blanche and Stella are from Laurel, Mississippi; Stanley Kowalski is from Faubourg Marigny in New Orleans)

Except that it's a huge leap from "Williams specifies where his characters are from and that this should be reflected in their speech" to "Therefore all actors doing Tennessee Williams plays are to put on phony southern accents which are not indicative of any particular place whatsoever."

Someone who grew up in the Marigny would never sound anything like what you'd recognize as a "southern" accent.

Personally, I wonder how he felt about this sort of thing when he was alive - did he try to get an actor playing Stanley Kowalski to sound right for inner city New Orleans, or did he just let it go and allow him to butcher it so that the audience would get "oh right these people are Southern."
posted by Sara C. at 8:27 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone who grew up in the Marigny would never sound anything like what you'd recognize as a "southern" accent.

Yes, that was a point I made earlier. I am a former resident of New Orleans, and appeared in Vieux Carre (as the aforementioned faux-English accent speaker), and, when I lived in NOLA, lived just a few blocks from the house Williams lived in, and set the play in, so I tend to get in a bit of a snit over bad Yat accents.

Personally, I wonder how he felt about this sort of thing when he was alive

I've heard a story of him attending one of his own plays and, at one point, hollering "Did I write that?" So at least at one point of his life -- the late part -- he might have been too out of it to care.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:37 PM on January 2, 2011


Yeah, sorry, I jumped in and then discovered y'all had hashed it out. Carry on, nothing to see here...
posted by Sara C. at 8:41 PM on January 2, 2011


Interestingly, while Brando doesn't attempt much of a New Orleanean accent in Streetcar, he's apparently impersonating Tennessee Williams in Reflections in a Golden Eye.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:49 PM on January 2, 2011


And now I've been spending way too much time playing around with accents I "know"* and paying attention to what is different between them.

I myself have a fairly standard generalized American accent, which slips a bit into the more urban variety of Texan when speaking with my family, but can manage something close to received pronunciation when I want to. If you can do dialects at all, try saying "hello" in both American and British.

Obviously the "h" sound will be more pronounced in the American version and all but dropped in the British. (Although, of course, anything goes. I have a close friend who grew up divided between London and Cornwall. He's a brilliant and well-educated guy from an upper-class English family who sounds like nothing so much as a nigh-incomprehensible chav. The accent is still delightful, however.)

Moreover, though, are two other differences in the one reading of the word "hello." First, the cadence and relative pitch of the two will differ, and change between contexts. If it's spoken as a question, for instance, the American version will probably be more sing-song, with an exaggerated up-inflection at the end. If made as a statement, however, the American version will likely be flatter in tone.

But the most interesting to me was the difference in the way the "L" sound was pronounced. Not being a linguist, I hadn't been consciously aware of the different pronunciations for that sound before, but in the American version, it's definitely dental, with the tip of the tongue against the back of the teeth. In the British version, the tip of the tongue taps the roof of the mouth just barely. It creates a subtly different sound, but fascinates me.

The weirder one for me was trying this with the phrase "have you got any tea?" I'm sure there's a lot of difference there, but the one that blows my mind is the "G" sound in "got." It's a glottal stop both ways, but in the American version it's an exhaled stop, and in the British a barely inhaled stop.

Anyway, I'm sure this is all obvious to most of you, but I'm just fascinating myself by playing around with it now.

for certain varieties of "know"
posted by Navelgazer at 9:32 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


So apparently there's this one narrator (i.e. Books on Tape narrator) who was described by (an article? a news program?) as being really, really good can't remember the name, unfortunately. As proof, they described a character in a novel who was described as a Japanese native who spoke English without an accent. And the thing is, the narrator nailed it. As in, "Oh, that's a Japanese man, speaking fluent English, with no trace of an accent."

Pretty rare to encounter subtlety like that when someone "does" an accent.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:30 PM on January 2, 2011


Reminds me of an old comic routine by Chris Langham "How to speak Japanese" in which he pointed out that the three key elements of the Japanese language were to be cold, constipated and forgetful. "Cold, Constipated and Forgetful, it's an old Cole Porter song."
posted by Gungho at 7:03 AM on January 3, 2011


*cries and cries over "Irish accent"*
posted by Eideteker at 7:01 AM on January 4, 2011


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