I thought I could do an American accent..
February 17, 2021 10:40 PM   Subscribe

Accent Expert Gives a Tour of U.S. Accents: Part 1, Part 2 (WIRED) posted by kanuck (102 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dialog coach guesses who is faking an American accent.

"Any immediate guesses, just based on their faces?"
—"If I had to make a wild guess, I'd be down to two out of five right now."


WTF?
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:57 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


I tell y'all whaht, these fawks need to secure they-ah pearimeter.
posted by krisjohn at 11:10 PM on February 17


I love his videos, very informative. And i especially liked this set when I saw the first part because they rly made a point to highlight the diversity by also including other linguistics experts.
posted by cendawanita at 12:05 AM on February 18 [13 favorites]


Moving to a region where people have a different accent can be so fraught! Do you try to maintain your original accent and risk being thought of as an outsider forever? Or do you adopt a new accent and risk being branded a poser by both your new neighbors and the folks back home? Some people will just naturally shift without even meaning to, while others will only change if they make a deliberate effort.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:42 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]


Cool, I've been meaning to ask a question on this topic; this is a great way in.

Few decades ago a friend visited here from Alabama and had great difficulty asking for feeeum in a pharmacy, eventually he had to mime loading his camera - pharmacist "Ah, you want FILM", such a syrupy accent, such stretched-out vowels.
posted by unearthed at 1:10 AM on February 18 [5 favorites]


This is gripping stuff, well presented. Thanks for posting!
posted by chavenet at 1:16 AM on February 18


When I moved from southern california to Boston 30 years ago, I didn't change my accent but I did drop regionalisms that were misunderstood.

Back then, I called everyone 'Dude' and I was ridiculed for it so I stopped doing it. Fast forward decades and now everyone around the world says 'Dude' as that southern california surfer/skater talk that was then so localized went worldwide - thanks to pop culture.

There are only two parts to this but I understand more is coming since he did not cover the California accents at all. Also waiting to hear the highly developed LA gang speak.
posted by vacapinta at 1:52 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


I want to see a reaction video with Americans hearing Hugh Laurie's natural accent for the first time.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 1:57 AM on February 18 [14 favorites]


I'm European and fascinated by this. Also, I can't even hear the difference between some of the accents.

I agree that all the parts with the non-white accents made me want to learn much more about them.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:29 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


John Oliver doesn't seem to be very good at accents, though...and I don't feel very comfortable seeing him try to do a black American voice (Florida)?

But like I said, not American so maybe I'm just wrong on both counts.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:36 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I have been told that Hugh Laurie sounds very naturally American, but that's never been my impression. OTOH I've got (American) ex-classmates and ex-colleagues who genuinely thought I've lived substantially in America, but really, I watch too much television.
posted by cendawanita at 3:05 AM on February 18


I want to see a reaction video with Americans hearing Hugh Laurie's natural accent for the first time.
But his accent was pretty bad. He sounded like his jaw was seizing up.
posted by groda at 3:12 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


The good thing about the wave of british actors getting american roles is that I'm beginning to notice what I've called 'drama school American'. I think i twigged on that especially when black British actors began to also show up in a noticeable way in american roles and they were trained in (stereotypically) white accents.
posted by cendawanita at 3:28 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]


I thought this would be a quick "this is what this accent sounds like, this is what this accent sounds like, etc" but it immediately went into way more detail than I expected (eg what the Pilgrims sounded like, the variety of accents in New York) and was really interesting.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:38 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


I think the person that has most impressed me is Tom Holland. I still cannot mentally wrap my head around the fact that he's not American.

As far as the core video, it's mad interesting, but there are so many times where he doesn't sound like anyone I've ever heard in America, but like an Irishman doing an Alabama accent (or an Alabaman doing an Irish accent), and I can't tell if he's messing up an accent (which, who could blame him, he's doing like a million of them) or if he's just talking in his normal accent and his normal accent is, itself, just really weird.
posted by Bugbread at 3:41 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


(I should clarify: I don't mean he's doing really unusual accents when he's talking about somewhere that is really remote, historically or geographically, like Ocracoke; that part makes sense)
posted by Bugbread at 3:53 AM on February 18


Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon on American Gods) is impressive to this non-American as a Brit doing an American accent. As an Australian i am always surprised at a) most people who think they can do an Australian accent (dear reader, they can't) and b) since i first came to the UK people usually guess i am from somewhere other than Australia (which I do). The point being, people are often wrong about accents .
posted by Megami at 4:02 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Some people will just naturally shift [accents] without even meaning to, while others will only change if they make a deliberate effort.

I have an aunt who was born in Texas, and met my uncle when they were in college in Arizona - and then they both moved back home with him when he married her. "Back home," you need to understand, was Cape Cod, and my mother's side of the family does indeed have a Cape-Cod accent; fainter in the younger generations, but my grandfather still had a pahk-your-cah-in-Hahvahd-Yahd accent.

So after a few years of Texan Aunt Mary being surrounded by Cape Cahhders, her Texas and the Cape Cod started to....blend. I didn't notice how odd it was when I was a kid, because it was just "Aunt Mary", but I eventually learned how unique it was. It completely messed me up the one time I tried doing a monologue in a "Southern Accent" for an acting class - I slipped into doing "Aunt Mary" and the whole class, including the teacher, stared at me like I had six heads, and the teacher very diplomatically said that "that....was interesting...."

I still don't think it's weird, it's just Aunt Mary. About the only thing that ever stuck out for me was that her "y'all" has permanently morphed into "you all".

When I moved from southern california to Boston 30 years ago, I didn't change my accent but I did drop regionalisms that were misunderstood.

I've lived in New York City for 30 years, but I grew up in New England, and it was only about 5 years ago that I stopped instinctively referring to liquor stores as "package stores".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 AM on February 18 [7 favorites]


Moving to a region where people have a different accent can be so fraught!

Tell me about it. In our first couple of years in the UK, Mrs. Example and I lived in Devon. The accent took some getting used to, but once we readjusted our ears to "basically pirate farmer", we were fine. We only really had trouble with older people, whose West Country accents tended to be thicker.

Then we moved to London for a few years, and that was pretty easy. We'd heard Cockney and RP in a lot of the movies and TV shows we'd watched growing up, after all, and we had very little problem understanding anyone.

Then we moved to Yorkshire...and all bets were off. Suddenly all the vowels were the wrong shape for our ears, and there was a lot of new vocabulary. Three and a half years later, we're mostly okay now, but there are still a few trouble spots and people. (I work with a guy from Barnsley , and to this day I only understand about 40% of what he says unless we're standing in a very quiet room and I can watch his lips moving.)

Meanwhile, we both still sound like generic Midwestern Americans, although my accent has softened quite a bit, and softens even more when I'm performing Shakespeare. (I've had audience members guess I'm Irish, of all things.) Apparently--according to my coworkers--I suddenly get a lot more American when I'm on the phone to Mrs. Example, though. It's weird.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:12 AM on February 18 [14 favorites]


Very good stuff -- I do like the way the sections of the video are labelled so you can skip around, or return to something you might want to hear again. For once, a good use of video as a medium!
posted by gimonca at 4:15 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


Also, Hugh Laurie is the canonical example of a British actor doing an American accent well. Is it perfect? Not sure. But it's convincing--and when you can't exactly place it, he has enough confidence that you assume his stylings are on purpose.

And yes, compare his dialog in 'House' to, say, his characters in 'Blackadder' back in the 80s, it's a real contrast. When 'House' first came on the air, my reaction was "wow, he really nailed it".
posted by gimonca at 4:22 AM on February 18 [5 favorites]


We’ve talked about it before, but Gillian Anderson is the most reverse-confused I’ve ever been. Her British accent is so good, and she’s been in so many UK shows, I started to convince myself she was British all along and had been putting on the American accent.
posted by schoolgirl report at 4:55 AM on February 18 [8 favorites]


that's correct though, no? She was raised as a kid in the UK (though born in the USA), then moved to the States in her teens, which is when she taught herself the accent to fit in. I think she's dual nationality but definitely the english accent came first.

Ok, just checked her wiki, and i just learned throughout that the family still spent summers in the UK/England. So she definitely had no incentive to lose the accent.
posted by cendawanita at 5:05 AM on February 18 [5 favorites]


Moving to a region where people have a different accent can be so fraught!

I don't know about other US cities so much but at least here in Pittsburgh, the accent he gives is accurate but it's very class and race specific. When I moved here, I worked in construction and could barely understand some of my co-workers but working in tech, I don't hear it very much. There's the occasional dropped infinitive ("car needs fixed") but as a office worker, you can go months without actually hearing the accent that he imitates for Pittsburgh except in jokes.
posted by octothorpe at 5:11 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]


"'Goat Fronting' in North Carolina" sounds like it should be something...else.
posted by notsnot at 5:35 AM on February 18 [8 favorites]


Moving to a region where people have a different accent can be so fraught!

I think I've told this story here before, but when biscotti and I moved here in 07 we almost immediately -- like, the night or two in the hotel before we got into our house -- went to Wegmans because, well, Wegmans. Go through checkout and swipe to pay, which was the fashion at the time, and the cashier says to us:

Zyegduhmyoun?

And, befuddled, we say the only thing we can: Huh?

ZYEGDUHMYOUN?
*sigh*
Do you want cyesh byeck?

At which point we realize we'd just heard a strong Northern Cities Vowel Shift speaker say "Exact amount?"

I can't remember where I saw this, but IIRC another interesting thing about the NCVS is that speakers commonly refuse to admit that they're doing it.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:39 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]


Though as a teachin' person the hardest thing about moving here has been the vast number of ways families can pronounce "--owski." Owskee, Offskee, Effskee, Evskee, Ehskee...
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:42 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


As a quarantine project, I actually bought one of Erik Singer’s dialect classes. Maybe I’ll start that today.

Does anyone else have a specific house dialect? The way my husband, the kid, and I speak to each other at home is noticeably different than our usual regional accent (South of Boston, North of Cranston) outside the house. Is that just a weird quirk of ours? It’s not a code-switching thing.
posted by Ruki at 6:14 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


I want to see a reaction video with Americans hearing Hugh Laurie's natural accent for the first time.

Or Idris Elba's. Maybe a few years back though because most people probably know now that he's British.
posted by fuse theorem at 6:17 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


Accents are where my state (NC)really shines. Currently live in the northern Piedmont (where “on” is pretty reliably pronounced “own”) and grew up in the Appalachian region with parents from Virginia on a street full of recent transplants from New Jersey and New York. I blame the latter bit for why that NYT dialect quiz from a few years back consistently puts me in Newark.

My grandparents (Mississippi, Tennessee, Southern Virginia and Southwest VA) all had gorgeous accents about half and half rhotic. Still love the way my VA grandfather word take the “r” out of “north” and prnonounce it like “Knoweth” but would put it back into “warsh”
posted by thivaia at 6:26 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


I grew up in the Chicago suburbs (not the city - the accent is a lot more generic Midwestern than the downtown sneer), lived for 14 years in Texas, and am now in Massachusetts. I have no idea what I usually sound like but the drawl comes right back if I talk to a southerner of any stripe. I can still peg a north suburbs person within two sentences, though, for all that I couldn't tell you how.

I've got a friend who has a hard-to-place accent (turns out it's the "I had a speech impediment as a kid and had a metric fuckton of speech therapy" accent) and lives with her wife who was born in England and grew up on the east coast, and after a year of quarantine I can't even describe where my friend's vowels have gone. They come back to normal after a little bit of talking to me, but those first few sentences... I think they're well on their way to developing a household accent.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:33 AM on February 18 [5 favorites]


Do you think he'll get back to Northern New England in part 3? It seems like he's going geographically from northeast to Southwest, so I'm guessing not, and there were just too many other small regional variations on the east coast, so that didn't make the cut.
posted by eviemath at 7:01 AM on February 18


I had a white junior-high teacher in/adjacent to the Piney Woods Belt who had a humorous and in retrospect not entirely context-appropriate story about price smoothing and asking at a gas station where he could find some ice while on a road trip in Illinois.
posted by solotoro at 7:15 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]


This is great - I've sent it to my mum. She is from a small town in southern Louisiana but has lived in Scotland for most of the last 40 years. I can't hear her accent at all (cue my old housemates being super shocked when she'd leave a message on the landline), but she's definitely picked up a lot of Scots vocabulary and kind of rolls her r's. She had the gall to laugh at me when I moved to Edinburgh because my (mild east coast Scot) accent got 'posh'! I can hear the difference now between her and her sister, who still lives near Lafayette. Fascinating stuff, thanks.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 7:17 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


*snerk* Just remembered a moment from the playwright's group we used to run...

So, one of my theater companies used to have a bi-weekly writers' group for a lot of playwrights in our wake. They could bring in scenes from stuff they were working on for the group to read aloud, and offer feedback. This was a theater group run by my good friend "Carl"; Carl had grown up in Pensacola, Florida, but then came north to Yale for grad school and lived in New York ever since. And hence, he'd always spoken with a "generic American" accent.

Well - one day, one of the playwrights brought something in from a play set in Florida, with one character who was a long-time rural Florida resident. Carl immediately volunteered to read that character's lines - and when he did so, he unleashed the Pensacola accent he'd had when he was a kid; something which NONE of us had ever heard before.

The entire meeting ground to a halt as me, Carl's girlfriend, and six playwrights all turned as one on Carl to ask him "what in the hell was THAT???"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:23 AM on February 18 [11 favorites]


The biggest surprise for me recently was Gayle Rankin — aka Sheila the She-Wolf on Glow — is from Paisley.
posted by scruss at 7:41 AM on February 18


"Few decades ago a friend visited here from Alabama and had great difficulty asking for feeeum in a pharmacy, eventually he had to mime loading his camera - pharmacist "Ah, you want FILM", such a syrupy accent, such stretched-out vowels."

When I moved to NC for grad school I quickly learned I needed some Southern spin on my numbers, like when giving a phone number or address over the phone, because otherwise nobody could understand me. Like, most of the time context made my accent clear or they'd have to ask about one word I said weirdly, but strings of random numbers, especially over the phone, were REALLY hard for people to decode in my native accent.

The worst actor's American accent to me is Jesse Spencer. Or, maybe not "worst" but "by far the hardest to listen to." He's Australian and plays a firefighter on one of the "Chicago" shows, and speaks with an alleged Chicago accent. (While I'm more suburban, my family's been in Chicago since 1893 and my dad and grandpa both have pretty broad working-class Chicago accents.) To me, Spencer sounds like he has marbles in his mouth and I don't know what he's doing with his throat to try to sound Chicagoan, but he sounds like he's choking. (Maybe on the marbles!) I have to turn the show off because it stresses me out so much; it honestly sounds like he's in distress and needs help.

(Also I admire all the Chicago cop-mustaches and firefighter-mustaches on the secondary characters but it annoys the shit out of me that the main cast never have Chicago-appropriate facial hair.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Patterson Joseph in the BBC series Jekyll. I consider that performance payback to America for Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent in Mary Poppins.

I love me some PJ, especially in Neverwhere. But when playing an American CIA agent his accent will cycle through multiple regions in the course of a single sentence. The man could start a thought in Texas, express a parenthetical in Georgia, and finish in 1920s Brooklyn.

It’s actually kinda gorious to watch.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:59 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


I think Hugh Laurie has gotten better; my wife is a big House fan and I occasionally pop into the room for a few minutes during her rewatch of an episode here and there. Although I know very little about the show, I can usually tell within thirty seconds if a given episode is an early season or a late one. I find his accent was more mannered and artificial at the beginning of the show and got more naturalistic.

For me, though, the me plus ultra is Gary Oldman. I first saw him in Sid and Nancy in 1986, followed in short order in the late eighties by Prick Up Your Ears and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. By the early nineties he was popping up in American roles (JFK, True Romance).

Around 2000 or so I saw Oldman interviewed on Dennis Miller’s show. Miller said that he just wanted to confirm for the audience that they had never met before that day; Oldman said that was correct. Miller said something to the effect of, “As god is my witness, I have been watching your movies for ten years and I had no idea you weren’t American.”

Of course, Oldman has been living and working in the states for so long now, he has mentioned that when he plays a Londoner now — he was born and raised in London — he has to work with a dialect coach to get it right.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:12 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


Goodness, I hate Hugh Laurie's American accent (love Laurie though). It always sounded fake in a way I struggled to describe until, oddly enough, I heard the Switched on Pop's history the "Everyone's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" song. Stay with me. The Sunscreen Song was actually a newspaper column that went viral as an email forward when it got (falsely) repackaged in the 90s as a commencement address from Kurt Vonnegut. Australian director Baz Lurhmann thought to make a song out of it. He learned the piece's real history -- after Vonnegut explained he had nothing to do with it -- but still hired someone to do the speaking voice in a sort of flat, mid-century, Midwestern accent. To me, "Dr House" always sounds like the guy in the Sunscreen Song. I have largely stopped complaining about this because English takes on American accents have somehow gotten much worse in the last decade (?) and Hugh Laurie's G-man pantomime is the least of anyone's concerns now.

The real trick to American regionalism is place names. Your knowledge of French will not help you ask for directions in New Orleans. Your guesses at German pronunciation might not be rewarded in the Midwest. Your Spanish...actually, this is fun, I've noticed in California that pronunciation of Spanish-language place names have been getting less English in the last decade. I guess the end result of this is probably just going to mean something trickier -- pronunciations that correspond to neither Spanish nor English expectations -- but it's still interesting to see.
posted by grandiloquiet at 8:14 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


"The Sunscreen Song was actually a newspaper column"

... which was written by Pulitzer-Prize winning Chicago Tribune columnist and legitimately lovely human being Mary Schmich.

(Off topic, I know, but it was infuriating how fast her brilliant work was attributed to a man and how stubborn that attribution remains!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:18 AM on February 18 [9 favorites]


I always thought Damian Lewis's American accent in Homeland was not good. It's consistent but just a generic, broad-vowelled 'American' in a way that no-one actually speaks.
posted by Flashman at 8:36 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


My dad likes to tell the story of how when he (having grown up in/near south Providence, Rhode Island) showed up for his freshman year at the University of Maryland and met his roommate - from up in the mountains in Tennessee - they were just completely unable to communicate with each other verbally. His roommate couldn't possibly parse my dad's accent with my dad talking as fast as he naturally did, and my dad couldn't handle the incredibly slow pace of his roommate's dialect. They eventually resorted to writing notes to each other just to have conversations.
posted by mstokes650 at 8:37 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


> But his [Hugh Laurie's] accent was pretty bad.

Ha yeah, I'm going to say that's 20/20 hindsight. Everybody bought it, including the director, who said "that's the kind of American actor we need" after watching the audition tape. Which is rare, though, IMO. Most Brits who think they can do it end up sounding ridiculous. It's the equivalent of Americans thinking they can do a Scottish accent, and it never ends well.

I'm writing this in a fake Bavarian accent that would fool absolutely no-one.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 8:39 AM on February 18 [6 favorites]


It's funny how Americans conflate accent with dialect.
posted by Flashman at 8:43 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


In a hostel in Tel Aviv once I had to act as an interpreter between a guy from southern Italy and a girl from the west coast of Ireland. They found each other’s accents in English impenetrable but I understood them both and they had seen enough Hollywood movies that my Canadian English was fine for both.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:44 AM on February 18 [13 favorites]


Ha! I totally have a similar observation. The end result is my 'speaking English to foreigners' accent is extremely generic/hollywood american (my countrypeople tend to codeswitch a lot anyway, it's just i could actually add atlantic accents to my arsenal).

OTOH in the UK, without the visual cues, my customer service voice on the phone i tend to switch to more southeast English .
posted by cendawanita at 9:03 AM on February 18


I'm guessing Part 3 is not available yet?
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:07 AM on February 18


I have always suppressed my Texas accent a bit; my parents grew up in a small town but raised me in a suburb which was more diverse, so I had to learn to turn down the yee-haw a little to be understood. It's a useful skill. Now that they've passed I may never have a reason to use that much twang again.
posted by emjaybee at 9:26 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I still can't get our regional accent right. Props to those people with the mimic genes.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:44 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


I want to see a reaction video with Americans hearing Hugh Laurie's natural accent for the first time.

But his accent was pretty bad. He sounded like his jaw was seizing up.


Once I found out that he was British, I started to scrutinize Laurie's accent more. Before that, I just thought he spoke like a tight-lipped American (which was appropriate for the "House" character).

After I found out he was British, I could not stop hearing the flaws in his accent. So I think he did a good job with the accent until I found out he was British, which he had no control over.
posted by ishmael at 9:44 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]




I had a coworker who had spent a substantial amount of time in London; when she came back she had an accent that seemed half British, half Long Island. No, I can't describe it any better than that. It was… unusual, to say the least.
posted by Ampersand692 at 9:46 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


found out he was British, I could not stop hearing the flaws in his accent

Fun fact, as a guest in London of a Knight of the Realm, came to realize that BBC English is actually kind of prole, who tries that hard? Lockjaw barely articulate mumbling is the classiest of accents over there.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:49 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


For a good, polished Texas accent, I refer to either Bill Moyers (born in Oklahoma, grew up in east Texas) or Dan Rather (SE Texas native). Both have recognizable Texas styles that still show through, in a good way, behind the standardization of TV broadcast journalism.
posted by gimonca at 10:02 AM on February 18 [4 favorites]


Oh man, I loved this so much and can't wait to see the rest of the episodes when they come out (if they're already out and I just didn't see them, please correct me!)

Still, one of the things I loved most about it was hearing him doing all of the accents, leaning into them as he was explaining them. I agree with his decision not to do AA or Native American accents, and I think his choices of nonwhite experts were absolutely fantastic for the information and perspectives they shared. But I wish he had let the AA dialect coach do more than just snippets here and there - the audio and movie clips may have been informative, but they weren't nearly as fun, and weren't long enough to get a real sense of the accent itself. Especially when you contrast with how he went through easily 5-6 different NYC (white) accents in a row - there are at least as many alternative accents in the non-white community here (to my ears, anyway) that I'll bet she could have showcased.

Goat fronting and goose fronting are my two new favorite terms.
posted by Mchelly at 10:08 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


A longtime colleague of mine is Québécoise francophone and after a bit in school got most of her English working in the Australian outback. When we speak English now, her tones are a delightful and idiosyncratic mixture of Rivière-du-Loup and Coober Pedy.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:10 AM on February 18 [5 favorites]


Although I grew up in the southern US and spent a lot of time around my very rural-southern maternal grandparents, my grandfather worked in the northeast and my mom grew up and went to college there, so we didn't use a southern accent in my mom's house. All the time I lived there I got frequent "Y'ain't frum around here, are ya?" comments.

In my late 40's I moved to the Pacific Northwest, and since then have gotten quite a few "You're from the south, aren't you?" comments....

I was once friends with a German man who had learned English from an Australian surfer dude. Took a long time for me to learn to decipher that indescribable accent.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:37 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I can't do it on command, but when I'm in an area with a particular accent, I start to drift into that accent over a couple days. When I was in the Midlands of England, locals thought i was from two towns over - certainly not a Yank. Same with the time I spent a week at a lodge in Ely, Minnesota - when I drove straight back home to St. Louis, it took a couple hours of drinking with friends before I dropped the accent. And my former boss from Chicago, I can merely be on the phone with him, and I sound like an SNL skit about Da Bearss.

It's not intentional, and I'm only barely conscious of when I'm doing it. So to hear exactly *what* makes a particular accent, that particular accent (the tongue is in a different place for this vowel or that vowel, or a different part of the tongue is actuating this consonant) is fascinating.
posted by notsnot at 10:53 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]


my grandfather worked in the northeast

I forgot to add that he worked there just for the period of his adult life while my mom was a child and young adult. Sorry if I wasn't clear.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:54 AM on February 18


My favorite example of a bad Brit-doing-American accent was Peri on Doctor Who. Just like...go super nasal (or is that denasalized?) and flap EVERYTHING, I guess? It's like Hugh Laurie times a million. My favorite flawless American accent was Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It was actually kind of distracting because I keep focusing in on her speech and trying to find flaws.
posted by The Tensor at 11:14 AM on February 18


I don't know what the dialect coach sounded like to people with American accents, but to my ears had an incredibly weird mix of my standard southern UK English accent, and a generic American accent. His natural speaking patterns sound like they've changed a lot.
posted by plonkee at 11:15 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


He was speaking in whatever accent he was talking about at that point in time. I'm not sure he ever used his "natural" accent in either video.

Ah, you probably meant the "guest the imposter" video. Yeah, he sounded like my coworkers from the Midlands.

The imposter was pretty obvious though, but I'm from the town the person pretends to be from.
posted by sideshow at 11:28 AM on February 18


A lot of British actors - Hugh Laurie included - go way too harrrd on the rrr’s when they do an American accent.

When House came out, the big surprise for me was that so many American viewers were unfamiliar with his British work. A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster had been re-running on PBS and A&E in the States for years at that point.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:17 PM on February 18 [7 favorites]


I had completely forgotten this memory from primary school. We put on a huge Christmas pageant every year, and this particular year one of the Wise Men was played by a kid whose family had moved to New York from somewhere down south. I think it was Texas, but I’m really not sure.

His big line was, “Let us go even unto Bethlehem.” He pronounced the last syllable of “Bethlehem” to sound like “ham,” which was perfectly natural in his native accent. But the teacher directing the pageant stopped the rehearsal and said, “Ham? Bethleham? What are you gonna do, cook dinner when you get there?”

I don’t remember what the kid’s reaction was, but I was incredibly uncomfortable.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:25 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


go way too harrrd on the rrr’s

The first time I noticed that was Hugo Weaving's "Agent Smith" character - the way he always said "Mister Andrrson" always struck me as odd. It wasn't until a few years later that I learned about this frequent result of English actors speaking American English.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:32 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


If you want to get an idea of Singer's baseline accent, there are several other Wired videos where he spends most of his talk time using it, particularly the ones where he critiques accents that actors use in various films.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 12:54 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


English actor Dominic West had a good American accent as McNulty on The Wire and an intentionally bad fake English accent on top.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:16 PM on February 18 [6 favorites]


I have a friend who was an exchange student here in Philly, and his friend was in Omaha that same year, and the friend's sister had been in England two years before. So for a couple days we met up in DC, and I had the pleasure of hearing English spoken by three people with the same German accent, but overlaid by different English accents. It was fascinating.
posted by JawnBigboote at 2:16 PM on February 18 [4 favorites]


The first time I noticed that was Hugo Weaving's "Agent Smith" character

I had never thought about why Weaving spoke the way he did, but he always struck me as having a really unique accent in the Matrix, and I remember one day just getting completely stuck speaking everything like Agent Smith. The same cadence, the same pauses, the same arrrrs. By the end of the day my wife was starting to get pretty annoyed.
posted by Bugbread at 3:46 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


I'm super-curious if I can pull off a Texas accent, or if I ever was able to do one.

I should probably just get a blog, but:

I grew up in Texas (though it's been a long time), but in Houston, which has a really big accent divide. Houston's population grew a lot in the 70s due to the recession, because there was no work up north but Houston's oil industry was keeping the local economy going. That meant a ton of non-Texan families moving to Texas looking for work. In the suburbs, then, you'd have this mix of kids whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were all Texans, and kids whose family had only been in Texas for a year or two.

That meant that it wasn't unusual to hear people with thick drawls, and it wasn't unusual to hear people with the "generic American TV accent" or whatever it's called. Then kids' accents tended to drift to whatever their friends' accents were, not just "drift towards the local accent". It wasn't quite a class thing, for the most part. You had rich kids with drawls and poor kids with drawls, rich kids without drawls and poor kids without drawls.

Thinking back on my friend group in high school, we all had Generic TV American accents, even though a few of us had parents with strong Texan accents. But I guess the influence of friend groups and TV was bigger than the influence of family.

Now, while accents weren't a class thing, they were definitely an identity thing. If someone was rich or poor and felt themselves to be very Texan, their accent would likely be strong. If someone was rich or poor but didn't feel a strong Texan tie, their accent would likely be weak. I remember one guy at school who spoke Generic TV American until he got really into country music, and then over the course of literally one week developed this incredibly strong Texan accent. And I can't quite claim that he "faked" it, because, for all I know, his family may have actually been a long line of Texans, and he just picked up the family accent, I dunno.

Anyway, so the long-and-short is that I grew up in Texas, surrounded by Texan accents, but never picked one up, because that's pretty common in Houston. But having heard the accent on the daily for years, I feel like I could probably do a convincing accent...but I'm not sure, and now that I don't live there, there's nobody I could test my accent out on.
posted by Bugbread at 4:04 PM on February 18 [4 favorites]


English actor Dominic West had a good American accent as McNulty on The Wire and an intentionally bad fake English accent on top.

Dominic West was pretty great on that show. He had the added challenge of his character supposedly being a native of Baltimore, but his accent seemed to lean a bit more New York. He'd try inserting a Baltimore "O" every once in a while (into words like "ocean") but that was the extent of it- he'd mostly stick to the New-Yorky thing.
posted by ishmael at 4:42 PM on February 18


I think the person that has most impressed me is Tom Holland. I still cannot mentally wrap my head around the fact that he's not American.

ooooh I totally meant to include this one:

tom holland switching to an american accent for 6 minutes and 10 seconds
posted by kanuck at 4:55 PM on February 18 [5 favorites]


I think Hugh Laurie has gotten better; my wife is a big House fan and I occasionally pop into the room for a few minutes during her rewatch of an episode here and there. Although I know very little about the show, I can usually tell within thirty seconds if a given episode is an early season or a late one. I find his accent was more mannered and artificial at the beginning of the show and got more naturalistic.

Interesting- I tried watching House a long time ago and found Laurie's American accent so terrible and grating I had to stop. But I knew him from Jeeves and A Bit of Fry and Laurie and all the American accents in those shows are terrible, so it wasn't a big surprise. But really, there are tons of talented actors who are bad at accents, or bad at some- plenty of American actors botch southern accents by using fake theatrical Southern, and can't even get anywhere close to an English accent of any type.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:13 PM on February 18


A lot of British actors - Hugh Laurie included - go way too harrrd on the rrr’s when they do an American accent.

Yep- too hard on the r's and not soft enough on the t's. Plus an extra nasally sound that is somehow how many British people hear us, but is totally recognizable as being strange and artificial to Americans. Naturally this goes the other way too, when Americans try to put on English/Scots/Irish/Australian accents. I always find what we're tuned to hear as distinctive really interesting.

As an aside, I was shocked the other night when John Oliver said "shah-RAID" for charade instead of "shah-ROD". When did he change that?
posted by oneirodynia at 5:22 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


tom holland switching to an american accent for 6 minutes and 10 seconds

Holy shit, it's so effortless and seamless! I figured that, as even as good as he is, he'd need to warm up with a sentence or two to get into the groove, but he drops in an out like a bilingual person talking to another bilingual person.
posted by Bugbread at 5:58 PM on February 18 [2 favorites]


Re: fake theatrical southern - that reminds me of ewan mcgregor's american roles: his yankee accents are dire but he's definitely got a better handle on sounding like a southerner (or at least his character in big fish had an accent he can work in). This i think is quite typical, since conversely I find european actors of germanic or scandi background have a more sympathetic home accent tht can slide into northeastern american better.

That said, yeah most American actors really have even less of an idea of how to do an english accent (or more precisely the accents people actually use and not studio BBC), what more the rest of the UK. But that's also a consequence of exposure.
posted by cendawanita at 6:06 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


My sister grew up in RI, lived for a few years in Navajo country and has been living in the Charlotte, NC area for about 15 years. Her accent is verrry interesting. She actually has a stronger southern accent than her kids who are NC born and bred!
I’ve been living in MA for about 25 years and the only real thing I’ve changed is saying “or-ange” instead of “arnge.”
posted by Biblio at 7:08 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


One thing I've always wondered is whether American accents are as varied as UK/Irish ones - I'm English and resident in Ireland currently, and UK/Irish accents sound remarkably different to my ears, whereas American accents all sound relatively similar (with various dialect differences) - but I'm wondering if that's because "TV/film" accents are sanitised so that most viewers can understand them - a broad Somerset, Newcastle or Donegal accent is not often heard on TV over here, and I'm wondering if it's similar in the US - or whether it's just my ears are tuned such that I can hear the difference in accents on this side of the pond more easily simply due to familiarity.
posted by BigCalm at 2:31 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


You're right that you lose a lot of the variety in what shows up in media, but the US does actually a smaller range of accents then the UK does.

He touches on this in the video a little. Regional accents develop need time to develop. The UK's accents have a lot more time to diverge from each other, whereas in the US big chunks of the country have only had english speakers for a relatively short amount of time.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:14 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]




I'm wondering if that's because "TV/film" accents are sanitised so that most viewers can understand them - a broad Somerset, Newcastle or Donegal accent is not often heard on TV over here, and I'm wondering if it's similar in the US....

Yep. I studied acting in college (US), and one of the things they taught us was a "general American accent" which was meant to shave the edges off all of our respective regional dialects precisely so that we would be more easily understood in any of the films, tv shows, or plays we might be in. There were also various canonically-defined "accents" we could learn, which were more still more of the flavor of its respective area than a real mirror of the accent.

One of the teachers claimed that the "general American accent" was based in part on the way people in Connecticut talked, because it was the most bland and neutral; I grew up in Connecticut and talked that way already, so I could skip ahead to trying to explore the other "accents" while my classmates from Boston or Houston struggled to shed their own dialects.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:55 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


> He touches on this in the video a little. Regional accents develop need time to develop. The UK's accents have a lot more time to diverge from each other

That's interesting, I'd assumed that accent difference was down to the fact that people didn't travel about much before the advent of the train and car, and thus you had accents differentiate themselves regionally that way - in the UK, strong accents seem to be getting rarer now that people travel around a lot more, with people adjusting their own accent to make themselves better understood when they move regions.
posted by BigCalm at 4:39 AM on February 19


Another random bloggy-type comment:

As I mentioned upthread, I'm a Houstonian without almost any Texan accent (since it seems like half the city is like that, I can honestly say "there are literally millions of us!"). However, it's not zero, it's just incredibly mild. Which has made for an interesting thing:

In Texan fashion (not exclusive to Texas, mind), I pronounce "our" exactly like "are", and not like I pronounce "hour". I now live in a non-English speaking country, and am trying to raise my kids to be bilingual, with middling success. However, since they're basically learning from me and watching Marvel movies, and it's all by ear, it makes for some interesting quirks, one of which I noticed recently: my younger son, just starting junior high, apparently tries to conjugate the word "our".

What I mean by that is that since he hears "our" as "are", and since the past tense of "are" in a sentence like "You are awake" is "were", as in "You were awake," he'll do the same thing to the word "our" in past tense sentences.

Like (written kinda phonetically):

"The bee is in are house right now."
"The bee was in were house yesterday."
posted by Bugbread at 4:41 AM on February 19 [5 favorites]


Well this was a huge old wtf.
I watched the entire thing to try and figure out why the hell my mother, a 70 year old midwestern woman, has for her entire life pronounced the word "milk" as "melk."

apparently she is secretly from Utah.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:07 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


That's interesting, I'd assumed that accent difference was down to the fact that people didn't travel about much before the advent of the train and car, and thus you had accents differentiate themselves regionally that way - in the UK, strong accents seem to be getting rarer now that people travel around a lot more, with people adjusting their own accent to make themselves better understood when they move regions.

Per the article, the first part is correct, the second part (regional accents are smoothing) is incorrect. He says that even in the US, they are growing, and there are far more of them in the UK and they are also growing. He doesn't address your 3rd point, that people may be tempering accents when they travel - in effect becoming 'bi-accentual' (or whatever the word that would mean 'bilingual' except for accents instead).
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:24 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


BTW, accents in your second language are a whole nother level of weird. Here are some random facts you may not be aware of:

1) If you're German, and your accent (in English) kind of receded over the course of a decade or so, you'll find that Americans will still hear it, but Germans and e.g. Russians will absolutely not. There's fun to be had with this. I suspect this to be true for many other combinations of languages/accents.

2) At some point, you will randomly listen to a voicemail message you left 5 years ago, and it'll blow your mind.

3) You will talk to British friends of your sister in law, and they will say "How can you sound so American, but also like your brother??" There's no way to answer this.

4) If you grew up speaking multiple local dialects, you will find that you can speak English sounding like you're, say, Austrian. Again, there's fun to be had.

5) Being highly competent in a second language while sounding slightly weird has its advantages. People will either conclude you're interesting, or immediately underestimate you. Both are essentially based on nothing, but either may provide entertainment.

6) At some point you will find out that there are actual classes that help you "pass" ... I say don't do it.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 8:38 AM on February 19 [3 favorites]


for her entire life pronounced the word "milk" as "melk."
apparently she is secretly from Utah.


I wondered about that tidbit; I think the "'e' replacing the 'i'" pronunciation is more widespread than that. I had a girlfriend once whose family was from Connecticut who pronounced a few words (not just "melk") that way. I liked to tease her about it occasionally:

Me: What comes after five?
Her: Sex.
Me: I'll see you at 5, then!
Her: 🙄
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:32 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


This side of the world, that's an Australian vs New Zealander English joke.
posted by cendawanita at 10:49 AM on February 19 [2 favorites]


I love these videos! Linguistics is so cool. I took two electives in it in college. I was raised in my mother's family, and almost everyone in it sounds "Southern", except me. I "sound like a white girl". My maternal grandparents were from the black belt of Alabama and NE Arkansas, and once they were in Michigan, they lived in black-only communities and their kids (my mom's generation) went to black-only schools, and so they sound like Southerners still. My cousins also have more Southern-sounding accents than I do and speak AAVE, whereas I don't.

When I was a 70s child, my voice was more heavily Wisconsin-accented than it is now, though, apparently, I still say certain words like "bag" in that accent, much to the amusement of my New York friends. No one in my family thought badly about my not sounding like them. It was amusing at worst and useful at best. My aunt whose home I lived in knew to put me on the phone whenever someone had to interact with the authorities, bill collectors, or people of that sort.

I remember the first time I recognized that there was a black New York/Long Island accent. When I was 18, I got a copy of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and heard Flavor Flav doing "Cold Lampin’ with Flavor". He has an entirely different accent than the DJ dissing PE at the beginning of the track.
posted by droplet at 11:51 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]


Tangentially-related: Esteemed Scottish Actor Brian Cox pronouncing different Scotch names.
posted by ishmael at 2:26 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


Here's a pretty great video analyzing AAVE.
posted by ishmael at 2:27 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking further about American actors all kind of blanding out their own dialects and learning a generic "American accent"; even though actors may try their best to speak a more "correct" dialect, sometimes if they're in a tense or heightened-emotional scene, some bits of their native dialect peek out. And sometimes that can lead to unintentional comedy.

So, according X-Files canon, Fox Mulder is from Chillmark, Massachusetts, which is a small town on Martha's Vineyard. So, technically Mulder should have a New England Cape-Cod-ish sort of dialect. David Duchovny, however, was born and raised in New York City. And usually, as most actors do, Duchovny played Mulder with a generic American accent.

However - in one episode, he's been carjacked by a guy played by Bryan Cranston. And at one point, Mulder's phone rings - but before he can answer, his kidnapper throws his phone out the window. And when this Chillmark, Massachusetts character reacts to that by hollering in a thick New York accent that "That was SO STOOPID!" it still makes me laugh.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:03 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


On “melk”: this is the word for milk in Dutch, and is definitely a pronunciation you still encounter in New Amsterdam, AKA NYC. I grew up in New Yawk putting melk in my cawfee.
posted by DrMew at 7:09 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]


As long as it's not malk ...
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:11 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]


I watched the linked videos, as well as several in the thread, last night. Very fun! Thank you so much! The scholarly discussion of AAVE linked in this thread was very informative - I've experienced the language quite a bit, but it was helpful to have it laid out in a systematic fashion.

People often say I have something like a 'Generic American Accent,' but I think careful listeners can still hear the traces of my Kentucky youth and roots, especially in 'O' sounds.
posted by Tchozz at 9:07 AM on February 20 [1 favorite]


I love this stuff. And I had previously not been exposed to non-white accents in a rigorous, analytical way. Even in the places I'm from. I'm really glad the video included that and called in experts, plus playing clips of people speaking that way natively. I'm also relieved to hear that NY boroughs don't have their own accents, because I thought it was just me that couldn't tell, despite my background. Most of my family grew up in Queens/LI in Jewish neighborhoods and is 0-2 generations removed from Central/Eastern European native language speakers, as well as fluent Yiddish. Think Bernie Sanders--his accent and speech patterns ping in my brain as "my people." In the video, when he was slipping in and out of the different NY accents, one of them sounded like my family and the rest sounded as different as the ones for other northeastern cities.

My mom taught me how to talk ("tawk") but I quickly shed the obvious markers (talk, coffee) at school in northern New Jersey. Over the years I've shed more to blend in ("ahrinj" closes to "orrinj" for orange; same with "sorry" and sometimes I accidentally overcorrect to Canadian-style "sore-y"; "waiting on line" became "waiting in line" but I still don't get why that one got me teased by friends from elsewhere). I can sometimes pull it back out for fun, but I definitely slip closer to it more easily when I'm on the phone with my parents.

I think as people move around and shed the obvious single-word variations (deliberately or no), prosody will be a better marker. (It's also a huge part of why robot voices don't sound like humans yet.) I'm in NorCal and while a lot of my coworkers and friends came from elsewhere, the ones who grew up here just sound like they're from here, and it's different from the (white) SoCal surfer accent. They don't say individual words obviously differently, but there's something about the rhythm, y'know?
posted by j.r at 10:00 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]




1957 film demonstrating regional American dialects/accents

If it weren't for the fact that one day I patiently spent ten minutes with my dad trying to figure out what he was talking about when he said that "Mary" "Merry" and "Marry" were pronounced differently, I would swear that that video was taking the piss.

"Cilantro. Coriander. Pakchi. They all refer to the same plant, but do people draw pictures of them all in the same way? Let's see how Judy from Pawtucket drew them.

As we clearly see, all three look totally different. Now let's see how Jake from Anchorage draws them. Also totally different."
posted by Bugbread at 3:32 PM on February 20


I like these but I hate how they claim the West is one region. It’s really not — it’s just US Eastern bias. My husband grew up in Denver and I LA and we have differences that are at least as substantial as the 10,000 vaguely different Southern accents. We’ll see if they do California justice if part 3 ever happens.
posted by dame at 3:53 PM on February 20


As long as it's not malk ...
Malk is a real brand, not just a Simpsons joke.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:41 AM on February 22


My mother also says “melk” and “vanella,” and I have no idea where she picked it up. I’ve never noticed anyone else in the family doing it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:29 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]


« Older " ... Or Maybe I Just Need to Get More Sleep."   |   Reply All is having its own reckoning now Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.