[LMB] Pronunciation and rhyme [was consonants].

John Lennard john.c.lennard at gmail.com
Sat Apr 24 00:52:19 BST 2010

Pete and Jeff said:

> I have noticed that some British actors seen on the talk shows (thus,
> presumably speaking in their natural voice) seem to pronounce the vowels in
> English in a very different, nasal, way, which I am unable to do. ?And yet,
> they can assume a very American accent with no evident difficulty, so I
> assume that they are just much better at it than am I.
> An example is Hugh Laurie on 'House'.
> It was  a complete shock to hear Linus Roache get interviewed at the
> Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and have this very thick English accent
> - the character he plays on Law & Order sounds as American as apple
> pie.

A caveat first - I don't mean to say that there is a US-accent but not a
UK-one, or that British English is unaccented, but that said ...

I think most UK and US actors would agree that the UK ones are 'better' at
accents, incl. US, than the US ones at accents, incl. UK. I've talked
professionally and otherwise to many actors down the years, and anecdotally
and subjectively, that's true. It's also true in my experience that USians
put on accents in e.g. telling jokes less often than UKians.

Two factors, probably.

1. UK actors are still largely theatre-trained and have live-stage
experience. By comparison, most well-known US actors are de facto
Method-trained, either at the Actor's Studio, NY, directly, or in a derived
version. And de facto, Method training is profoundly oriented to screen
acting, which tends to naturalism in both voicework and general casting
(e.g. age of actor/age of character will strongly tend to be close on
screen, and far more variable on stage). Hence, film actors (who have nice
microphones) aren't usu. trained in voicework, while stage actors are.
Another issue is voice-projection, which is why film and TV actors who
appear on stage (as in pantomime here) are often disappointing - they can't
be heard, and their gestures are meant for a camera to pick up, not a live
audience - i.e. they underact for stage.

(As a further illustration, consider *Being John Malkovitch*, which includes
a running joke abt successive schools of acting-theory. Malkovitch,
critically, *is* stage-trained and worked/works with Steppenwolf, in
Chicago. And it's critical to the film that it be so - reverse the trainings
of Malkovitch and Charlie Sheen (uber-Method) in the film and many of the
jokes stop working.)

2. More trickily - as per an earlier post it is *more* possible to describe
a typical US accent phonetically than a UK one - i.e. there's more of a
general tendency in most US accents than can be observed in UK ones, which
are geographically compressed and very highyl variegated. (One tendency,
e.g., is to lengthen vowels, hence the southern and mid-western 'drawls'.
Another, though this begins passing out of what I'm confident of, involves
diphthongisation of vowels, or roughly, moving your tongue while you speak
them to produce slurring between vowel-sounds - a bit like the difference
between hitting notes cleanly on, say, a violin, and slurring them as
folk-players often do.)

Hypothesis: if you're  a BritEng speaker, it's easier to adopt and fashion
these US-ian tendencies, than it is for a US-ian speaker to subtract them.

Second warning point: It is necessary to distinguish any given regional
accent from what I'd call cod versions of it. Sean-Connery Scots (just turn
every s into an sh) is not what all Scottish folk sound like, and the
generic stage-scots (like Harry Lauder's 'Hoots, mon, there's a moose loose
aboot the hoose') is a sort of stewed highland scots, very different from
what you'll hear in the lowlands (if anyone's seen the old comedy series
Porridge, the warder played by Fulton Mackay has a classic lowland voice -
Renfrewshire). The generic Oirish Accent folk put on for bad jokes is
neither good Ulster nor good Dublin, which are very different. And this
business is intrinsically political. During the anti-apartheid years the
South African accent was often invoked and parodied - really badly. What
people did was (i) shorten all vowels, to become very 'clipped', and (ii)
speak in a monotone. The underlying logic, I think, was that South African =
racist = unfeeling = speaks in monotone, but it's dead wrong - South
Africans (who live with e.g. tonal languages all around them and in their
mouths) typically use a far greater range of pitch than e.g. native UK

I regret that more folk can't do various accents reasonably well. it is very
helpful in reading poetry, frex.

John Lennard, MA DPhil. (Oxon.), MA (WU)
General editor, Humanities-E-Books Genre Fiction Sightlines and Monographs

Ralph Thompson, View from Mount Diablo: An Annotated Edition

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