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He do the police in different voices - The Ex-Communicator

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January 28th, 2012


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07:16 pm - He do the police in different voices
The last three books I have listened to on audio have been made extra enjoyable by how well they were read. Those were the American horror novels, 11.22.63 and Eutopia, and Derek Jacobi reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (it's so long since I read that myself, maybe 40 years. I thought I would refresh my memory). In all three cases the reader had to capture class, ethnic and regional variation by subtle use of voice.

Of course, I am fairly ignorant about American regional accents, but I could tell that in the reading of Stephen King's novel the people of Maine spoke like this and the people of Dallas and Fort Worth spoke like that. The Jewish pawn broker was given a voice like Burt Lancaster, which seems authentic and elegant. I took the various accents of Eutopia on trust - Chicago, black east-coast intellectual, Montana etc. - but I am sure the voice artist knew what he was doing. Jacobi, as you might imagine, was truly excellent. Holmes stories rapidly introduce cameo characters, defined by age, class and background. Jacobi adjusted his voice delivery to each case: very enjoyable.

Now I am listening to a new book, which promises to be right up my street. It's called Bitter Seeds and it is fantasy/horror novel set during the 2nd world war with the Nazi's deploying X-Man style ubermenschen and plucky British pagans invoking the ancient powers (as I think indeed happened, though to what effect I could not say). It's set in Europe, but written by an American author, and read by an American voice artist.

I think the voice artist is very good, in general terms, but he does not understand British accents. It's jarring to hear a butler from Nottinghamshire speaking in a cheeky Cockney accent. The Polish spy had a Russian accent, and so on. You don't even know how much you know about voice, until you hear it done wrong. This is not me saying that American readers are no good, far from it, I have enjoyed so many lately. It could easily happen the other way if a British reader assayed an American book, giving every character the same drawl.

I was talking to H about this and he thinks that there are more rigidly defined regional accents in Britain than other countries. I argued that possibly we are simply more aware of the variation in our own country, and it may be similarly complex elsewhere, but we don't know it. I honestly don't know whether (say) a German or a Malaysian can distinguish the town that someone comes from, and their relative prosperity, from their voice. I would be interested to hear other people's opinions about that.

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From:hfnuala
Date:January 28th, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC)
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Irish regional accents are very strongly localised, so i would disagree with H. Also, Irish politicians rarely lose their accents, as it is an electoral liability to do so, and therefore they can be a nightmare for EU translators.

Indeed my accent, while softened by 15 years here, is still very much that of the Dublin suburb I'm from.
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From:azdak
Date:January 28th, 2012 07:44 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure what H. means by "rigidly defined" regioanl accents, but if he means regional dialects that can be clearly distinguished from each other, then Britain has fewer of them than many European countries - Italian dialects, for instance, differ so widely that they're mutually unintelligible. Even tiny Austria, with 8 millions inhabitants, has an abundance of regional dialects that differ from each other more strikingly than most British dialects do.

On the other hand, there is a much less strong association with class. While only being able to speak your local dialect would be a very strong indicator of poverty and lack of education, most people can speak both, and also mix forms to reflect the level of formality of the conversation and their degree of intimacy with the other people present.
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From:communicator
Date:January 28th, 2012 07:48 pm (UTC)
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I think 'rigidly defined' is me trying to boil down his longish argument into a handy sound-bite so I may be doing him a disservice. Being able to pinpoint accent to within a few miles I think.
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From:azdak
Date:January 28th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
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In that case, I would definitely say that it's harder to pinpoint local accents in Britain than in most European countries - our dialects have been shockingly eroded.
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From:astrogirl2
Date:January 28th, 2012 07:49 pm (UTC)
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I seem to remember reading in a linguistics book once that England does have the highest number of distinct regional accents among English-speaking countries. Which maybe isn't too surprising. How that compares to non-English-speaking places, though, I don't really know.

But even if America has a lot fewer dialects, non-Americans often underestimate how much variability there actually is. Some of the differences are very subtle and very narrowly region-specific, but people who know them well can be very attuned to them and notice when they're right or wrong. My ears still immediately prick up whenever I hear the mid-Atlantic accent I grew up with. But it's not something you hear successfully imitated very much. Or possibly even unsuccessfully imitated. A while back, I got very fannish about a show set partly in Delaware and couldn't help noticing the fact that absolutely nobody talked like they were from Delaware. I bet you anything that nobody who worked on that show actually had any remote idea what someone from Delaware actually sounds like. Which I guess just shows you that even Americans underestimate the variability.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:January 28th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC)
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I suspect you are right. I am often reminded of the following (possibly apocryphal) exchange from a lecture by the great British astronomer, Fred Hoyle:

Hoyle: A star is a pretty simple object.

Audience Member: You'd look pretty simple yourself at a distance of ten parsecs.
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From:nja
Date:January 28th, 2012 08:00 pm (UTC)
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My Kiwi cousins say there is essentially no regional variation in NZ (one of them had a broad Yorkshire accent at the age of five, when they emigrated, and lost it within a year or two). Australian friends of my brother said much the same about Australia, when I talked to them about it.

One of the best audiobooks I have ever listened to is Timothy West's Treasure Island. He does a multitude of different voices without it ever sounding like the Great Actor Doing His Wonderful Range of Voices.
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From:communicator
Date:January 31st, 2012 09:42 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the rec. I am going to give up on Bitter Seeds so I need a new book to go to. I like him.
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:January 28th, 2012 09:50 pm (UTC)
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There are distinctive regional and class variations in Canada in both English and French not to mention the crossovers. English spoken perfectly by a francophone will sound different from an anglophone and vice versa.
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From:kerravonsen
Date:January 28th, 2012 10:02 pm (UTC)
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In Australia, there is some regional variation, but it tends to be more in vocabulary, or the pronunciation of individual words (e.g. "dance"). Accent variation is more between country (slow and broad) and city (quicker and more neutral). There's nothing like the variations you get in the UK. Perhaps it's because Australian English is fairly young.
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From:dalmeny
Date:January 28th, 2012 10:52 pm (UTC)
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I agree that the variations in Australia are much less pronounced than in the UK, but they do exist. Someone from Sydney sounds different from someone from Melbourne, Brisbane, or Adelaide, although it took me a few years to hear the difference. Also, because we're largely an immigrant nation, we have distinct varieties of e.g. Greek-Australian, plus the Aboriginal dialects. Class differences can be heard, at least in Adelaide, although again, much more weakly than the UK.

A friend of mine was working on a TV show in South Australia that they hoped to sell overseas. They hired SA actors, but were told the overseas market wouldn't recognize their softer, more anglicized (RPSish) accents as Australian, so they were asked to talk more like Sydneysiders instead.
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From:sjkasabi
Date:January 29th, 2012 04:32 am (UTC)
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Yes, I can hear those differences too. My father was from professional middle class Sydney and my mother from working class Melbourne, and they definitely had slightly different vocabularies and accents, even despite the elocution lessons the nuns made all those working class Irish Catholic girls do. And I grew up in Melbourne usually able to tell by their speech whether someone was a Greek Australian or an Italian Australian; these days I can usually make a moderately reliable assumption as to whether their linguistic heritage is Cantonese or another Asian language (I can't hear the difference between a Vietnamese and a Mandarin-speaking Australian accent though) on the basis of the fine detail of their Australian accent. Occasionally I hear someone say something a particular way and think "oh, Western suburbs, I wouldn't have picked it from anything else", or "omg so KEW. Irish surname, must have gone to Genazzano". I grew up in Kew, although I wasn't educated at any of the big private schools there; I can even speak like I'm from there, when I choose.

To speak to communicator's point though, obvioulsy in Ausralia the regional differences aren't nearly as pronounced as in the UK, and the distance you have to travel to identify something different in the speech is much greate. And the differences can be a small signal, with a lot of noise about how formal or intimate or public or whatever someone wants to indicate that they are being drowning it out. We also use our accents to indicate our empathy and interest in people. So professional people will quite unconsciously broaden their accent at the pub or the footy or when the electrician comes around. The working class, mostly ethnic, girls my mum taught for years mostly knew how to "talk nicely" when they wanted to. You can often hear call centre employees and receptionists "talking nicely" on the phone too.
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From:dalmeny
Date:January 29th, 2012 05:21 am (UTC)
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the regional differences aren't nearly as pronounced as in the UK, and the distance you have to travel to identify something different in the speech is much greater.

Definitely. I grew up in Glasgow and Edinburgh, where some accents are specific to particular suburbs. It took me a while to realise that Australian regional accents existed, apart from the broad country accent(s), which was obvious even to a recent immigrant.
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From:rparvaaz
Date:January 29th, 2012 04:54 am (UTC)
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In India, the Hindi speaking belt has distinct accents depending on the state or the part of a state a person hails from. A person from central UP will sound different from a person from Lucknow or Awadh, different from a Delhi-ite, different from a person Haryana and so on.

And it gets more complicated when you go down South. Not that Hindi is the language spoken there but even the difference in English accents is vast.
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From:communicator
Date:January 31st, 2012 09:41 am (UTC)
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I was talking to a student from Southern China yesterday who said that she thought the influence of English had altered the word-order used in that part of China compared to the North.
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From:dalmeny
Date:January 29th, 2012 05:29 am (UTC)
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As a side note, based on my limited knowledge of Western Desert Aboriginal languages, I understand that the variation in language, dialect and word choice can be incredibly specific, at least traditionally. When people move around in small nomadic groups you quickly get language differences, even when they remain mutually intelligible. I guess that's the mobile version of accent-by-suburb scale.

I could, er, actually ask my linguist friends about this.
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From:emeraldsedai
Date:January 31st, 2012 01:07 am (UTC)
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I've enjoyed Simon Prebble's readings of Sherlock Holmes, and haven't yet tried any of Jacobi's. My ear for the subtleties of British regional accents is probably slightly above the American average, but by no means refined. Listening to Prebble's reading after having listened to his Jonathan Strange at least four times made it clear that while he has a good range of voices and accents, it's not inexhaustible, and I recognized Sir Walter Pole in his Watson (for instance).

I thought the reader of King's 11-22-63 did a very good job overall, limiting himself to vocal "gestures," if you will, rather than giving a full aural depiction, and thereby kind of staying out of the way of the story.

(I've been mainlining episodes of Spooks, by the way, and there's a strong tendency for the British actors playing Americans to play them all as sort of generic Southerners, which accent group, I understand, is the easiest for a British speaker to approach.)
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From:communicator
Date:January 31st, 2012 09:39 am (UTC)
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I wonder if a Southern accent has implications of the more entrenched and right-wing face of America, a more hawkish and nationalistic role. That may be a subtlety lost on the makers of Spooks though.
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From:emeraldsedai
Date:January 31st, 2012 05:50 pm (UTC)
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It certainly has those implications for Blue State Americans. There's some validity to that stereotype, but it is, of course, a stereotype.
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From:annafdd
Date:February 3rd, 2012 04:26 am (UTC)
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Italian regional dialects are mutually unintelligible, although I would say a lot of people can't speak their regional dialect any more now. Accents are quite defined, but as said elsewhere, they are not an indication of class.

I am struggling now to decide whether Italian accents are more evident to a native speaker than British ones: after six years in the country I am starting to hear Nothern, a bit, but when I moved in I didn't even hear Irish and I am still so-so at hearing Welsh.

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