Accent or Dialect?

An interesting blog post on today – it’s a performing arts blog run by Brisbane playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson – caught my attention.  It had me reaching for the keyboard; it was about one of my favourite topics, something I’ve been dealing with for years – voice training, specifically dialect and accent work for performance.  I can’t resist when I see the terms dialect and accent used interchangeably, and incorrectly.  Voice coach pedantry, OK?  However, I didn’t have much luck logging in to the site for some reason – there is only so long you can wait for the spinning beach ball to come to rest – so I decided to write a response of my own.

Here’s the response I would have posted if I had been able.  Bear in mind others may use the words differently, but most of the voice and speech coaches I know tend to agree on this usage of the words when working with actors.

First up – the question of  accent,  or should that be dialect of spoken English?

Many voice coaches use this differentiation: accent is what you hear when a non-native speaker uses English – there are echoes (stronger or lighter) of his or her own native language in an accent. Dialect, on the other hand, is a variation on English spoken by a native speaker of English – so, more correctly, we speak of Australian dialects, American dialects, UK dialects of English – and of course, there are varieties in these. Linguists might carp a bit about what might be termed a simplistic differentiation, but this is the one that hits home for most.

Helen (Howard -voice coach) is absolutely right in what she notes about work on dialect or accent for performance – and it applies whether you are working on dialect or accent.  No quibbles at all.  Equally, the audience can pick inconsistencies really quickly, so this is a key requirement – keep your changes few but consistent.

When it comes to the original query from actor Dirk about whether or not an actor should use an ‘accent,’ I’ve come across this one over the years most often when I’ve been directing or voice-coaching a play translated from another language.  A recent example that springs to mind is ‘God of Carnage‘ by Yasmina Reza (recently performed at Queensland Theatre Company) trans. into English by Christopher Hampton from the original French.  If you saw the show you’d know that the Australian actors used their own Australian dialects, and that no attempt was made to use French accents (Dieu merci!), meanwhile the locales referred to were still clearly French.  The current Broadway production was spoken with American dialects, and I can’t be certain, but I think locales may well have been relocated!

I recall being asked once when working on a Chekhov play whether or not Russian accents should be used … and then how to differentiate ‘class divisions’ or regional differences which clearly existed in them.  The answer to the first is ‘no’ (see The God of Carnage example).  However, some of Chekhov’s characters are non-Russian; how does one express their foreign-ness linguistically?  Clearly, in the original, they would speak Russian with a German/French (etc) accent.  The director/voice coach usually decide upon something like this – the ‘locals’ use their own dialect of English (it’s in translation, right?) whilst the foreigner speaks a dialect of English (Australian/American/British/Canadian/NZ etc etc) in a German/French (etc) accent as per the original.

Class is trickier.  I remember for years in the UK hearing servants or members of the ‘lower orders’ using Cockney – as the dialect of choice!  Times have changed, and we’ve got a little more flexible about all of this.  RP doesn’t rule any more for the upper classes either.  Linguistic diversity, like colour-blind casting, is part of the contemporary stage.

One thing that doesn’t change however, and as Helen rightly points out, is that actors must work at whatever choices have been made regarding this key part of characterisation.


4 responses to “Accent or Dialect?”

  1. Katherine Lyall-Watson Avatar

    Great response – thanks, Kate.
    I stand corrected re dialect not accent. Will have it the right way round next time.
    I completely agree – God of Carnage did not need a French accent and Chekhov doesn’t need a Russian accent. And yet the play I’m working on at the moment requires Russian, French and Australian accents – poor actors!

  2. Ken Allan Avatar

    Kia ora Kate!

    I’m a real green-horn whan it comes to this topic, but I have attended lots of plays and understand the philosophy/argument behind the need for accents (and even dialect when appropriate as in My Fair Lady). In most cases where I’ve watched the actors depict an accent successfully it has been for a specific purpose. Otherwise, the accent becomes superfluous as does the dialect.

    In the play Oxygen by Richard Zare, for instance, a production in Wellington a few years back conveyed what was quite complicated to a lay audience. The play was successful without the use of accent, despite Lavoisier, Priestley, Scheele being key players. The retro-Nobel committee had no different accents from any of those.

    But the class, well, that was a different matter, and Lavoisier could not have got away with any less than that of an aristocrat, nor would his wife’s whose refined culture was evident.

    Catchya later

  3. Kate Foy Avatar

    Thanks Ken. I take it the actors in Oxygen used NZ dialects of English? I’d love to have heard the way the Lavoisiers dealt with their class status in their speech. Perhaps they went with RP as a marker … often the English dialect of choice when it comes to differentiating the ‘upper classes.’

  4. Herb Merriweather Avatar

    As a voice actor your response (and subsequent responses) have given me a great deal of insight. The deft handling of dialect and accent–along with understanding that the terms are not interchangeable– is an important consideration on ALL levels of voiceover work…
    Thanks for the education and clarification!

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