Speak American, please

Last week my sister sent me a link to an online supplement for a feature CBC had done on the air. The story was about a dialect coach in Calgary who trains Canadian actors to sound American. Thought you’d mind this amusing, she said. Well, I did, for several reasons. First was the obstacle any lay discussion about accents faces, which is the inability of the standard orthography to express dialectal contrasts at the phonological level. This, despite the intrusion of IPA into pop culture (a short-lived fad?).

This article actually managed fairly well, using thoughtful comparison items basically set up like “American X sounds like Canadian Y”. So, the items would only make sense to those who speak or are familiar with Canadian English – but they still seem more precise than “The vowel in American X is flat”.

Project, process, progress – Prah, not proh
Duke, news, tune, due, costume – (dook, noos, toon, doo) no y before the oo

Many of the contrasts were lexical, but some good phonological ones came up. The coach trains actors to say sorry and borrow with the vowel of car instead of with the vowel of bore.

Sorry – Sahrry – a as in sari. Canadians say sohrry. Say “Bahrrow, tommahrrow, hahrror”

Curiously, the article made no mention of raised diphthongs. However, there is some suggestion that the low back vowel needs to be more central and unrounded than it is in Canadian English – for me this distinction is a bigger giveaway then diphthong raising.

O – as in “possible” widens somewhat. Relaxed lips. Bahttom, ahtompistic, ahxygen, hahspital

What was more interesting about the article was the feedback people sent in. Much of it was Canadian ire, sent by readers who had actually missed the entire point of the article, which, as I said, was about training Canadian actors to work in the US and to play roles for American characters. Thus they would express anger at the suggestion that Canadians need to learn to sound American, and they would flavour their tirades with varying degrees of anti-American sentiment (an interesting data set in itself for language identity and the accompanying prejudices).

I think it’s reasonable to expect an actor playing a New Yorker (like Chandler on Friends, say) not to sound Canadian. But other readers had some decent points, notably that it was weird to train to sound “American” when there is such a broad array of dialects in the US. Moreover, as one astute reader pointed out, nobody on Ally McBeal had a Boston accent of any sort. Which got me thinking – if sounding like the wrong kind of American is OK, why would one bother taking leave of one’s Canadian accent? But I guess the real question is, how often do they get the accent right? I have thought of a number of examples where they don’t, varying in their glaringness:

On Frasier, set in Seattle, the character Roz is supposedly from Wisconsin. The actress playing her tries hard to cover her Southern roots, but not with the upper Midwest in mind. On the same show, Daphne, who (like the actress playing her) is from Manchester, once had a brother visit who had a Cockney accent.

All the characters of That 70’s show are also from Wisconsin, but none of them sound like it. Similarly, ER is set in Chicago, which you can gather from shots of the el. But not from the speech of any of the cast. Most of the characters on Seinfeld were New Yorkers (and sounded like it), except Elaine, who was supposed to be from Baltimore, but didn’t sound like it. And nobody on Friends sounded like they were from New York (the only attempt I could remember was Joey’s annoying “How YOU doin?”, but nothing else about his speech suggested New York to me).

I don’t watch enough TV to come up with a longer list. I also know that sometimes they do a better job with accents – say, in King of the Hill, or in NYPD Blue (at least, Sipowitz sounds OK). Also, whenever the show is set in California, like Beverly Hills 90210 or The OC, but that’s because they don’t have to try. In fact, it seems like the only time they ever get it right is when the actor is using his or her native accent. (It follows that the accents on reality shows are always real).

So maybe the general conclusion is that it’s OK not to use the expected accent of your character on TV, as long as you sound like some kind of American. Maybe Canadian English is probably just foreign enough to upset the viewing audience enough to make them change channels. But then on Alias, a new character was introduced last season who was the daughter of a US Senator, but had a British accent. They didn’t bother to explain it away until halfway through the season.

I’m probably nit-picking. But the networks who produce these shows make so much money while they control our lives and influence the outcome of a presidential campaign by refusing to be critical of the incumbent for fear of appearing to have a liberal bias. For #@$%’s sake, is it too much to ask that they get they accent right more than once in a while?