Help me fake better accents
December 12, 2010 5:55 PM   Subscribe

As a children's librarian, I do many readalouds each week. I'm good at it, but I'm working on being great. I'd like to flavor the different characters in the books I read with better accents. I do a decent Southern, an acceptable Proper British and an awful cockney. I'm thinking that out there somewhere is a cheat sheet that would allow me to do a better job of portraying Irish, Russian and other accents. But I can't find it.

In high school we performed Pygmaiion, and we had cheat sheets for British and Cockney accents that were quite helpful. I'm looking for something similar, perhaps published for actors.

I am VERY VERY aware of how easily accents can be overdone and how easily a reader might manage to offend, and I'm pretty sure that I can make good judgements about when and when not to use an accent in my readings. Help?
posted by carterk to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think that put-on accents actually confuse the fuck out of most children (I am still reeling from Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins).

But Accents: A Manual for Actors by Robert Blumenfeld is pretty much the gold standard as far as I know.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:31 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I note that people "doing" Russian, French, Chinese, and other foreign accents tend to sound far more like English-speakers doing a foreign accent than they do actual Russian, French or Chinese native speakers speaking in English. My advice is to model yourself on the native speaker accents, and not the advice or example of other imitators. One reason is because intonation patterns are often very different from English (e.g., Russians often ask a question by raising the pitch of all but the last part of the question-- opposite from English), and your typical accent imitator will disregard this.
posted by holterbarbour at 6:39 PM on December 12, 2010

This is a web archive of many recordings of people saying a standardized English phrase. If you have a good ear, try imitating their readings.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:48 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The question is probably less about how to portray real-world accents and more about how to communicate to listeners that the character is something-or-other. There are probably plenty of resources on what different learners of English sound like, but you'll probably find that "at a glance," a Russian accent sounds pretty much like a Bulgarian accent, or a Greek accent, or a Hungarian accent, or a…

Disney characters seem to have a variety of accents that are not completely unbearable. You'll probably have better luck with kids if, for example, your best French is Ratatouille French, and your best Aussie is Finding Nemo Aussie.
posted by Nomyte at 6:59 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

My mom has been teaching 9 year olds for a bazillion years. She reads to her students and does awesome voices. She has toyed with regional accents in the past, but the accents aren't as important (or useful) for the kids as the different styles she reads them in.

The favorite is James and the Giant Peach. For Aunt Spiker she has a shrill, shrewish voice. The Centipede is fast-talking, like a used car salesman from the 50s. The Earthworm is like an even more depressed, mopey Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. And so on.

Even though the characters in a book might be from a place that has a recognizable accent, it might be more successful (in my mom's experience, at least) to fit the voice to the character type.

I realize that's not what you asked for, but I hope it's helpful!
posted by phunniemee at 8:13 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, and yes. I'm not hoping to do anything other than suggest a character to my listeners, and an accent is just a part of that. I regularly receive compliments on the quality of my readalouds, I'm just trying to take it to the next level. I recently read to 5th graders the first chapter of Artemis Fowl, which features the title character who is Irish and a Vietnamese informant. (The text actually refers to each speaker's nationality and speech.) Just like dropping 'aitches' and reading "I" as "oi" helps me to imply a cockney accent, I'm hoping to find a list of similarly simple hints which will allow me to suggest 'French' or 'Russian' without straying too far into caricature.
posted by carterk at 8:37 PM on December 12, 2010

What you call 'Proper British' is actually RP, or Received Pronunciation. There is no 'British' accent - there are loads of dialects, of which RP and Cockney are just a couple. But your kids will probably not be familiar with British accents beyond RP, Cockney and maybe Scots, Welsh and Irish.
posted by mippy at 5:58 AM on December 13, 2010

I do agree that it less about accents and more about being in sync with the character. That being said, I also do agree that accent is still also a major part in switching between different characters.

Maybe what you're trying to achieve is impersonation or impression, a way to mimic mannerisms as well as accents like facial expressions, voice tone, pitch, etc.

Here's the link for a woman doing 21 different accents in one sitting so hope this helps. Her channel also has tutorials for different accents so those might be helpful as well :)

As far as the impersonation I think there have been many comedians and actors/actresses who try this to entertain people and there may be something that we can take from their examples. Following are some rather more popular various impressions that people attempted.

Hope this helps!
posted by Kimchee.Noodles. at 8:49 AM on December 13, 2010

The links are there in tiny arrows and the videos should be popping up once you click on it!

Here are the physical links if they don't work.

21 accents

posted by Kimchee.Noodles. at 8:53 AM on December 13, 2010

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