How does one intentionally learn (fake/funny/stereotypical) accents?
June 30, 2011 9:54 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to try making a "life goal" out of mastering stereotypical/fake accents... the impeccably snooty Frenchman, the stuck up Brit, redneck American, serious Japanese businessman, and so on. How does one intentionally learn (fake/funny/stereotypical) accents?

The few accents I've picked up are great for amusing friends and family, but I want to be able to develop an act. I picked mine up from watching movies and incorporating them into play as a child, but I don't feel like I've been able to add much to my repertoire since then.

One way to learn them seems to be watch lots of movies with the target accent, and while I might pick up the accent that way, it soon becomes lost. Further... I'm interested in fake accents, or super-recognizable stereotypical accents, not real ones.

Any ideas? Excellent movies to watch for this purpose? Thanks!
posted by luciphercolors to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For a shocking Australian accent, watch that godawful movie Evil Angels, starring Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain. "A dengo took my bay-bee".

We don't talk like that, but we laugh at people who think we talk like that. And I think other people laugh when they think we talk like that.

FWIW, I think Streep usually does accents well, but she failed at ours.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 10:11 PM on June 30, 2011

What exactly is the nature of your purpose? If you wanted to learn accents because accents would enable you to play different roles with more authenticity, fine. But learning accents for the purpose of making fun of their country of origin is just going to make you a racist tool even if you don't perceive yourself as such (most racists often don't).
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:17 PM on June 30, 2011 [12 favorites]

Assuming the best about what you want to do--the term you want to google is dialect coach.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:21 PM on June 30, 2011

Actually, I'm not done, and maybe this will help you understand what I'm getting at. I'm English, I have lived in the US for close to a decade, my whole adult life. I work here, I deal with all the little good and (increasingly) bad aspects of life here, I vote and pay taxes here, and (not that I think it's relevant) I'm an American citizen.

Every now and then I meet someone for the first time, and they do a bad English accent. I try to cut them some slack, because I assume they're just really socially awkward and don't know what to say, but I hate it. I don't talk like that, and I don't even have the accent the person is trying to mock, in fact it's the accent of (rich, reactionary) people from my country who I have nothing in common with. When a person does this accent to me it reads like a mild form of bullying, and it makes me feel that they aren't interested in actually meeting ME or in finding out what we have in common. I will never be friends with that person, and I will talk with my wife later about what a tool they are. Actually, it often turns out that they are a tool for other unrelated reasons, the fake accent thing is a good marker.

So do you plan on doing your accents when you meet folks who are actually from the place you're mimicking? If so, I think you will be insulting them and doing yourself a disservice. If not, that's sort of cowardly and you should think about why you'd be uncomfortable doing it to their faces. Additionally I'm curious if there are any accents you won't do - Mexican? Chinese? will you do a stereotypical African American dialect?
posted by crabintheocean at 10:24 PM on June 30, 2011 [17 favorites]

Best answer: There are so many ways to do this wrong, badly, ignorantly, or simply unfunnily. To get it right, like anything, you really have to truly understand what you're doing. Then you can work with it, play with it, flaunt and flaut it. It's a craft. I think that going in with the aim to be stereotypical or to emphasize all the negative associations we have with various groups and cultures is just going to fall flat and make you look like a jerk. I personally don't understand your motivation. But, that said, here's some links to get you started on an exploration of accents, dialects and culture. There's a range here.

The International Dialects of English Archive
The Speech Accent Archive
The British Library Sounds Familiar project
American English Dialects Map
Sound Comparisons - Accents of English from around the world
Amy Walker performing 21 accents of English
How to learn any accent - Part 1, Part 2
English in 24 accents (and many very stereotypical and somewhat offensive)
Mozzereller sticks - Language Log on the cast of Harry Potter trying to sound American
Cleveland Accent?

Those are some good places to start exploring. Let me just end by saying that if you really want to do this right and with good intentions, you really need to know exactly how to do it wrong. And why that is.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:30 PM on June 30, 2011 [23 favorites]

Every now and then I meet someone for the first time, and they do a bad English accent. I try to cut them some slack, because I assume they're just really socially awkward and don't know what to say, but I hate it.

nthing this- same thing here. It's almost physically grating when people put on English accents around me. Luckily this hasn't happened much since middle school (and then it really was intended to bully) my accent is almost entirely American now. Though I do enjoy hearing Brits attempt to mimic American accents, but then usually I'm in the US, on my home territory.

I mean, it can be done well, if you do it right and at the right time- John Stewart leaps to mind. His highlight reel of his offensive accents he put on a couple of days ago had me in stitches.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:40 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm sorry, I wasn't aware of just how touchy this subject was.

In any case, it's a combination of character identification in stories/jokes/playing-with-children, witty banter among friends and family, and a fun party trick. I've always thought of it as a tongue-in-cheek homage to the movies and books and various forms of entertainment in our lives, and just being generally goofy. No racist intent (that I can consciously think of and/or subconsciously feel), and I avoid accents with strong racist undertones.

That being said, in these fits of goofiness I have been known to slip in to accents that represent the nationality/ethnicity of people present, and it always saddens me when they react unfavorably. Nowadays I am a lot more sensitive to the tolerances of those present, but the friends I keep in close company enjoy this form of goofing off and are smart enough to recognize the intent.

For those of you still concerned, I am pretty sure this little fascination arose from an overactive imagination as a child, and the need to distinctively identify characters in the tabletop RPGs I used to run as a teenager.

posted by luciphercolors at 10:42 PM on June 30, 2011

Response by poster: @iamkimiam Thank you for the specific advice despite your trepidations, which are valid.
posted by luciphercolors at 10:48 PM on June 30, 2011

Despite the fact that you are trying to do a stereotypical accent I think you will do better if you can try to imitate an actual person: a celebrity, somebody behind you in the line at the airport, etc.

That - plus the shear amount of time spent practising and an honest previewer to tell you whether you are any good or not - seems to be what divides the pros from everybody else.
posted by rongorongo at 11:06 PM on June 30, 2011

My father was born in India (Grandpa was a missionary doctor there) and every now and then he'd bung on a heavy Tamil accent to amuse us all at the dinner table. All good-hearted fun and family bonding; no problem.

Then one night he wheeled it out for our waiter in an Indian restaurant, and although he would clearly have had no intention to mock - he was not that kind of man - it was excruciatingly embarrassing and not at all funny.

Go carefully.
posted by flabdablet at 12:08 AM on July 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: @flabdablet yeah... I've noticed that it's something best saved for friends :-/

@everyone else... thank you for advice
posted by luciphercolors at 1:04 AM on July 1, 2011

The stuck-up Brit, redneck American? Really?

Considering how offensive your description is, I cannot imagine good intentions on your part in any way. I truly hope that you learn some respect for others in your quest to learn accents. I can't even imagine what Southern accent you are refering to there, but most people who try to do Southern accents don't have a clue.
posted by Kronur at 3:53 AM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Snooty Frenchman as well. Look, there's a lot of insensitivity in your description, that shows you're not putting yourself in the shoes of people you want to imitate. In the case of the French accent, I can tell you that they have it because they're drilled on grammar, not pronunciation, and not conversational English either. It sounds "snooty" because they're worried about using proper grammar, and it sounds heavily-accented because most were never taught an anglophone accent. This is a well-recognized flaw in French language education that still exists, although many are working to change it.

If you imitate that type of French accent in front of a French person, they'll probably give an embarrassed smile, but I can tell you, it hurts them, because they themselves describe it as "embarrassingly French" and wish they could speak better English.

Stick with family and friends. Don't do it at parties, it's hurtful, even if the others are kind and polite enough to let you feel otherwise.
posted by fraula at 4:27 AM on July 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yes, rongorongo has the right idea.

I have a Scots boyfriend. I have known him for a long time. He has a father with an even stronger accent than he does, plus I have a linguistics degree so he knows I have an interest in language. He still isn't very fond of me putting on an accent or imitating him. I can't imagine how annoying it is with strangers - except I can, because I have a Northern accent, and at a party someone heard me and started coming out with phrases that no Northern person ever says; I avoided them for the rest of the day because I thought they were a tedious prick.

I realise you want to do comedy accents, rather than serious accents, but the potential for this going wrong is very high. In the UK, if you imitate a stereotypical 'Indian' accent, people are going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that you are racist, because it's something that historically has been used ot make fun of Asian people. I get the feeling that Mexican accents in the US are similar. And as many have said, it is unbearably irritating when USians presume that all people from Britain speak like the Queen, when actually very, very few of us do (even Estuary is only common in one part of the country) and it's as much of a comedy faux-pas as endlessly quoting Python or Fawlty Towers because they happened to be popular in the same country before we were born. I think this is something, if at all, you want to do only with people you know well and will understand your intent/humour.
posted by mippy at 5:00 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

This thing you want to do: You don't really want to do it.

My brother puts on a "Maine" accent. It sounds like a lobsterman who was repeatedly dropped on his head and then had to spend ten years in a group home in Kentucky. It's not funny and the only person the joke is on is him.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:26 AM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm interested in fake accents, or super-recognizable stereotypical accents, not real ones.

I know I'm kind of piling on at this point, but this, specifically, is where you fail.

There are plenty of resources for actors who want to learn accents for performance purposes. I'm not sure that there are resources to teach you how to make fun of people's speech, and if there are, you would be better off not using them.

There's an SNL skit from back in '00 where Molly Shannon and Val Kilmer start doing this at a dinner outing (unfortunately not available on video or on transcript), and the other dinner guests get annoyed. The reason it's funny is because we all know that "funny voices" person, and no one likes that guy.

There are certain contexts in which this is kind of funny: eg, imitating a politician's speech patterns when quoting him, but for the most part, avoid.

Better question: how does one do humorous "impressions" of celebrities? That's probably what you want, not, "how do I learn to do the 'American redneck' voice?"
posted by deanc at 8:08 AM on July 1, 2011

That being said, in these fits of goofiness I have been known to slip in to accents that represent the nationality/ethnicity of people present, and it always saddens me when they react unfavorably. Nowadays I am a lot more sensitive to the tolerances of those present, but the friends I keep in close company enjoy this form of goofing off and are smart enough to recognize the intent.

I can assure you that if I am embarrassed and irritated because you do a "super-recognizable stereotypical" East Asian accent in front of me, it's not because I'm not "smart enough to recognize the intent". It's because I recognize it clearly - "Hey, different people are different! HERE'S A THING THAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT YOU THAT I CAN APE! It's funny because I'm not different in this context!" I am cringing with embarrassment for you, not me. Although the irritation will be pointed at you, yeah.

Better to think of accents as belonging to individual people, if you must, not old racist caricatures of "people". If you want to do a celebrity impersonation...okay, I guess. That might be sort of a party trick. I advise you to watch interviews on YouTube if you want to brush up.

posted by peachfuzz at 9:02 AM on July 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

Seconding the people who think this could easily backfire. It immediately made me think of The Office (USA) clip where David Brent meets Michael Scott and they start comparing their "funny" character accents. Part of the clip is visible here. Painful!
posted by cadge at 9:06 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

What a bunch of whiners mefi has become - I'm English and have lived in the US for 15years now and still think it's funny when Americans put on a fake English accent.

I think watching other people perform is the way to go..

For some bad French accents try watching Allo! Allo!...

Bad Greek - Harry Enfield as Stavros
posted by zeoslap at 9:07 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you're better off imitating an actual person/actor/politician/character than just a stereotypical, um, stereotype like you listed above. As you can see, though, some people are going to be offended anyway. I'm actually with zeoslap- I have English and Australian friends who mimic Americans, and we regularly harass each other with our bad accents.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:32 AM on July 1, 2011

I think this is maybe only ok if you're imitating people doing poor impressions. Like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins bad. Or the English undercover policeman in 'Allo Allo.

And even then it can't be from a traditionally oppressed group. For example, if you're British, you could do maybe get away with terrible versions of regional accents but definitely not Indian sub-continent or Chinese.

The overriding thing is that you can get away with anything as long as it's funny enough. And in my experience most non-comedians who try to do this kind of thing think they're hysterical but just aren't funny at all.
posted by plonkee at 12:32 PM on July 1, 2011

Nthing that impersonations of specific characters are a better way to do this, if your intentions are to amuse.

That being said, in these fits of goofiness I have been known to slip in to accents that represent the nationality/ethnicity of people present, and it always saddens me when they react unfavorably. Nowadays I am a lot more sensitive to the tolerances of those present, but the friends I keep in close company enjoy this form of goofing off and are smart enough to recognize the intent.

I'd like to gently suggest that you reconsider your perspective and your reaction. It makes you sad? What, they're hurting your feelings? Perhaps your cultivated identity as "hilarious foreign accent guy" is not more important than the ethnic/national identities serving as the butt of your joke.
posted by desuetude at 3:36 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Let's put it this way: Only do this if you are planning on playing Alan Partidge. If you try this in real life, you're going to end up being Alan Partridge.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:10 PM on July 1, 2011

I stand with zeoslap -- parody accents have been a staple of comedy for a long time, and so long as it isn't done in a racist way (i.e., please no stereotypes of oppressed minorities), there isn't anything wrong with it.

Voice/dialects classes anywhere that teaches accents will help train your ear to pick out the characteristic letters.
posted by paultopia at 12:36 AM on July 2, 2011

Like much of the room, I'm not wild about this idea. But if you do decide to pursue it, just keep in mind that even the best dialect coach cannot give you an automatic free pass out of trouble. Case in point: What happened when Mike Myers learned the "wrong Irish accent," and then took it to Ireland with him. (Story starts at about 1:45.)
posted by bakerina at 9:46 AM on July 2, 2011

That Harry Enfield character strikes me as a very pale imitation of Con the Fruiterer.
posted by flabdablet at 9:14 PM on July 2, 2011

flabdablet - Stavros was a character dating from the mid-80s. Enfield also had a Thatcherite Cockney, known as Loadsamoney, who was insanely popular at the time. Little Britain went on to do something similar, but I think they succeeded when their impersonations of stereotypes went on the absurd (the failing actor, the strangely shrunken Dennis Waterman).
posted by mippy at 4:08 AM on July 3, 2011

Con the Fruiterer is from The Comedy Company which first aired in 1988, so perhaps Con is an improved Stavros rather than Stavros being a less carefully constructed Con :-)

The Comedy Company featured quite a few fake/funny/stereotypical accents. I kind of doubt that anybody other than Kym Gyngell could get away with Coln Carpenter, but it might be fun to try.
posted by flabdablet at 4:52 AM on July 3, 2011

You could always track down some footage of old minstrel shows. I'm sure that'd be a useful stereotypical accent to bust out in mixed company.

The only time I've ever seen "funny stereotypical accents" actually be funny was in some English comedy sketch with business meetings with foreign companies' representatives, and this lady comes up and says "I can speak Spanish/French/Italian" and then proceeds to address the crowds in the most vicariously embarrassing way possible as her supervisors cringe much the same way the audience does. The punch line is that the foreigners understand her and they engage in a conversation in such a manner, but really: the joke is that everyone hates "foreign accent guy" so very much.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:36 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Incidentally, there's definitely a lot to be said for actually paying close attention to people from certain regions and they way they speak. It's kind of fun being able to ask someone if they're from a certain part of a country you've never been to, and wind up being pretty close.

Of course, the difference between that and "funny stereotype accents" is the difference between "In our study of grammar use habits of a sample size of 2,150 we noticed certain trends along perceived class lines" and "WHITE PEOPLE talk like THIS, but BLACK people TALK like THIS!!!1"
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:40 PM on July 3, 2011

DoctorFedora: I believe this is the sketch - from "Smack the Pony" was what you were talking about.
posted by rongorongo at 5:12 AM on July 4, 2011

You can't beat Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies for a fake french accent.

Also see the simpsons for several that are distinct unto themselves (Willy, Diamond Joe Quimby, Comic Book Guy and probably others).
posted by jefftang at 8:19 AM on July 5, 2011

Mayor Quimby is based on the stereotypical northern New England accent (and, if memory serves, president Kennedy specifically). Willy is based on the Angry Scot stereotypical accent.

Comic Book Guy, on the other hand, really is kind of a unique sort of thing, I guess.

Also, rongorongo: yes, that is exactly it.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:43 PM on July 6, 2011

The funny thing about Willie is that he occasionally comes out with things that are quite rude over here. I've watched episodes where I've thought 'did he really say that?' 'I've reviewed the latest tractors - and they're all shite!' is one.

(There was also an episode where Bart fronted a punk band and sang about things being 'bollocks'. It gets shown after 9pm here.)
posted by mippy at 4:06 AM on July 7, 2011

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