Monday, October 25, 2010

Dialects and Accents

Barbara & I accompanied daughter Kristin to the theater in Denver recently. Kristin subscribes to plays at the Performing Arts Center, and normally attends with two women friends. She was out of town for her regular Tuesday night performance, as she had been at Jalapa, in Nicaragua, attending a 25th anniversary celebration of the opening of a school building she had designed "pro bono" for the youngest children, using inexpensive "vernacular" materials. This was part of Jalapa's "sister city" association with Boulder. Kristin and her friend Susan, the mayor of Boulder, had been invited to attend the celebration (at their own expense, of course--Jalapa is a very poor city, close to the border with Honduras). So Kristin had changed her performance date, and invited us to accompany her.

The play was a 1990 adaptation of Bram Stoker's ever-popular novel Dracula. Kristin would not have chosen such a play, any more than we would, but when you buy a season subscription, you end up with the theatrical equivalent of a table d'hote meal.  I had never read the book, nor had I chosen to see any movie or TV version of the story. I did remember that Count Dracula was a vampire, living in Transylvania; I had heard about the use of garlic and a small wooden cross to ward off the Evil One; and the need to drive a wooden stake through the heart of an "Un-Dead" victim, as well as that of the Count himself. The play was fun, but that's not the subject of the musings.

As I thumbed through the program, I noted that the production had used a "dialect coach". I also noticed that much of the action took place away from Transylvania, in England and elsewhere in Continental Europe. Among the characters were seamen and working class Londoners: hence the "dialect coach", I assumed. I did not think that the English "gentry" in the cast would need such training. Evidently, I was wrong.

Unlike most New York and West Coast actors, the Colorado actors apparently hadn't been trained to speak in "stage English", so necessary for an authentic performance of the plays of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, or Noel Coward. It appeared that the dialect coach had tried to teach some of the performers to speak like upper-middle class English men and women. As far as the men were concerned, they failed, in this harsh critic's judgment. They sound phony, with exaggerated vowel sounds.

Now, I have modified my own speech during half a century in the US; I have never tried to sound like a man born in the US. My basic speech was "BBC English", as it used to be called before regional voices were acceptable for reading the news in the UK. It was also known as "U" speech, as opposed to "Non-U", with the letter "U" allegedly standing for "upper class". Sometimes this way of speaking was called "Public School" English--as opposed to the"Grammar School" version.

Some of these class distinctions have disappeared by now. When I hear younger British members of my sons' generation, and even those younger still, they use a more blended accent. (When you listen to the recorded voice of the Queen, you hear authentic old-style BBC English.) 

This is not about "dialect", of course: it is about accents. In my day, we didn't think we had an "accent": we spoke proper English. I remember the very mixed feelings I had, many years ago, when an older woman, who clearly enjoyed hearing me speak, told me "I just love your brogue".(Irish has a word "barrog", from which we derive the word "brogue", meaning a strongly accented way of speaking.) The idea that I spoke with a "brogue" seemed hilarious, rather than insulting, and I knew she thought she was paying me a compliment.

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