The Tricky Bits: American Accent 2.0

I'm back, folks! I've been on the set of Berlin Station for the past few weeks, whipping some actors into accent perfection. Which got me thinking: what are the tricks that trip up even seasoned American-accent pros?

Before reading, you might be interested in my original post on Hints to Mastering Any Accent, or my post on The General American Accent ... Taught by a Real, Live, General American. But now let's get to the trickiest of American sounds ...

  1. R: The Slippery Bastard: The American "R" is a notoriously difficult sound, particularly because it appears just so f***ing much. But besides the fact that you have to pronounce the R literally each time it appears, managing the strength and length of that R sound can be difficult for UK actors. The key to sounding fully American is finding the correct "R" balance, which is usually less harsh than UK actors want to make it. 
     
  2. Nasality: Friend or Foe?: For some endearing-slash-annoying reason, Brits tend to automatically place the American accent in the nose, giving an overtly caricature American sound. While we do tend to have more twang than the average Brit, keep the GenAm accent in the back of the mouth to balance the levels of nasality. 
     
  3. Getting the "PRICE" Right: [// sound:] Most literature will say that in theory, the vowel found in the word "price" is the same in both the RP and GenAm accent. In theory, that is correct. However, when we start to look at the placement of the American accent (see my old posts linked above) it is clear that the PRICE sound is slightly different.  Start the American sound in a round, open, back of the mouth, versus the RP PRICE, which starts slightly higher, in the middle of the mouth. This tiny difference can mean dramatic changes in an accent, particularly in a character who uses the word "I" a lot ....
     
  4. Vowel Lengths: The Long & Short of it: Fairly straight forward, but short vowel sounds tend to be held slightly longer in a GenAm accent. This is an easy fix, but can quickly be forgotten when the accent is transitioned into acting. The main short vowels that are held are the vowel sounds found in the words LOT, STRUT, and FOOT.
    "The puppy did not understand the cook book."

    Just to make life extra confusing, we Americans also tend to shorten vowels that are long in RP, particularly the vowel sounds found in FLEECE, CLOTH, and THOUGHT. 
    Keep the fraught bee out the cream!
     
  5. Trick words are not your friends: Lastly, be VERY careful of words that seem straight forward, but are anything but. Even one pronunciation slip up can send you quickly back over to the other side of the Atlantic. Would you know how to pronounce these words with a General American accent? Splinter, Risotto, Herb, Lieutenant, Depot, Aluminum, Privacy, Yoghurt, Pasta, Zebra ...
     

The General American Accent … Taught by a real, live, general American!

Ah, the GenAm accent, the bane of every UK actor’s career. There is nothing I cringe at more than the dulcet tones of my motherland being butchered in performance. (I know the feeling is mutual, UK friends!)

Let me fess up – General American is not a real accent. Each speaker of GenAm will have their own discreet regionalisms and differences to other speakers classified as GenAm. But generally speaking (see what I did there?) the term refers to an accent characterizing a middle class sound, which doesn’t contain any overt regionalisms other than being from the United States. The accent makes the listener go “I can tell you’re American, but I can’t tell exactly where you are from.”

Now, I realize that probably over half the people who peep at this blog are actually American (hello, compatriots!) and might think that this has nothing to do with them. Oh, how they are wrong. You see, perhaps you don’t need to learn a General American accent, but knowing the sounds and shapes of your home accent is the first step in learning a new accent. So listen up my actor friends, and let’s take a journey to middle America …

1.     See an R, Say an R. It sounds so simple, but in practice it can prove a nightmare. Every R written in the English language is pronounced in an American accent. However, the R is uniquely American in that it is produced by the back of the tongue squishing up in the back of the mouth, described by The Accent Kit’s Edda Sharpe as “slug tongue.” Practice your slug tongue:
The mirror was in the corner of the Paris court.

2.     Goodbye Ts, Hello Ds! Americans are notorious for finding language shortcuts, and Ts are no exception. When Ts appear in the middle of the world is it usually changed to a tapped sound, closely resembling a D. We also tend tap Ts at the end of words, causing them to appear cut off. Practice your tapping:
But you must give up butter to lose a little weight.

3.     Nasal? GenAm gets a bad rap for being a nasal sounding accent, and there is an element of nasal twang, addressed in Tip #4. Specifically, nasality appears in GenAm when the vowels before a nasal consonant (m, n, ng) tend to blend with that nasal consonant, causing a more nasalized sound. This can be done by lowering the soft palate a touch earlier to allow the vowel and consonant to party together. However, GenAm has less nasality than is often perceived, so careful you're not overdoing it.
His drinking friend from the bank wants commitment.

4.     Say cheese! While it is a gross stereotype that Americans tend to be constantly smiling, sometimes gross stereotypes can help when learning an accent. In this case smiling actually helps oral posture, or where the mouth tends to hang out when speaking the accent. Not only are the lips in GenAm more spread than in most UK accents, but the sounds tend to resonate (you’ll feel a buzz) around the soft palate and in the nose. Funny enough, smiling helps place the voice right in that nasal resonator.

Obviously these tips only skim the surface, but with a little practice you too can sound as generally American as I do.

 

4 “Fs” of Accent Work: Find, Figure, Focus, and Freedom

Ok let’s admit it ... as actors we absolutely LOVE to make fun of bad film accents, but then get nervous when we have to do an accent ourselves! Accents can be a tricky line between being understood by your audience and offending someone in the audience. Nothing can take us into a story more than a good accent, and nothing can take us out faster than a bad accent. I would suggest your first port of call to be seeking out an accent coach. However, I know that not every project or every actor has that budget. So some tips for going it alone:

1.     Find an authentic recording of the accent that you are trying to learn! I don’t know how many times an accent coach meets with the cast and realizes they have been using a very out of date or incorrect recording. Look through the following resources, but do your own research. And feel free to try to find and record your own sample.
              IDEA International Dialects of English Archive
              BBC Voices for UK accents
              The ACCENT Kit

2.     Figure out what is different from your own accent. There is no reason to learn the entire phonetic lexicon with IPA lettering. That last sentence alone makes my brain hurt. Identify the biggest differences and go from there.

3.     Focus on FIVE features maximum. You can get very wrapped up in minute details, but go in focused on the major sound changes. The minor details tend to fill in once you have the biggest features down pat.

4.     Freedom is found through constant practice. You need to be so confident with the accent that in performance you can allow muscle memory to take over and put your energy into actually performing. At that point you know that you’ve officially conquered the accent game!

Now for a good bout of accent bashing to tide you over:
The 12 Worst Accents Ever Onscreen