Megan Figueroa: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa. I had to ask Carrie how to start this podcast just now. [Laughter] It’s almost our 4th anniversary, Carrie.
Carrie Gillon: Almost four years.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, and we’re at 90 episodes of saying this intro, and I just couldn’t remember it right now.
Carrie Gillon: I think this was 86.
Megan Figueroa: 86? Okay. That’s exciting! Four years. Four. Years. And I’m wondering if we might be saying hello to new listeners, maybe, because we were in the New York Times.
Carrie Gillon: Well, you were, but yeah. Our podcast was named. But yes, it’s great!
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I didn’t actually realize what it was for besides being about linguistic discrimination and being careful with words if you want to be thoughtful about who you might be offending or oppressing by using certain words. I didn’t know it’d be a part of this, like, nine ways to make the world a little bit kinder, which is really cool. Thank you, A. C. Shilton. She told me that it was only 400 words, and I thought that was strange, but now I’m seeing why. Just these little things about how you can be kinder – and kinder to the Earth. There’s one about biking.
Carrie Gillon: We’re gonna be biking later today to go to the cat café.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, how nice! Well, you know, it’s 100 degrees here, and biking becomes a little bit more difficult.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, I know. I remember. I still did it unless it got to be like – I think it was about 110 I just wouldn’t do it. I think below I still did it, but it was rough.
Megan Figueroa: My body’s constitution can’t take that very well because then I get, like – all these things. At a certain point, I just can’t do these things.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, no, it’s physically hard, and it gets harder the hotter it is.
Megan Figueroa: Anyway, we’re in the New York Times. If you’re here because of that, we really appreciate it.
Carrie Gillon: Welcome!
Megan Figueroa: This is such a good episode to come into.
Carrie Gillon: Oh my god, yeah! Seriously, I love this episode. I always say that, but this one is just – I don’t know – it’s just fun to talk about acting and dialects.
Megan Figueroa: I feel like even five years ago, maybe we could’ve reached out to someone random that was a dialect coach, and it could’ve been like, “Oh, this is problematic,” but it’s not five years ago. It’s Erik Singer, who is just a huge sweetheart and is awesome at his job and actually pays attention to the world of linguistics and what’s going on.
Carrie Gillon: He’s getting trained right now in extra stuff that I didn’t even understand. I was like, okay, what are you talking about? [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: So, Erik and I, we worked together on the Wired videos. He is the Wired video guy. Millions and millions of views on his Wired videos about accents and dialect coaching and all of this. Like Carrie said, it’s really fun to talk about these things. It’s really fun. He’s definitely coming back. We need to have him back. He said he would because I feel like we had hours more of things to talk about.
Carrie Gillon: We totally did.
Megan Figueroa: Like Carrie said, I find this to be super delightful. I love all of our guests, but it’s nice to talk about something that is just completely out of our wheelhouse.
Carrie Gillon: I’ve done some acting in my life, mostly as an adolescent or child, but still, I have done it, and I still felt like I knew nothing. He was just teaching me all these things. It was great. And then also on the accent side – just stuff I hadn’t even really considered, like prosody. Why had I never considered prosody? Of course, prosody is different in different dialects. I know that intellectually, but it just hadn’t occurred to me. I love it.
Megan Figueroa: Well, it’s true. Because it’s so huge when you’re thinking about someone who speaks some sort of Spanish-influenced variety of English, like Chicano English, prosody is so important. It’s oftentimes what people get wrong if they’re trying to do it. Oh, and this episode made me gain so much respect for actors – just so much. So much. I think that before this I went in judging them getting accents, quote-unquote, “wrong,” but I just – new respect. I really thank Erik for that. Hopefully, you all get something out of it, too. So much fun! Sometimes it’s fun to be a linguist, right, Carrie?
Carrie Gillon: Sometimes it’s fun to be a linguist and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. In a terrible, terrible turn – I don’t know if you’ve heard about this – but the French government is trying to clamp down on minority languages in France – again. I mean, they do this all the time. They basically refused to introduce legislation to allow Breton – which is a Celtic language – to be taught in French schools.
Megan Figueroa: So, they passed legislation, or they put forth legislation?
Carrie Gillon: They refused to introduce legislation to basically support Breton. It was proposed by a politician, Paul /məlɑk/ [Molac] – I guess that’s how you say his name. I apologize if I mispronounced that. He wanted to have linguistic immersion in Brittany, where Breton is spoken, just to promote this language that has existed there for a long, long time. And, no, of course, France is probably the first country to have one language one country ideology going back to the French Revolution.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, really?
Carrie Gillon: Mm-hmm.
Megan Figueroa: Oh. I didn’t realize that.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. They’ve always been really hard on minority languages in their own country – like Occitan, and Breton, and others that I’m not thinking of right now. Oh, Basque, of course.
Megan Figueroa: Well, thank you for teaching me that. I mean, there have been people in the US who have been gunning hard for the exact same thing. English first, English only – don’t fall asleep on it!
Carrie Gillon: It’s interesting. The United States was created around the same time as the French Revolution, so maybe they were – the US was influenced in many, many ways – I mean, I know it was influenced in many ways – by the French Revolution, but maybe one of the ways was one language one country.
Megan Figueroa: For our book I’ve been reading so much about our history with monolingualism and bilingualism – multilingualism – because at some points it was revered. We go back and forth depending on the global context – the US, anyway – in whether or not bilingualism or multilingualism is good or bad and who it’s good for. We’ve talked about that many times. You will enjoy this episode.
Carrie Gillon: Definitely.
Megan Figueroa: We should get on to Erik, then.
Carrie Gillon: Like this show and wanna make your own? Let me tell you about Anchor. It’s free. And they have creation tools that allow you to record and edit your podcast right from your phone or computer. And now, you can even add any song from Spotify directly to your episodes. The possibilities are endless for what you can create whether it’s music analysis, your own radio show, or something the world’s never heard before.
Anchor will distribute your podcast for you, so it can be heard on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and many more. You can also make money from you podcast with no minimum listenership. It’s everything you need to make a podcast in one place, so download the free anchor app or go to anchor.fm to get started.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. I am so excited to have my friend Erik Singer here today who is a dialect coach, a Master Teacher of Knight-Thompson Speechwork, a dialectcoaches.com Verified Master Coach, and a Certified Associate Teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, which means he knows his shit. [Laughter] He works on set and off for productions and for private clients to help actors successfully realize the voices and accents of the characters they play. He also regularly teaches workshops in speech and accents both to actors and to other voice and speech teachers and professional dialect coaches. Also, he is THE Wired magazine video guy – the. He is the guy. He recently created a video map tour of North American accents, which I’m a part of, which is so lovely. Thank you so much, Erik, for being here and for having me on your North American Accents video tour and all that. We’re so happy to have you.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, thank you for coming.
Erik Singer: By god, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you so much for asking me. I’ve been a longtime fan of the show. I was so pleased when you agreed to be in the map tour. Just sort of working on building that up, and then that contribution is just really, really, really valuable. I’m so happy to have you in it. I’m incredibly honored to be asked to be here. I’m excited.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. I mean, you are the linguist’s dialect coach, I feel.
Carrie Gillon: It’s true.
Erik Singer: That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. You have no idea how happy that makes me. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: It’s just so amazing. I was just thinking about writing up the little thing to introduce you, and you have millions, and millions, and millions of views on your Wired videos.
Erik Singer: Yeah, they’re up to – I think my manager counted last month or something – I think they’re up to 60 million, over 60 million or something. It’s a lot of views.
Carrie Gillon: It is.
Megan Figueroa: It’s amazing.
Erik Singer: For linguistics, ya’ll.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly! It’s what I’m saying. I was just thinking, these people are watching this, and some of them may have never even actually heard the word “linguistics,” may not even know that they care about linguistics or think it’s interesting.
Erik Singer: But they do.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly.
Carrie Gillon: Everybody does.
Megan Figueroa: I know.
Erik Singer: Exactly.
Carrie Gillon: They just need to be exposed to the right part of linguistics, and for each person that’s a different thing. But everyone loves accents.
Erik Singer: And then there’s a few who love generative semantics. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: It’s a very tiny group. Even within semantics it’s a small group.
Megan Figueroa: All right. These videos – you’re introducing people to accents or dialects. What exactly is a dialect or accent? Let’s start there. What is that? What are we watching when we watch your Wired videos and what you do as a professional?
Erik Singer: That’s three questions. Those are all great questions. Actually, I’m so glad you asked the first one because there’s a thing that gets confused in my area of the woods that it’s great to address and it’s great to straighten out. For me – and I feel like this is pretty well aligned with linguistic usage and general usage and usage in the UK – an “accent” is the sounds. An accent is the phonetics and the phonology. It’s how the sounds are realized. And “dialect,” if we’re gonna use the word as opposed to “language variety,” which is what I generally try to use, includes everything else. It includes that, but it’s also morphology and syntax. It’s word order. It’s lexicon. It’s the words you use. It’s all of that.
What I do is probably actually best described as being an accent coach. But the name of the job is “dialect coach.” Early on, I was trying to make noises about “We should try to change this,” and it was pointed out to me by someone a lot wiser and more senior than me that, in fact, in film and TV, which I was only just starting to do – in plays and theater, the playwright is king. You don’t change the words. In film and TV, you change the words all the time. It’s different from project to project, but actors and directors are very often rejiggering things. Sometimes, they’re outright improvising.
Whereas in theater and in my training as an actor and in my experience as an actor, which was mostly in theater, the playwright’s taken care of that. It’s good to know as much as you can about it. Just as an actor, you want to have done your research. You want all the imaginative connections you possibly can. But basically, what I’m responsible for is just making sure the sounds are right. But in film and TV, it’s gotta be everything because you are the language expert on set. The writers and the producers and the actors and the director will come to you and be like, “How would they say this in 16th Century Salem?” You really need to be as up on all of it as you can and/or have people on the phone that you can call and be like, “I have a question. I’m in Hungary, and I need to know Mexican slang for” – whatever it is. You’ve got to have somebody in Mexico City that you can call. So, “dialect coach” is maybe appropriate there.
But the thing that gets confusing is that there’s a North American tradition in the theater world and thus the film and TV world of using those words very differently. People would say an accent is something that is spoken by non-native speakers, so it’s always L2, and a dialect is a native speaker variety. We can talk about a Cockney dialect or a Texas dialect or a Minnesota dialect or a Sydney dialect, but we talk about a German accent or a French accent or a Swedish accent or something like that.
I think that it is useful to have a very quick shorthand to be talking about L1 versus L2 accents. Hey, look at that, there’s a shorthand. Because they’re different issues and things that we come up with. But the fact that that usage is not aligned with what linguists mean and what everybody else in the world means I think is sort of problematic. I think it’s falling by the wayside now, I think, as more younger coaches come up. We have a bit stronger bridges with linguistics and socio and things. I think it’s falling by the wayside.
Carrie Gillon: Why did you decide to become a dialect coach? What drew you to this work?
Erik Singer: Wow. So, I’m gonna try not to ramble on too long.
Carrie Gillon: Ramble away.
Erik Singer: Because it’s a long and winding path. I think that’s actually really typical. First of all, there aren’t many of us – at least working in film and TV on major productions. Worldwide, it’s a pretty small club. We either all know each other directly or at least know of each other. It’s a much bigger world if we talk about theater voice and speech teachers training actors in MFA programs and conservatory programs and working in regional theaters. It’s a much bigger club. But it’s still pretty niche. There’s no specific university degree or approved path for becoming a dialect coach. It’s a really random thing. At last count, I think there are basically two or three coaches working in film and TV who come from an academic linguistic background. Everybody else is actors.
I get a lot of questions from linguistics undergrads or people who are interested who are like, “How do you get to do what you do?” One of the first pieces of advice that I give people is act. Act as much as you can. Learn as much as you can about acting, about different aspects of the craft of acting and storytelling in this way and filmmaking as well because I think it’s unbelievably super important for us to know as much as we possibly can, obviously about phonetics, in a really, really deep and detailed away, about phonology to some extent, about articulatory mechanics and pedagogical strategies for being able to teach this in a bunch of different ways because people receive things in all different ways, as much as we can about prosody and intonation and socio stuff – everything that we can possibly glean.
But at the end of the day, the job is to support actors. It’s to support actors, directors, and filmmakers in telling the stories that they wanna tell in these particular ways. It’s to support that. You really, really, really have to know how an actor works, how actors work, how acting works to be able to do that effectively and helpfully and not get in the way.
Carrie Gillon: How could you get in the way?
Erik Singer: But giving them 10 notes after a take because nobody can do that, by putting the accent first ahead of the acting, ahead of the human interaction. I work on productions. I also work with private clients, when I’m not on a production, all the way up and down the spectrum from A-List actors who have months to prepare for a role – hopefully, at that point, the production is paying – all the way down to student actors who are recently graduated, young actors trying to make it work, figure out their first job, and they have an audition to prepare for.
Sometimes, somebody comes to me, and they need a Czech accent tomorrow. So, that’s not a lot of time. It takes longer. This is one of the main points I’ve tried to make in some of those Wired videos is it’s hard stuff, and it takes a long time. It takes a long time to really get all the pieces in place and get it technically accurate but then also to have to it sink in, to have it fully integrated so that it’s second nature so that you can act through it so that you can be truthfully present and listening and responsive in it.
I can get in the way by making the accent more important. That sucks. It doesn’t work. This is something that I’ll say to an actor that I’m coaching who has to have this Czech accent tomorrow, right. I’ll give them as many things as I can that feel useful and try to find the things that make other things happen, make other things come right. Even if their accent is perfect, they’re not gonna get the job. They’re gonna book the job if they’re bringing something compelling and unique and individual and interesting to their interpretation of the part that works for the filmmaker’s conception of the story that they wanna tell. That’s the most important thing.
But then also where I can find links and find connections between, especially, aspects of what I tend to call “oral posture” – “articulatory settings” is more common for linguists – between what we really need for the settings, for the oral posture for this accent for this character, and something that they can connect to as an actor, something that is imaginatively useful to them. We talk about this. I always try to be really careful about verging into just so stories and stereotypes because there are a lot of these around.
There’re some very popular ones that tend to get repeated a lot that [Australian accent] the reason all Australian accents sound like they do is because everything’s got to be wide and flat like that. You don’t open your mouth a lot because you can’t let the bugs in. [Laughter] That’s where that comes from. It’s a new one on you, I see. I’ve also heard this – you can’t let the dust in. It’s all kind of wide like that, and you’re squinting a lot, right, because you’re squinting against the sun. [End Australian accent] That’s the explanation. That’s the just so story for how the Australian accent can be, right.
Megan Figueroa: Listener, you should see his mouth when he does this.
Erik Singer: Strong lip coordinated retraction.
Carrie Gillon: Also, it’d be relevant for Arizonans if this were real. But anyway.
Erik Singer: Right? Eventually, Arizona is surely gonna end up sounding like Australia. It’s amazing how popular this is, though. I mean, lots of people have heard this. There’re many versions. I mean, [New York accent] New York is nasal because you gotta cut across the traffic noise [end accent] or something like that. [Welsh accent] The reason why Welsh accents go up and down like this is because there’re so many hills in Wales. [End accent] There’s a lot of them.
The thing is these things are so tempt – it’s kind of like a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. These things are so compellingly interesting that you can see why they have a life. My feeling on this is that there is a place for making connections between aspects of the accent, especially oral posture, and something that an actor might be able to connect to. It’s something I do with immense caution and lots of caveating and always saying, “Look, these things are arbitrary. There is no reason why these people sound this way. They just do.” But if I’m trying to get you to find a little bit of jaw protrusion because [London Accent] that’s what we do in London, right. It’s London, so there is a bit of jaw protrusion there. [End accent]
Your character is – there’s something there that there’s – I dunno. It’s emotional trauma in your past, and there’s some defended-ness; there’s some guardedness. If that makes you feel that way, if you can draw a connection between those things, and it sparks your imagination and brings things to life and makes a connection between what you are doing in your deep, internal work as an actor and what you’re sending out, and what we need to do to get to the accent, that solidifies stuff in a really magic way sometimes. So, with great, great, great caution, but doing that a little bit.
Megan Figueroa: The human connection is an important, I guess, technique in your field then?
Erik Singer: Yeah, it’s all about working with people – not just actors but producers, too – I mean, you’ve also got to get the job. Like any job, there’s a lot of politics of making friends and things like that. Acting is hard, man. Really – can I swear on the show?
Carrie Gillon: Absolutely.
Erik Singer: It’s really fucking hard. I friggin’ love actors because they’re so brave. And I’m talking about good actors, right. God, especially if you’re talking about film and TV and stuff that’s going out now to be preserved forever and be seen by people all over the world, it is so exposed. It’s scary. It’s terrifying. To be able to do it well, you really have to be able to get naked – emotionally, psychologically naked, and very, very exposed. And having to do an accent on top of that and knowing that people from that place are gonna be hearing you and critiquing it, it is a lot to take on. It’s really, really, really brave. Therefore, if they’re working with a dialect coach on an accent, or anybody that they’re working with in that way, they have to feel like they can trust that person to have their best interests at heart and to take care of them in that way. That’s a big part of it, too.
Oh, so, I didn’t really answer the question though about how I came to be. [Laughter] I’m an actor. I was an actor. I haven’t been onstage for many, many years, but that’s the first part of my professional life was as an actor. I did a lot of Shakespeare. I did a lot of classical work. I did a lot of theater – a lot of regional theater, some off-Broadway stuff. I trained as an actor in London. I went to a place called Webber Douglas that was around for a long time but is no more. I’d always been really interested in languages and in accents and played around, messed around a lot.
One of things when I went to train at Webber, and I went for two years, is that I went really – I wouldn’t describe myself now or then as particularly an Anglophile, but I friggin’ loved the theater – especially the classical theater and the serious plays. It was so much more in the Westend – and I grew up in the New York area, so I saw lots of Broadway and off-Broadway. There’s some exciting stuff. But the kind of stuff that I really wanted to do, there was a lot more of it in London. And I really, really loved so many shows that I’d seen, so many actors that I’d seen, and that’s what I wanted to stay and do.
There were a lot of – and this was ‘95 when I went to drama school – there were a lot of Americans working in London, but they only played American parts. I wanted to do Shakespeare at the National. So, I was told, “You’re gonna have to be English. You have to 100% perfect spy-level modern RP.” That’s what I did for two years. That was my first real, long, deep dive into that. And it worked. I took meetings with agents and casting directors and stuff. I ended up not being able to stay because I couldn’t get a work permit, so I came back. But that was one deep effort at that.
Then, I did end up, for whatever reason, just always getting cast in stuff as an actor that required accents. Or sometimes in – I did a one-man show called – or two-person show – called Stones in His Pockets where each actor plays 9 or 10 or 11 different characters – mostly Irish because it’s set in Ireland – but you know, a couple of Americans and Brits. Then I started doing a lot of voiceover work. I did a lot of audio books. I’ve done about 50 or 60 audio books. You get to play all the characters when you do that. Sometimes if I had a proper amount of time to prepared, I’d do a deep dive into making sure I could do the Palestinian and the Israeli and the Austrian and the Swedish and the South African characters and just do the best job I could at all that.
I have two kids. And travelling around and going out of town was, you know, became a lot more difficult. So, I’d always been doing a little teaching and coaching on the side. I went and got serious about that. I got a voice teacher full training certification and started teaching at an MFA program at the Mason Gross School of The Arts at Rutgers. I was teaching there for a few years teaching speech and phonetics and accents and some voice. Then it was gradual from there. I started doing a little bit more production work and a little bit less teaching, and it gradually transitioned until – since about 2015, I think – I’ve really just been doing production work.
Carrie Gillon: Why did you wanna make your map tour videos?
Erik Singer: Wo – o – ow. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Hopefully, none of these questions are hard. [Laughs]
Erik Singer: No, you guys brought the good questions.
Megan Figueroa: Is there a story there?
Erik Singer: No, there’s not a story there. But I mean, maybe there is. I resisted doing it for a long time. One of the seeds of it was people wanting to hear me in a video that we put out there in the world doing a lot of accents which I – the first Wired videos that got really popular were a series they called Technique Critique where I’m talking about different accent performances in movies. That started as a – they came to me originally with like, “We wanna do a three-minute video where it’s like good accents and bad accents.” I’m like, “I’m not interested in that, but I’ll you what I would be interested in would be talking about why.” What goes into it; what it contributes; how it’s a layer of storytelling; how it’s hard; and how you shouldn’t blame the actor because it takes time, so it needs production support, and actors aren’t always in a position to ask for that. They were like, “Wow, that all sounds really cool. Tell us more.” It was a guy named Joe Sabia who’s the head of all the video stuff at Condé Nast at the time – and that’s how the first one came to be. The message seemed to get out there successfully, and I was really happy about that.
I’ll model a couple of sounds here and there, but I scrupulously didn’t – I didn’t wanna make one of these show-off-y accent videos where there’s one person doing a whole bunch of accents. And, you know, there’s some really fun stuff out there for sure – not to run that down at all. But besides just not feeling totally comfortable – like that wasn’t really me – I do it when I teach, right, because I’m very happy to impress my students and do party tricks. When I’m working with an accent – I mean, even though we’re always using a native speaker model – I’m always modelling the accent when I’m coaching an actor one-on-one for, usually, almost the entire time that we’re coaching because that is an effective way of coaching to coax them along having them hear it a lot. But I was a little uncomfortable with the “Look at me” aspect of it.
But there’s an idea that is understandable but wrong, which is that being a good accent coach is the same thing as being able to do a bunch of accents really well – where being able to do a bunch of accents really well means you’re gonna be able to be a good coach. I know a ton of really good coaches who maybe aren’t all that great at all of them all the time and vice versa. I know plenty of people who are brilliant at accents who have no idea how they do what they do. I was one of those until I figured it out, until I met two wonderful mentors – two teachers named Phil Thompson and Dudley Knight – who I learned an immense amount from and owe an immense amount to. It was like a magic key was given me that sort of opened the gates, and I was like, “Oh! That’s how I do what I do. Now, I can teach it.” That was linguistics, basically. I mean, that was phonetics and phonology linguistics.
But so, how did it come to be. I hadn’t wanted to perpetuate that, right? But at a certain point I felt like, uh, the message is out there. We have this body of work, and this would be an interesting thing to do. There’s also a brilliant video out there – it’s really short; I think it’s a minute and a half – where a great dialect coach named Andrew Jack, who’s the guy who did all the Lord of the Rings movies, all the newer Star Wars movies – an unbelievable resume – he, tragically, died in the first month of COVID last year. He was an amazing, amazing guy. I never met him personally, but I have a lot of close friends who he was just a really, really great mentor to. Everybody who worked with him loved him.
Anyway, he has this great video where it’s like a tour of the UK. He does seamlessly and really beautifully about 17 accents. We see a map. He’s just going around the map. So, the modelling is incredible, and he was a great coach. Unfortunately, the whole thing starts with, well, [RP British accent] RP. The great communicator. This, of course, is by far the most intelligible accent in the English speaking – [end accent] and then it kind of goes on from there. It’s not all like that, right, but there’s something about, you know, [Dublin Irish accent] and Dublin tends to have a more lyrical, poetic sound. [End accent] There’s a lot of these at least verging on some of these characterizations of saying that because something sounds this way it is, and these people are. So, there’re things that I kind of object to in there, but basically, it’s a wonderful piece of work.
The problem, then, with a map tour became, all right, if I’m gonna do a bunch of modelling, great, but there’re accents that even if I might do them in private because I have a client who wants to work on this with me and has hired me to work on this with them that I shouldn’t be doing publicly, that I have absolutely no business putting out there. But if we were gonna do a map tour of the US, it was really important to me that it be representative and diverse.
What we ended up with was – I’m super, super happy with the way it worked out because we were able to bring on linguists of color and people like Sunn m’Cheaux who’s not a linguist but is a language teacher of Gullah-Geechee and a native speaker of Gullah-Geechee to talk about Gullah-Geechee, then interspersed native speaker clips while also me playing around in a sandbox and having fun and being silly doing these various things. But because we were also bringing some real linguistic content to it, I think we managed to thread what at one point looked to me like a really daunting needle to thread.
Megan Figueroa: Why do you think it’s so upsetting for someone when they hear their accent portrayed quote-unquote “wrong” in a movie or on TV?
Erik Singer: Wow. [Laughs] That’s a really good question. I mean, I think just on the very most basic level, if you’re being represented and someone’s getting you wrong, like, of course, that’s gonna be a little bothersome or a little upsetting. I think where it gets really explosive then is where we have people who have a history of being misrepresented or having versions of their accents, let’s say, misappropriated and used and mocked for racist ends. When we have that – and that can be anything from minority groups in the US to the Irish. Because there are many, many, many groups – there are many speakers. There’re many cultures and groups of people who have been on the short end of that stick at one time or another and who remember that – for whom it is fresh, for whom it is present-day reality.
I think there’s probably a sliding scale of how upsetting it can be or how upsetting it might be to any individual person when somebody does their accent and gets it wrong, but there’re definitely very good, very real, very understandable reasons why a lot of people might get upset. But I also just think it’s like, I dunno, sometimes it’s fun.
Megan Figueroa: I was gonna say sometimes it’s fun. Like, a quote-unquote “bad” California accent can be really fun.
Carrie Gillon: Or a bad Canadian accent.
Erik Singer: You may be about to see both of those in map tour Part 3 that’s about to come out.
Carrie Gillon: Yes! This reminds me. Sadie Ryan from Accentricity did a whole episode on bad accents in TV and movies and had us talk about our favorites.
Erik Singer: Oh, really! Oh, I have to hear that.
Carrie Gillon: It’s a great episode.
Megan Figueroa: I was gonna say, my favorite quote-unquote “bad” accent is hands-down Danial Craig’s in Knives Out. What’s his character’s name?
Erik Singer: Foghorn Leghorn?
Carrie Gillon: I don’t remember, but I love it.
Erik Singer: He actually used Horton Foot – I’m sorry, Shelby Foote. Somebody just told me – I don’t know if it’s accurate, but it probably is – he used Shelby Foote as a model. Tell me, what do you think was terrible about it?
Megan Figueroa: I thought it was fantastic, but I heard some people from the, you know, articles that have lines like, “What was that accent?”, “What was he doing with that?”, “What is this British guy doing to a Southern accent?”
Carrie Gillon: I understood that it was just a really old-fashioned accent that no one uses anymore. I don’t know if that’s true.
Erik Singer: That’s definitely true. I mean, I got asked about this a lot, and I tend not to – I do get asked a lot about what I think about individual performances on Twitter and stuff. I’m really leery of doing that because I’m not a movie reviewer. Also, I’m a dialect coach. I work with people to support actors to try and help them do better, and it really, really, really, really isn’t almost ever the actor’s fault when it does go wrong because it’s hard; it takes time; it needs production support. Actors are not often in – or most actors most of the time – are not in a position to really ask for that or necessarily understand that it is – all those reasons. Anyway, I’ve been over that before.
But with that one, I think it’s two things. It wasn’t fully in there. It wasn’t fully comfortable. So, I think we can feel it being held at a little bit of a distance. It didn’t have that final step of work. But I also think that there’s – it feels to me – and I don’t even remember who the coach was on it or if there was a coach – I assume there was, but I’m not sure – so this is just speculation from the performance and from knowing how these things work sometimes, it feels like he was wielding it for a purpose, and they chose a model that was, in fact, a very old-fashioned model.
Somebody who – I mean, if anybody still does speak with an accent like that, they are very old. They are not the age of that character in the movie. Those are intentional choices. I can’t speak to exactly what it was, but the whole thing, the whole movie’s, kind of heightened. I mean, very heightened, right, so the accent, I think, was felt to be a piece of that. Is it successful? Ultimately, that’s a judgement call.
Megan Figueroa: I think so.
Carrie Gillon: For me it was.
Megan Figueroa: It was 110% successful.
Erik Singer: I think an interesting conversation has to be like, “Well, what was this for? What were they trying to go for?” That’s cool.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, thank you for about 20 minutes ago because now I feel like I really am more thoughtful toward the actor when it comes to these things. Because before I was just like –
Carrie Gillon: With the exception –
Megan Figueroa: Whoa, of who? Of what?
Carrie Gillon: Well, I don’t remember who, but with the exception of at least one actor who refused to use a dialect coach.
Megan Figueroa: It was what’s his name – Twilight.
Erik Singer: Robert Pattinson.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, Robert Pattinson. He refused, so then it’s his fault.
Erik Singer: I kinda liked that one though.
Carrie Gillon: I’ve never heard it, so I have no judgement.
Erik Singer: The character was from – I did an interview on this. I accepted that one, and so I did a little bit of a deep dive into looking at the models of the characters from a different place. What he did was pretty accurate in a lot of ways. Again, it was slightly heightened. It was slightly florid. You could tell the actor was trying to push it as far he could and really have fun with it. But it was like – it was detailed. It was textured. In terms of the phonetic targets, it was accurate. In terms of some of the rhythm and the prosody as well, it was pretty accurate. There were reasons for it. There were felt reasons for doing what he was doing. It did sound different from everybody else in it, but the character was supposed to. He was an outsider.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. He got the rhythm and prosody. There’s so much that can go wrong.
Erik Singer: Yes.
Carrie Gillon: Especially with rhythm and prosody, I feel like. To me, that is really hard.
Megan Figueroa: How do you teach that – what goes wrong when a movie set in Southern Mississippi, and someone from Southern Mississippi is like, “They got that wrong”?
Erik Singer: I tend to break down accents into three elements. It’s a little cute, but it’s easy to remember, they’re the Three Ps. They’re posture, pronunciation, and prosody. “Posture” is oral posture, articulatory settings. What’s the shape and feel? What are the habitual ways that the jaw and the lips and the tongue and the pharynx and the velum and even the vocal folds themselves – where do they go at rest? Where do they go during speech pauses and hesitation sounds? What are the patterns of movement? Which part of the tongue tip is hitting which part of the alveolar ridge or teeth on T, V, and N? And L sounds – what are those patterns? What’s the overall shape of the tongue? Is it spread and broad and flat and held very much that way, the way it might be for a lot of South Asian accents, for example? Is it bunched up and thick in the bad all the time the way it might be for certain American accents? We want to isolate what are those patterns in terms of muscular activation and release. How do they work? How do they fit? How do they flow together? That’s posture.
“Pronunciation” is, you know – what’s the inventory of sounds, including every possible allophone and combination? What are the contexts that condition them? Let’s make sure we get them in the right places. Let’s make sure we get them in the right places. Because, obviously, when you’re coming from RP or Australian or most other Englishes to North American English, there’re some pattern changes. We talk in terms of lexical sets – certain little groups of words that jump over from one lexical set to the other.
It’s not enough to know the equivalent sound, you’ve got to also be aware that, for instance, words like “of,” “from,” “what,” “was,” and “because,” which are – in lexical set terms – those are “strut” words when stressed for American English. [British accent] “Of,” “what,” “was,” “from,” and “because,” are lot words. So, if you’re a Brit trying to do an American accent, you can’t just use an American “lot” vowel because then you say, [British-person-doing-an-American-accent accent] “of,” “was,” “from,” “what,” and “because,” and that sounds wrong. We know it. We don’t always know what it is, but I kind of think that, like, 60% of the time, when we hear a Brit doing a great American accent but something’s just a little bit off, it’s in one of those five words that’s popped out and vice versa.
Carrie Gillon: Interesting. I’m gonna pay attention now.
Megan Figueroa: And those are frequent words.
Erik Singer: Exactly. I mean, now when unstressed, most speakers of both varieties will reduce those vowels to a schwa, so it won’t come out then. It’ll only come out when it’s at the end of a sentence or when it gets a little stress. You know, they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, you know, it’s made of steel.” You know, “What’s it made /av/?” Right. It’s only when it’s there, when it’s a strong position, that pops out, and you’re like, “Wait. Something’s off.” So, that’s the pronunciation aspect of things.
Then there’s prosody. That’s all the musical elements. That’s intonation and inflection. It’s the rise and fall of pitch. And it’s stress and rhythm and pace to a certain extent. We’ve got to get all three of those things right. We really wanna try to get all three of those things perfect and then all the way deeply integrated.
What goes wrong – usually it’s diagnoseable as in one of those three areas. They’re related. Obviously, there’s a very strong relationship between posture and pronunciation. In fact, I usually describe it that way. The oral posture is like the logic that underlies what the inventory of sounds is. It’s the glue that makes sense of them. Dialect coaches used to talk about, or some still do talk about, “sound changes.” I dislike that terminology because even though I think a skilled accent performer is like, “Okay, give me the stuff,” and then they make sense of it, I think it can lead to a cut and paste job where you get a Frankenstein’s monster accent where it’s just my accent, but I’ve clipped out some of the sounds and put other sounds in. That’s not how it works.
When prosody goes wrong, it’s the equivalent of phonemic interference. It’s tonemic interference. It’s the actor’s habitual prosodic patterns creeping through in a way that is negative transference that doesn’t actually work for us in that accent. It is notoriously difficult to work on specifically. I’m still trial and erroring a bunch of different things. Obviously, different things work for different people. Some people pick it up so easily just listening and doing the melody.
One of the things I do with that as with other aspects is try to really isolate it. Some of the time that we’re working or like – if we’ll hear, let’s say, the actor’s accent model says something like, [British accent]
“Would you like a cup of tea?”, [end accent] then I’ll have them, instead of repeating that back, I’ll have them repeat back [hums the intonation]. Duh du duh duh duh daa. I’ll use Praat.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, wow, you bring out the spectrogram.
Erik Singer: Well, the pitch track – the f0 track – to actually sort of find – I’m taking a ToBI transcription class right now at MIT with Stephanie Shattuck-Hufnagel and Alejna Brugos. It’s so cool. I’ve done some intonation study more in the British model or tradition. J. C. Wells has a great book called English Intonation. J. D. O’Connor had some good stuff earlier. I’ve tried to then apply it when I’m doing American – when I’m teaching non-native speakers American accents, I’ve tried to adapt that and apply that. I’ve always been kind of curious about ToBI and delving deep into that is interesting. It’s got all kinds of stuff bubbling up for me.
But just looking at the visual and then also having people describe it in the air with their finger, helping them hear and isolate more precisely things both categorically but also trying to reproduce them exactly because if something is even a little bit off in a way that is not possible for a native speaker of that accent, you can tell – or native speakers of that accent can all. All that stuff.
Megan Figueroa: You used the example of a Czech accent. If someone calls you, and they’re like, “I have an audition next week, and I need to do a Czech accent,” do you have to do some research before then or is everything just in your head?
Erik Singer: I know literally every human accent. It’s all in my head all the time. [Laughter] I’m just an android. I’m sophisticated AI. I mean, yeah, of course! I mean, we have the greatest hits. There’s the stuff I do all the time.
Megan Figueroa: Sure, like RP.
Erik Singer: Which RP is the thing, right. Because the first step is always, always, always, always – and this is true if we have six hours or six months – it’s find a model. We always wanna find a native speaker model for something. Now, occasionally, we’re doing a made-up accent. I did an HBO pilot that never saw the light of day, and I’m still broken up about it because it was so friggin’ cool. It was about the Salem Witch Trials. It was a Jenji Cohen show, and it was directed by Gus Van Sant. Eddie Izzard was one of the leads. A bunch of great actors. Karen Gillan, who’s now doing crazy, famous, amazing adventure stuff and other stuff, was in it as well. A bunch of great actors.
We actually made up – half the cast was English, and half the cast was American, and then there were a few Scots thrown in for good measure. We basically semi-reconstructed/semi-made-up an accent. It ended up actually being more like three accents for everybody to adopt. It was all weird and challenging because it was on the fly. Oh, and then we also did Passamaquoddy because there were a lot of Native American characters, so we had a Passamaquoddy native speaker and teacher who did the translation and then was there as a consultant.
But then I’m the person who’s there helping the actors realize that because, again, it’s a really specialized skill set. Language teachers and native speakers are not the ones to teach actors how to sound like they speak a language they don’t speak. It’s like we’ve got to really get under the hood and know exactly what’s going on. So, it was a lot in that one. Big digression, but that’s just to say once in a while we’re making something up, and then I’m gonna be making the recordings, or if I can get a female colleague as well so there’s a female voice that can be really helpful as well.
Other than that, we’re always looking for a model. Even if I’m teaching something that I know inside and out or know a bunch of varieties of inside and out, I still wanna make sure that when we’ve found our model, if we have, that I’m teaching specifically to that and to those targets. There’s always that involved. But yeah, I mean, sometimes we don’t have – if I just have a private client who books because they have an audition the next day, I’m like, “Find yourself a model. Send it to me.” We’ll listen to it a little bit and then we go from there.
Carrie Gillon: I know you don’t wanna talk about bad examples, but can you give us a good example?
Erik Singer: Like, good performances? Good accent performances?
Carrie Gillon: Mm-hmm.
Erik Singer: I mean, there’s so many. It’s one of the things that comes up for me all the time. These are all ones that have been featured at various times in some of those videos, I think. I mean, not every performance but a great many performances by Meryl Streep and by Daniel Day Lewis. They are both, I think, justly renowned for their expertise with accents and for how much they – and to me it’s like, there’s next level work in a lot of those performances. Because when you talk about finding the connections between how the character speaks – what their really idiosyncratic idiolect is and who they are – for that to then start to feel like something that is revelatory and organic and true and real and revelatory – like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, which was a weird one, like Meryl Streep in Julia or Julie and Me, whatever it was called.
That’s astonishing because that’s idiolect work, right. She sounded like friggin’ Julia Child, but also you knew why Julia Child sounded that way through that performance. Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain is one I think was in one of the very first videos because there’s something so – it’s great work. It’s super accurate. It’s super particular and textured and detailed, but it also feels like it’s that guy and it’s a reflection of that guy. The tightness and twistedness of the oral posture worked for the accent. It felt like a real person, but it also felt like a reflection of his tortured soul. Idris Elba, I think, justly, again, praised and famous and renowned in his work for The Wire. I love that.
Megan Figueroa: I always forget he’s not American.
Erik Singer: [Imitating Edris Elba’s accent] Not at all. [End accent] But he worked on that for years. It’s not Baltimore specific, so we could even find fault with it because it’s not perfect. It is perfect. What he’s doing is perfect. But it’s not Baltimore; it’s New York. But he worked in restaurants and studied and immersed himself in that accent for years before he got that part. Daniel Kaluuya didn’t have anything like the same sort of prep, but I thought his accent in Get Out was fantastic.
Carrie Gillon: It was really good.
Megan Figueroa: Is there maybe one wrap-up thing – we all have these misconceptions about accents or dialects. What would you hope that someone would walk away from a conversation with you knowing?
Erik Singer: Linguistic relativity – “oral relativity.” Let’s call it “oral relativity.” Just the idea that almost all of us – probably all of us, really – we’re exposed to, maybe were really carried around for a long time, that there’s one version of the language that is right and true and correct or “the main one” is just a complete and utter fallacy – and a really damaging and destructive one at that.
One of the images or mental models that I think is really useful when this comes up is I think a lot of us have or had a mental model of a standard language variety and then non-standard varieties as a central hub and these offshoots that are swirling around. I think there’s a point of starting to get it and starting to think a little bit more progressively about this where you’re like, “Oh, but that’s fine. All those varieties are valid.” I’m like, “Yes, of course they’re valid. But the model’s wrong.” Because that’s not how it works.
Non-standard varieties are not these offshoots of perverse or idiosyncratic like, “We’re gonna make our own thing.” It’s just parallel minds. It’s just parallel streams down throughout history that interweave, and connect, and they come into contact, and they veer apart. Chaucer alternated back and forth between “aks” and “ask.” That “aks” form has probably been in the language longer than “ask.”
The reason why “ask” ended up being the standard one is pure fucking accident. The people in and around London when the money and the power started to cohere in and around London happened to have settled on the “ask” form. That became a thing. But “aks” has been around just as long – coming down in these parallel streams. So, to say that it is somehow wrong, bad, lazy, incorrect, inferior, it doesn’t make sense, illogical – all of these things that people say is not just wrong in the sense of like, “Oh, all varieties should be equal,” but just, no. Flat out no. That’d be the main thing.
Megan Figueroa: That’s a perfect main thing. I hope people walk away from conversations with me knowing that as well – and the podcast. That’s we’re –
Erik Singer: That’s what the whole podcast is about, right.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Yep, absolutely. And also, we don’t want people to be assholes.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.
Erik Singer: That is so much pithier than anything I said. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Thank you so much for coming on. This was amazing.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you.
Erik Singer: Thank you so much, guys. It was great to be here.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com.