The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain…

by Translation Guy on April 7, 2010

This weekend I had a few drinks with Paul Thompson, a film professor at NYU and noted Brit playwright. Well, more than a few actually, since I basically sat next to the swan pond all weekend long, scattering the grounds with fallen soldiers of white wine bottles, while supporting Paul in his effort to read through six scripts over the weekend ― so we covered a lot of ground, including dialect and all its various meanings.

My family and I had joined Paul and Veronique (a French-born internationalist and TV production-type heavy hitter, who seems to have settled on a charming Australian accent for whatever reason) at a place they had for the weekend in a posh corner of the Garden State. We went along so that we could let our daughter go and keep their daughter company on Easter weekend whilst their parents sunned by the swan pond.

Paul has a great take on American actors doing a British accent, which sounds like an extreme version of that old Boston accent gag, “I pahked my cah in havahd squah.” I fancy I can tell the difference between all those British accents, with all their regional and class markers. For example, I am driven nuts by the current talent we use for the voice prompts on a phone system, since it sounds like some kind of bounder or poser.  Just off, not sure why. We’ve got to get Colette back into the studio again, since I much prefer the dulcet tones of what I hear as something just short of the plummy tones of “Received English” (the “Queen’s English” of what we Yanks think of when we try on our own mock “jolly-good” English accents). So does Colette speak advanced received English, or something else, I don’t know? I’ll have to get her to comment.

Why the British accent on our phone system? We thought it would help us sound international. Renato Benninato, who consulted on sales for us when he was with Common Sense Advisory, always said that “accent equals access,” maintaining that a young woman speaking with a foreign accent will make more connects and get more meetings more easily than the fog-horned, rapid-fire patter of a guy like, say, me.

Personally, I try to speak standard, but my demeanor is such a ridiculous caricature of a pushy New Yorker that I can’t pretend to be other than what I am. I had a saleswoman once who actually took diction to shed the flat, nasally tones of her outer borough birthright; Queens English apparently carrying less cachet than the Queen’s English.

Roger, my friend and neighbor, is the last person I know who speaks that lovely upper class New York dialect which you hardly ever hear anymore, except in Betty Davis movies or anything with Kitty Carlisle (What’s my line?). I’d love to be able to do that. Or better yet, the 1850s working class accent used by Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York.” At first listen, it sounds really odd, but ancient and correct too, or at least it did to my ear. Apparently, Day-Lewis got hold of an old wax cylinder that Thomas Edison had used to record Walt Whitman, who hailed from Brooklyn and had an interest in the rough trade offered by the Bowery Boys and the soap lock set back in the good old days.

So if the accent can be mastered, then we can own the role and all the benefits that occur thru cast and class. But woe to any who are found out. That’s the kind of exposure and humiliation every bounder must fear.

Meanwhile, back at the swan pond, we had two 15-year olds bent on their own nefarious purposes, speaking in a fake hillbilly accent, which seemed to involve ending every sentence with “born and raised” (which surprisingly worked pretty well).

Love to hear from any Brits on what is wrong with our voice prompt talent, and from others with stories to tell of fake accents.


  1. Rina Ne'eman says:

    Love this line: “Queens English apparently carrying less cachet than the Queen’s English.” Stellar.

  2. Ryley says:

    Dialects Of New York archive

  3. Dallas Texas says:

    I was a student of Thompson’s at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU – great teacher and a very talented man :-)

  4. YellowTail says:

    I like the British accent piece. That reminds me, why do all the evil people in Star Wars have a British accent?

  5. Franco says:

    The British people are descendants of the Sith, who left the galaxy far far away, a long long time ago to colonise Earth and early Mediocre Britain. By 3059, they had built their own Death Star. It was much smaller, looked like a Boeing 747, and was made out of Monocle Polish, powered by an all hamster engine. In 3063 the Death Star encountered a worm hole that sent it back to a long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. It blew up because an asteroid got sucked into one of the hamster engines and destroyed their treadmills, but the British people used escape pods to land on a nearby planet.

  6. Dorina says:

    Love the answer! LOLOLOLOL!

  7. Why don’t we all learn how to speak with a British accent? The best thing of course, would be to move to the UK, but if not, remember to practice daily, or as often as you cam, watch the Holy Grail, learn the slang (again Monte Python) and try NOT to speak posh (damn I hate that spice girl), as this is stereotypical and not so common – cheers blokes!

  8. Simone says:

    Watch Coronation Street religiously for the great Manchester accent 😉

  9. Jill Larks says:

    When one thinks of New York dialects, one probably thinks of the quintessential Brooklyn accent where “bird” is pronounced “boyd,” etc. However, because New York is such a melting pot of cultures, there are quite a few different New York dialects, from the traditional Brooklyn accent, to the Polish accent, to the Russian accent, to my favorite, the Chinese ‘New Yoker’!

  10. Sandy says:

    Yes, watch major amounts of Monty Python (Cockney accent and various others)! But also subscribe to BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

  11. Tyril Jones says:

    Don’t follwo this silly advixe as you will sound like a Frankenstein of 10 different British accents…Stick with one dialect also. If you try more than one dialect, you will sound slightly strange. Also, you will not make it even the slightest bit believable if you cannot stick with only one dialect.

  12. Carly says:

    Don’t use typical “yank” words like “soccer”!

  13. Michael says:

    Did you know that most professional actors do not claim to be skilled in “New York dialects” but instead claim to know specific New York dialects, such as the Brooklyn New York dialect or the Russian New York dialect…great post Ken!

  14. Nortelite says:

    Try learning the New York accent! Spend some time in the various regions of New York City and you will pick up on a lot of the various New York dialects just by listening. Nevertheless, you will not be able to pick up all the different nuances of the New York dialects without some kind of formal instruction.

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