Language Matters August 2006: Accents

Dear Language Friend,

Welcome to our August issue on the WHERE, WHAT, HOW, and WHO of languages. We will discuss WHERE various English accents come from and WHAT is an accent. Then I’ll give you a few tips on HOW to play the accent game and WHO you can choose for foreign language voiceovers.

Lenka de Graafova, Managing Director. Thanks for reading.

Accents and History

“In Canada we have enough to do keeping up with two spoken languages without trying to invent slang, so we just go right ahead and use English for literature, Scotch for sermons and American for conversation.” Stephen Leacock (1869-1944)

Since Canada is a very multicultural country, we hear many different accents around us every day. But how have different accents of English actually developed? What are the ‘Standard’ accents? For answers on these and many other questions regarding varieties, dialects and accents of English, I consulted In short, here are some basic facts:

British English: It all began in England, of course. In the later period of Middle Ages, London became the center of administration and commerce and the dialect spoken there developed into Standard English. The accent used in Standard English is labeled as The Received Pronunciation (RP) or BBC English and it is no longer appropriate to call it the Queen’s English since the Queen speaks a slightly archaic version.

American English: English was introduced to the Americas by British colonists in the 16th century. Subsequently, the settlers from the Eastern U.S. brought their accent to the Western Territories where it was mixed and leveled. In the course of 400 years, the language and accent diverged from the Queen’s English and ultimately became a fairly uniform General American accent. It also tends to be called Standard Midwestern.

Canadian English: The first English-speaking settlement in Ontario was established by The Hudson’s Bay Company in Moose Factory, an unincorporated island community. Canadian English is a mixture of British and American dialects with the pronunciation and accent being very similar to that of the United States. It is believed that media have an enormous influence on the Canadian accent, which is continuously being Americanized. However, Canada still shares similarities with British English pronouncing words like fragile, fertile and mobile the British way while the words like semi and anti do not seem to decide which turn to take.

Recordings of Accents:

Accents and Attitudes

So what is actually an accent?

The official linguistics definition states that accent is a pronunciation characteristic of a particular group of people relative to another group. An accent may be associated with the region in which its speakers reside, the socio-economic status of its speakers, their ethnicity or social class.

A foreign accent is one that marks someone as a non-native speaker of a language. It arises when the phonology of the native language influences his pronunciation of a second language.

As mentioned before, Canadians are virtually surrounded by foreign accents. Have accents become a natural part of the Canadian society and what are the attitudes towards various accents?

Recently, I listened to an interesting program on the radio. A German native speaker was interviewing Vancouverites to find out what they like or dislike about the German accent and to hear their attitudes towards accents in general.

The answers were very interesting: They ranged from people being very enthusiastic about accents because they bring enrichment to the society, evoke a genuine interest in the foreign accent person and motivate people to find out about new cultures. Some very enthusiastic responders actually tagged foreign accents sexy or exotic sounding.

On the other hand, concerns were raised regarding the fact that people speaking with a foreign accent might have less job opportunities, difficulties at communication in professional life or even suffer the risk of being considered of a lower IQ if their accent is not up to the general standard.

How to Play the Accent Game

Have you ever played the game of guessing where people come from by analyzing their appearance and accent? If you did, you might have found it fun. If you didn’t, give it a try:

  • Your Subject: Identify your subject in the crowd.
  • Location: Your subject can be found at a festival packed with an international audience, a foreign language speaking couple hiking up the Grouse Grind, a group of Latinos on a bus or a unidentifiable foreign looking individual at your local market. Especially in Vancouver, the opportunities are endless.
  • Appearance: Scan him or her from the top of the head to the toes and guess his country of origin. Many times, long stripy stockings will undoubtedly make you think of Japan, round faces of Eastern Europe and sun-bleached blond hair of Sweden. But don’t be misled by the first glance and keep looking for more clues to find the definite and correct answer.
  • Accent: Sneakily and unnoticeably approach your subject in the crowd or tune your ears in. Carefully listen to the conversation your subject is having with his friends and get your appearance theory confirmed or turned down.

You are the Winner! If you have guessed the accent or the native language of your subject correctly, pat yourself on the shoulder and tell your friend: “I told you they were German!”. If you didn’t get it quite right, and you’re feeling adventurous, friendly ask your subject to share his secret with you. The foreigners will likely want to practice their English with you. If personal questions and approach scare you, just find another subject. You’re a winner in any game as this is just done for laughs!

Accents in Commercial Voiceovers

You have undoubtedly come across accents in your personal life. You might work with colleagues who speak with a French, Spanish or Chinese accent in English. But let’s leave the foreign accents in English behind and take a look at accents in a particular language. You might be able to hear the differences between the French and Quebecois accent in French, but how different is actually European Portuguese from the Brazilian one? Have you ever witnessed the particular Argentinean accent that is much different from its Mexican Spanish counterpart?

Regional accent varieties become important when voiceovers are recorded. A voice-over is the voice of an unseen narrator in a movie, game or television broadcast.

At LingoStar, we handle voiceover recordings in most languages and accents. We act as a one-stop-shop for both translation and voiceovers. Our voiceover talents are native speakers of the language our clients wish to record and they speak with just the correct accent.

In order to create successful instructional or marketing video or audio for your company, know your audience. If you are targeting the European market, let us know that you require a native European Spanish voiceover talent. It is also essential that we receive instructions regarding the tone, level of enthusiasm and speed of the audio. The message you are about to convey in your audio, web or TV presentation will be carefully listened to by your audience and it must sound right! We will help you achieve that. For further information on voiceovers, email or call me and we can discuss your project.