Whether you’re trying to figure out how you come across to people or creating a character for the page or stage, one of the key considerations in how they or you communicate is accent & dialect. An audience (reader/audience/colleague/friend etc.) will connect meaning to your natural state and choices based on stereotypes & prejudice, and contrary to the negativity of those words, it’s perfectly natural and can work to huge advantage. I spent time trying to “get rid” of a slightly working class, midland based mode of speech until I realised that no one way is better than another. As always though, this is context dependent and a little adaptability is the quickest route to success. Think about your accent and dialect, take control of it and understand its meaning and you can have a huge amount of sway in how people view you or your characters.
Accent is sound, dialect is words
The difference between accent and dialect is simple: accent refers to the way that words are said, whereas dialect refers to the words used. To-may-toh and tom-arh-toh vary in accent, whereas pavement and sidewalk are different words for the same thing, in the same language. Actors, writers and anyone interested in how they come across should know the difference because a common mistake made is that people use accents, but give themselves away when they use the wrong word. For writers it might be the opposite way round, where they try to hard to get the accent on the page but fail to note they can be more readable with a few better word choices. If you are the sort of person that adopts the accent of others easily and naturally in conversation (common with empathetic people and those with good natural skills in getting close to others), then this can be worth remembering. Incidentally this is a highly effective way of getting people to trust you, but the effect must be subtle otherwise it sounds like parody or mocking.
Do you think its a coincidence that so many call centres are based in the North-East of England?
On entering stage school, the first thing that actors sometimes hear is that they need to lose their accent. People come from all over the country with a range of inflections, words, musicality and pronunciation and it’s a wonderful way of celebrating diversity and discovering the magic and range of language within a language. The problem is one of good old-fashioned snobbery which may not be right, but it is practical. Extensive studies have shown that dialect and accent can seriously affect the opinion that others hold about us, and the reactions tend to be uniform. Think of the Birmingham accent for example and form a simple character based on your assumptions. What about people from Liverpool? Glasgow? Do you think it’s a coincidence that so many call centres are based in the North-East of England? Do you admit to losing confidence in the company’s ability to solve your complaint if you hear an Indian accent? Don’t feel bad, it’s a side effect of being human but you can work on it. Next time you listen to an actor like Anthony Hopkins speak, note the gentle tones of his drama school training mixing with the musicality of his Welsh upbringing. If you have a regional dialect it CAN be used to advantage, or it can be left to hinder you in places. Work on clarity and pace to smooth out any rough edges and you’ll find that people will respond differently to you when you travel (or live elsewhere). A really useful tip if you want to practice an accent is to find a video of people speaking and watch it with the sound off. This will allow you to concentrate on the mechanics of the sounds they are producing.
So whether its on the page, on the stage or on a rainy Tuesday in your office, you can harness the power of accents and dialect with a little self-exploration, thought and practice.