Half Sigma was able to pick up on the fact that Anna Torv (the star of “Fringe”) is faking an American accent. I had actually picked up on the fact that her inflections were… odd… but I think I discovered that she was Australian the way that I uncover a lot of foreign actors. Namely I wonder what part of the country they are from because I can’t regionalize the accent and sounds something other than generic.

Some in the comment section have suggested that American accents are easy to fake because they grow up watching a fair number of American TV shows that are sold abroad. I think this is true, but I also think it’s true that there’s more flexibility in the American English idiom than in others. Britain has 60 million on an island. Australia has twenty million or so on an island continent. That’s not to say that there aren’t some regional and class distinctions, but I don’t think they compare to the multitude that come from the 300 million people in the United States accompanied by 30 million in neighboring Canada covering huge swaths of land with large spaces in between.

So for instance, I went my entire life until I moved to Arapaho without hearing (or noticing that I am hearing) the words bag and flag rhyme with “vague” despite knowing vaguely (no pun intended) that some people pronounce it that way. There are a lot of ways you can sound a little off-normal and people still kind of shrug it off as not-odd because we’re used to significant degrees of variation. Compare this variation to the relative lack of variation in the south, and it’s much, much easier to point out a bad southern accent (to those that are familiar with it) compared to a bad American one. That’s not because southern accents are monolithic (says the guy who gets frustrated with accents and says to the TV “people from Georgia do not sound like they are from Texas!”), but because the range is more limited and therefore it’s easier to spot (or hear) an actor who hasn’t nailed it.

Category: Coffeehouse, Theater

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13 Responses to American Accents

  1. Mike Hunt says:

    In your mind are “walk” and “wok” homonyms? How about “talk” and “tock”?

    Where I am from, we pronounce “walk” and “talk” as “wawk” and “tawk”. We don’t understand why the old Mike Myers sketch “Coffee Talk” was funny…

  2. trumwill says:

    I don’t intentionally pronounce talk as tock, but I think it usually comes out that way. The parodies, though, often come across as an exaggerated twauk rather than tock.

  3. stone says:

    I could tell she had a non-American accent by the way she kept saying this little “..yah?” at the end of her sentences.

  4. Maria says:

    Practically the entire cast of “True Blood” are non-Americans aping American accents. Anna Pacquin is Kiwi and Stephen Moyer is English. Ryan Kwanten, who plays Anna Pacquin’s brother on the show, is Australian. Alexander Scaarsgard, the blonde vampire, is Swedish. Only the guy who plays the diner owner and the black characters are Americans.

  5. trumwill says:

    One of the black actors from The Wire (also appearing in The Office) was surprisingly British. I never would have picked him out. There was a scene in The Wire where British actor Dominic West had to be an American faking an off-the-mark British accent.

  6. Nanani says:

    Canadians and Americans sound quite different, though of course it depends on WHICH Canadians and Americans.

    Oddly, the American accents closest to Canada seem more different than others from farther away. For example, a Minnesota accent sounds more strikingly American than does a California one.

    Oh and you left out New Zealand.

  7. Maria says:

    I think Hollywood likes to hire foreigners because they are probably cheaper and less demanding. And spend more time developing their talent instead of crusing by on their looks.

    It’s only the native English-speakers who can get away with it, though. (Irish, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, Brits, etc.) I can’t think of a non-native English speaker who can fake an American accent and be convincing. Maybe a Scandinavian or Dutch person, they tend to speak English almost as well as a native English speaker. (Viggo Mortensen doesn’t count — he’s half-American.)

  8. trumwill says:

    Nanani, I left out New Zealand because it’s really hard for me to distinguish between that accent and Australian. Not that I don’t believe that there are differences that people more familiar with each could discern, but if not for the constant reminders that they’re New Zealanders I would have slipped back into thinking that the Conchords were Australian. Probably not all that dissimilar to the way that outsiders don’t know the difference between a Georgian Drawl and a Texan Twang.

    Regarding Canada, I look at it as more of a regional difference (ie Southern vs Bostonian) rather than a truly different style of English (American vs Australian). I could listen without watching (Canadian) Da Vinci’s Inquest, but couldn’t do the same with (Australian) City Homicide, where I have to read lips in addition to hearing them speak to understand them fully.

  9. trumwill says:

    Maria, I don’t think that’s really true about foreign actors and actresses. That they’re cheaper, I mean. Unless you’re a name, American actors are paid squat. I would guess that foreign actors do well here because we get the most skilled and motivated lot. It requires a lot of dedication to be willing to move to the US. I also suspect that there is more likely to be a feeling of entitlement among American actors and so they might not be willing to work as hard.

    As far as non-Anglosphere actors in the US, I think it depends on at what age they were exposed to English. I’ve been surprised here and there to find out that an actor is actually German. I assume that they (like most immigrant actors, probably) had wealthy parents that exposed them to English very early.

  10. Maria says:

    hi Will — Re: Scandinavians: English has practically overtaken much of Scandinavia, and they are actually afraid of losing their native language to English dominance. The Germans are a bit more resistant to English, but then there are a lot more of them than Scandinavians.

  11. LS says:

    There are variations of Southern accents; I think it just takes time to become accustomed to telling them apart. A south Georgia accent stands out to someone in north Georgia, especially if they are female.
    Alabama’s is slightly different. And Tennessee’s is different still.
    Very difficult to describe, but easy to pick out once you can hear them.
    BTW nothing chaps me more than hearing some fake TV southern accent. They stand out the most.

  12. Maria says:

    BTW nothing chaps me more than hearing some fake TV southern accent. They stand out the most.

    Yeah, I hate that fake “honeychile” accent too. Totally inaccurate. OTOH, I can’t stand Julia Roberts’ native Georgia peach accent, because she never bothers to drop it no matter what role she’s playing.

    I can pick out a Deep South accent from an upper South One, as well as a Tidewater accent. But that’s about it.

  13. CSPB says:

    Most people think there is just one Minnesota accent, but there are remarkable differences between Southern Minnesota (German), North Western Minnesota (Scanandavian), Iron Range, and the Twin Cities.

    I would guess that there are distinctive differences in enclaves of populations throughouth the US. The ethnic group that settled the area, the historical primary industry, and the extent that certain areas are not very transient, all serve to preserve the differences.

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