How To Talk American

 

Canadian voice-over talent like myself have an interesting and unusual challenge which presents itself, especially when — as mine is — your focus is on building an American clientele.

There are certain tell-tale words and cadences which give us away when we attempt to “fit in” and make our “Canadian accents” neutral (and ultimately a non-issue) — most of us know about modifying words like “project” and “process” to sound less “Canadian” (saying “PRAW-ject” and “PRAW-cess” — as opposed to saying more of a “pro” sound fits in better with American clients) — but it led me wonder if there were other hard-and-fast rules which would allow for voice talent to make  the adjustment and “acclimatize” better while voicing American projects. Another word which comes up often in scripts is “data” (DAY-tuh is more American than “DATT-ta.”)

No sooner had I rolled that idea around in my head as possible blog topic, when I met a fascinating speech-language pathologist at a party of mutual friends of ours — Lisa Bjerke — who runs a company called Accent On Canadian English (www.accentoncanadianenglish.com) and I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed for this article. (And believe me: nothing makes me smarten up and enunciate like meeting a speech pathologist. Like chatting with a dental hygienist and fighting the urge to fish for floss in my handbag.)

She had some great additions to the list of words which benefits from a consistent “American treatment”:  borrowed words such as drama, Mazda, pasta, and plaza tend to be pronounced “the Canadian way” with an “a” as in “hat”, and in the “American way” as “a” as in “hot”. (I have a close friend from the US who is driven crazy when the suggestion of “PASTa” comes up, as opposed to “PAHS-ta”.)

“The prefix ‘i’ such as anti, and semi ,” continues Lisa, “Is typically pronounced as “ee” by Canadians and “eye” by Americans.” Similarly, “The ‘ile’ suffix is most often pronounced as “aisle” by Canadians, and “ul” by Americans in words such as ‘fragile’ ‘versatile‘, mobile’, ‘hostile‘”, adds Lisa. She also points out the characteristic American pronunciation of “roof” with the vowel in “put”, where Canadians tend to say “ew” as in “pool”.

She further deconstructs the difference in cadence between speakers of the two nations: “Canadians produce two vowel sounds in a more “clipped” manner than our American neighbors: the two vowel sounds are ‘i‘ as in ‘wide’ and ‘ow’ and in ‘cow’. In Canadian English, pronunciation varies depending on whether a voiceless or voiced sound follows the vowel sound. This phenomenon is known as “Canadian Raising,” she explains, further illustrating: “Say the words ‘right’ and ‘ride’, and ‘house’ and ‘houses’ out loud. The vowels in these words are slightly different for Canadians but not for Americans. For Canadians, the tongue is raised to a more central position in the mouth for the two vowel sounds mentioned when they are followed by a voiceless sound such as /t/ or /s/.” (Try it! It really works! Talk about a party trick!)

I brought up a predicament which Ms. Bjerke found interesting: when I’m asked to voice in a British accent (frequently — in fact, I’ve blogged before in this space about how “Jane”, my British alter-ego — sometimes snags more work than I do..) — quite often the scripting is at odds with the accent. The client (usually American; and is wishing to create an upscale, erudite image by using an English accented-announcer..) will insist that I say words like “controversy” as “CON-tro-VER-sy”, as opposed to the more authentic British “con-TROV-ersy.” I should be saying “IN-quiry” (British) as opposed to “in-QUIRE-ry” (American).  Lisa addressed that by explaining: “accents are comprised of two main aspects: segmentals which are the individual vowel and consonant sounds and the supersegmentals which are the unique stress and intonation patterns of the language.” Her advice was actually my default way of dealing with the problem of script battling the accent: I may have to do it in an ‘un-authentic’ manner to please the public.” And to always keep in mind who the audience is.

I couldn’t resist imparting my story to Lisa about the Realtor from Georgia for whom I used to voice “talking house” real estate listings: she called me one morning with a note about a redo that needing doing: “Hon”, she drawled, “It’s pronounced ‘foy-YUR’….you said ‘foy-YAY.” My skin crawled, and so did Lisa’s: the word “foyer” has French roots, and while I’m not a Francophone-type-Canadian, I do my best to defer to the rightful roots of a word. Grudgingly, I gave her the pronunciation she was after — but I wasn’t happy about it. (Another one I’m frequently “pulled over” for is the pronunciation of the word “Sorry” — it should almost sound more like the East-Indian Garment (“Sari”) in American scripts than the Canadian “SORE-ry” (and we known as an overly apologetic people. You would think we need little coaching on *that* word.)

Lisa spent American Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, and was stricken — even herself being a speech pathologist —  at how our brains perceive the differences in accents, even with the vowels “a” in “hat” and “a’ in “hot” being delivered in a millisecond — the differences are appreciable and distinct.

Thanks for reading (and for sticking with me while the blog went on a slight hiatus for Christmas) — I’ll be back next week, where I’ll explore “trends” in commercial voice-over  — and speculate on why we still hear styles which are decidedly outdated.

Feel free to comment!

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9 Comments »

  1. joat Said:

    Ms. Bjerke’s job sounds like an interesting one, though it’s probably one she has to pursue constantly. I imagine that it can also be quite frustrating.

    With some of the example words, there’s a bit more nuance to them. In a single area, “hostile” (ul-sound) is an adjective, while “hostile” (aisle-sound) is a noun and can be plural. Switch to a different section of the country and the “H” is silent. In another area, the “T” is almost silent. In yet another area, it’s a “aw” sound, vice the “ul” sound.

    I’ll bet Ms. Bjerke also has a lot of fun with U.S. dialects, which are sometimes geographically-based and others are vocationally-based. One word can mean a lot of things: “grinder” indicate a machine, a place to park cars, or a sandwich. Alternately, many words can indicate a single item: “grinder”, “hoagie”, and “sub” can all indicate a sandwich.

    Further still, a single word can have multiple pronunciations, to transmit other information (such as a demographic). “Bro”, “bra”, “brudda”, “brutha”, or “brother” all indicate a familial or social relationship.

    All in all, I think you’re worrying about something on which you needn’t spend much time. We all still know that “you’re not from around these parts”. You still have a voice/pronunciation that’s professional and easy on the ears.

    That, and you play nicely with us geeks. (heh)

    • voicegal Said:

      Thanks, Joat! I couldn’t do what I do without the support of the “geekosystem”! I didn’t include it in the article, but Ms. Bjerke also added that a lot of Canadians work as new anchors in the US — again; that neutrality of the Canadian accent –unless you’re talking about the Maritimes. All bets are off there!

  2. John Ervin Said:

    There really are geographical differences. I found myself using what you called Canadian pronunciations for about half of the words you mentioned. I love noticing geographical differences in pronunciation or terminology. I was confused when I noticed that my friends from Ohio were saying “please” when they didn’t understand what I’d said and wanted me to repeat it. And I was actually amazed once while in Canada to hear a commercial where Mazda was pronounced “Mazzda”. I find myself pronouncing anti both ways, I normally say Datta rather than Dayta unless I’m watching Star Trek. (Commander Data). I think that we in Florida get subjected to so many different pronunciations that we are sort of forgiving.

    • voicegal Said:

      Good point, John — Florida definitely has a wider variety of accents/intonations/cadences than other places. What I’ve never gotten used to is when “uh-huh” is used as an ending to phone conversation…! (primarily in the South….)

      • John Ervin Said:

        Uh-huh

      • John Ervin Said:

        Actually, I tend to say OK or bye at the end of a phone conversation.

        I got funny looks in England when I used the word Okay.

  3. Mark Said:

    As an Australian who lived in Calgary for 18 months (and a friend of Lisa’s) I found the accents very interesting. Before spending any time in North America I always thought that Canadian and American accents in the most part were almost the same. I soon found out that I was wrong, and I also soon found out how different my accent was to 99.99% of Canadians. One of the most interesting differences from my perspective was that words that we pronounced in exactly the same way were pronounced differently over there – E.G. The words “Shaw”, “sure” and “shore” are all pronounced the same here in Oz, but very differently over there. It took me a while to adjust, but eventually I worked out it was much easier to say words in the local way and have people understand me, than to persist in my Aussie drawl and confuse the hell out of people. I know I gave Lisa many hours of amusement as she tried to tell me I had the emphasis on the wrong syllables, and when we first came back home it was hilarious to hear what an Australian sounds like after very little exposure for so long, but I’m sure I’ve now reverted to type and again sound like Steve Irwin – “Struth”!

    • voicegal Said:

      Mark —

      Right you are! And I’ll tell you –I meet Aussies & Kiwis at Telephony conventions all the time, who wish I could nail their respective accents and voice telphone systems with a “native” cadence — those are accents I wouldn’t even attempt….! The intonations are so very specific; you have sounds which are exclusive to your region, and it would be a dismal failure to even attempt to take on that accent. And criminal for you to tone it down!

  4. John Ervin Said:

    Well, I read books and for the most part, everybody has the same accents in books. When I read Harry Potter, they all have american accents (in my head).


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