DIALECTS:TAWKIN' THE TAWK

By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer 

Theatrical dialect coaches believe that in the actor’s creation of the character, the talk has to precede the walk—or, if you’re a Jersey Boy, the “tawk” precedes the “wawk--especially if you’re going to sing a “sawng.”  And that means you need a dialect coach.

Dialect coaches are like Henry Higgins, the phonetics professor from Shaw’s Pygmalion and, later, Lerner and Loewes’ My Fair Lady. They can tell where you’re from at the drop of a consonant.

Jersey Boys, the popular musical about Frankie Valli and his guy group The Four Seasons, has been workin’ its way back to us, babe, on national tour, and opens tonight at the Forrest Theatre.  And the Jersey boys have to sound Jersey—especially so close to home--so they called in Stephen Gabis, a dialect coach, whose job is to make these actors sound like the real deal. 

Talking to Gabis on the phone was entertaining but unprintable: he quoted big chunks of dialogue from the various Broadway shows and Hollywood movies he’s worked on, speaking all the lines in different dialects, nimbly switching from Irish to South African to New York. But unless I were to write this article entirely in phonetics, I can’t figure out a way to tell you most of what he said.

This left me with his mention of the basic linguistic terms “rhotic” and “non-rhotic” which refer to the difference between saying your “r”s or not: “butter” and “buttah.”  In the 18th century, the British started dropping their ‘r’s, and that migrated to America, and that led to “New Yawk.”  And New Yawkers migrated across the river to New Jersey, and that led to Frankie Valli.

Marcia Hepps came to my rescue: Hepps is an actor and local dialect coach. She is also a professor at the University of the Arts, where she teaches dialects to student actors, and as a teacher, knew how to explain to me what was what. Here’s what I learned:

An accent is the way someone speaks a language not their own (a Frenchman speaking English with a French accent), while dialect is the way someone speaks their native language.

Everybody, Hepps says, has a dialect, although everybody thinks they don’t; infants are born with a dialect, and toddlers will always respond to a stranger who speaks with their dialect as opposed to one who does not: linguistics is tribal.  Babies cry in dialect: a French child’s crying is discernably different from an English child’s.  The ear acclimates in the womb.

If an actor grew up watching “Rocky and Bullwinkle” the Russian accent will be easy; if the actor grew up watching “Bugs Bunny,” Brooklynese will be easy. If you didn’t grow up trilling your r’s, Scottish and Spanish will be harder to learn.  One of her lessons is variatioins on “vampire dialect”—the difference between Bela Lugosi and the Count on Sesame Street.

Dialects and accents depend on where the voice is placed in the mouth. The Jersey dialect is spoken right at the back of the front teeth, while the Russian accent is furthest back, almost at the jawline, and the Irish is as far forward as possible, almost like blowing out a candle.

There are “cool” dialects: in the 1980s, it was Valley Girl and Surfer Dude; then it became hip-hop; students now say the new dialect is “text”(!). In England, Gabis told me, young people tried to sound like the Beatles (the Liverpudlian dialect is called Scouse), but now they want to sound Australian.

Hepps laments that so many dialects are being lost as the world becomes more global and as the media erase linguistic origins.  “R.P.,” short for “received pronunciation” in the U.K. is a standardized English which nobody except actors speak, just as in the U.S., “GenAm” – General American—is a homogeneous, poshed-up version of mid-west/East coast English. In other words, the dialect of noplace.

And while we’re talking acronyms, there’s “O.P.”= Original Pronunciation.

A recent book by David Crystal called Pronouncing Shakespeare explains  that for Shakespeare “love” and “prove” rhymed, significantly altering the rhythm of the plays. And apparently Shakespeare’s English was much closer to the English now spoken in Appalachia than in the palace.

Like a latter day Henry Higgins, Princess Diana knew that dialect was the key to how people responded to you, especially in England, and her great project was to teach underprivileged children to speak a cross between R.P. and cockney, what we would call “street”; this amalgam is now known as Thames Estuary, referring the outer reaches of London defined by the river.

It’s not just where and into what economic bracket you were born that determines your dialect, but how you identify.  There is nothing politically correct about dialect, Hepps noted: “it’s all stereotype.” This can make dialect coaching controversial, as, for example, the “gay” dialect (with its sibilant s). There are “stupid people” dialects: in America it’s Deep South, in England it’s Scottish.

The dialect coach, Hepps says, is like the lighting designer: the work should  not call attention to itself, but become “part of the fabric” of the show. (Consider, for example, on TV’s The Good Wife, how completely like a New York Jew Alan Cumming sounds, while his natural speech is deeply, nearly impenetrably Scots.)

So the next time you “pahk your cah in Hahvahd Yahd,” you’ll know where you are. Or, if you’re from Jersey, where you’re at.

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