The Accent is the Thing

The stuff of Arthurian legend.

Miles run today: 4.5

Words written in my novel so far: 27,262

Accents employed in the novel I’m reading to the kids: at least 12

My parents bought me a tape recorder for my 10th birthday.

I remember the moment I got it: we were sitting in the dining room, eating birthday cake, and when I opened it up, my mom told me to hit “Play.” She was singing Happy Birthday to me on the tape.

I had one blank tape and rewinded it and recorded over it millions of times. Once, when the tape got tangled and mangled, I brought it in to the summer day care camp counselor, and she used her abnormally long fingernails to fix it for me.

My tape recorder was the ticket to fun. My friends and I would do nonhumorous comedy skits with characters like Malter Tondike and Baba Wawa doing news stories. We would go to the wood floors of my foyer and use a high heel shoe to mimic the sounds of someone walking, then incorporate those sounds into a raucous commercial for Fantastic Shoes, complete with a jingle exactly as lame as the jingles used in real commercials. We were certain we would be hired to write jingles as adults. And sing them, too.

But the one thing I could never do was accents. This made me very sad.

I realize now that the reason I could never do accents was that I didn’t know anyone who had an accent much different from ours.

Sure, there were our friends, the Italian New York transplants across the street… they said things like “Shut the lights” when everyone in Atlanta knew that we turned off the lights. They made exotic things like lentil pasta and chocolate pudding cake and had their very own pool.

Their accents were about as exotic as it got.

But as I got older, you may be shocked to hear that I met people with different accents. I loved them. I especially loved how these people from far-flung places like Germany and South Africa and Alabama didn’t even have to contort their mouths to make very different sounds come out.

And then I met my future husband. He was from England, and we all know how English accents can make people sound smart.

To this day, I cannot mimic his accent. His has become bastardized by the Southern American accent, and the blend of the two is too complicated.

But I realized that I could pretend I had cotton balls in my mouth, or marbles, and approximate a posh London accent. Or rough it up and sound like I had lived life on the mean streets, looting and pillaging and rooting for Manchester United.

We got to know some people with Latin American accents, and all of a sudden, I had an Antonio Banderas vibe.

I mimicked California surfer dudes and Russian diplomats and yet had to ask my husband to translate for me when we watched “Trainspotting.” But overall, I started to get the hang of listening and approximating.

When our kids were born, and we started reading to them, cowboys took on a Midwestern/Texas twang, and the Country Bunny with the Little Gold Shoes spoke with a South Carolina-smooth voice.

We used to take turns reading to the kids, but once we got into the Harry Potter series, a.) my husband kept getting horizontal and falling asleep in the middle of chapters and b.) the kids decided he didn’t do a satisfactory English accent.

1.) In case you’ve missed it, Harry Potter and his friends are English.

2.) My husband is English.

3.) My husband was not up to the challenge of speaking with an English accent. He is a bit miffed about it to this day.

So it’s up to me to make all of the villains English, harsh and imperious, and the poor protagonists gentle and Southern. You might call it brainwashing.

Unfortunately, I fall into the trap of making the leaders in Insurgent English, smart and in-control, and everyone else pretty basic. No matter that the whole thing takes place in future Chicago. Four/Tobias is the owner of a deep, gravelly voice and no particular accent, not even a Chicago one.

When I forget which character has which accent, the kids are so keyed into the plot and the sounds that they get confused.

“Wait a second. Did you say Therese or Evelyn? I think you’re doing the wrong voice,” my daughter will say. And then I have to go back to the paragraph before and start over.

Tips for accents: if you want to do a voiceover for something posh American people want… say, a Lexus, or a Mercedes, or really expensive toilet paper… learn a great English accent. You will be rich.

Or if you want to read to your kids, they probably won’t know the difference between a rough English dude and a female Russian spy. But it might help you have more fun at bedtime.

Extra points if you take that little rectangular tape recorder and catch it on tape. Even better: YouTube it for posterity and tell me how to find it. I can always use another good accent.


25 thoughts on “The Accent is the Thing

  1. Just finished Divergent and Insurgent hard on the heels of Hunger Games and now every book I pick up, I read for 5 minutes, think, “BLAH” and put down.
    Hubs lived in Liverpool for 8 months one year, the twins & I visited and LOVED it – one of the secretaries had a scouse accent so strong I could barely understand her but she was so much fun at parties talking in her accent (which, of course, sounded normal to her) and drinking her vodka as she told some story about her hat, Ascot and ‘hen parties’ that all I could do is laugh.

    • annewoodman says:

      The Liverpudlian accent makes me laugh! And I forgot about “hen parties”!!!! So fun.

      Tell me if you find another Hunger Games/Divergent-worthy book. My son is looking for a good one to read (alone). I picked up I Am Number Four and am hoping it will be a good kids’ read.

  2. Andria says:

    I love hearing all different kinds of accents. It’s always a great conversation starter to find out where people are from. I always ask, whether it’s a casual acquaintance, or the clerk at Walmart. People have interesting lives that we never could have imagined.

  3. Daryl says:

    I find it sad that I can do mimic Russian, French, Australian/Kiwi, a few words of South African, Bajan, Irish, Indian, Liverpudlian, speaking backwards, spoonerism (yes, there is actually a word for it) and I cannot for the life of me perfect Scottish (living close to Scotland for 20yrs) OR American (having been here for 17yrs). “Wasup with that? OR should I say, “Maybe it’s because I can’t be bov’erd–no matter, at the end of the day, it’s all swings and roundabouts init!”–doesn’t work too well without the accent.
    And yes, I am still miffed about not performing a Potter worthy accent. All those actors are putting it on anyway.

  4. Melissa says:

    Your husbands accent has changed a great deal over the years. When we met him oh those many years ago, he sounded like a “right proper Brit.” It’s mellowed a bit now.

    We have another British friend who’s accent is so strong, we joke that he needs an interpreter. The man can cuss a blue streak and the only one who understands and fusses at him about it is his wife.

  5. Amy Mak says:

    This is great – my husband can do the best accents including Vietnamese. He had tons of Viet brothers growing up. And the tape recorder? Yes, yes, yes. SO much fun.

    • annewoodman says:

      Funny–my good friend’s husband is half Vietnamese… and my friend can imitate his mom until I am rolling on the floor. So funny and fun!

      I think many of us from the ’80s can remember life before YouTube… the tape recorders were inexpensive hours of fun.

    • Daryl says:

      Maybe he could give me a few pointers, I might be in Ho Chi Minh in the coming months.

  6. Carrie Rubin says:

    That’s so funny about your husband and the Harry Potter reading. My kids would respond the same way, I’m sure.

    I’m not great at accents, but I loved doing different voices for my kids when I used to read to them. I especially had fun using a witch voice. Hmm, what does that say about me? 😉

    • annewoodman says:

      You are so witchy! ; ) Yes, the evil characters are definitely the most fun.

      I never could understand, when the Wicked Witch of the West visited Mr. Rogers, why she said it was fun to play a mean character! I was 4 years old at the time, but whatever. Now I understand. Maybe it helps us work out our daily stressors?

  7. Bernie Brown says:

    I’d like to hear a demonstration of your accents. I’m so hopeless, I’ve never even tried.

  8. robincoyle says:

    My husband recently started saying things like “I’ll do that lahter” and “Spot of tea.” Annoying! He was born and raised in Sacramento! What is with the bad fake English accent?!?!? Please!

  9. jmmcdowell says:

    “a Midwestern/Texas twang”? I must take exception! (good-naturedly, or course!) My northern Illinois family and friends don’t sound anything like Texans! 🙂 True Midwesterners like us have the flattest “accents” around. Things may be changing now, but news anchors were always encouraged to take on that least regional of accents if they wanted a national job!

    Alas, I’m no good at accents either. I love hearing them—which is good since I’m surrounded by them. 🙂 They provide such great inspiration for characters!

    • annewoodman says:

      Ha! You’re right, of course.

      My dad hails from St. Louis and used to have a kind of flat, but nasal sound. One day when I was college-aged, we were on a trip, and he asked me to hand him a “pillah” in the front seat of the car. My sister and I about fell over laughing. WE don’t even say “pillah,” and we’re from the South! I don’t think he could apply for a news anchor job at this point. ; )

  10. 4amWriter says:

    My father and his family are from England. My mother’s family are from Texas. I got both the British and the Southern accents nailed down when I was a kid. I try them out on my kids now, and they look at me kind of funny, like I’m swearing or something.

    Must have lost my touch.

    Even though I grew up in NH, I do not have the “ayuh” accent. I pronounce my R’s, thank you very much. I have such an aversion to the NE accent that I can’t even mimic it.

    • annewoodman says:

      Wow, that’s funny to grow up somewhere and not pick up the accent! I find that sometimes it’s hard to avoid. When I was growing up, there were so many people from up North that I didn’t get much of a Southern accent. When I went away to college, I tried to acquire one! I sound a teensy bit more Southern now.

  11. joshmosey says:

    I picked up a lot from watching the movie “The Saint” with Val Kilmer. And I even had an ex-missionary to Russia say that my Russian accent was quite good. I was flattered.

    • annewoodman says:

      I loved that movie!!!!! Val Kilmer was so fun to watch.

      Nurture your Russian accent. Could come in handy some day, when you’re a super-spy (I always was sad I wasn’t recruited.).

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