I’ve been watching an increasingly wonderful selection of BBC period dramas and comedies on PBS, some repeats of 20th century programs such as “All Creatures Great and Small” and others that are new–”Call the Midwife” [below, right] for example. Whether it’s the 85 year old pig farmer in an episode of the former or, in the latter, some of the patients in a depiction of London’s East End in the 1950s, I have a terrible if not impossible time understanding them. [In no way does this fact diminish my enjoyment of the programs.]
I always thought that I should be good at deciphering what people speaking English with various accents had to say as I grew up with my father’s French one. Not so. Similarly, someone from across the pond might need to strain to catch the meaning of quickly articulated Brooklyn or southern American accents.
I’ll be curious whether we’ll pick up some of the language from these imported shows. I recently discovered British comedy “The Cafe,” also on PBS, where characters repeatedly say “laters,” instead of “see you later.”
I read with interest Sue Shellenbarger’s Wall Street Journal article “Is This How You Really Talk?” which while about voice, not accent, nevertheless covers what comes out of a mouth. I’ve previously written extensively about those that irritate me in “Service of Voice,” focusing most on the little girl high pitch some mature women hold on to–in hopes of appearing young perhaps? Shellenbarger, who calls it “the immature voice,” notes, “The problem often starts in puberty and is usually treatable in voice therapy.” Who knew? I always thought it was treatable by not speaking like that anymore.
Wrote Shellenbarger, “A strong, smooth voice can enhance your chances of rising to CEO. And a nasal whine, a raspy tone or strident volume can drive colleagues to distraction. ‘People may be tempted to say, ‘Would you shut up?’ But they dance around the issue because they don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings,’ says Phyllis Hartman, an Ingomar, Pa., human-resources consultant.”
The reporter continued, “The sound of a speaker’s voice matters twice as much as the content of the message, according to a study last year of 120 executives’ speeches by Quantified Impressions, an Austin, Texas, communications analytics company.”
Who needs studies to prove this? Even fiction supports the study. The nasal New York accent of Fran Drescher [right] as Fran Fine in “The Nanny” [1993-1999], the TV program she created, compared to her boss’s English one, was the most obvious element of the comedy. While Miss Fine was depicted as smarter than the Mr. Sheffield character, he was the billionaire, she the servant.
Shellenbarger writes that people with distractingly irritating voices are unaware. I wonder if all their parents were deaf? My father, no speech therapist, rid me of a violent case of the “um’s” by pointing out each time I said it until I caught it myself.
One fun way to help children hear how they speak and learn to achieve a radio quality voice is through Radio Camp, at UnionDocsCenter for Documentary Art in Brooklyn. Staffed by Sally Herships and Ann Heppermann, the website promises: “At Radio Camp kids take the mic to document the people, places and things around them, all while exploring the key ingredients of great storytelling.” Herships is an award winning journalist who has produced or reported for BBC World Service, NPR, WNYC, The New York Times and Studio 360. Heppermann has reported and produced shows from This American Life, Radiolab and Marketplace to Studio360.
Do you have tips on how to understand regional English accents? Do you believe that people who screech, whisper, whine, turn statements into questions, speak in a monotone, incessantly repeat “like,” um” and “you know” or boom/lecture are unaware?