Service of Can You Hear Me?

May 2nd, 2013

Categories: Accents, Voice

 Can you hear me

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.]

Call the midwifeI 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.”

Blocking earsI 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.”

Fran FineWho 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?

Say what


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10 Responses to “Service of Can You Hear Me?”

  1. ASK Said:

    I seem to inhabit a “valley girl”-end-the-sentence-on-a-high-note-so-it-sounds-like-a-question-world, and it drives me to distraction. Fran Drescher should have dropped the “nanny” whine a long time ago; what has she done of note since?

    Can’t say I find British TV dramas difficult to comprehend, but there was a Scottish detective series set in Glasgow several years ago that I did have to give up…with the undertones of that staccato brogue, I just kept missing key plot points.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think it’s easy to emulate the accents of people around, for some it’s almost unconscious. I hear adults using the Valley Girl end-every-sentence in a question, many of them having never spent five seconds in LA.

    People don’t incorporate foreign accents in English, but I first noticed how New Yorkers on a PR team with a major Midwestern client tweaked their manner of speech. The changes were subtle.

    As it’s so easy to do, I would think it would be fairly easy to undo.

    As for Fran, I think she’s been very ill and she gained weight. Maybe she made enough money on the show to devote her time to charity. I’ve noticed it’s in reruns.

  3. Hester Craddock Said:

    George Bernard Shaw, when he dreamed up Henry Higgins just over a century ago, was being far more serious, in his Shavian way, than he usually gets credit for. Equally well, languages, and how we use and speak them, are more important and powerful than we sometimes realize. That’s why some of our most successful politicians, from Churchill to Obama, not to speak of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan, took such care with both their words and how their voices sounded to their listeners. They knew.

    David Hackett Fischer’s fairly recently published “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: A Cultural History)” is a modern classic which describes how, even hundreds of years later, skilled researchers analyzing speech patterns and dialects, can identify cultural behavior patterns derived from immigrant groupings that arrived in America centuries ago.

    For example, the compulsion to own, bear and use arms, (and to resist all attempts to establish gun control), comes to us from the late 17th or 18th centuries migration of persecuted Scots/Irish and others from Scotland, Ulster, and England’s northern border counties. These people who deeply mistrusted authority, were neither puritan, certainly not Church of England nor Quaker, and emigrated, some to New England and New York, but mostly to the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, and then moved West across the Appalachians.

    Their 21st century descendants, and ethnically unrelated, often quite dissimilar, adherents, think, act, live and speak much like their 17th century ancestors.

  4. jacqueline Herships Said:

    I, too, struggle to understand accents and brogues, and yet cling to programs I love with ferocious loyalty before I throw in the towel. But then I am the one who sat through a Chinese television show the other night, although it had no subtitles at all, because the visuals were so riveting. I have always been a visual processor – but not of the written word because of what I’ve come to suspect is severe dyslexia. I suppose each of us functions with such a complex array of receptors that in the end we are left with “different strokes for different folks.” But, that’s what makes communicating interesting. At the moment I’m recovering from surgery in a NY rehab and the old BBC series “Monarch of the Glen” is helping me to wile away the hours. It’s about an ancient Scottish family struggling to hold onto its heritage and inheritance. And even though I miss at least half of the dialogue, so far I have refused to give it up. I guess what this says about me is that language or not, as long as I can decode what’s going on, story is everything.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Of course! How Eliza Doolittle’s life changed with her accent.

    As for the history of bearing arms, I’d bet that we’d have a tough time understanding the language spoken in the 17th century just as some of us today have an equally difficult time seeing how the right to bear arms then has the slightest significance or meaning today.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    My goodness Jacqueline,

    Dyslexia or not, your writing is magical. I’ve had friends who are talented interior designers who draw and write beautifully and are superb business people as well. Others have been purely visual and almost inarticulate. I dare say, you must be like the former.

    You are also patient [a pun?]. I used to tell myself to watch Spanish television programs so as to learn the language and I haven’t done it. Watching a Chinese television show, unless it was a ballet, I can’t imagine doing and I admire you. [Could it be the pain killers?]

    Maybe after watching a few more hours of “Monarch” you’ll pick up on the accent. I’m like ASK who gave up on the Scottish detective stories–and I love them.

    Heal well.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    A number of Brits, especially those starring in mysteries on public TV channels, garble, mutter and swallow words and sentences to such an extent that it is nearly impossible to know what is going on. Most of us pick up speech patterns from home and/or friends, or from observant teachers who reel us into to remedial classes which discourage massacre of the language.

    Understanding others does not appear to be a top priority these days, therefore the indistinct actors who excel at a craft which is supposed to be centered upon comprehension. This may also apply to diplomats and various governmental entities locked in a large variety of disputes. Making oneself heard and understood may go a long way towards healing a number of society’s ills.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your comment inspired a thought that some diplomats and government types don’t want to be understood because that way, if criticized, they’d be able to say, “I didn’t way THAT,” or “You misunderstood.”

    But actors are another matter: We are supposed to understand them! As the US increasingly imports great programs from the BBC, greatly increasing the audience, my bet is that the mumblers will not be picked in future.

    Makes me think of opera singers: Even when some sing in English I can’t make out a single word! Our friend Robert Herring sang opera so clearly that you could distinguish every syllable in English or Italian.

  9. BG Said:

    How about the word “basically”? That one kills me. A friend said someone in his office uses it every other word.

  10. BG Said:

    I forgot to note: I was at the Sharon [CT] Shopping center on Friday and I spotted a bumper sticker on a car which featured “Like” in a red and black traffic no access sign.

    A lady was getting into the car so I asked her where she got it.

    She said she and her husband had them printed. She asked me if I knew what it meant. We had a conversation about young people who use the word “like”for every other word.

    She handed me 6 bumperstickers and said to pass them around. I offered to pay her but she would not take any money.

    I placed one on our Toyota and I’m going to stick one on someone’s head when I hear “Like” repeated in a conversation. Just kidding.

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