Alright, so my nature as an audiophile is well known. Music, of course, is one of my passions. Playing, listening, creating, mixing. But beyond music... I just love sound! I'm the kind of geek that thinks sound mixing and Foley arts are fantastic. It's one of those careers that was always in the "if I didn't do this, I'd do that" category. Lately, though, I've been glutting myself on one of my favorite things in the world of sound: accents. The human voice is so versatile and even within English speaking countries you get astounding variety. We all talk about that voice we love. Some people want Morgan Freeman narrating their daily lives because he has one of those voices. It's not just the timbre and pitch, though. It's his personal cadence. The rhythm of his speech and the way he stresses syllables. Voices can be as distinct as a fingerprint. Accents, in my opinion, can be sinfully delicious. Pick up a spoon, because we're about to dine on some of my personal favorites.
Now, I'm an American and I do have a fondness for the many versions of our voice. The New Englanders who "pahk their cahs in Hahvahd Yahd". Texans, the Fargo and (my favorite) the Bayou drawl of Nawlin's. But right now, I'm going to focus on a few from across the pond. (Yes, I've been watching a lot of QI. Leave me alone with my addiction.)
1) Scottish - Who doesn't love a man in a kilt? Aye! We've all heard it and can conjure it in our heads, the Burr. The sound of "If it's not Scot'ish it's Crrrrrrap!" kinda thing. You've probably tried to do one yourself. I'm guessing you were quoting "So I Married An Axe Murderer" at the time. I love a Scottish accent. There are the classics, of course: Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, the delectable David Tennant. But one of my absolute favorite voices from Scotland belongs to Alan Cumming.
He's a self-described Scottish elf and with dimples like those I'd believe it. When he speaks in his natural accent, I just want to serve his voice over ice cream. Just go here and take a listen. I'll wait. See what I mean? It's just that sweet. A lot of his syllables change just because of the shape of his cheeks! It's amazing! The vowels are a bit softer. The Scotsman's burr on the r's is more delicate. The long a's have the dipthong of an e on the end. His voice, like David Tennant's, is a sweet, subtle version of a rough and hairy dialect. Put a cherry on top and serve it up cold.
2) The Geordie - Okay, so this one might be a bit more obscure to some of you, but if you hear one, it will be more familiar to you. A Geordie is specific to the northeastern area of England. It's also called "Tyneside" after the city of Newcastle on Tyne. (There, you've learned something today. Woo!) So yeah, north and east. It's got some of the same flavors as a Scottish accent, but carries its own melody. T's are more glottal, certain r's are not pronounced and the long a dipthong is more prominent. You don't just have a space monkey, you have a "spaece monkeh". It's almost a two syllable vowel! It's lovely. O's change around a bit, too. Some that I'm fond of would be Lee Mack, Sting and Mr. Bean himself Rowan Atkinson. My all around favorite Geordie accent right now belongs to Ross Noble. If you haven't seen him on episodes of QI go look them up, particularly the one in Series I, "Ice" ... also features Brian Blessed. Go now and love it. Anyway, Ross has this spectacular Geordie and it's best captured in the clip above. With a Geordie you don't just "find a face on a muffin", you "find a fayace on a moofin". Fabulous. Unlike Cumming and Tennant, though, the Geordie isn't a dessert accent. No, it's more savory. I'd take a Geordie with a good pint of Strongbow.
3) Flat out British - This is the more common Brit you get from the south of the UK. The kind you hear on most movie villains and such. It's refined with a tighter touch on a short vowel and very deliberate consonants. Take your pick of all those luscious London accents because there are several. Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Fry... the list goes on into perpetuity. One that I'm rather fond of is Jason Carter. He was Marcus Cole on the 90s show Babylon 5. Because he's kinda obscure, it's hard to find a good clip for you, but that link is alright. There's something about this accent though. Classic and tasteful, it's got all the flavors you'd expect from a fine restaurant rather than drive-thru fare. I could listen to Jason Carter read insurance policies because he's just got a lovely cadence. I take this one like a tawny port wine, savoring all the subtle notes before getting drunk off it.
The point is... Now, you might be wondering, what the bloody hell does this have to do with a damn thing, you daft woman! Well! Listening to different accents, finding what it is that makes them musical and pleasant is what you need to do with each of your characters. This goes double if you're an American writer with foreign characters. If you want an authentic character, you have to get into their heads and understand not just what they're saying but the why they choose the words they do. If you want to have dialogue that rings true, you can't just change the spelling to phonetically communicate that accent. Face shapes change the way vowels sound. A glottal consonant changes the rhythm of your speech and might, therefore change your choice of words. It's all connected. Listen to the way people actually speak and your characters will begin to breathe. A word of warning, though.. if you watch a lot of online videos of...say... British television shows and comics, don't be surprised if your internal monologue starts speaking in a Geordie accent and your daughter yells at you for doing funny voices. Just sayin'.
Go forth and play with the way words sound!