How can one IDEA clock a million hits a year?
Paul Meier is not just a Professor of the Theatre Department of the University of Kansas, he is also world famous for dialect coaching for theatre and film. In 1997, Meier founded IDEA, The International Dialects of English Archive, a unique internet site that holds digitized recordings of hundreds of examples of dialects and accents of native English speakers. Meier, the director of IDEA, provides the majority of the voice samples; the example accents he collects are chiefly from Southern England.
Indispensable Actor’s Accent Archive
Why was it so essential to build this unique collection and have a record of different types of accents and dialects? In a conversation with Decoded Science, Meier explained that before he compiled the IDEA database, actors often relied on voice examples of how a certain actor produced a similar accent in a particular movie. “Real life samples, on the global scale, were not instantly available.” This led actors to sometimes producing accents that were a close match but not necessarily truly authentic to the character.
Coaching Actors in Accents and Dialects
So what is so difficult about training someone to speak in a different accent? The number of English accents and dialects is unquantifiable; linguistically speaking there are great differences between a dialect and an accent. Perfecting correct pronunciation is an essential part of an actor’s preparation for a role, since accents and dialects provide geographical and social information about the speaker.
In spoken language, pronunciation is the most noticeable linguistic feature, and perfection is essential in order for actors to create a convincing character. Producing an exact copy of a particular accent is a complicated matter, since it means perfecting the exact articulation of vowels, consonants, and syllables, being aware of the unique intonation, rhythm, and tone, and providing emphasis or stress on certain word parts. Each change in any of these elements constitutes a change in accent.
Learning a new accent can be particularly difficult, since English has an abnormally rich and complex vowel system, and a great deal of variation in vowel pronunciation occurs across dialects.
Vowel and Consonant Articulation
Learning to articulate the prosodic features, that is to say, the spoken duration, pitch or loudness, of different vowel sounds alone involves the use of different vocal tract configurations, raising or lowering different areas of the tongue, and rounding or spreading the lips correctly.
When working on consonants, actors must consider airstream mechanisms, voiced, voiceless, nasal sounds, oral sounds, and places of articulation.
Taking command of a new dialect, and not only working on adopting a different accent, includes mastering other linguistic components besides perfecting pronunciation. Dialect training also involves studying grammatical, syntactical, and lexical variations. In other words, the actor must not only say the words properly, he must say the appropriate words, in the correct order.
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