“What is the difference, if any, between a dialect and an accent?” That is one of the questions I’m asked frequently during media interviews, classes, and coaching sessions. You’d think it would have a straight forward answer. No—for two reasons. First, many people, even we who teach dialects (or is it accents?), often ignore official definitions and use the two words interchangeably. The second complication: there are two pairs of definitions for these terms, within each, different factors separate one from the other. So, not everyone who tries to maintain the distinction use the same definitions.
Regardless of how I defined these terms, I admit that I’ve used the words interchangeably for most of my career. During any lesson, I might well say “Cockney dialect” one moment and switch to “Cockney accent” in the next sentence. I even reinforced that lack of distinction in the original title/subtitle of my audio-training series, Acting with an Accent: Stage Dialect Instruction. Most of the professional voice & speech trainers I’ve known—even those specializing in accent/dialect work—have admitted to the same random use of the two words in conversations and coaching sessions.
This frequent disregard for linguistic differences has also led to confusion about the name we use for my profession. Am I a “dialect coach” or an “accent coach”—or perhaps a “dialect/accent coach”? Maybe the title itself would/should change depending on the specific elements of speech or language I’m teaching from job to job? But, before I can explore that issue any further, we must look at the ways different professionals define and distinguish between the terms.
ACCENT vs DIALECT: THE LESS COMMON DISTINCTION
Some speech/language professionals (especially on the North American side of the Atlantic) use the word “accents” only when traits from a speaker’s first language affect the sound of a language s/he learned later in life. By contrast, they use “dialect” to label variations in grammar, usage, and sound by groups of native speakers WITHIN the same language. This is the distinction I myself used for many years. So, I would talk about teaching French or Spanish “accents” to English-speaking actors. Conversely, I’d have said I was teaching Cockney or New York “dialects” for characters speaking the native English of working-class London or NYC. (CLICK TO READ AN ARTICLE that identifies this distinction between the terms to be one of the existing options.)
THE MORE COMMON DISTINCTION
Now let’s consider the most accepted linguistic distinction between the terms. (1) An “accent” involves only the SOUND of the speech pattern. Among the sound components of an accent are the specific vowel and consonant pronunciations, the voice “placement” (resonance traits), and intonation or prosody (pitch, rhythm, and stress elements). (2) A “dialect” includes all the sound issues just mentioned, but also characteristics involving semantics (word usage), grammar, and sometimes spelling. Under this set of definitions, I’m considering the RP ACCENT when I note that “schedule” should begin with an SH rather than an SK sound. I move on to considering DIALECT when I note that I enter a “car park” rather than a “parking lot.”
DIALECT COACH vs ACCENT COACH?
Now back to the question of whether my many respected counterparts and I are accent or dialect coaches. During my career, I’ve rarely (if ever) seen a professional theatre program or screen credit listing for an “accent coach.” “Dialect coach” is almost always used, so I billed myself as such to avoid confusing employers and audiences. But in recent years, I’ve changed that; I’m more comfortable now calling myself an “accent coach.” Why? My coaching primarily focuses on the sound (pronunciation, intonation, placement, etc.) of the speech patterns. So, under the second set of definitions, which I now accept, I usually concentrate on accents. During those few moments that I’m teaching actors variations in grammar or word usage, yes—I’d be doing dialect coaching as well. But, at least in my career, those dialect issues have usually been handled by the script writers.
1. WHEN ACTING, DON’T MAKE YOUR ACCENT HARD TO UNDERSTAND.
When acting with accents on stage or screen, it doesn’t matter how authentic you sound if you can’t be understood. Yes, I know that some real-world accent speakers are in fact difficult for many to understand. That doesn’t make it acceptable to for audience members to miss important lines and plot points. Your goal should be to combine the impression of authenticity with total intelligibility.
Consider the SCOTTISH ACCENT. Some Glaswegian and Border Scots are difficult to understand for many English speakers, even some in the UK. But natives of Edinburgh and Inverness, for example, are typically more intelligible to outsiders. I often relate a story from the first time I coached Brigadoon. I could hardly understand a single authentic-sounding word spoken by the actor playing Mr. Lundie. Neither the director nor I had any success asking or insisting that he modify it. Unfortunately, the producer did not replace him. So, few audience members understood his pivotal explanation of why the town appeared out of the highland mist only once every hundred years. Actors tell stories on the stage and screen. Audience members should be able to follow those stories.
2. DON’T FOCUS ONLY ON YOUR ACCENT’S PRONUNCIATION CHANGES.
My earliest accent-coaching attempts failed. Once I realized that most actors did not share my ability to imitate, I looked for a more systematic method. I next had them modify pronunciation—changing their native vowels and consonants to those of the target accent. The results were almost as bad. For example, even following my directions to “change Long-A to Long-I and Long-I to OY,” most still failed to create Cockney-sounding words and phrases. After a long exploration of my own accent-imitation skills, I discovered there were speech traits other than pronunciation that I changed from accent to accent. Without the presence of those traits, technically “correct” pronunciations often sounded fake or disconnected. So, what are those traits? Every accent has a unique resonance (or voice placement or timbre). These traits result from differences in the shape or posture of the vocal tract (mouth, nose, throat, etc.) In addition, some accents have lilts or inflections on stressed syllables. I strongly believe these traits must be learned before (but NOT instead of) producing target vowels and consonants.
3. DON’T BE INCONSISTENT WHEN ACTING WITH ACCENTS!
Accent inconsistency is often extremely annoying to audiences. Avoid being erratic with several elements of the accent . First, maintain the target pronunciations—especially those recognized and expected by many audience members. For example, the Cockney “FACE Vowel” sounds like the General American or RP “PRICE Vowel.” Land it every time! Don’t do it once or twice before falling back toward your typical pronunciation. Also, avoid moments when your character’s accent diminishes or disappears. Of course, having a director with a good ear or an accent coach at rehearsals will help you avoid this. But the advice in Item #2 above also helps avoid this problem. You’re more likely to maintain the overall accent and its phoneme consistency if you always start with the basics. Use the accent’s resonance/muscularity and inflections to express thoughts, paint images, and physicalize actions.
Here’s another aspect of inconsistency that can drive audiences crazy. In musicals (sometimes at the insistence of music directors), actors often reduce or abandon accents when singing. The rationale is often that “pure musical tones” cannot be sustained through a given accent’s vowels. But, to keep an audience engaged with the story and relationships, characters must continue being the same people whether speaking or singing. Here are my two “truths” for accents in musicals: (1) Singers can still support the voice while the mouth posture supports an accent’s resonance and vowels. (2) The choice to sacrifice character inevitability for pure musicality is usually a bad one. Characters must live and interact through songs, not just sing them. Or, as my late teacher and colleague Nafe Katter often said, “A song mustn’t just be sung; it must be sold.”
4. DON’T LET YOUR ACTING BE ABOUT YOUR ACCENT!
Too many actors, I sometimes joke, apply Stanislavski’s terms the wrong way when acting with accents. Their objective is “to sound Irish in the scene.” Their super objective is “to sound Irish for the whole play.” No! When acting with accents, characters’ objectives and actions must still grow from their backgrounds, relationships, and given circumstances. This moment-to-moment inner process is as important (perhaps more important) when actors aren’t speaking with their native patterns. Your character’s accent becomes the new vocal medium for playing the same acting elements you’d use for a non-accent role. Any character, regardless of accent, must still connect with others, pursue objectives, paint images, and land actions. In auditions, rehearsals, and performances, newly learned accents too often dilute many of those things. I’ll long remember auditioning decades ago for a production of Anouilh’s Becket. I had just completed a monologue by the title character. The director said, “Try it again, David. This time find at least one thing he’s doing other than sounding English.”
5. DON’T LET A MONOTONE ACCENT IMPEDE YOUR ACTING!
Some accents typically employ more vocal variety than others. For example, the Bronx style of NEW YORK CITY speech (think Garry and Penny Marshall) typically has very few pitch changes. The same is often true of West Texas speech and the accents of languages like GERMAN and ARABIC. To some, these accents simply don’t sound “real” if spoken with noticeable pitch variety. BUT I (and many other voice/text coaches) believe vocal variety is essential to reflect and reinforce characters’ changing intentions and actions. So, we seek ways to combine some pitch variety (for artistic reasons) while keeping a monotone impression (for accent identity). Here’s my solution. When acting with those accents, let phrases or thought units remain monotone. BUT, when your character finds a new idea in the next phrase, switch to a higher or lower note. Rule of thumb: Don’t begin two consecutive phrases (or make consecutive discoveries) at the same pitch.
6. DON’T LET AN ACCENT’S INFLECTIONS IMPEDE YOUR ACTING!
When confronted with an accent that has a strong inflection or lilt, native speakers often get into a repetitious pattern. That’s especially true of accents with upward lilts (Liverpool, Northern IRISH, SCOTTISH, JAMAICAN) or up-down lilts (AMERICAN SOUTHERN, NORWEGIAN, Minnesotan). Actors often overly emphasize such patterns, perhaps subconsciously trying to “prove they’re doing the accent.” But that’s not your job as an actor. You mustn’t SHOW these lilts as accent markers. Instead you should embrace those traits as TOOLS the characters USE for framing words, making points, and landing actions. Here’s one technical suggestion that can help this along. When speaking with these lilting accents, avoid using the same starting and ending pitch on each lilting word. Discover and use new operative words at different pitches.
7. DON’T LET YOUR ACCENT MAKE ACTING CHOICES FOR YOU.
When acting with accents, don’t let speech patterns dictate that characters have specific personalities or are inclined toward certain choices. . Not all New York accent speakers are rude and aggressive. Neither are all IRISH speakers jovial, nor are all speakers of ENGLISH RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION snobbish because of their accents. Also, when acting with accents, don’t let them dictate a character’s level of intelligence. Characters channel thoughts and energize actions with their speech patterns. But those thoughts and actions come from individual personalities, relationships, and given circumstances. When acting with an accent, don’t let your character’s accent reduce your options or dictate your choices.
8. DON’T ALWAYS INSIST ON AN ACCENT’S GEOGRAPHICAL PURITY.
When I began researching and coaching accents, I tried to be a “geographic dialect purist.” That is, I wanted actors to nail the sound of the exact PART of BOSTON (or New York or Ireland or Germany, etc.) their characters were from. Certainly, there are some dramatic situations in which that degree of purity could be appropriate. However, I now agree with many directors that artistic choices can and often should override an accent’s geographic “correctness.”
Here are a few of those legitimate concerns. Some accents are so unknown to and unidentifiable by most audience members, they could end up being confusing and distracting. How many Americans know or relate to a Belfast or Donegal accent? How would many UK residents respond to realistic Philadelphia or St. Louis speech? Even if theatre programs included dramaturgical notes about the unfamiliar accents, how many would read and absorb them pre-curtain? AND, are certain regional sounds so aesthetically displeasing to many ears that they’d create barriers between audience and characters? Suffice it to say that after 40+ years of accent coaching, I can now support directors’ choices to violate accent purity for artistic or aesthetic reasons. However, this is such a controversial and intriguing issue that I will devote a whole future blog post to it.
In addition to the audio lessons available on the website (www.LearnAccent.com), David Alan Stern is also available for:
I vividly recall my first radio interview during the twelve years I was a Hollywood-based speech and accent trainer. The opening question was, “How does someone end up as a dialect coach?” I blurted out, “I thought every four-year-old in Brooklyn wanted to grow up to teach movie stars to talk with accents.” Well, that’s the humorous (or “wise-ass”) version, which I repeated on many media interviews that followed. Here’s the actually story of how I ended up a dialect coach and author of accent-training audios. (In posts that will follow, I’ll expand on some of the ideas and themes I mention below.
1956-1962: The Accent Parrot Awakens
I discovered at the age of ten that I could easily imitate most accents I heard. If a speech pattern went in my ear, invariably it could and would come out of my mouth. I neither analyzed the sounds nor thought about what I was doing. I just mimicked what I heard pretty accurately. My first awareness of this skill was in 1956. My father brought home the original-cast album of My Fair Lady, and I started imitating its COCKNEY and ENGLISH RECEIVED accents. I then reprised that feat with the Irish and “Mississitucky” accents of his older Finian’s Rainbow LP. I continued messing about with dialect/accent mimicry over the next few years. Mostly, I mimicked the accents of characters on radio and TV. I also reproduced the NYC and Yiddish sounds that were never far from my ear.
1962-1969: Playing Dialect Roles in High School and University Theatre
As a high school actor and a UCONN acting major (BFA, 1969), the parroting skills gained me many dialect roles. There were relatively few dialect coaches or accent-training materials in the ’60s. I was often the only option for directors who wanted certain characters to have reasonable accents. Among the school-days accents were Cockney, English RP, French, Irish, and New York City, which was my “native language,” so I really wasn’t putting it on. During those years, many directors and fellow actors asked how I was able to perform accents so well. As always, I had no explanation other than being the dialect parrot (pictured above). Little did I know back then that much of my career would involve accent and dialect coaching.
1970: Leaving Theatre “Forever”
Both dialect coaching and acting went onto the back burner for several years. I “left theatre forever” (for the first time) to pursue a PhD in Speech at Temple University. Although my degree program was in “speech communication,” the same department housed degree programs in Speech & Language Pathology. This allowed some crossover of curricula for interested students. Also, my advisor, Donald H. Ecroyd, was co-author (with Murray Halfond and Carol Towne) of two voice and diction texts. My knowledge and interest grew. After joining the Speech department at Wichita State, I designed and taught an “all-purpose” voice and diction course. While there, Dr. Kenneth Burk, renowned professor of voice disorders and therapy, became an important inspiration and mentor.
1974-77: Wichita State: Developing Skill as an Accent/Dialect Coach
During my short three years in Wichita, I was drawn back into acting. In 1976, the great director Audrey Needles asked if I’d try being the accent/dialect coach for several of her productions. My first attempts were not very successful. Despite my expectations, most of the actors did not possess my kind of parroting skills. I also failed when I focused them exclusively on pronouncing the target accent’s vowels and consonants. Other approaches I found in the then-scarce training materials were equally fruitless. So, I used my own parroting ability as a resource. I closely observed and analyzed myself, eventually discovering things other than pronunciation that changed as I switched accents.
I drew three important conclusions: (1) For most accents, I created a different “shape” or “configuration” or “posture” of the vocal tract. These changes, in turn, produced a unique resonance (or “placement” or “focus” or “timbre”) for each accent. (2) For some accents, I also added characteristic lilts or inflections on stressed vowels. I accomplished this with pitch glides and/or onsets and fades in loudness. (3) Many target pronunciations were easier and more authentic sounding when combined with these “non-phonemic” traits. These discoveries became the central principles behind all my accent coaching and training materials in the years since. Kudos to my cousin Ken Ravitz who sought my help learning Cockney for a high school production. I responded to his audio letter by recording some Cockney placement drills I was developing. They helped him considerably. That recording was the genesis of my next forty-three years of authoring ACCENT-LEARNING AUDIOS.
1977-80: The Penn State Years and Accent-Training Audios
In May 1977, Penn State sought a “Theatre Voice and Speech Trainer skilled as a dialect coach.” I had just decided to seek such a position. I applied; miraculously, I was also hired. There I gained early experience integrating my work with that of outstanding acting teachers and directors. It was also there that I recorded and began marketing the first six ACTING WITH AN ACCENT audio cassettes (now 24 digital downloads). It was the first series with separately obtainable recordings, each providing systematic lessons in a single accent. I’m thrilled that, since its launch, those recordings have been used extensively by actors and praised by so many educators. Lots of the accent-training programs that came later referenced it and/or made similar observations about voice placement and lilt/musicality. Many consider this technique to have initiated a paradigm change in accent pedagogy in the early 1980s. I’m honored by that.
1980-1993: The Hollywood Years
My next career move again came after just three years. I adored my Penn State job and colleagues, but academic politics and economics spurred my move to Hollywood. Those were years of 13% inflation and 2% salary increases. So, the risk of freelance industry work was an acceptable alternative to an annual 11% loss of real income. During my time in Los Angeles, the audio-training series expanded from 6 to 25 titles. Unexpectedly, many potential-client inquiries came from actors and business people wanting to learn the non-regional (standard) American-English accent. That teaching soon led to other audio programs for those wanting to REDUCE AMERICAN REGIONALISMS or MODIFY ACCENTS OF OTHER LANGUAGES.
I was honored to gain the trust of acting coaches, directors, agents, and casting directors. During the LA years and beyond, I was thrilled to have helped hundreds of professional actors prepare for roles. Among them were Michael York, Forest Whitaker, Julia Roberts, John Rhys-Davies, Liam Neeson, Shelley Long, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julie Harris, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, and Geena Davis for the screen. And for stage roles: Pat Sajak, Lynn Redgrave, Terrence Mann, Liz Larsen, Jack Klugman, Amy Irving, and Andréa Burns.
1993-2018: Return to Thee, Oh Alma Mater
Leaving academic theatre in 1980 and returning in 1993 (when UCONN lured me back) were both excellent career decisions. While still coaching occasional film and TV projects (most recently Vincent Tycer’s BOSTON ACCENT in Chappaquiddick), I concentrated again on coaching for the stage. That work included over a hundred productions as voice, text, or dialect coach at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. From 2000-2017, I was also the Resident Dialect Coach (working on twenty-four shows) at the Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts. The audios expanded—new programs and second editions—as the format moved from cassettes to CDs to DIGITAL DOWNLOADS. I worked with colleagues and directors who wanted actors to integrate voice/speech skills with inner process and welcomed my help accomplishing that.
In 2011 and 2012, I was lured back onto the stage by then CT Rep artistic director Vincent Cardinal. I was finally old enough to play one of my dream roles—Arvide Abernathy in Guys and Dolls (with Sarah Schenkkan). I also played Zolton Karpathy in My Fair Lady (with Terrence Mann) and Roy in The Odd Couple (with Pat Sajak and Joe Moore). Then, after 25 years, it was time to leave campus to concentrate on distance lessons, industry coaching, websites, and social media.
In addition to the audio lessons available on the website (www.LearnAccent.com), David Alan Stern is also available for: