Accents for Actors

It's sometimes said that Scottish actors need to clean up their Scottish accent to get parts in English and American films. However, that's wrong. What actors need to do is to learn an additional accent, one that they can use as and when it's needed. To refer to this as "cleaning up your Scottish accent" is patronising, and doesn't describe what you're doing. You're not cleaning up your accent: you're acquiring an additional one.

You can see this in action by looking at what different actors do. Some well-known Scottish actors have moved away from their original accent, and now speak in a confusing mish-mash of Scottish, RP and American. But your accent is a major part of your personal identity, and actors who drift about in this wishy-washy way end up with no strong identity in any of their accents, and are less convincing because of it.

Better actors are strong in both accents - several accents, if necessary - and keep them apart. Famous cases include Gwyneth Paltrow, who you can hear here giving a stunningly accurate performance of London Business Girl, and Robert Carlyle, who was the complete Sheffield steel-worker in The Full Monty, but is still a true Scot in this personal interview.


So, bearing in mind that we're not cleaning up anybody's accent, but adding another one, my Accents-for-Actors classes focus on two objectives:-

  • Enable students to perform competently in RP and General American;
  • Show students how to research and master any accent they may need in their future career.

We start by studying all the sounds of human speech, of which there are only about 150. This shows us firstly that speech-sounds have names, descriptions and symbols, so we can get a handle on them. Secondly, it shows us that we can make any speech-sound we might need, in any accent, by putting our tongue, lips, etc. in the right place. And thirdly, making funny sounds gets us out of our comfort zone.

IPA symbols

We also learn the symbols used to notate speech-sounds: the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA. These symbols are independent of any language or accent, so once you know what a symbol means in one accent, you know it in all of them. Using these symbols, we write a short script in the accent we're studying, so that we can then just read the script off the page and produce exactly the right sounds for that accent. This is more reliable than trying to do a Welsh accent by thinking of rolling green hills, for example. Knowing the symbols also means that an actor can research an accent from the huge wealth of text-based descriptions, and so move towards the second objective of the course, mastering any accent.

Performances developed from an IPA transcription, though accurate, can sound a bit wooden, so we need now to add vitality, colour and convincingness. One way of doing this is to concentrate on the "articulation base" or mouth-position - which part of the mouth is most used in a given accent, where the focus of the voice is. Another is to copy the characteristic voice-melody and rhythm of the accent, and a third is to use variant forms - for example, a Scottish speaker may say either gonnae nae dae that or gonna not do that. These are all techniques that an actor can use to give a more rounded view of the character.

The last step is to make the accent sound like the actor's natural voice, so familiar that you can perform it without thinking. We achieve this by improvising role-play in the accent, with native speakers when they're available; we constantly repeat scripts in the accent, so that we can almost perform them in our sleep; and we talk to ourselves all the time in the accent.

Cognitive enhancement

Learning an accent takes persistence, so it's important to attend class regularly (and the times of each class are negotiated with students when the class is set up). Accent fluency can also have unexpected benefits. When we learn an accent, we use the same parts of the brain as when we learn to pronounce a foreign language, and it's known that speaking more than one language enhances cognitive performance, putting learners ahead of their peers at school and helping them retain their mental faculties longer in later years. Actors who can use more than one accent are of course speakers of more than one language, and so can expect to see these cognitive benefits. I hope you enjoy taking these journeys with me.