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Friday, January 7, 2011

Huck Finn meets Oscar Wilde, and they talk about Accent

It seems that every blog out there that has anything to do with literature or language is posting opinions on the recently publicized and new edition of Huck Finn.  How could I pass up this opportunity to conform, and late, to the writing norm?  Well, I'm passing.  I just saw on my little feed updater (technical term) that The Economist's blog, Johnson, has now made public their stand.  Well, I have already stood (via Facebook, email, and a comment at unmoderatedcaucus.blogspot.com, not to mention a pertinent post on the issue at hand here at The Wall).  However, I heard a bit of local news recently (local to here in Utah) that reminds me, obliquely, of our current culture's particular tendency to change things in the name of correctness (and isn't this stupid coming from the same industry that invented shock value?).

A local theater troop is putting on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of being Earnest (or maybe it was An Ideal Husband).  Anyway, as it will be a local production, most auditioners will surely have an accent with dominant influences almost certainly Western, and likely Utahn, not to mention linguistic quirks specific even to just Utah County.  Despite this, the ad in our local paper says that interested parties must be capable of speaking with a British accent.

(Now allow me to step upon my soap box.)

...uh....   Really?

Maybe it's just me, but I think this is spectacularly stupid.  Aside from the fact that there's no such thing as a "British accent," the likelihood of a consistent accent is so slight as to render to product utterly muddled to distraction from the actual intent of this (either) brilliant play.  Of course, maybe the audience wouldn't notice; and not that I'm some expert in accents, and not that the local audience is so stupid.  Quite the contrary (either).  But if the audience is unlikely to notice discrepancies in accent, and if said accents are implemented, and also if said accents fit the pathetic stereotype United Statesians hold for Britons' accents (though apparently this director thinks there's but one), then would they notice if the actors simply spoke with their own "American" accents, or at least some other standardized accent?

I see this as precisely the opposite problem of the demonized changing of the "n-word" for slave, done in effort to palatize a book with otherwise distasteful words to our modern palate; that is using an accent one believes to be British to make more "authentic" a play that, well, can stand on its own two amply strong, well-balanced, and -proportioned feet without some misguided director's decision.  If that director wanted truly to be accurate in re-representing the accents from the time and location of the play's original and intended performance (and does anyone really think Oscar Wilde would have had such limited purview?),  that director would have to train all his actors in using accent (the noun "accent" left deliberately indefinite and abstract) not only from a specific part of England, but of the specific time.


Okay, I'm stopping.

I had to get that off my chest.


DO IT IN STANDARD ENGLISH!  Words = important.  Don't change the words.  The words alone are more than adequately representative of time and place and culture.  Accent = unimportant (well, accent nationality), unless the intent of an accent is to represent archetypes of education or social status, in which case, consider how the movie Airplane (though I've never seen it, I know the story) was translated into Italian: in the original there is a scene where an actor uses a heavy "Ebonics" accent (time and place, people).  In the Italian translation, instead of having the voice actors overdub with Italian words in an "Ebonics" accent (not only absolutely absurd, I'm sure you'll agree, but--I'm pretty sure--impossible), a deep Southern Italian accent was implemented and to equivocal effect.


Dear Utah County Director of Oscar Wilde's Play, An Ideal Husband (or The Importance of being Earnest): there is a wide array of American English accents available and ample enough to supply all the linguistic needs of economic, educational, and social stereotypes present in the play.  Our English is good enough!

Okay.  Now I'm really done.


  1. I guess I'm going to slightly disagree. First of all, you're right on the, "British accent," part. There are plenty of different accents, often dependent upon class. So obviously the term, "British accent," is a bit of a chimera.

    But, on the other hand...

    I have to disagree. Can you imagine watching "To Kill a Mockingbird" and having all Michigan accents talking. "Ayaaaaticus would be there all night, and he would be thayare when Jim woke up in the morning." It may be endearing (it's my own accent after all!), but it's not Scout Finch, and it's not the South.

    Or how about Dumbledore in "The Half-Blood Prince" portrayed with a New Jersey accent? "Wudder, Harry, I need wudder."

    Accent is a piece of the setting and even of the characters. We wouldn't shoot "To Kill a Mockingbird" on the Detroit River Front, and we wouldn't shoot "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in Trenton, unless we were trying to do something quite a bit different than the original text. I also mentioned that I think the lack of accent detracts from the characters. I think that the way a person talks (again, if done properly, and I'm not sure that these people would pull it off in your example) often (rightly or wrongly) conveys to the listener A)where the person grew up, B)class, and C)education. The listener often then assigns prejudices about the person. I think that good actors can exploit this either to tell part of the background without showing it through speech, or set everyone up for something based on the way the person talks and then dramatically press down the switch and show the character to be otherwise, perhaps to teach them something about prejudices.

    Anyway, I know that this post is long, and I think that you're right that in the instance of this local production, most of the accents may be so poor that they shouldn't even bother, but there are quite a few movies that I really can't imagine without any accents other than the ones that they chose.

  2. I certainly recognize the importance of accent, as you've pointed it out. But the cultures are so different here--Utah to England--that, as far as I'm concerned, it's really no different than doing a complete translation like English to Italian. I think your examples Mockingbird and HP are a little hyper-specific (and this is without bringing up the difference between stage and cinema); if the point of the accent is indeed to specify a difference of status or education, we've got comparable accents that are little more do-able than the various British accents that would be otherwise required. The advantage of cinema is the advantage of voice-coaching or drawing actors from the actual culture. Honestly, if the balance and context of accents were well-done enough to account for this differences--education, status, relative geographic origin (just reread a point of this from Eco as semiotic and not un-translatable shift) --I could watch an Americanized version of HP. I the shift was complete, I don't think immersion into the film would be difficult and there would be a large portion, if not a majority, who wouldn't even notice. This ability is likely diminishing with the globalization of media, but my main point is that this is a local amateur production. Is the accent worth the energy? And consider the play! Either of them! Their source culture is virtually out, yet that culture is what the play is all about. Comparable issues are yet present. If accent is to assist the accounting of background and setting, are not our accents adequate?

  3. James, I think I need to say more bluntly that, yes, I see your point. A strong Michigander accent would certainly sound weird in Mockingbird. But think there's a way to moderate the silliness without requiring the hyperspecificity of exaggerating an accent, or indulging it. If a generic British accent is good enough for the play, why not a generic American accent--the accent of television? A generic British accent, when it comes down to it, is only one small step less-accurate than generic American.

    (I love this kind of discussion.)

  4. You're making a very compelling case. I still stand by my opinion, though. I think that, without the accent, you're missing a key part of the feel of the play. Would "The Importance of Being Earnest" still feel like Victorian England with Utah accents? I can't say for sure because I haven't seen it done, but to me, it would be very hard. There is a related question of whether it would be better to try or not if they can't do a good job, and that's a little harder to answer. So I guess my position is this:

    1. There is a great deal of value in an accent that matches the characters/setting.
    2. At some point if you can't do it right, it might be better to take the lesser of two evils and drop it.

    I really can't say what I'd recommend without seeing if they have enough actors to do a decent job and pull it off, though.

  5. Everything's gray, isn't it? Where are the absolutes?

  6. You know -- I wrote this post in the fifteen minutes waiting for the buses to leave (like that goblin drawing), and think that maybe I underthought it--or overthought it. Same thing in this case. But it's an interesting discussion: how pertinent is something like accent and dialect, at least when it is not inherent to the written words from the author? Of course Twain is not the only one (though likely the best) to transliterate the dialect and accent of his characters. Certainly in this case there can be no exception to altering that accent, as doing so would similarly require a change of vocabulary and, perhaps, even language. And what a difficult thing it really is to truly translate a text, if this is an additional obstacle to overcome--an additional subtext, that of accent. This is, after all, something I think specifically about while writing: what voice will the reader hear in his head when my characters are speaking? Just like I wonder if the picture they get from my words is the same picture I have in my head that drives the words I write.

    Thanks, as always, for talking this out.

  7. Just saw these 2 additional comments. Afraid I'm always an, "Everything's gray," kind of guy. Probably has something to do with spending 20 winters in Michigan.

    On the second post, it's an interesting question. From sentence 1 of "Huck Finn" I was just captivated by the book, and I don't think that would have been the case had Twain used standard English/a more conventional introduction strategy. How does Mark Twain know that it's going to come across the way he wants it to? Because he's a flipping genius. For the rest of us, it's a lot harder. How do you use language/accent to invoke stereotype in a way that makes the reader understand the character without making him into a caricature? And then think about how well you have to know the speaking style in order to pull it off. Think it's easy? Watch the average white writer try to pull off an African American speaking. Torture.--and then there's always the great scenario I've seen a few times where only the African Americans' nonstandard pronunciations are written out, but that's another matter.


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