Dialects and Accents

Paul Meier interviewed by Jeremy Fisher

Jeremy talked recently to expert dialect coach Paul Meier on working with film actors, coaching musicals and the Top Tip for changing dialect. The interview includes a downloadable soundfile excerpt (mp3) of Paul demonstrating the differences between Standard British and Standard American.


Jeremy: First of all, you’re probably known more in this country as a dialect coach. How did you get into dialect coaching, because it’s a rather unusual field?

Paul: It started very early. I was one of those obnoxious children who mimicked everybody they heard. When we moved to London I was exposed to many different ways of speaking English. I’d had to change my own dialect a couple of times for expedience’s sake or some perceived social advantage. Then when I went to Drama school and discovered phonetics, suddenly there was an academic basis or justification for all that class clowning and mimicry that I’d done surreptitiously. The world of stage dialects was very natural to me, and I ate up phonetics with great gusto and put it to work right away in terms of transcribing dialects and analyzing them. I wasn’t long out of drama school before I was teaching it.

Jeremy: So ultimately it’s a fascination with sounds. Do you think then that dialect reflects character?

Paul: Oh, absolutely. We all have an idiolect, and I think the way we choose to speak, it’s not something that is thrust upon us – we are co-creators of our idiolect. Two brothers brought up in the same house, same social background, might very well end up speaking in quite different styles.

Jeremy: My brother and I do. And my sister as well. We all speak slightly differently.

Paul: So that reflects the way we feel about ourselves, the kind of face we want to present to the world, how secure we are within ourselves, I’m sure, how much we feel we have to adapt to our surroundings in order to not be beaten up!

Jeremy: I think I can relate to that one!

Paul: I have an uncle whose dialect was invariable. No matter who he was with, no matter where he was, no matter what the conversation, he was always in the same code. I never heard him ‘break code’. It was one monolithic version of uncle Bertie and that’s what you got all the time. I’d know from a very early age that I was completely the opposite. I would morph into something else. If I was with very working-class people I would more want to sound like them, with upper-class people I would want to sound like them. I wondered was there a real me somewhere!
Jeremy: And is there?

Paul: I don’t know, I think there is. I’ve got more and more comfortable with being what I actually am but of course dialectically I’m in no-man’s land. Americans take me for British, British take me for American. I’ve got this “Hi, I’m from nowhere” kind of a voice which has its commercial uses. In this time of global English – I think there is an emerging global English; it’s not American, it’s not English, it’s not Aussie, it may be Asian, Middle East.

Jeremy: That’s a very good point. There are so many influences because we have the internet, we have television, we have film. And then we have huge Hollywood influences but now huge Bollywood influences as well, And it’s across the board for music in that we’re now getting international musical influences, Which I think is great, fascinating.

What’s the big IDEA?

Jeremy: I want to go to your big IDEA. Tell me about IDEA.

Paul: I found myself called to Hawaii to coach a leading actor in the Flemish accent he needed in the movie, playing Father Damian, the Belgian priest. And I had no time to prepare or collect Belgian samples. I was in Hawaii at three days’ notice with no preparation other than my memory of how Flemish-speaking Belgians sounded, And I thought wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of online archive, so no matter where you were in the world, if you had a laptop and a reasonable connection, you could listen to categorised samples. And when I got back from that gig I started IDEA with the help of a really bright and technically savvy student of mine. Started in 97-98 as a result of that idea.

Jeremy: And it’s a great idea – it’s such a great resource. I’ve used it myself. I have a question though. You’ve been doing this for some time now. Do you have an inbuilt catalogue of dialects that you can just go into your memory or muscle banks and go “Ah yes, it’s this”, or do you still need to refer to recordings of original speakers.

Paul: Oh, I use IDEA all the time as a resource. I’m called upon to coach a huge variety of accents and dialects. And with the proper resources there’s no dialect or accent in the world that I could not undertake to coach. I’m coaching dialects I’ve never worked with before quite frequently. But I’m confident with the internet, not only IDEA but other internet resources, can quickly reveal what you need. You go to YouTube for example and you want someone in East Timorese, and bam, you can pull up two or three of those people, jot down the signature sounds, catch onto the prosody of it. Having done so many dialects for so many years, I’m very quick at picking up a new one. I rely on primary sources all the time.

Jeremy: I know, because we have your dialect books with CDs sitting on the piano, and we find them so useful, one of the things that fascinates me is how clearly you’ve broken things down for the dialect learning. Was that something you did automatically or did you have to work that out?

Paul: I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years. What you see on your piano stand is a life’s work that’s constantly being refined. Much cruder, much earlier versions of that I was using to teach at City Lit straight out of drama school. But the basic approach to finding signature sounds, or what we used to call substitutions (I no longer use that term), finding the footprint of a dialect, that’s really the heart of it all along. But refining each dialect, what information do you need, what exercises do you need to climb into another sound, Liverpool, Manchester, or Birmingham Alabama. Signature sounds – that coupled with more elusive prosodic features, the hard-to-pin-down melody, cadence, stress patterns. Those are harder to pin down but they are 50% of the job.

Jeremy: Well you do see on film certain actors and actresses who you know are doing all the “correct” pronunciation and yet not living inside the ‘race’, let’s say.

Film work

Jeremy: I know you do a fair amount of film coaching yourself…

Paul: I do.

Jeremy: I’m curious. What’s the timetable? Do you go to the filmset, how often are you there, how long are you there for, how much time do you get with the people you are working with?

Paul: Film, you’re booked today, you’re on the set tomorrow, so it’s always that they want it yesterday. Dialect is almost invariably the very last thing on people’s minds. The actors have been cast without having been screened for their dialect ability – there’s just an assumption that it’s not important or is easily fixed. That’s great, because it keeps me employed! The most ideal show was working for Ang Lee. What a gentleman. He believed in rehearsal.

Jeremy: And what a marvellous director as well.

Paul: He booked me four months before the beginning of principal photography, I had time to work by custom CD and phone with the principal actors long before they got to the set. And then there was a two-week rehearsal period before cameras rolled. So it’s just a luxurious thing to have all of that preparation time, plus a daily presence on set. And then you go onto other films and it’s the very last thing that people have thought of. Often only when the actor gets to the set, and they discover “Oops, can’t do that. Let’s get a dialect coach for a quick fix.”

Jeremy: You’ve already mentioned two of the ways that you can help people – the CDs and the phone coaching. Tell me a bit more about the CDs.

Paul: More and more these days I never even meet the actors I coach. I never even go to the film set. It’s become a virtual world. Much cheaper than flying me business class to wherever and paying my per diem and hotel. So I work often in advance of the show by a custom CD. I will put all of the lines down, I will design the dialect for the character in consultation with the director. I’m doing that right now for a new project. I’ll design it with the director, and when that director’s pretty confident that we have the sound he wants, then I will record all the lines and talk to the actor as if they are in the same room. “you may not be able to hear this particular key sound, so let me isolate it” and I’ll isolate a key sound and talk them through it. Not so much performing the role myself but demonstrating, taking the thing apart, playing a phrase here (in piano terms), listen to how this phrase goes. And I will do that sort of isolated work with phrases in the script. And often that’s enough – with a really good actor that’s enough, and then you follow that up with phone coaching to find out if they’re getting it.

Coaching and musicals

Jeremy: I went on your website, which is a very good website [www.paulmeier.com], and was looking at the complete roles you do on CD. Particularly, because of my interest, I was looking at the musicals. I just picked out five where you see the title and you go, “Oh of course! They’re going to need dialect coaching”. Blood Brothers (Liverpool), My Fair Lady (for various reasons), Brigadoon, Fiddler on the Roof, and Guys and Dolls.

Paul: And those are the musicals I have on there right now?

Jeremy: Yes, and I thought how fascinating, because often as a musical theatre singer you don’t necessarily think of dialect in those terms. Both Gillyanne (Kayes) and I coach singing in the dialect that you are speaking. Because for me there’s nothing worse than being in character and then when you open your mouth to sing you sound completely different. That makes no sense to me. I suppose it’s a bit like the film situation you described – it’s not at the top of your mind that people are going to have to have dialect coaching for Guys and Dolls, particularly English actors.

Paul: Well it’s clearly a dialect show. I think I’m the only one – and there are lots of us out there producing and publishing dialect coaching material, but I think I’m the only one that offers show-specific CDs. I’m just looking behind me now – there’s row upon row of CD sets, master CDs of the hundreds of shows I’ve coached. And I lease those character CDs to productions who are doing the show.

Jeremy: And I’m taking it that you don’t actually give readings of the performances, you give style tips, hints, tweaks.

Paul: My preamble always says “I will not perform the role, I don’t want you to mimic my performance”. I’ll perform it a little bit flatly, a little bit under tempo, so you can make the role your own. I won’t give you line readings. Inevitably it has to be the lines, but I do try to make the actor independent of that, to give them a way to extract the sounds, the noises.

Jeremy: It was one of the most important things I learned when I switched from working with singers to working with actors. A lot of the singers I used to work with would like you to demonstrate something. As an instrumentalist you’re often asking your tutor to demonstrate something so you can hear how it goes. I got very quickly into the idea that actors don’t like that.

Paul: I think it’s a little misguided, frankly. There is this taboo, that it’s blasphemy that if the director gives ‘a line reading’ suddenly they’ve infringed on the sacred rite of an actor. I think that’s bollocks, to tell you the truth. Most actors I work with, there are very few of them that don’t deeply appreciate hearing the line in dialect, and when this whole thing of line reading comes up, I say “OK, well choreographers demonstrate the steps you’re going to dance, with a singing coach you’re very happy to hear the phrasing and musical qualities of the line you are singing, so what’s this silly taboo” And I point out that acting has been passed down from master to apprentice for centuries. And I think imitation has a real place in acting. Obviously you transcend the imitation during rehearsal and it becomes your own, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting with a good, sincere imitation.

Jeremy: Well I’m very glad to hear that.

Paul: I get very impatient with that superstition. I had a guy quit a show years ago, I was directing Shakespeare and I’m a big fan of the verse speaking. I’ve got an ebook coming out as you know on Shakespeare that concentrates on teaching good actors how to be better actors in Shakespeare. And a lot of it is highly technical. What do you do with a caesura, what do you do with a run-on line, what is iambic pentameter, what are the exceptions to iambic rhythm? It’s all technical, musical stuff. And the book will have 60 or 70 demonstrations of how a particular speech works, starting with the scansion of the verse – it’s a metrical analysis. I was demonstrating that in this production I was directing. And this actor was livid and quit, because I’d infringed some holy right of his to create the role himself. The fact is he didn’t know how to speak verse.

Crossing the Atlantic

Jeremy: That takes me onto the next question quite neatly. Have you noticed any changes recently in the way actors respond to the work that you do over the years.

Paul: Let’s think. Gosh. I know that there’s been a growing respect for dialect work. There were very few dialect coaches 40 years ago. And American actors particularly could get away with very bad or non-existent dialects. I suppose as a symptom of our growing global culture, you can’t do that any more. There’s a growing realisation that you’ve got to do it right. That’s about all I can think of. What were you thinking of?

Jeremy: I was just curious about trends and the idea first and foremost that dialect and accuracy is becoming more important. Hurray! I find it very strange when we see films where, let’s say, Americans cast as English, and English cast as American, where they’re so patently not doing what’s required. And I think that’s fascinating – and irritating!

Paul: And people work internationally, so you’ve got to have a pretty good reason for casting out of dialect – an American show can get an English actor (and usually cheaper)…

Jeremy: Just as a matter of interest have you ever seen the show House? It’s an English actor playing an American,

Paul: Oh, you’re talking about Hugh Laurie. I haven’t seen it but I understand he’s astonishingly good.

Jeremy: He is very very good. And the thing that interests me the most is the extreme change of pitch range that he’s now using. He’s now right at the bottom of his range.

Paul: In his singing?

Jeremy: In his speaking. Because if you compare his performances in House where he stays on about three notes right at the bottom of his range, and then you put it against Blackadder where he was playing the Prince Regent where he had an enormously wide pitch range. Octave and a half. And I thought that was absolutely fascinating that as part of the character and part of the dialect he was using that he decided to keep his vocal pitch so low and so on one tone.

Paul: He’s playing an American, yes?

Jeremy: He is, yes.

Paul: That’s one of the pretty famous differences between the English and the American – fewer notes, lower notes, less inflection and stress everything. And use a harder tone. That’s what my books say – going down the list. Change English prosody to American prosody – that’s what you have to do.

Jeremy: The people who haven’t come across this are going to be fascinated. Can you give me a demonstration of changing what you just said.

listen to how Paul moves from Standard British to Standard American:

Paul: There’s a little practice sentence in the book – I think it’s something like “I can’t believe that Harry would give up his job and walk away”. Now an Englishman saying that will do several things. He’ll use a great deal more range than the American, he will delay the strong stresses until the end of the sentence, he will stress fewer words, and pitch the whole thing on average higher. [demonstrates]

So throwing away the beginning of the sentence in favour of the end of the sentence – a sort of delayed payoff trick. “—–and WALK AWAY!” And the American will do precisely the reverse. Stress everything, start heavily and trail off, use fewer notes, pitch them lower, and a harder tone. So you’ve got [demonstrates] “I CAN’T BELieve ——“. And I’m not even dealing with the pronunciation of the words, but just in terms of its music, the American blows a lot of energy completely on the first few words and trails away, and bears down on the vocal cords. I mean this is stereotypical stuff that I’m doing…

Jeremy: But still very revealing.

Paul: They are inverted images of each other. Completely opposite – turn the prosody inside out and that’s what you have.

Jeremy: The first time I read that was in your CD books, and it really made me pay attention to how wide a pitch range I have, that I speak over more than an octave and a half, which I think is fairly wide.

Paul: So getting my American actors to embrace the two and a half octaves that you need to describe that architecture of a complex Shakespearean argument, you need that tremendous range in order to pitch the various parts of the argument into relief against each other. For the architecture of the argument to be revealed.

Jeremy: How do they cope if they’ve not come across that before?

Paul: A little bit reluctantly. But you cannot do Shakespeare on three notes. You have to have a wide range of dynamic shifts to accomplish it.

Jeremy: Do you think that’s implicit in the writing?

Paul: Absolutely. Absolutely. Long, long sentences with parentheses within parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences going on for seven or eight verse lines… I mean if you’re going to follow that journey across eight verse lines, then the actor must reveal the architecture of that argument vocally. And that’s what the new book will spend a lot of time describing and demonstrating.

Jeremy: The new book’s going to be an ebook?

Paul: Yes

Jeremy: Excellent. As you know, I like ebooks.

Paul: I know – you’ve made a Skyper and ebooker of me.

The Call Centre experience

Jeremy: I want to ask you about something that… I think this is fairly recent that you’ve branched out into or at least identified, and that’s the Call Centre coaching. This is going to ring such a strong bell with the people in the UK. Call Centres can make people’s blood boil. So what are you doing with Call Centre people?

Paul: Well, seeing as it’s something that’s here to stay, and our cries for help when our widgets don’t work are going to be answered from anywhere in the world, we’ve got to train the people who are in that field. This isn’t something that’s going to go away. Obviously we want to get speaker and listener into the same comfort zone. You’ve got to train the Indian or Philippino or Irish to deal with all of his or her international customers. We are not monolithic cultures any more.

Jeremy: So where do you start? Not that I’m going to ask you to reveal all the secrets in the book but I’m curious – where do you start?

Paul: My business breaks into two synergistic halves. One is teaching actors to assume a dialect and the other is to teach real people to lose a dialect, as it were. So you just reverse-engineer one process into another. There’s no real difference between an actor gaining a stage dialect and a Call Centre operator modifying his or her speech patterns. It’s the same thing. My work is a little different from other people who do English as a second language in that I try to target in the material the peculiarities of each language. I mean, the Indian isn’t going to have the same problem with English as a New Zealander or Irishman. We all have completely different languages, so addressing each speaker from within his or her own language is I think an important thing. It used to be one-size-fits-all. “Teach English? Ok, everybody in the world’s got the same problem with English.” Well that’s not true. So I have an ebook Standard British English for Indians. Just the kinds of changes that an Indian would have to make to move a little bit closer to the British style of speaking.
And of course that’s a sweeping statement – there is no one style of English!

Jeremy: I was just going to say – the problem for Call Centres outside the country is that the range of dialects just within England is so huge…

Paul: And we don’t think of English as having only one sanctioned pronunciation any more.

Jeremy: And I have to say that television presenters have gone a long way to breaking that one.

Paul: The BBC relaxed its monolithic insistence on RP [Received Pronunciation or posh English]. And that’s great. I chafed under that class system myself. I wasn’t brought up an RP speaker so I had to have first Hampshire beaten out of me and then a sort of South London thing. And so I think it’s a shame that “might is right and there is one standard dialect for everyone.”

Dialect versus Accent

Jeremy: I’m going to ask you a rather simple question, but I think it’s a question that people will be interested in. Which is: What’s the difference between a dialect and an accent?

Paul: Good question! And I get into fierce arguments with my British colleagues. Because the British dialect coaches, even though they’re called dialect coaches, by the way, and that’s the way they’re billed in the films and that’s the way the credits appear, even though they’re called dialect coaches in the business, they talk about teaching actors how to do accents. And whether it’s a British accent or a foreign language accent, they’re all accents. They don’t recognise any difference. The North American coaches on the other hand have recognised a useful distinction – that we speak English language dialects but foreign language accents. Now like with all distinctions it will break down if you put it under too much scrutiny, but it’s useful that if I’m speaking with Lancashire or Alabama dialect I’m not speaking something that’s wrong, I’m speaking something that has legitimacy within in the group of speakers who speak that dialect. I’m not on a journey to some other way of speaking. But if I’m a French person or Philippino learning English, then I’m in process towards complete command of English so I make mistakes, I mispronounce, and my accent is largely a result of using the sounds of my own language in English. So I think it’s a useful distinction to make, and particularly because there is a psychological difference between the way an actor approaches doing an accent and doing a dialect. You’ve got to do say a New Yorker playing an RP role, you’ve bloody well got to get it right or be found out. There’s very little margin of error. But if that same New Yorker’s playing someone who’s first language is French, well there’s a huge range of the ways in which French people deal with English – some perfectly and some not so perfectly. So psychologically it’s a different job playing a character in a dialect and playing a character doing an accent. And I think we use the distinction, although it breaks down eventually, it’s a useful one. I do have quarrels with my British colleagues…

Paul’s Top Tip

Jeremy: I’m going to pin you to the ground now. If you had to come up with a Top Tip for somebody learning a dialect… I know that you’ve already mentioned signature sounds, you’ve already mentioned prosody, intonation. What’s the Top Tip for somebody to grasp a dialect?

Paul: Buy my books!

Jeremy: Yes, apart from that!

Paul: Identify the most important two or three signature sounds and the most important prosodic features. And if you do those most important ones well, you’ll be there. It’s a little bit like cartooning or caricature, or impressions, you seize on the obvious and get that into your head. And I think everybody should mimic the stereotypical sound of a Belfast tune.
[demonstrates wordless “melody” of the Belfast accent].
With all of that swooping up at the end of the phrase. It doesn’t take long to catch on. You just keep on speaking your own pronunciation but put that tune onto it, and pretty soon it starts to sound like your dialect. So if you can’t wrap your mouth around House, House, House [three subtly different versions of the same word heading towards Belfast pronunciation]… you know, those subtle phonetic differences in pronunciation of a particular vowel, I think most people could imitate that melody.

Character and voiceover

Jeremy: You mentioned something and I was going to ask you about this. Voiceovers and cartoons. Because I think quite a lot of Americans know you in a different area, from your voiceover work.

Paul: Yes, I’ve always had a pretty healthy… part of my career has been to do audio books and commercials and so forth. And I’m called upon to produce people’s demos a lot. I coach people in the art of voiceover. Not just from the dialect angle but the whole business of doing voiceover.

Jeremy: Cartoon voices have always fascinated me because of what usually happens with a cartoon voice is that you take a something and it becomes… you sort of make it slightly more extreme and it becomes the feature of the sound. And there are some amazing vocal talents out there creating the most stunning sounds in cartoons.

Paul: I will very occasionally offer a course in character voice. There are myriad ways in which you can bend your voice this way and that way – the different sounds you can coax out of the human instrument is just astonishing. And whether they’re based in impressions of some other person