I’m Not Mocking You   5 comments

Can you speak in an accent that isn’t your own? Can any of your characters do this? How do you indicate that in your stories?

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No Natural Accent

My daughter can manage several believable accents and so can her father. I am not a natural mina bird like they are. However, I will pick up the accent of someone I’m talking to and I find this is quite common among people born and raised in Alaska.

This may be because Alaskans don’t have an accent of our own. We are a state of migrants. In the Al Pacino movie Insomnia, a character explains:

“The thing about Alaska — you’re either born here or you’re running from somewhere else.”

Insomnia

While we aren’t all criminals on the lam, almost every born Alaska has parents who came from somewhere and sometimes from different somewhere elses. My mom was from the Midwest. Her father was the child of a family of Canadian immigrants (some of them only one generation removed from Europe). Her mother was a American Indian mother whose father was from Ireland. My father was from a Washington state logging town populated almost entirely by Scandinavians and his father was born in Sweden, while his mother was raised in a Swedish-speaking community in the Midwest. Although Dad didn’t sound like Frances McDormand in Fargo (unless he was playing around) or a character out of Vikings, he didn’t sound completely “American” (whatever that means) either. Mom had a decidedly Dakotan accent (think Lawrence Welk, if you’re familiar). I assumed I sound like a mixture between the two, but my husband, who has lived a lot of places before landing in Alaska, says I have “Army-brat accent.” You really can’t pin me down.

And then I go and make it harder by imitating the people I’m talking to. I’m not trying to mock them or fake their accent. I simply pick up some of their ways of speaking. And it’s really a cultural thing because I hear other born-Alaskans doing the same thing. When I talk with my friend Kai who is from Taiwan, I’ll pick up her cadence and I’ll change some of my pronunciations to hers, especially if they’re Chinese words. If I’m speaking with my friend Francesca, I’ll pick up some of the tones of Puerto Rico. If I’m speaking with my Australian-born coworker Jeff, I’ll take on some of his accent. People originally from other countries are impressed when I can say their name on the first try.

My theory? Alaskans don’t have an accent of our own, and the culture around us was always in flux when we were kids. This may be changing now, as I think I catch hints of a developing accent from my kids and their friends, but when I was growing up, born Alaskans were a minority in our own state , so that we adapted to the incoming immigrants rather than the other way around. For example, we call narrow bodies of flowing water “streams” here, but many of the Midwesterners and Southerners who lived here during the Pipeline construction call them “cricks”. No, not creeks. Cricks. If I’m hanging out with an immigrant from those regions, I will often adopt “crick” and “far” for fire, and several other examples that my husband always remarks on. If I’m hanging out with his family, I’ll often start dropping my R’s, though I don’t put Rs where they don’t belong. Although my inlaws would call my friend Johnna “Johnar”, I wouldn’t, because it’s not her name. But North Boston becomes Noht Baston, because that’s how they say it. Most people who are not from Louisville, Kentucky, call it Lu-E-vil. I call it “Lu-ah-vul” because that’s how people from Louisville say it. Same with New Orleans. It’s “Nu-ah-lins” and the “s” is almost silent. My husband’s home state is New Hampshire, which most people pronounce as New Hamp Shire. It’s not. It’s Nu-ham-sha, according to the locals.

If I’m trying to fake an accent that isn’t my own, and have no native speaker to cue from, it’s probably going to be Texan or Oklahoman, and I’m also pretty good at Tidewater because three of my long-time pastors have been from that region between the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Texans and Oklahomans were very prevalent in Alaska when I was in high school, so I had a lot of practice at matching their accents. Also a good friend is from Georgia, so I could perhaps pull off his accent.

Truthfully, it’s getting harder to do that as Americans now listen to newscasters all the time and so our accents are moderating and became less distinctive over time. There was a period of time when many of our newscasters were from Canada, so children ended up speaking a combination of their parents’ accent with a sidecar of Ottawa public schools. Because Appalachians and folks from the Ozarks are often treated with disdain in our society, they will often drop their accent when they leave the holler (how they say “hollow”) and then end up sounding a lot like Brad Pitt when he’s not trying to sound like an English gypsy.

My Characters

Shane Delaney can do accents. That is brought up by Marnie when she’s talking with someone about Halloween. Like my daughter, he’s a musician, so he picks up cadences and pronunciations. So far he hasn’t gotten to use them much, although in my current work-in-progress Worm Moon, he does an impression of the local vet who is from Wisconsin — so sounds a lot like Frances McDormand in Fargo. That movie had zero to do with North Dakota, by the way. It took place in Wisconsin and I’m told by friends who moved from there that it is an accurate depiction of their accent.

Shane is also fluent in Spanish and sounds like a Chicano when he speaks.

Shane’s handler, Grant Rigby, is a master of dozens of faces and the accents that go with them.

5 responses to “I’m Not Mocking You

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  1. It’s funny you mention picking up on how people talk. It used to happen on ships all the time, someone would join and soon, we’d all be copying his or her turn of phrase. I guess it’s a small, enclosed community thing.

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  2. I think it’s sad that we are losing our regional accents. Conversations are more interesting with them.

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    • They are. Or were. In my current WIP Shane – Midwesterner has a great conversation with Mike, a Chicano, about the different slang each of their cultures produce. For example — this is borrowed from a former pastor of mine who is from the Ozarks — “We’re off like a galloping herd of cantaloupe” which was what he’d always say about any sort of disorganized start to a trip. It made perfect sense in conversation, but man do jaws drop if you use it anywhere except among Midwesterners.

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  3. What a cosmopolitan state Alaska is! However, what with the modern ease of travel, the days when people never moved far from home and married local people have long gone.

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