Of Words, Wudz, Dialects And Accents: The ‘Man Of A Thousand Voices’ Speaks In Tongues

Babbel chats with actor and dialect coach Robert Easton about accent, regionality and linguistic politics.

Click here to hear the interview with the dialect coach Robert Easton (mp3 – right click to download)
Robert Easton has been working in Hollywood and all over the world for over 42 years “strengthening dialects” and “curing accents”. Ever wonder how Al Pacino got his Cuban on in “Scarface” or how Mel Gibson learned to “talk American”? He’s the man, and Babbel Blog caught up with him to talk to him about accents, regionalities, linguistic politics and … the Oscars. Listen here for just a smattering of the countless flawless accents and dialects Easton can reproduce, from Elizabethan to Punjabi to Sicilian to Philadelphian.
Babbel Blog: So they call you the “dialect doctor”. What’s the difference between an accent and a dialect?
Robert Easton: That’s a very interesting question. Some people use them almost interchangeably. If we’re going to be purists, which I tend to be, dialect tends to be a variety of a language which differs from the so-called standard language in three ways. One, obviously the pronunciation is different, but second of all, the vocabulary is different, and third of all the grammar is different.

Accent refers to accentuation. So, for example, French people are known for putting the emphasis on a different syllable from what an English speaker would do. So they would say “democrAcy” instead of “demOcracy”. So if someone speaks with the accentuation pattern of a French person, we say, oh, he has a French accent. So in common usage, colloquially, people use accent and dialect interchangeably, but in the literature I put out about my work, Henry Higgens of Hollywood Inc., I put “The Dialect Doctor,” and then I put, “dialects strenghtened, accents cured”. So if anyone is an actor and they want to learn a different dialect of the English language, which I can teach them, or if they are foreign, and they want to reduce the accent component of their speech, I teach them the standard “Media-ese” type of pronunciation.
BB: So when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it then, an accent, where does it come from? How does it occur naturally? Do you pick it up from your parents? From your region?
RE: No, that’s a strange anomaly. A lot of people think that you pick it up from the parents. What happens is, parents will move to a new country, and they will speak the language of the new country, with the unconscious – and sometimes conscious – habit patterns of their first language. But the children don’t copy the parents. The children play with other children and in a short time, through imitation, they’re sounding like the children in the new country. So it’s quite common for children of immigrants not to have the same foreign accent that the parent has. They often are quite functionally bilingual. They understand the parents, but are not necessarily aware that the parent is speaking with as heavy an accent as in fact they are.
Back in my radio days when I was acting in the golden age of radio, there was an actor I used to work with who was very proficient at many many dialects and accents. But the one he said he could not do, was Italian. And that surprised me, because he had an Italian surname, and I knew he was of an Italian background, well then I visited him in his home, and I heard how heavily accented the speech of his mother and his father was, and I realized that somehow, subconciously, he thought if he tried to imitate them, that would be a kind of a disloyal kind of thing. So he could do every kind of accent, he could do French, German, Greek, Norwegian, Spanish, but he said, no I can’t do Italian… and I listened to his parents (laughing) and they had a very, very strong accent. They were Sicilians, and to say “six steps” they would say “six-sa steps-sa” (hear interview for pronunciation examples): Now when you get up into northern Italy, you don’t get those added vowels, you get a very romantic type sound, (hear interview for pronunciation example), but that’s totally different from Sicilian, where they do whats called in-fixing vowels, jamming them in at the ends of words and in between consonant clusters.

BB: So you’re saying that for example an Italian accent is not just one thing….

RE: Oh no, Italy became a national entity very recently, when they had the resurgimento, and prior to that there were all these different little regions, each one had its own regional kind of speech, where they clearly were dialects because not only were the pronunciations different but the vocabulary was different. The grammar was different. Same way with Germany. Germany achieved a national status very, very recently under Bismarck, prior to that, each of the little areas had its own… and a lot of people think that the Grimm Brothers traveled around Germany collecting fairy tales because they were obsessed with fairy tales. No, they weren’t. Pragmatically, they would collect the same fairy tale in every part of Germany and they could compare the regional differences. Because the stories were known everywhere. But by comparing the differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, inflections etc., then they were able to work out what was called “Grimm’s Law”, which was very interesting.
See, every language is in a state of flux. It’s constantly changing and evolving and developing. So when I teach someone a particular sound, I have to – as they do in semantics – tie it down to place, and time, and education level, and socioeconomic class. Because they’re all changing. My teacher that I studied with at the University College in London, was asked by Sir Bernard Miles if he would coach a production of Shakespeare (with accent, hear interview) and if they would be able to do it in the authentic, Elizabethan pronunciation. So he worked very hard and he got them to do it. But it was totally different from upper class, British English today. So they were speaking roughly 1600, about four hundred years ago. But instead of the way English actors do it today, (hear interview for pronunciation example), in Elizabethan, upper class speech it was (hear interview for pronunciation example). Well, you know, people just aren’t prepared to accept that. The critics, on the third program in England, said, “Oh what joy to hear the words of the Bard being done as they would have been done all these centuries ago, how delicious!” and the average middle class Londoner says, “Wait a minute now, these people are supposed to be royals, they’re supposed to be upper class, and they sound like some sort of stupid Davenshire farmer. I can’t believe that these are royals!” Then the American tourists, “What the hell are they talkin’ about?” So it’s constantly in a state of flux and change.
Sometimes people ask me what’s the difference between a regional dialect and a standard language. And the best answer that I have heard is: the standard language is the regional dialect that has the best army (laughing). So when they get political control of the country, then they set themselves up as being the standard, and they try and get everybody else to do it. For example, los Reyes Católicos, we call them Ferdinand and Isabella. When they gradually reconquered all of Spain, they tried to get everybody to do the Castellano, or the Castilian dialect that they used, which had certain peculiarities, like the “th”, a c and a z was pronounced with a “th”. They tried to get everybody all over Spain to do that, and of course, people resisted. And they didn’t do it. And so the New World doesn’t say hace and dice (with “th” sound, hear interview) they say hace and dice. Because a lot of the conquistadores that settled the New World were not Castilian speakers… they were from Extremadura, or they were from Andalucía, not wanting to say Andalucía (with “th” sound, hear interview). So to this day… also Franco tried to get everybody to speak the Castilian, people in Catalunya, they didn’t want to do it, they had their own Catalan, and the people up in Galicia, they didn’t want to do it, so you always have the one force that’s trying to standardize everything, saying: this is the correct version of the language, what we do. Do what we do. Then there’s a countervailing force, people say no, this is our culture, we want to keep our own regionality and our own regional way of speech.
BB:So, how many languages do you speak?
RE: Solamente uno. Solamente inglés.
BB: Just one.
RE: I know a few phrases in other languages, but what happens Mara is that if I go to a country, to coach a group of people that are doing a film, and the film’s being done in English, it’s very advantageous for me to say to the people, I’m sorry I don’t speak your language, you must speak English. Because that’s my job, to get them comfortable in English. Now I’ve worked all over the world and I know a few phrases, I know the important things. I can usually order a simple meal, or cuss out a stupid waiter, and you know, those essential things. But I do know the sound structures of different languages. So I can work backwards. I know what sounds in American English are lacking in their language, and then I know what the nearest acoustic equivalents that they would use as substitutes for the standard American sound. And likewise, when Americans go to learn foreign languages, they have great difficulty when they run across sounds that are not standard American sounds.

BB: What is the most difficult for an American, would you say?

RE: Oh, anything they’re not in the habit of doing. And the same way with Brits. One time I was working on a film in Spain. And we had a very upper class Englishman. And he was in the habit of not pronouncing final R. So all the Spanish infinitives end in R, but he couldn’t do that because he wasn’t in the habit of pronouncing them. And he couldn’t do the Spanish “rr” because it requires a tongue trill. So instead of saying “ferrocariles” which is the word for railway, he would say (hear inteview for pronunciation example). Now the Spanish people were very polite, and they could point him toward the railway station, but they were laughing because of his accent.
BB: What’s your favorite thing to teach? Or let’s say, what was your most rewarding teaching experience? I know you’ve been working for a long time…
RE: Yes I have. As an actor, I’ve specialized in recreating authentic dialects, you know, every part of the United States, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. But then other actors started asking me to teach them. And so I began to study not only the dialects that were commercial for me, but ones that would be commercial for them. So whatever project I’m working on, at the moment, is of course my favorite dialect, that’s what I’m concentrating on. But I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve coached a lot of people into Oscars and Emmys and Golden Globes, Cannes film festival awards.
Recently I coached Forest Whitaker for his wonderful role as Idi Amin, who was the dictator of Uganda. And so he and I listened to a lot of tapes of Idi Amin, and I spoke to a lot of people who had known Idi Amin, and so Forest, like many many actors, is primarily visual. He’s not primarily auditory. So he and I developed a system of re-spelling, so I had him beautifully prepared before he went, and then I would get a phonecall from him, because he would wake up in the morning in Kampala, and they had rewritten a whole lot of scenes, which is very unfair to an actor who’s doing a dialect that’s very different. And he would would call me in character (hear inteview for pronunciation example) “This is Idi Amin calling you from Kampala, I have three big scenes I have today with Nicholas, and they have rewritten all of the words. Do you think you could tell me how to re-spell all of these words?” And so like, “words”, W-U-D-Z. He would say “wudz” and he would get it. Because he’s very visual.
See some actors are extremely auditory, like Robin Williams, when I coached him for the one he got the Oscar for. His ear is just phenomenal. He won it for “Good Will Hunting”. I could just make the sound and he would repeat it with almost tape recorder fidelity. We improvised around all of the scenes, and in fact a lot of what’s in the movie is stuff that he and I improvised and that he put in. But Forest works differently. And with the re-spelling, because he’s so visual, he won every award there was. He won the Oscar, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA.
But it’s my job to ascertain very quickly, which ones are primarily auditory and which ones are primarily visual, which ones are primarily kinesthetic. That’s muscle memory. Because to create a different sound, you have to put the tongue into totally different positions, and you have to use the jaw differently, and it may require nasal vowels as in French and Portuguese. So it’s my job to ascertain, or half-ascertain, as the case may be, what’s the best way to work with each client. Work out the methodologies that are going to allow them to get it quickly and efficiently, comfortably. Now, people know, you know, I’ve coached about 2600 wonderful actors and actresses all over the world, I’ve worked on location, all over Europe, all over Asia, Africa. But people don’t know that in between I’ve used the same principles to help corporation executives that had a strong accent and it was holding them back.
I worked with a man who was head of Asian operations for a very large firm that has just gone under, unfortunately. He was a very very intelligent Chinese gentleman, and so knowing Chinese he could go all over China. Because even where they have a regional dialect, they are learning the Putonghua, which is the “People’s Language”. But when he had to talk to people who were English speakers, his English was a little hard to understand. So I worked hard with him, worked with a lot of top attornies who were losing jury cases.
BB: Why were they losing jury cases? They weren’t being taken seriously because of their accents? Or they couldn’t be understood?
RE: They were being taken seriously, but they were getting a different reaction. Let me elaborate a little bit more on that. Cause it was one week I remember I got two attornies the same week. One of them called me up, (hear inteview for accent) “ Bob I’m havin’ a big problem over here cause I’m not doin’ too well with California juries. I’m from New York. I talk fast, and the juries don’t like that I talk so fast, they think I’m talkin’ down to them, they think I’m slick, and I’m not doin’ very good. You think you could help me?” So I worked with him, I moved him toward a more standard American pronunciation, slowed him way down, I said slow down, you’re in a metronome. You’re in a metronome that goes bing!bing!bing!bing!, I said slow down more to bong-bong-bong-bong and say the words the way California juries pronounce them. Subjectively it will feel uncomfortable to you, subjectively, but objectively to them it wil sound natural and normal. In the same week I got another attorney, and he called me he says (hear interview for accent) “Bob, I’m a very good attorney, I don’t believe in false modesty. But I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Texas, graduated Summa Cum Laude, I know the law, but California juries, they think cause I talk slow, they think I’m dumb. And they don’t have enough respect… I just feel like I’m not serving my clients. Because these California juries, they just don’t like the way that I talk.” So I did the opposite with him, I sped him up. I ironed out the regionalities. And in both cases, as you would be able to predict, I got very good feedback from them. I don’t know a thing about the law, I couldn’t help them. But I could help them with their presentation. So they both began, for opposite reasons, to get much better receptions from California juries.
BB:Last question here. Just out of navel gazing curiosity…
RE: (Hear interview for accent) “I am not gazing at my navel, you are thinking I am gazing at my navel, but I have to tell you I very much prefer to gaze at other people’s navels!”
BB:Could you detect where my accent is from? Regionally? What could you tell me about me from my accent?
RE:When you called me the other day from Germany, I assumed that you calling me from Germany you were German. I’ve worked a lot in Germany and I did not detect German at all and I told you so. I said you sound very American. Like many people in the media, you have ironed it out to what they call Media-ese. And it’s much harder to tell people who are in the media to tell them where they’re from originally. Your voice is very warm, it comes across very pleasantly, and you’re obviously a lady of intelligence and culture and all of that, but I’m not prepared to speculate as to the different places you’ve lived.
BB: Philadelphia. That’s where I’m from.
RE: Well, OK, I didn’t hear you eat any “hoagies” (hear interview for accent), I didn’t hear you say “murry christmas”, or the “amuricans”, “park the car” or any of these things that are archetypically Philadelphian. I worked with David Brenner, one time… I’ve done the Tonight Show seven times and one time he hosted, and we were sort of getting around in “Philelphia” speak.
BB: “Youse want any dessert?”
RE: Now you see, that comes from Irish. Areas like Philadelphia and New York have had a lot of Irish immigration, we talked about grammar – in Ireland, they remedy a lot of the defects of English grammar. We do not at present make a distinction between the singular and the plural “you”. But in Ireland, it’s a big difference between “you” and “the both of yous” and “all three of yous”. So if someday said, OK, I’d like to have “you” come over to the house for Thanksgiving dinner, it’s ambiguous. But if you say “yous” — “I’d like to have yous come over to the house”, as New Yorkers would say, or in the south “I’d like to have y’all come over”, where you have a different plural for the second person, it’s much clearer. Likewise, in standard American, there is no contraction for the first person negative to be, we can say “he isn’t” and “you aren’t” and so forth, but we don’t have any for “am not”. In Ireland they have a wonderful one: (hear interview for accent) “Well, I’m the one who came up with that one, amn’t I?” “Amn’t I the clever one?”
So it fills a gap in the grammar. In Ireland they have a negative for “used to”, past habitual action. “Well, he usen’t to drink that much.” So the dialects quite often remedy gaps or ambiguities in the so-called standard language. And then those who speak the standard language look down on it and think it’s barbarous. Its all a subjective thing.
I had a client, from Colombia. Absolutely beautiful girl. Her Colombian accent was very heavy, so I said to her, Eunice, if you want to get work in American films, you have to sound more American. (Hear interview for accent) “How I going to do that?” I said OK; if you listen to Americans, imitate. “Imitate? Is not polite to imitate! If I imitate they gonna be very angry on me”. I said no, if you learn to imitate Americans well enough they will love it. And they will say oh! you’ve lost your accent. Meaning, you do what we do, and what we do is correct, And if you do what we do, we love it. And you get that concept all over the world.
See, the concept – you asked me before about dialects. To boil it down, dialect is always what the other people do. I was doing research when I was studying at the University College in London, and I went out to a little west country village, and I made the classic mistake – I went up to this elderly gentleman, now this was many years ago, in the 60s, this gentleman was probably 80 years old, so he probably had been born 120 years ago, so I made the mistake…I said, “good afternoon sir, I hope you don’t mind, I have my tape recorder here, I’m studying dialects at University College in London, and I would like to ask you about the dialect in your village. And he says, (hear interview for accent) “boy, we don’t have no dialect here. No, we do speak the queen’s English properly. Now if you want to hear a dialect, go over there, over those hills about twenty miles from here, there’s a village where they DO have a dialect. You would want to talk to them cause they do talk proper strange, like.” Now, again, he thought what they did in the village was standard. And they laughed at the people from the other village. The people from the other village would laugh at what the people in his village did.
So it’s all this very subjective perception. But, pragmatically, if you’re going to work in the American media, you’re going to be doing a role in a film, or you’re going to be a newscaster on television. See now, you’ve made that move, you don’t sound archetypically Philadelphian. You’re in the media-ese ballpark. And that’s very good for good clear communication. You see, BBC English was never spoken by very many people in Britain, it was a class accent. But in the United States what is the media-ese, from the demographics, is very close to what a very large number of people do, pronouncing all the “r’s” (hear interview for pronunciation) “have”, “past”, “last”. So if you do this media-ese kind of thing, which is kind of amorphous and kind of in a sense nondescript, people can’t tell where you’re from, and that’s a utility. It’s true with languages all over the world.
Sometimes people think, oh, the national language must be the language of the major city. That’s not always true. For example in Italy, not the dialect of Rome is the standard language, it’s from way north of there. It’s based on the language of Florence, because Dante and a whole lot of writers wrote in that Florentine dialect, it was assumed to be more correct, and more prestigious. And so you get these strange anomolies as to what is considered correct, what is considered better.
1972, I represented the United States at the International Federation of Actors, and we went to see a wonderful Russian production, a comedy. So the lady who was the English teacher at Moscow University was my personal translator, so everytime there was a big laugh I would say, “Tanishka, what is the joke?” and she would whisper to me and I would say, oh, that’s funny. And at one point there was a huge laugh, and I said, “Tanishka, what is the joke?” and she says, “it is not a joke”. And I said, well, it must be, because they laughed. She says, “well it is hard to translate”, and I said, well, try and help me. She said, “nnooo, they laugh because he pronounce in working class fashion”. I mean, we’re talking 1972, before Perestroika, and I said “Tanya, you know you live in a classless society! How could you possibly laugh at some poor schlub that pronounces in a working class fashion.” She said, “oh no no, I make big mistake, you are right, I should not have said that. What I should have said: he pronounce in uncultured fashion!” And I said oh well Tanya, that makes all the difference.