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This week’s voice-over accent is on accents. Just saying.

Edge Studio

In the voice-over marketplace, the most widely saleable U.S. accent is the “neutral” American accent (“standard”), typified by the northern Midwest. For example, Nebraska, where Johnny Carson hailed from. But as you’ll see in this Dialect Map of American English, there are a LOT of other U.S. accents, and among the many VO genres, there are various markets and uses for them. When you’re playing a character, or evoking a sound, how do you choose accurately?

Even within this tremendous range, the map’s author (admittedly) lumps some together – including the various accents traditional to New York City. So, for example, let’s look at that…

New York City is not just one accent. But it’s fewer than it used to be.

Out-of-towners might not be aware of some distinctions, so it’s important to note the difference between a “stereotype” accent and an authentic one. The stereotype might play okay in a comedy or a commercial, but there’s the danger of offending the locale’s natives, and mostly likely won’t fool anyone in the neighborhood for a minute.

It’s not just a matter of boroughs. It’s also a matter of the many New York neighborhoods. We’ve all heard Archie Bunker, who supposedly lived in Astoria (although his house’s exterior is more central Queens). Well, he spoke like he grew up in Greenpoint (as in “Greenpernt”), which is technically Brooklyn. It’s both a stone’s throw from Astoria, and a world away. But if you really want Brooklyn, there’s Rosie Perez, who grew up in Bushwick. Both she and Jennifer Lopez have Puerto Rican backgrounds, but Lopez is from the Bronx. They sound similar, but different. Al Pacino – South Bronx or Northern Manhattan. George Carlin sounded a bit further south – as from Harlem. John Leguizamo is classic Queens. (While you’re at YouTube to see this recent appearance, also see his one-man show, “Freak.”). And Matthew Broderick? Born and schooled in Manhattan, with actor parents, he might was well be from the Midwest, as Manhattanites and many other Tri-State area residents tend to sound today.

George Carlin sounds like Harlem? Yes. But that disregards the cultural and ethnic influences, that are often a greater determinant of how a person speaks.

A person’s cultural and ethnic roots can stay with a person, even as they relocate. But mobility and today’s wider scope of communication has had effect.

In fact, the Brooklyn “goil from Toidy-Toid Street” accent has almost vanished. Many versions of the “New York Accent” are softening or disappearing. Blame TV, geographic mobility, social mobility, the impossible cost of remaining in gentrified neighborhoods, immigration from all parts of the world, whatever (all of those and more), the New York sound doesn’t sound quite like it used to.

A Midwesterner who’s lived in New York for a few decades may even cease to “hear” the New York accent, because even in the heart of Queens (New York’s largest and probably most diverse borough), it’s become an amalgam. A New Yorker’s “R”s may still be soft, but it’s not always so apparent to someone who doesn’t have a fresh ear or professional interest.

Contributing to that inability, the newcomer often picks up New York speech habits themselves. Most likely, the family of a transplanted Midwesterner will hear “New York” in their relative when he or she visits home. Not just in the accent, but also in vocabulary and pronunciation. The rest of the Midwestern family sits down to manicotti, while the transplant enjoys “mahnigoht.”

So, when you’re playing a New Yorker, or someone from whatever locale, what accent should you use? If any, the decision might be best made in terms not of geography, or even culture, but social background. While people move around and even change their sound after moving, ethnic and social influences still differentiate the way people speak – in New York and just about anywhere. A person speaking wants co-workers, new friends and other people to think that the speaker is like them, not that the speaker necessarily grew up in the same neighborhood. Most people feel most comfortable when they blend in.

But sometimes, without focused study, the most you can hope for is that you’ll be consistent.

(If you’re interested in pursuing accent acquisition or elimination, contact Edge Studio. We’ll refer you to an expert. )

Accents Elimination & Accent Acquisition