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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Accents & Dialects for Stage & Screen

This guide is designed to provide an overview of resources available in the libraries relating to accents and dialects.

Use the tabs to the left to navigate the guide.

NOTE

This guide is still under construction but has been made available to support students and faculty as they transition to online courses.

About this Guide

Actors, comedians, satirists and many other storytellers use accents to bring their stories to life. But how do they convincingly sound like someone from a different region or country? Some people can simply listen to an accent a few times and easily mimic that accent. Others have to meticulously research and practice the accent before it feels and sounds natural. This guide is meant to support any individual wherever they may be in their facility with Dialect Acquisition.

The Dialect Acquisition Process is composed of several steps:

  • Listening to and observing both native speakers of the accent (primary sources) and actors incorporating the accent into a performance (secondary source).
  • Identifying and analyzing the specific changes in the accent’s pronunciation of English speech sounds. These specific changes are also called substitutions. In these first two steps, the shape of a speaker’s vocal tract can also be analyzed. This specific shape is also called mouth posture or vocal tract posture. Pitch, tone, rhythm, tempo and overall musicality of the accent are also important to note.
  • Practicing the mouth posture, substitutions and musicality on specific words and phrases that prominently feature the substitutions. 
  • Applying the accent to text that is specifically written for that accent/dialect. 
  • Understanding the history and culture in which the accent is heard is necessary in order to create an honest representation of a human being rather than a stereotype or caricature. 

This guide is designed to reflect this process. Use the tabs to the left to navigate the guide, from Listening to and Observing examples, to Identifying and Analyzing accents and dialects, to Practicing and then Applying the accent/dialect to monologues, scenes, and more. The final tab - Understanding - helps situate this process in the current field. 

Definitions

ACCENT: The cumulative auditory effect of those features of pronunciation which identify where a person is from, regionally or socially. The linguistics literature emphasizes that the term refers to pronunciation only, and is thus distinct from dialect, which refers to grammar and vocabulary as well.

DIALECT: A regionally or socially distinctive variety of language, identified by a particular set of words and grammatical structures. Spoken dialects are usually also associated with a distinctive pronunciation, or accent. Any language with a reasonably large number of speakers will develop dialects, especially if there are geographical barriers separating groups of people from each other, or if there are divisions of social class.

-- from The Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics


Accent and Dialect are often used interchangeably. But more specifically, accent is the way a person or a group of people pronounces words. Dialect refers to both the accent and the grammatical rules of the language. Further insight into the distinction is discussed by Ben T. Smith on his post on the dialect blog: http://dialectblog.com/2011/01/28/dialect-vs-accent/.  Babbel also dives into the discussion as well: https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/accents-and-dialects

Credits

This guide was developed in collaboration with Allison Moody, Visiting Assistant Professor of Voice and Speech in the Department of Theatre.