Monthly Archives: April 2013

How to Fake an Accent and Get Away With It

Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones

Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones

Accents are strange things. By the time we become teenagers we’re all pretty much stuck the accents with we have, unless we consciously decide to change them. And that takes a lot of effort.

What makes a fake or unnaturally acquired accent convincing?

Barbara Berkery has voice-coached some of the most successful transitions from American English to British English—Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland and Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Zellweger’s Bridget Jones is often cited as the best-ever English accent delivered by an American. Achieving that degree of mastery needs time.

“The voice is so central to our being as a person that we resist any kind of change,” says Berkery. “Renée and I had five weeks.”

Five weeks of full-time intensive coaching. Berkery and Zellweger practiced verbal exercises in the morning, working on different pronunciations of the twelve pure vowels and eight diphthongs of English. Then in the afternoon, they did field work: they’d go around London testing out the accent. The approach paid off spectacularly.

As that clip shows, the accent’s verisimilitude draws on more than just sounds.

“It’s not just what comes out of your mouth,” says Berkery. It’s also about what she calls the “shadow moves of physicality.” Each accent has its own shadow moves.

Radovan Karadžić as "D. D. David" at a conference on alternative medicine in Belgrade in January, 2008 (Photo: Serbian government via the BBC)

Radovan Karadžić as “D. D. David” at a conference on alternative medicine in Belgrade in January, 2008 (Photo: Serbian government via the BBC)

Put another way, an accent is something you see as well as hear. Good actors know that. Other people do too: Radovan Karadžić, for example. The accused Bosnian Serb war criminal escaped capture for years by posing as another person. Writer Jack Hitt went to Serbia to find out how he got away with it for so long.

“He changed every auditory, physical cue that anyone would ever use to identify Radovan Karadžić,” says Hitt.

Part of his disguise was an urban Belgrade accent, even though he wasn’t from there. “It was like…he’s from Alabama, even though he’s speaking in Brooklynese.” His choice of accent was particularly impressive given that he was hiding in Belgrade: he was testing it on the real experts, the accent’s native speakers, among whom he lived.

Here’s almost the opposite situation: you’re not among native speakers of your accent and you’re not intending to deceive anyone—but they are nonetheless deceived.

That happened to Gary Younge when he was researching a book about being an outsider in the United States. Younge was visiting a school in Mississippi. The school was largely segregated, to the point that it had a black principal and a white principal.

Young wanted to interview both principals. Only the white guy agreed to speak with him. He said he’d be delighted to have an Englishman visit. But then he was shocked to find out that this Englishman was black. “His jaw dropped,” says Younge. “He didn’t really know how to deal with it.”

Later in the day, Younge ran into the black school principal.
“He said, ‘Didn’t you call me the other day?” And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘I thought you were white.’”

There no deception in these encounters, no fake personas. But in a phone conversation, you can’t see the accent. It can paint an illusory picture.

On Broadway, it’s all about illusion. The British musical Matilda opened this month to rave reviews.

Nearly everyone in the cast is American. The four actresses who rotate in the role of Matilda have had to take voice coaching lessons in British English. One of them, nine-year-old Sophia Gennusa, says it took her about two months to master it. Then she slips into the accent, throwing in a couple of mildly British English turns of phrase. “She doesn’t smile a lot and she doesn’t show a lot of her feelings, so she’s pretty much a person who keeps a lot of her stuff inside of her,” says Gennusa.

Her accent is spot on. Unlike this one:



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Northern Ireland’s Past Through a Father’s Lens and Son’s Songs


Belfast (Photo: Bobbie Hanvey)

Belfast (Photo: Bobbie Hanvey)

Guest post from my Big Show colleague April Peavey

Northern Ireland had more than its share of sectarian violence in the time known as The Troubles.

The story’s been told more that a few times.

But now it’s being told through one family’s songs and photographs.

The pictures were taken in the 1970s and 80s by award-winning photojournalist Bobbie Hanvey.

Steafán Hanvey (Photo: Steafán Hanvey's website)

Steafán Hanvey (Photo: Steafán Hanvey’s website)

And his son, Steafán Hanvey wrote the songs, inspired by his dad’s photos.

As Steafán told me it’s “the sound of somebody trying to make sense of a chaotic environment.”

Steafán is out on the road promoting his new album, Nuclear Family, and his dad’s photos.

The project is called “Look Behind You! A Father and Son’s Impressions of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.”

Steafán Hanvey remembers growing up with his dad’s photos all around.



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A New Protestant Beginning for the Irish Language in Belfast

[Guest post from Aaron Schrank]

The Irish language used to be a symbol of Catholic nationalism. But it’s gradually becoming de-politicized, morphing into just another minority language in need of saving.

Lower Newtownards Road in East Belfast is solid Protestant territory. It was a hot spot for sectarian violence at the height of the troubles. Today, British flags flutter from fences. Murals of masked gunmen adorn the sides of buildings. It’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to find people learning Irish. But inside a community center, about a dozen people from the neighborhood are doing just that.

An Irish class in session in a Protestant section of Belfast (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

You wouldn’t have seen this a few decades ago. Just ask Sandra Irvine.

“When I was at school, I was brought up in East Belfast, yes, in a very Protestant area and for me to learn Irish would have been considered very strange,” Irvine said.

But she had always been curious about the language.

“I did actually attempt to learn Irish, but couldn’t find anywhere that I could go to, so it was in my mind for a very long time, but it wasn’t an option.”

Now, Irish is an option for people like Irvine. East Belfast Mission hosts classes five times a week.

This push for Protestant Irish learners is largely the work of one woman: Linda Ervine, the center’s Irish language development officer. It’s her job to convince people who, at best, see the language as irrelevant and, at worst, as an enemy tongue to care about it. She tells them to look a century into history, to when plenty of Protestants here spoke Irish.

“What the language does is, it allows people to explore the idea of Irishness in a non-threatening way,” said Ervine. “We are Irish. I feel I’m Irish.”

This means a lot coming from Linda Ervine. Her brother-in-law, David Ervine, was a well-known member of the Ulster Volunteer Force—a protestant paramilitary group. He did six years in prison before leading Northern Ireland’s Progressive Unionist Party.

“It was almost like we give people permission from the protestant community,” said Ervine. “Like, if we could do it, it was alright, sort of took the sting out of it or something.”

Linda Ervine’s efforts coincide with a push across Northern Ireland, backed by the government, for Irish language learning called Liofa, meaning “fluent.”

The culture minister whose pet project this is, Carál Ní Chuilín, is a Catholic and a former Provisional IRA militant.

But the campaign does have some cross-community support.

Basil McCrea is one the leading protestant politicians backing Liofa. He says that for Protestants to embrace Irish, it needs to be freed from its divisive past. And he has a little dig at some Catholic politicians – he says they still use the language as a political prop, especially during heated debates in parliament.

“You know when they’re annoyed because they respond in a huge amount of Irish,” said McCrea. “It’s like flying a flag. Fair enough. But it’s got nothing to do about language and everything to do about politics.”

Irish Teacher Cuthbert Arutura (Photo: Sarah Parvini)

There’s a well-known saying in Belfast, attributed to a Catholic Sinn Fein politician: “Every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish freedom.” It shows just how political the recent history of this language has been.

But not everyone here remembers that history. At an integrated Catholic and Protestant school south of Belfast, Cuthbert Arutura, or “Tura” for short, is speaking Irish with a room full of 10 and 11-year olds. These kids were born after the 1998 peace agreement.

Tura’s here to show them the language doesn’t have to be about politics. He’s a Zimbabwean immigrant, who moved to East Belfast 20 years ago.

“I’m a protestant. So I don’t buy the stories that politicians use to justify pursuing certain narratives,” Tura said. “The language isn’t owned by a political entity. It’s something that is living.”

For Tura, Irish has been a way to connect with his new home. Before moving here, he didn’t know how little it was spoken. Now, he works to save it.

“Tír gan teanga tír gan anam,” Tura said. “A country with no language is a country without a soul.” These words form the lyrics of a song he sings to the students.

Tura is among a wave of immigrants coming to Northern Ireland who don’t view Irish with decades of discord in mind. They see it as just another minority language, one that might be on its way out. Whether or not they’re learning Irish, and few are, they are at least helping normalize attitudes to language. Maybe that will mean even a few more locals, on either side of the Protestant-Catholic divide, will consider picking it up.


Patrick Cox adds:

Below is the podcast that includes the interview with my dad. He grew up learning Irish in newly independent Ireland. And after more than a decade of studying it at school, he promptly forgot nearly all of it.



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Will New Words Change How We Think About Illegal Immigration?

Protest against the legal treatment of immigrants in Santa Cruz, California (Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons) Protest against the legal treatment of immigrants in Santa Cruz, California (Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons)The Associated Press is dropping the term, ‘illegal immigrant,’ and the New York Times may soon follow suit (though the Times says its change won’t be so sweeping). The Times public editor says “language evolves,” which is undoubtedly does. But so do politics and public attitudes. They more than language evolution seem to be pushing news organizations away from the term ‘illegal immigrant’ right now.

Two groups have campaigned for this change: Drop the I-word and Define American. Monica Novoa, who has run them both, says the use of the word, ‘illegal,’ implies that it is legal terminology, which it is not. She says calling a person illegal, “gives the impression that the whole entity of a person can be illegal.” She prefers ‘undocumented’ or ‘unauthorized.’

This comes at a key moment in the history of immigration in the United States. In Washington, a ‘Group of Eight’ lawmakers are working on a bipartisan immigration reform plan that is likely to offer a legal path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants. Republican Senator John McCain, one of the Group of Eight, has been asked– and has refused– to drop his use of ‘illegal immigrant.’ Republicans opposed to immigration reform use stronger terms still– like ‘illegal alien'(which is still the term favored by the federal immigration agency, ICE). Most Democrats now avoid ‘illegal’ and ‘alien.’

So, what term can be used in place of ‘illegal immigrant’? Here are some suggestions from non-English language US media in this article from New American Media:

    Korean: ‘illegal overstayers’
    Punjabi: ‘living in hiding’
    Tagalog slang: TNT (‘tago ng tago,’ or ‘always in hiding’)

This 2011 report from Michel Marizco of the Fronteras desk offers some more suggestions:


‘Illegal immigrant’ isn’t the only expression that people can’t agree on. There’s ‘amnesty’ too, as discussed in a recent podcast.



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A New Beginning for the Kurdish Language in Turkey?

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Note from Patrick: Here’s a guest post from Turkey-based reporter Matthew Brunwasser.

Just 10 years ago, Professor Hasan Tanriverdi could have been arrested by security forces, blindfolded and taken to an underground prison and tortured, just for doing this.

Speaking Kurdish was banned under Turkish law.

The language challenged the national myth that all citizens of Turkey are ethnic Turks. So it was treated as a crime against the state. Repression and forced assimilation were so brutal that many Kurds in Turkey no longer speak Kurdish fluently. Today, Tanriverdi is teaching future teachers of Kurdish language at the state Dicle University.

“Our people are excited,” says Tanriverdi. “A language has just been freed. We are creating a master’s program for teaching Kurdish. For the first time, these teachers are able to learn how to teach Kurdish.”

Professor Tanriverdi says that 1,500 students applied for 150 spots in the program.

Sevet Turkoglu is a former history teacher, now a student in the Kurdish course. He says that Turkey’s government is righting the wrongs done to the Kurds by helping them learn their language. He says he’s sure that he will have a job when he graduates.

“The Prime Minister of Turkey said so,” Tukoglu says. “That’s why they made this course. Kurdish is now an elective course in schools. We hope that all subjects will be taught in Kurdish some day. But for now its most important that we focus on learning our language and culture.”

But not all students trust Ankara’s good intentions. The government introduced an elective course this year for 5th graders in public schools, to learn Kurdish two hours per week. Over the next three years it will expand to more grades – but still two hours per week. Student Adem Kurt says this means that the government policy is not serious.

“It doesn’t work with only one or two lessons,” says Kurt. “That’s how you learn a foreign language. If they are serious about giving Kurds our rights, they should open the way for mother tounge education in all subjects.”

After years of promises, many Kurds are skeptical of any offer by the Turkish government. Some say the government has no political will to really educate Kurds in Kurdish, even Taha Tursun, a student who’s enrolled in the course.

“Even though they are saying that they will hire us as teachers, it’s a lie,” says Tursun. “It’s only a red herring so they can tell society ‘look, we are training graduate students how to teach Kurdish. The Kurdish language problem is taken care of.'”

But the government has made other moves in what it calls its “Kurdish opening.” Bans on the Kurdish language have been wiped from the books. And the state created a television channel in Kurdish.

But the growing demand for teaching all subjects in the Kurdish language has still not been addressed. Didem Collinsworth, from the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says the demand is common to Kurds from all political, regional and religious backgrounds.

“I can say that is probably the strongest demand they have,” Collinsworth says. “They see it as a recognition of their Kurdishness, of their identity, of their culture. It all culminates in being able to learn Kurdish in schools.”

Collinsworth says that generations of repression has taken its toll on the language. There aren’t many Kurds fluent in Kurdish. They are used to speaking Turkish for all official matters. Even in Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish nationalism, Collinsworth says that none of the newspapers are Kurdish-language only.

“We were told by a Kurdish TV host that they had a hard time finding people to speak on their shows because no one spoke Kurdish that well anymore, good enough to be on TV,” says Collinsworth.

The attempt to crush the Kurdish language is now a dark chapter of Turkey’s history. But the battle for making Kurdish a second official language lies ahead. As Turkey struggles to become a more open society, its Kurdish-speaking citizens may continue to provide the biggest push.

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

[Patrick adds: Also included in the podcast is a report on Diyarbakir-based Kurdish language teacher Medya Ormek, who is all of 13 years old.

Also, here’s a previous pod on the letters Q, W and X: they appear in the Kurdish alphabet, but not in the Turkish one.]



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