Actress Karen Gillan, famous for her role as Amy Pond on Doctor Who, is well-known for her ability to do a spot-on American accent. She was recently asked in an interview about how she gained that ability and her answer was interesting: She said that in Scotland (and, I presume, the U.K. in general) American entertainment and pop culture was so prevalent everyone can do an American accent. In fact, she said she ‘even played Barbies in an American accent.’
For a translation pro like myself, this is interesting, because there’s an assumption out there that English actors can easily master the American accent whereas American actors usually mess up the ‘British’ or English accent. But I don’t think this is entirely true: The real secret is the fact that Americans don’t pay as much attention to accents as people in the U.K. do. Now, I’m only a humble translation services worker, so I may be out of my depth, but I think I’m onto something.
America, just like the U.K., has a large number of regional accents that are instantly placeable to any American. There’s the ‘New York’ or North-eastern accent (and many sub-accents), the southern accent, the mid-western accent, and a million others. It’s a huge mistake to assume that there’s such a thing as an ‘American’ accent.
Just as American actors often go for a ‘London’ accent in their roles, English actors also tend to default to a specific choice, and it’s usually Midwestern. Midwestern accents in general are found in the middle of the United States, and are faintly Nordic in their tone and intonation owing to the immigration patterns of the last few centuries. Sometimes referred to as a Chicago accent, they are acceptable to most American ears and thus a great choice. But it does mean that far from being ‘accent masters’ English actors are just choosing a safe and easy default.
Challenges of ‘American’
The American accent can be a little challenging for English folks. While specific vowel sounds have to be managed – and the voiced and unvoiced consonants in American English can be quite difficult for English folks – the real challenge is in the rhythms of it. Whereas many other cultures think that American speak incredibly quickly (and this is another reason that a mid-western accent is chosen, as in America this accent is often considered ‘slow’), the fact is many English people speak just as fast, and any American trying to parse a Scouse accent would agree that English people speak incredibly fast.
Rhythm of speech, however, can be easily learned simply by listening. And that’s likely the greatest skill of any actor: Listening and mimicking speech. Let’s just put the idea that English actors are better at it out of our heads, shall we?
Image courtesy paroleacolori.com