Because I was an infant, I have no memory of learning to speak English in northern Illinois. And because I was surrounded by the same people who influenced my speech, I didn’t know I had a regional accent. It wasn’t until I left home in my twenties that I started to encounter people who commented on the way I spoke. In Kansas, a coworker repeatedly pointed out the vowels she thought I should fix. It irritated me because, in my mind, she and I were speaking the same Standard American English I heard on TV.
Many years later, I sometimes wonder if I’ve lost my accent. But there’s always an observant stranger in the most unlikely of places, happy to remind me that I still talk funny. A young lady recently taking my food order in Oklahoma became suddenly enthusiastic when I spoke. She was from Iowa and we shared an accent, she explained to me before calling out to her coworker.
“She has an accent, too!” the young lady from Iowa told her Oklahoma friend, and they asked me to repeat the word “taco” for their enjoyment. I was embarrassed that I didn’t hear what they heard. Iowa, Illinois, and Oklahoma speakers all sound the same to me. Whatever slight nuances there are, I don’t hear them the way I hear a Southern twang or an Irish lilt.
Have you ever met someone from another country who simply dropped his accent to fit in? It’s mind-boggling. I try to imagine myself moving to Britain and adopting the Queen’s English but the idea seems absurd. The locals would chase me out of town for mocking them. Just ask my ComedySportz® Richmond Minor League teammates to name a time I spoke in any other accent than my own. They’ll come up with nothing.
Good improvisers use accents. By starting a scene in a slow, Southern drawl, an improviser allows Loyal Fans to assume the character’s backstory and demeanor. Imaginations can then provide the clothing, the weather, and maybe even the sweet tea. If a scene partner responds in a fast and gritty New York accent reminiscent of a fedora-wearing gangster, the audience understands: these characters come from different worlds and things are about to get interesting. Without props, costumes, or a narrator to fill in the blanks, improvisers can use accents to convey all sorts of details.
But I can’t do it. When my referee asked me, mid-scene, to adopt a British accent in a match last year, I panicked. In my head, I could hear a British accent, but my tongue and vocal cords had no instruction manual for coaxing that accent out. I continued speaking normally and added a disclaimer that my character had visited America and had lost his British accent. Not a high point in my improv journey.
To speak with an accent, you have to not only hear the subtle nuances but also understand the way the mouth forms those words. It’s like my relationship with music. I love music, but I can’t identify notes. Just because I can hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in my head doesn’t mean my fingers know where to go on the piano keys. I need sheet music. And lots of practice.
For some people, accents come easily. Take Tommy Muscatello, aka Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, Esq., whose high school drama teacher told the Wall Street Journal that Tommy was “able to learn and duplicate a British accent and the appropriate mannerisms for his character, again all from his own research.”
For those of us unskilled in such ear-mouth coordination, mastering accents requires work. There are videos, websites, classes, and podcasts on the subject. Like practicing musical scales, we can work on certain sounds in the hope that repetition will lead to learning.
Until then, let’s just tell the audience that all of our characters went to boarding school in whatever place we’re from. And let’s not try to pass ourselves off as experts on British royalty.