Aug 23 / Jon Hunter

People who live in glasshouses should get out more

Production image: The Hunt, Almeida Theatre, 2019
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Architecture of an accent is a masterclass I teach as part of my Accents for Actors course. Architecture is a word I find myself using across my work with actors more and more. Perhaps it’s just a sexy synonym for building. As actors, we build an accent, a character, a relationship, a scene, a story, a world… But there’s a deeper resonance that I feel the word Architecture can hold, a richer articulation of the work we do.

Architecture speaks to the beauty of the Art that is ultimately the performance, but also acknowledges the design considerations, the foundations, the framework, the layers of hidden structure and problem-solving that ensure its underlying stability and strength.

A post-performance conversation most actors have endured is the innocent-but-inane, “How do you remember all those lines?” — as if Recall were the most challenging part of what we do. But, of course, so much of what culminates in the performance on stage (or screen) is hidden from the audience’s view. They don’t know what they can’t see.

Home is where the start is

Let’s think about Home. A home is more than just a roof over our heads. It’s a place of refuge, familiarity, habit. That place where we can kick off our shoes, drop the performance, and be ourselves. We know it so well that we can shuffle, half-asleep in the dark of night, to the bathroom relatively unbruised because the pathway is so well-walked.

In our Home, we have pathways. And we have patterns of behaviour.

When I would return home for family dinners (no longer my home, now just my parents’ home), I’d be the good son who'd clear the table and load the dishwasher post-meal. It wasn’t until some years after my father died that I discovered he would unload and reload the dishwasher his way after I’d left.

Just so you know, I pride myself on good dishwasher-loading technique, and it wasn’t actually that what I did was bad or wrong. Simply, it was his home, so it was his way. We have patterns of doing things in our ‘home’ that repeat and repeat to the point where what I do and who I am become indistinguishable.

Our accent is like a home. We’ve literally built the foundations, the walls and the roof through the muscular shaping and action of our vocal instrument. This accent structure, built from embedded patterns of behaviour, exists pre-words. What I mean is that words are like the decor — the paint colour, artwork and furniture. This is Grand Designs, so these decor-words are in perfect harmony with the architecture of the building — the right shape, size, colour…

An accent isn’t the resultant words, rather an accent is the underlying structure that houses the words

Let’s take two French words: restaurant and Paris. Both words exist in English and, if you're like me, you probably say them something like ress-tuh-ront and pa-riss. You may know that in French the pronunciation is more like ress-toh-ron (with a nasalised second syllable) and pah-ree — both words using an R sound we don’t use in our way of speaking, made using the soft palate instead of the tongue. And if I’m going to get really precise, the French pronunciation of the P is unaspirated (using less airflow than how we say it in English).

Technically, these pronunciation adjustments we make to turn pah-ree into pa-riss are called linguistic anglicisation or (my preference) Englishing. We can explain away this Englishing as just doing what we do to make things easier for us to say, right? And, yes, it does. But, I warn you, it’s a slippery speech slope…

It’s like someone’s given you an armchair that clearly does not go with the Grand Design of your house. It’s too hard and angular, and doesn’t match the soft curves of your custom furniture. So you cover it with a throw and a few cushions to try and make it fit. Speech sounds get massaged towards something more known and familiar — something more palatable and easier for us to say — given the particular pronunciation pathways of our own accent.

We need to get interested in building houses

As actors (supreme observers of human behaviour that we are) it’s helpful to understand how an accent has come about in order to live inside the home of this adopted accent. If learning a foreign accent of English (where the speaker's native tongue is something other than English), I always recommend the actor learns a little of the native language, as so much of the accent in English is drawn directly from the pronunciation patterns of the native language. Using French as an example again, the letter H is silent in French and that pattern often carries over into speaking English — Harry has horses becomes Arry as orses.

Yet, as actors who understand the above (supreme observers of human behaviour that we are), we must not fall into the trap of living inside our own houses when we are playing other humans. It is not enough to make our houses out of glass so that we can observe the other humans from the safe and familiar surroundings of who we are. We need to build new ones. And live in them. Or at the very least, Book-a-Bach and holiday in it for some time.
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Artwork by Mr G (Graham Hoete)
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Can we be any wronger?

Pronunciation of Māori place names in New Zealand is a heated topic across the news and social media at the moment (or, again). I love the specificity that the above artwork captures in the Englishing of Tauranga to towel-wronger. It’s an in-joke.

For someone with a typical New Zealand accent, this makes sense because we say towel with a ‘w-substitute’ (L-vocalisation) where the L sound disappears and is replaced by something more like a W shape/sound. This makes the word towel rhyme with now and therefore rhyme with the way we hear some New Zealanders say taow - wronga. However, an American, for example, reading it would say tao - iLLLL wrong - eRRRR. The point Mr G is making with this work would be lost on them.

I used to have a knee-jerk reaction to this Englishing of Māori words because so many of the sounds are homophonous (pronounced the same) so should be easy enough for us all to say, right?

Say toe - paw. Without hearing you, I can’t say for certain you are pronouncing Taupō well, but you’ll certainly be a lot closer than tao - poh (to rhyme with now - go)…

What I now understand is that it requires more than just sound-likes to inhabit another accent or language. We need to take a deep breath, get out of our own house, knock on a door and inhabit another.

New house. New pathways. New patterns.

In his book A Pattern Language, architect Christopher Alexander lays out how specific design choices can help us build better relationships with each other and our world. In it he states,

“No pattern is an isolated entity… when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it.”

Let’s learn how to build houses. Share them. And repair them.
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