Capturing Accents Lost to History

In the previous two Accents in Movies articles, we’ve talked about the important role dialect coach Tim Monich has played in helping some of Hollywood’s most high profile actors master a variety of complex accents, from the standard native New York accent to a southern accent that reflects a background in Latin and linguistics, as seen in Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holiday in Tombstone.

In helping his client achieve the proper accent for a film role, Monich first has a detailed discussion with the director, looking to answer questions related to a character’s birth place, race, age and education level, among others, followed by a chat with the actor as to how they view their character.

Whenever possible Monich has actors listen to recorded speech samples of the actual person they are going to be portraying on screen, similar to how Bradley Cooper meticulously focused in on Chris Kyle’s speech patterns during the filming of American Sniper. This begs the question, how do dialect coaches create accurate accents for characters in historical films in the absence of audio recordings or writings from the period to guide their interpretation?

Accents and Identity in Gangs of New York

Such a scenario presented itself when Monich worked with Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis played the role of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, leader of New York’s “Nativist” gang comprised of U.S. born citizens that stands in fundamental opposition against the Irish Catholic immigrant gang the Dead Rabbits. The character of Cutting was based on Bill “the Butcher” Poole, a bare knuckle boxer and political figure who served as leader of the anti- Catholic gang the Bowrey Boys until he was murdered on Gangs of New YorkMarch 8, 1855 by Lew Baker. Baker, a known enforcer for The Tammany Society, was acting at the request of his friend John Morrissey, a politician and prominent figure within the Dead Rabbits gang. The Gangs of New York eschews the true details behind Poole’s murder in favor of a semi-fictional revenge tale that sets Dicaprio’s Irish-American character Amsterdam Vallon on a quest for retribution after witnessing Cutting murder his father “Priest” Vallon at the end of a battle between each man’s respective gangs.

Reading Out Loud Can Improve your Accent

Pride in one’s heritage is one of the most important themes in Gangs of New York, and Monich wanted to make sure DiCaprio and Day-Lewis’ characters spoke with nuanced Irish accents instead of the stereotypical Brogue Irish accent that is frequently seen in television and film. The accents selected had to feel authentic while also not being difficult for the audience to understand. If the accents were bad, the audience was likely to make judgments about the characters based on their accents, a common fear among those who want to learn to speak English.

Monic taught the actors on set a variety of Irish dialects, including Cork, Kerry, Dublin, Liverpool and Liverpool. Monich found that newspaper articles from the period occasionally wrote dialect into editorial humor based pieces, which helped, as did a book called “Rouge’s Lexicon” originally written in the 19th century that contained idioms commonly used by New York’s gangs. The book was used by cops to decipher criminal jargon.

Day-Lewis wanted the character of Bill Cutting to have the authoritative, persuasive sounding voice of an individual who enjoys speaking in front of large crowds. Given that many people of the time read the Bible extensively, Monich had Day-Lewis read from the Old Testament, along with selections of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Whitman’s writing style and sense of rhythm was heavily influenced by the Bible. Day-Lewis is no stranger to learning historical accents. He later went on to play Abraham Lincoln in the 2012 film Lincoln

Those who want to learn to speak English should be open to reading English aloud in a variety of forms, whether in a book, poetry, or formal business documents. This will give you a better understanding of the rhythm of the language when spoken aloud. You will also get to hear the sound of your voice when delivering information and can therefore assess important factors impacting how your accent sounds to others. These include: pitch, intonation, and the level of emotion conveyed when speaking.

Learn to Speak English: Where to Learn More

Accent Pros has a continuing series on how to speak English, including common English phrases and American idioms.  Be sure to check out other blog posts to find your favorites.  Ready for a complimentary accent reduction tutorial or a free accent screening?  Check out our on-line accent reduction courses  available to students with accent reduction goals all over the world. For consistent access to our idioms series and other tips on how you can learn to speak English, Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter

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