Allison Smith

How to Talk American

Canadian voice-over talents like me have an interesting and unusual challenge that presents itself, especially when–as mine is–your focus is on building an American clientele.

There are certain tell-tale words and cadences that give us away when we attempt to “fit in” and make our “Canadian accents” neutral (and ultimately a non-issue). Most of us know about modifying words like “project” and “process” to sound less “Canadian” (saying “PRAW-ject” and “PRAW-cess” as opposed to saying more of a “pro” sound fits in better with American clients), but it led me wonder if there were other hard-and-fast rules that would allow for voice talent to make  the adjustment and acclimatize better while voicing American projects. Another word which comes up often in scripts is “data” (DAY-tuh is more American than “DATT-ta.”)

No sooner had I rolled that idea around in my head as a possible blog topic when I met a fascinating speech-language pathologist at a party of mutual friends of ours. Her name was Lisa Bjerke, who runs a company called Accent On Canadian English (www.accentoncanadianenglish.com), and I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed for this article. (And believe me: nothing makes me smarten up and enunciate like meeting a speech pathologist. Like chatting with a dental hygienist and fighting the urge to fish for floss in my handbag.)

She had some great additions to the list of words that could stand to benefit from a consistent American treatment:  borrowed words, such as drama, Mazda, pasta, and plaza tend to be pronounced “the Canadian way” with an “a” as in “hat” and in the “American way” with the “a” as in “hot.” (I have a close friend from the U.S. who is driven crazy when the suggestion of “PASTa” comes up, as opposed to “PAHS-ta”.)

“The prefix ‘i, as used in anti, and semi, is typically pronounced as “ee” by Canadians and “eye” by Americans. Similarly, The ‘ile’ suffix is most often pronounced as “aisle” by Canadians, and “ul” by Americans in words such as ‘fragile’ ‘versatile‘, mobile’, and ‘hostile,'” Lisa continues. She also points out the characteristic American pronunciation of “roof” with the same vowel sound in “put” while Canadians tend to say “ew” as in “pool.”

She further deconstructs the difference in cadence between speakers of the two nations: Canadians produce two vowel sounds in a more clipped manner than our American neighbors. The two vowel sounds are ‘i‘ as in ‘wide’ and ‘ow’ and in ‘cow.’ In Canadian English, pronunciation varies depending on whether a voiceless or voiced sound follows the vowel sound. This phenomenon is known as Canadian Raising, she explains, further illustrating: “Say the words ‘right’ and ‘ride’ and ‘house’ and ‘houses’ out loud. The vowels in these words are slightly different for Canadians but not for Americans. For Canadians, the tongue is raised to a more central position in the mouth for the two vowel sounds mentioned when they are followed by a voiceless sound such as /t/ or /s/.” (Try it! It really works! Talk about a party trick!)

I brought up a predicament that Lisa found interesting: when I’m asked to voice in a British accent (in fact, I’ve blogged before in this space about how “Jane”, my British alter-ego sometimes snags more work than I do), quite often the scripting is at odds with the accent. The client, who  is usually American and wants to create an upscale, erudite image by using an English accented-announcer, will insist that I say words like “controversy” as “CON-tro-VER-sy”, as opposed to the more authentic British “con-TROV-ersy.” I should be saying “IN-quiry” (British) as opposed to “in-QUIRE-ry” (American).  Lisa addressed that by explaining that accents are comprised of two main aspects: segmentals, which are the individual vowel and consonant sounds, and  supersegmentals, which are the unique stress and intonation patterns of the language. Her advice was actually my default way of dealing with the problem of script battling the accent: I might have to do it in an ‘un-authentic’ manner to please the public. And to always keep in mind who the audience is.

I couldn’t resist imparting my story to Lisa about the realtor from Georgia for whom I used to voice “talking house” real estate listings. She called me one morning about a redo. “Hon”, she drawled, “It’s pronounced ‘foy-YUR’….you said ‘foy-YAY.” My skin crawled, and so did Lisa’s: the word “foyer” has French roots, and while I’m not a Francophone-type-Canadian, I do my best to defer to the rightful roots of a word. Grudgingly, I gave her the pronunciation she was after,  but I wasn’t happy about it.

Another one I’m frequently pulled over for is the pronunciation of the word “sorry.” It should almost sound more like the Indian garment sari in American scripts than the Canadian “SORE-ry,” and we Canadians are known as an overly apologetic people. You would think we need little coaching on that word.)

Lisa spent American Thanksgiving in Los Angeles and was stricken, even  being a speech pathologist, at how our brains perceive the differences in accents, even with the vowels “a” in “hat” and “a’ in “hot” being delivered in a millisecond. The differences are appreciable and distinct.

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, having voiced platforms for Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Bell Canada, Vonage, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom, and the Asterisk open-source PBX. Her Web site is www.theivrvoice.com.