22 April 2005

the ideology of whatever

One of the themes I'm trying to incorporate into my current class ("Language in Society") is an attempt to have the students think critically about the portrayal of language, dialect, and accent in popular enterntainment media.

I have ranted about such things in the past, notably about the inability or unwillingness of those in the industry to get it right. After additional reflection, I have identified 4 different ways in which actors and scriptwriters misrepresent speech varieties:

1 - through blatant disregard. In other words, don't even bother trying.
2 - through poor execution. Make an honest attempt at an accent, but fail to get it.
3 - through purposeful stereotypical exaggeration. Highlight linguistic stereotypes for the sake of comedy.
4 - through more subtle manipulation. Use identifiable linguistic traits and associated stereotypes to develop or frame characters.

This might represent the full scope of the ideology behind dialect misrepresentation; I think any portrayal that is not spot-on will fit into one of the above 4 categories.

The subtle-manipulation group is the most interesting to me. It's easy to get sucked into message board threads about movies and accents, and many of them focus on this aspect of it, notably in the Star Wars trilogies and in WWII-era film.

Poor execution is another locus of grievance. The example I used in class was an episode of Alias in which a guest star is supposed to be from Belfast but speaks with a perfect urban Scottish accent. I was really impressed with her portrayal of Scottish English, until I realized she was not meant to be Scottish. I then went to look her up, and the actress is Scottish. (A complication is that the character does have an under-cover Scotland connection). The producers probably cast her as a Northern Irish character because her Scottish accent was close enough.

Anyway, I was glad to see how quickly the class got it - they all detected the character-accent mismatch. For the class, I called this "the ideology of whatever", a phrase they seemed to enjoy. According to the ideology of whatever, in dramatic portrayals of dialect, close enough is good enough. But I expect more.


At Sat Apr 23, 05:46:00 PM 2005, Blogger Q. Pheevr said...

In principle, I think there's another possible category of misrepresentation (although I can't think of a concrete example of it just now): inaccuracy through a hypercorrective attempt to avoid stereotypes. In other words, the actor or writer might suppress actual characteristics of a dialect in order to make a character sound less like previous portrayals of members of the same group, or to eliminate some stigma associated with non-prestige dialect features.

At Sat Apr 23, 11:32:00 PM 2005, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

You're right. I can imagine someone softening their accent technique to avoid a bad review, or to avoid accusations of an inappropriate or racist portrayal. Another reason could be to render the character more intelligible, which is a pretty practical concern. This seems to be the motivation behind having German characters speak German-accented English to each other in ww2 movies.

Maybe a better way to characterize the taxonomy is in terms of a set of dimensions, if not categorical features. +/-accurate, +/-intentional, +/-exaggerated etc.

So "poor execution" is [-acc, -int]. Purposeful exaggeration is [-acc, +int, +ex]. Your example is [-acc, +int, -ex].

But it makes me think that the "subtle manipulation" group could appear in various configurations, revolving around accuracy and exaggeration.


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