Movie Accent Expert Analyzes 31 Actors Playing Other Famous People: Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, and More

Well-known figures' voices are often as distinctive as their thousand-watt smiles and influential hairdos.

While there is some evidence as to the accents and idiosyncratic speech patterns of such historical heavy hitters as Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale, and Harry Houdini, technological improvements have really upped the ante for those charged with impersonating real life people from the mid 20th-century onward.




Natalie Portman had to sustain her Jackie Kennedy impersonation for an entire feature-length biopic, a performance dialect coach Erik Singer gives high marks, above. Portman, he explains, has truly internalized Jackie’s idiolect, the individual quirks that add yet another layer to such signifiers as class and region.

As evidence, he submits a side-by-side comparison of the First Lady’s famous 1962 televised tour of the White House renovations she had spearheaded, and Portman’s recreation thereof.

Portman has done her homework with regard to breath pattern, pitch, and the refinement that strikes most 21st century ears as a bit stilted and strange. Most impressive to Singer is the way Portman transfers Kennedy’s oddly musical elongation of certain syllables to other words in the script. Tis no mere parrot job.

Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles succeeds on copious research and his ability to inhabit Charles’ habitual smile. Obviously, the posture in which an individual holds their mouth has a lot to do with the sound of their voice, and Foxx was blessed with plenty of source material.

The 1982 epic Gandhi provided the versatile Ben Kingsley with the opportunity to showcase not one, but two, idiolects. The adult Gandhi underwent a dramatic and well documented evolution from the British accent he adopted as a young law student in London to a proudly Indian voice better suited to inspiring a nation to unify against its British colonizers.

It’s likely that many of us have never considered the speech-related building blocks Singer scrutinizes while analyzing 29 other performances for the WIRED video, above—epenthesis, tongue positions, relative degrees of emphatic muscularity, and retroflex consonants—but it’s easy to see how they play a part.

Singer invites you to expand his research and teaching library by recording yourself speaking extemporaneously and reading from two sample texts here. Pray that whoever plays you in the biopic gets it right.

Related Content:

Peter Sellers Gives a Quick Demonstration of British Accents

Why Do People Talk Funny in Old Movies?, or The Origin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Watch Meryl Streep Have Fun with Accents: Bronx, Polish, Irish, Australian, Yiddish & More

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

These Four Manuscripts Contain All of the Literature Written in Old English–and Beyond That, There’s Nothing More

Book historians and rare manuscript librarians do not have the most glamorous jobs by the usual standards. They deal with weathered, tattered, fragmentary scraps of text in archaic languages and lettering. It’s work unlikely to receive the Hollywood (or Netflix) treatment unless wizards, witches, or occult detectives are involved. But the relative obscurity of these professions does not make the work any less valuable. Without dedicated archivists and preservationists, a slow collective amnesia, or worse, can set in.

One might call this attitude precious. Specialists are useful, art is great, but with sophisticated machine learning, we can make, store, and print copies of every historical artifact in the world, along with all of the accumulated knowledge about them. What need to dote on crumbling manuscripts? Why the special status of the original? The question, taken up by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” comes down in part to something he called “aura.”




Take the case of four manuscripts, all of which recently appeared together at the British Library’s extensive exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War: The Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, the Exeter Book, and the Beowulf Manuscript contain riddles, religious texts, elegies, and the oldest manuscript of the oldest known poem in English. These represent the sum total of extant original literary manuscripts in Old English, a tongue several centuries distant from our own but still embedded deep within the structure of every modern version of the language.

Each manuscript has what, as Benjamin wrote, “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking… its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Josephine Livingstone puts the matter more plainly at The New Republic.

Why are these four books so special? It has to do, I think, with the concept of the original—a concept we have almost entirely lost touch with. The Beowulf Manuscript… is not merely a representation of a story; it is the story…. The manuscripts confront us with a former version of our literary selves; identities that we barely recognize, and which estrange us from ourselves.

We can reproduce history infinitely, but the only way to experience the humbling otherworldliness that dwarfs our cramped ideas about it is through its physical remainders. Livingstone doesn’t clarify whom she includes in the phrase “our literary selves,” but we might as well say, at minimum, this means every speaker of English and everyone who has read English literature in translation or felt the influence of English words and phrases in other languages.

We acquire the language we hear and read from literary sources, however remote; they are constitutive, the threads that weave together cultural narratives into a larger pattern. The original work of art, Benjamin argued, like the relic, has religious significance. And where the relic grounds the cult, art grounds material culture in such a way, he thought, that it repels fascism's aesthetic obsession with destruction.

Original artifacts “must restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses,” literary scholar Susan Buck-Morss elaborates, “for the sake of humanity’s self-preservation.” The statement may sound less grandiose in the context of Europe in 1936, or we might consider it just as relevant today (and expand it to include not only art but nature).

We can rely on the fact that, should the Beowulf Manuscript be destroyed, Livingstone grants, “the poem would still survive,” as would the image of the manuscript in very fine detail. That is “the hope contained in Benjamin’s dirge.” But what is lost can never appear in the world again. You can view most of these rare texts—The Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, and the Beowulf Manuscript—in high resolution scans at the British and Bodleian Libraries.

The texts are a minuscule sampling of the number of cultural artifacts around the world worthy of preservation, and publicity. And they are a tiny sampling of the literary production of Old English. But on them rests a great deal of our understanding about the linguistic ancestors of the language, with more to learn, perhaps, as scanning technology becomes even more advanced, illuminating rather than replacing the original.

via The New Republic

Related Content:

1,000-Year-Old Manuscript of Beowulf Digitized and Now Online

Europe’s Oldest Intact Book Was Preserved and Found in the Coffin of a Saint

One of the Best Preserved Ancient Manuscripts of The Iliad Is Now Digitized: See the “Bankes Homer” Manuscript in High Resolution (Circa 150 C.E.)

Wikipedia Leads Effort to Create a Digital Archive of 20 Million Artifacts Lost in the Brazilian Museum Fire

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“Lynchian,” “Kubrickian,” “Tarantinoesque” and 100+ Film Words Have Been Added to the Oxford English Dictionary

Image via Oxford English Dictionary

Get interested enough in anything, and you soon discover its language. Each subject, pursuit, and area of culture has its own slang, its own jargon, even its own grammar: that goes as well for physics and fishing as it does for cooking and cinema. Though quite specialized, the vast lexicon of that last has also contributed a great deal to English as generally used. The latest update to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary has added more than 100 of these terms, from already well-known expressions like "edge-of-your-seat," "not in Kansas anymore," and "blink and you'll miss it" to the less-common likes of kaiju (the Japanese battling-monster genre that gave us Godzilla), and Foley (the art of adding incidental sounds to movies in post-production), and gorehound (an enthusiast of the gorefest, a genre whose sensibility you can well imagine).

Many of the new entries have to do with particular directors and their styles. "The list runs through a range of genres and locations, from the wide landscapes of the American West evoked by Fordian to Swedish soul-searching with Bergmanesque," writes the OED's Craig Leyland. The oldest, Keatonesque, "dates from 1921, near the start of an extraordinary run of success for the comic actor and film-maker, and typically refers to Keaton’s famous deadpan expression and penchant for physical comedy. The most recent is Tarantinoesque, first seen in 1994 – the year Pulp Fiction appeared in cinemas," which refers to qualities like "graphic and stylized violence, cineliterate references, non-linear storylines, sharp dialogue, and more – and is a reminder of the impact these films had on cinema in the 1990s."




Other auteur-specific additions include Spielbergian ("fantastical or humanist themes or a sentimental feel"), Lynchian ("noted for juxtaposing surreal or sinister elements with mundane, everyday environments"), and of course Kubrickian ("meticulous perfectionism, mastery of the technical aspects of film-making, and atmospheric visual style in films across a range of genres"). Several terms denoting broader movements and styles have also made it in, including mumblecore, "a style of low-budget film typically characterized by naturalistic and (apparently) improvised performances and a reliance on dialogue rather than plot or action" which emerged about a decade ago, and Hammer, denoting the horror films made from the 1950s to the 70s by British production company of that name, "still famous and loved for their lurid, melodramatic style."

Master these words and you'll surely hold your own in casual cinephile conversation. But you can only get so deep into talking about movies if you can't confidently bring out terms like arc shotdiegetic, and mise-en-scène. As one of the most capacious art forms, cinema brings together a number of languages all at once, including the visual language as defined by directors like Soviet montage pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (he of Eisensteinian) and the language the screenplay gives its characters to speak (an especially distinctive element in the case of filmmakers like Tarantino). But those are essentially solitary pleasures, enjoyed in a darkened theater or living room. Isn't one of the most enduring joys of filmgoing talking about the movies with other people later — and to sound as expert as possible while doing so?

via OED/Indiewire

Related Content:

What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchian: A Video Essay

How the Sounds You Hear in Movies Are Really Made: Discover the Magic of “Foley Artists”

Columbia U. Launches a Free Multimedia Glossary for Studying Cinema & Filmmaking

Vintage Film Shows How the Oxford English Dictionary Was Made in 1925

Terry Gilliam on the Difference Between Kubrick & Spielberg: Kubrick Makes You Think, Spielberg Wraps Everything Up with Neat Little Bows

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why We Say “OK”: The History of the Most Widely Spoken Word in the World

Ok, not to be contrary, but anyone else worry that we may be getting punked here?

Is Coleman Lowndes' clever collage-style video on the ubiquity and origins of the word “ok” a bit too clever for its own good?

His assertion that the word “ok” was the invention of waggish Bostonian hipsters in the late 1830s sounds like an Onion headline.

It’s hard to believe that clever young adults once amused themselves by bandying about deliberately misspelled abbreviations.

Also does anyone else remember hearing that “OK” could be traced to the 1840 reelection campaign of President Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren?

Or folksinger Pete Seeger’s salute to the linguistic melting pot, “All Mixed Up,” which perpetuated the notion of OK as a corruption of the Choctaw word “okeh.”

Both of those explanations sound a lot more probable than a jokey bastardization of “all correct.”

Aka “oll korrect.”

As in OK, pal, whatever you say.

(That was the wittiest jape of the season?)

Etymologist Dr. Allen Walker Read’s considerable research supported “ok” as the lone survivor of 19th-century smart set wordplay, to the point where it was the lede in his obituary.

(The writer noted, as Lowndes does, how “ok” was among the first words out of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s mouth when he set foot on the moon.)

Oookay…

If you’d like to know more, you can always delve into English professor Allan Metcalf”s book, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, which cites the telegraph’s role in the popularization of everyone’s favorite neutral affirmative, as well as our powerful psychological attraction to the letter “k.”

(Kare for a Krispy Kreme with that Kool-Aid? ... The answer is an emphatic yes, I mean, OK, in any language.)

Related Content:

The Largest Historical Dictionary of English Slang Now Free Online: Covers 500 Years of the “Vulgar Tongue”

Read A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a Hilarious & Informative Collection of Early Modern English Slang (1785)

The History of the English Language in Ten Animated Minutes

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

What English Would Sound Like If It Was Pronounced Phonetically

The English language presents itself to students and non-native speakers as an almost cruelly capricious entity, its irregularities of spelling and conjugation impossible to explain without an advanced degree. It wasn’t until graduate school that I came to understand how spellings like “rough” and “knight” survived several hundreds of years of linguistic change, and preserved vestiges of phonetic pronunciations that had long since disappeared in historic upheavals like the Great Vowel Shift and subsequent spelling wars.

The importation of huge numbers of loan words from other languages, and exportation of English to the world, has made it a polyglot tongue that contains a multitude of spellings and pronunciations, to the consternation of everyone. Unlike French, which has a centralized body that adjudicates language change, English grows and evolves wildly. Dictionaries and linguistics departments struggle to keep up.




One almost wants to apologize to non-native speakers for the following sentence: “Though I coughed roughly and hiccoughed throughout the lecture, I still thought I could plough through the rest of it.” As Aaron Alon, narrator of the video above, points out, the “incredible inconsistency” of words with “ough” in them “can make English incredibly hard to master.” What if a governing body of English language scholars, like the Académie française, came together to prescribe a phonetically consistent pronunciation?

For one thing, they would have to deal with the diversity of vowel sounds—like the “a” in “father,” “ape,” and “apple.” As the video proceeds, we hear these regularized in the narrator’s speech. Students of the language's history might immediately recognize something like the sound of Shakespeare's Early Modern English, which did have a more phonetically consistent pronunciation. Soon the sounds of Romance languages—French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian—and the accents speakers of those languages bring to English, start to emerge.

By the time Alon has regularized the vowel sounds, and launched into a recitation of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, his pronunciation begins to sound like Chaucer’s Middle English, which you can hear pronounced above in a reading of The Canterbury Tales. If we hear the accent this way, the exercise shows that English once made far more phonetic sense (and had a more pleasing musical lilt) than it does today. Alternately, we may hear, as Jason Kottke does, an accent that “sounds a little like Werner Herzog doing an impression of someone from Wales doing an impression of an Italian who doesn’t speak English that well.” Which, he writes, “makes sense because that’s pretty much how the language came together in the first place!” More or less….

via Kottke

Related Content:

Where Did the English Language Come From?: An Animated Introduction

The History of the English Language in Ten Animated Minutes

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The 1,700+ Words Invented by Shakespeare*

One of the favorite reference books on my shelves isn’t a style guide or dictionary but a collection of insults. And not just any collection of insults, but Shakespeare’s Insults for Teachers, an illustrated guide through the playwright’s barbs and put-downs, designed to offer comic relief to the beleaguered educator. (Books and websites about Shakespeare’s insults almost constitute a genre in themselves.) I refer to this slim, humorous hardback every time discussions of Shakespeare get too ponderous, to remind myself at a glance that what readers and audiences have always valued in his work is its lightning-fast wit and inventiveness.

While perusing any curated selection of Shakespeare’s insults, one can’t help but notice that, amidst the puns and bawdy references to body parts, so many of his wisecracks are about language itself—about certain characters’ lack of clarity or odd ways of speaking. From Much Ado About Nothing there’s the colorful, “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.” From The Merchant of Venice, the sarcastic, “Goodly Lord, what a wit-snapper you are!” From Troilus and Cressida, the derisive, “There’s a stewed phrase indeed!” And from Hamlet the subtle shade of “This is the very coinage of your brain.”




Indeed, it can often seem that Shakespeare—if we grant his historicity and authorship—is often writing self-deprecating notes about himself. “It is often said,” writes Fraser McAlpine at BBC America, that Shakespeare “invented a lot of what we currently call the English language…. Something like 1700 [words], all told,” which would mean that “out of every ten words," in his plays, "one will either have been new to his audience, new to his actors, or will have been passingly familiar, but never written down before.” It's no wonder so much of his dialogue seems to carry on a meta-commentary about the strangeness of its language.

We have enough trouble understanding Shakespeare today. The question McAlpine asks is how his contemporary audiences could understand him, given that so much of his diction was “the very coinage” of his brain. Lists of words first used by Shakespeare can be found aplently. There’s this catalog from the exhaustive multi-volume literary reference The Oxford English Dictionary, which lists such now-everyday words as “accessible,” “accommodation,” and “addiction” as making their first appearance in the plays. These “were not all invented by Shakespeare,” the list disclaims, “but the earliest citations for them in the OED” are from his work, meaning that the dictionary’s editors could find no earlier appearance in historical written sources in English.

Another shorter list links to an excerpt from Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Shakespeare Key, showing how the author, “with the right and might of a true poet… minted several words” that are now current, or “deserve” to be, such as the verb “articulate,” which we do use, and the noun “co-mart”—meaning “joint bargains”—which we could and maybe should. At ELLO, or English Language and Linguistics Online, we find a short tutorial on how Shakespeare formed new words, by borrowing them from other languages, or adapting them from other parts of speech, turning verbs into nouns, for example, or vice versa, and adding new endings to existing words.

“Whether you are ‘fashionable’ or ‘sanctimonious,’” writes National Geographic, “thank Shakespeare, who likely coined the terms.” He also apparently invented several phrases we now use in common speech, like “full circle,” “one fell swoop,” “strange bedfellows,” and “method in the madness.” (In another BBC America article, McAlpine lists 45 such phrases.) The online sources for Shakespeare’s original vocabulary are multitude, but we should note that many of them do not meet scholarly standards. As linguists and Shakespeare experts David and Ben Crystal write in Shakespeare’s Words, “we found very little that might be classed as ‘high-quality Shakespearean lexicography’” online.

So, there are reasons to be skeptical about claims that Shakespeare is responsible for the 1700 or more words for which he’s given sole credit. (Hence the asterisk in our title.) As noted, a great many of those words already existed in different forms, and many of them may have existed as non-literary colloquialisms before he raised their profile to the Elizabethan stage. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Bard coined or first used hundreds of words, writes McAlpine, "with no obvious precedent to the listener, unless you were schooled in Latin or Greek.” The question, then, remains: “what on Earth did Shakespeare’s [mostly] uneducated audience make of this influx of newly-minted language into their entertainment?”

McAlpine brings those potentially stupefied Elizabethans into the present by comparing watching a Shakespeare play to watching “a three-hour long, open air rap battle. One in which you have no idea what any of the slang means.” A good deal would go over your head, “you’d maybe get the gist, but not the full impact,” but all the same, “it would all seem terribly important and dramatic.” (Costuming, props, and staging, of course, helped a lot, and still do.) The analogy works not only because of the amount of slang deployed in the plays, but also because of the intensity and regularity of the boasts and put-downs, which makes even more interesting one data scientist’s attempt to compare Shakespeare’s vocabulary with that of modern rappers, whose language is, just as often, the very coinage of their brains.

Related Content:

Do Rappers Have a Bigger Vocabulary Than Shakespeare?: A Data Scientist Maps Out the Answer

Hear 55 Hours of Shakespeare’s Plays: The Tragedies, Comedies & Histories Performed by Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Fiennes & Many More

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Hear Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight Read in Their Original Old and Middle English by an MIT Medievalist

Many a mocking critique floats around pointing out that some people who tell their multilingual neighbors to “speak English” seem to have a lot of trouble with the language themselves. I must confess, I find the observation more sad than funny. I’ve met many English speakers who struggle with understanding the peculiarities of the language and do not know its history. Increasingly, such things are not taught to those who don’t devote themselves to language study.

When people do learn how the language evolved, they can be shocked that for much of its history, English was unrecognizable to modern ears. Indeed, the study of Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf—satisfies foreign language requirements in many English departments. Originally written in runic before it incorporated the Latin alphabet (and retaining some of those early symbols afterward), this Germanic language slowly became more Latinate, and gave way among the reading classes in Britain to Anglo-Norman, a Germanic-French cousin, for a few centuries after 1066.




That's the very short version. These strains and more eventually commingled to form Middle English, the language of Chaucer, which also sounds to modern ears like another tongue, though we recognize more of it. In the video above, Medievalist and MIT professor Arthur Bahr gives us demonstrations of both Old and Middle English in readings of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as part of his 2014 course, “Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf." (You can still visit the course site, read the syllabus and download course materials.)

Bahr reads the first 20 lines of the ancient epic poem, which begins:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, 
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. 

“Besides being the language of Rohan in the novels of Tolkien,” he writes, “Old English is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmountable odds.” For all its distance from us, we can still recognize quite a lot in Old English if we listen closely. Much of its vocabulary and inflections survive, unchanged but for pronunciation and spelling, in modern English, including many of the language’s most basic words, like "the," “in” and “are,” and most common, like "god," “name,” “me,” “hand,” and even “old.”

After the Viking and Norman invasions, Old English became “the third language in its own country,” notes Luke Mastin at his History of English site. More spoken than written, it “effectively sank to the level of a patois or creole," with several distinct regional variants. English seemed at one time “in dire peril” of dying out but “showed its resilience once again, and, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, it was English not French that emerged as the language of England," though it remained a diffuse collection of dialects. As you’ll hear in Bahr’s Middle English reading, it was also an English entirely transformed by the languages around it, as it would be once again a few hundred years later, when we get to the English of Shakespeare.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content:

Hear Beowulf Read In the Original Old English: How Many Words Do You Recognize?

1,000-Year-Old Manuscript of Beowulf Digitized and Now Online

Seamus Heaney Reads His Exquisite Translation of Beowulf and His Memorable 1995 Nobel Lecture

Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast