LANGUAGE IN MOVIES.

Eve has a list of movies where languages and accents are done well and badly; she solicits suggestions for others. (I entirely agree with her complaint about the use of a British accent to signify “foreign.”)

Comments

  1. British accent = evil criminal mastermind is annoying too.

  2. And in British TV drama, people with American accents usually signify sleezy fast-talkin’ bastards who can’t be trusted.

  3. My scattered thoughts:
    Chekhov on “Star Trek”. There’s no dang “w” sound in Russian. Where’d they get that? Heard others do this too and it always puzzled me. “wodka” hrrrmpf!!
    Merl Streep gets WAY too much credit for dialects. Everything she does sounds like mummbled German.
    How can any discussion on dialects leave out Kevin Costners “Prince of Thieves”?
    Read something funny about that odious TV show, “The Nanny”. Daniel Davis (Niles) was born in Gurdon, Arkansas. The IMDB notes: “When “The Nanny” first went on the air, many people believed that the very British butler Niles was definitely being played by a British actor. This Southern boy was so convincing in his role that many fans wrote to the show and suggested that he teach Charles Shaughnessy (a true British native) how to improve his accent!”
    James Marsters (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) does a superb British accent and it’s fascinating to compare it to early episodes when he really bollocked it up.
    I also have recall Tommy Lee Jones as an Irish terrorist in “Blown Away”. Yikes!!
    Eva makes the comment that: “Whenever a movie is set in France but filmed in English, many filmmakers will assume that it’s more believable if the actors speak with a British accent.”
    I think she is confusing British with “stage diction”. When you see a highbrow production where people speak in an affected manner, they are often adopting (consciously or not) the traditional stage diction that has evolved in the theatre over time and (to the Anglo ear) sounds veddy British. Think of Jon Lovitz as Master Thespian toned down a half a dozen notches and you’ll get my point. For some reason, Shakespeare or a serious drama about Cardinal Richlieu simply sound odd in conversational English. Oh, it can be done (of course), but it trades majesty for intimacy in the process. A slightly exagerated diction oddly resonates. There is no real reason that it should — except that it is a widely ingrained filmic convention and you’re not really gonna change it.

  4. Australian movies tend to do both these tricks.

  5. But only when they’re not being the ultra-cool manifestation of the dominant global culture to which we all, of course, aspire.

  6. (Americans in British TV I was talking about – obviously very slowly)

  7. How about those evil scheming aliens in Star Wars Episode 1 who have Chinese accents. And why is it that all humans speak English, while aliens have accents?

  8. Thanks for this. I’m particularly interested in English accents for my phonetics and phonology class I teach here in Japan. Here’s a list of recommendations that I got from a Linguist List query
    http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/9/9-1612.html
    One reviewer of French Kiss noted that Kevin Kline’s accent was great, but his syntax was too good. There’s also a very interesting discussion of the meta portrayal of accents in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s _Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language_ A lot of people panned the book, but I’m a lot more sympathetic, given the book’s origin (which is one reason why I would never be a good book reviewer, I suppose)

  9. Peter Sellers did a great bad French accent.
    Almost all WWII shows have the Germans speaking English with a German accent. I suppose that if the German accent is OK, one should suspend disbelief….. that’s probably better than them sounding exactly like the 5:00 news.

  10. Almost all WWII shows have the Germans speaking English with a German accent. I suppose that if the German accent is OK, one should suspend disbelief….. that’s probably better than them sounding exactly like the 5:00 news.
    Really? It drives my mother up the wall. They don’t speak German with an accent, and they aren’t really speaking English, so why the German-accented English?
    Of course, what’s bad is in movies like The Sound of Music, where the Germans spoke German and the Austrians spoke… English. That was just stupid.

  11. Really? It drives my mother up the wall. They don’t speak German with an accent, and they aren’t really speaking English, so why the German-accented English?
    Well, so they can sound like German people while still being understandable. Do you want them to speak American-accented English? It’s rather hard to get authentic German actors to do the parts, although it paid off in “The Pianist”.
    As for Russians having a W sound, I know a few Russians who do indeed pronounce the English V as a W sound. Wodka, Wisual, Wery. Maybe in some Russian dialects their own V sound sounds like a W.

  12. As for Russians having a W sound, I know a few Russians who do indeed pronounce the English V as a W sound. Wodka, Wisual, Wery.
    Yep. When I mumble sounds to myself I find I do this sound best by pursing the lips for W but buzzing like I was doing V, only don’t touch the teeth with the lips. Speaking quickly, that gives something more like wodka than vodka.

  13. In the best ever WWII TV series, Private Schulz, German characters spoke (British) English with appropriate British class accents when they were in Germany, but with German accents when they were in Britain and everybody around them were native English speakers. It wasn’t at all confusing, and perfectly convincing.

  14. Cor bloimey! Wot no menshun ov Dick van Doick in “May-ery Poppins”? Oi finks thet’s a diabolical liberty end han hinsult to hall true Cockerneys, so Oi do!
    The “leprechaun Irish” often used by Hollywood is hilarious too, particularly Richard Gere’s accent in the dreadful remake of “The Jackal”. Top o’the morning t’ye, begorrah!

  15. Thanks to RavinDave for his comment about stage diction, it’s appreciated. However, I suspect no one ever accused Drew Barrymore of being a classically trained actress!
    My point was, and is, that if you cannot deliver a perfect accent, then it distracts from the content and should not be attempted at all.
    Also, as for the grammar in French Kiss… it’s difficult to say. I noticed that they were very careful about not having Kevin Kline say more than a few words of French together, and they were mostly interjections and expletives; he also mumbles convicingly in strategically placed moments… But, being a native French speaker myself (albeit from Québec), I was sufficiently impressed to label the performance as noteworthy.
    And I totally agree with the awful Irish accent in The Jackal. I will add it to my list for sure!
    Thanks for the great suggestions, keep posting!
    Eve Léonard

  16. Eve: Hi! Glad you’re enjoying the discussion.
    On the subject of “wodka,” another possibility is that Russians learning English have to learn to pronounce the /w/ sound to produce English words, and in particular proper nouns that are familiar to them in Russian with /v/: Vashington, Vinchester, Vyoming, and so on. Having established this w/v correspondence, they use it where it does not apply (vodka).

  17. My favorite movie accent conceit was used in The Last Temptation of Christ, in which the Romans speak in British accents (or perhaps stage diction), while the Jews sound like American Jews.

  18. Here in Portland (Oregon, USA) there an excellent stage actor (Keith Scales) of British origin. Everyone thinks of him first for the sristocratic Britich oarts, but he’s a cockney, as I understand. He himself knows the difference and presumably adjusts (I’m not a theatregoer), but to American audiences any British accent is good enough. Or as far as that goes, an Australian accent might do.
    I’m sure there are individuals in the Portland audience who know better, especially the serious theatregoers, but I’m talking about the average moderately-educated mildly-interested individual.
    P.S. Does anyone know which specific British accent is the Monty Python farmer uses when he explains why “the sheep is not a creature of the air”? It seems quite distinct and has always driven me nuts.

  19. Regarding German accents. I think that if the German parts were well written, to convey the relatively greater stiffness and formality of the way Germans speak (or used to) and perhaps some of the differences of syntax, you could get a German effect without using pronunciation at all. Germans talking ordinary American English would bother me a lot (unless they were young contemporary Germans at a disco, or something like that).

  20. I think the whole German accent/British accent thing (which probably accounts for a good 70% of all movie villains) is simply a way (an appalling one, in my opinion) of signifying “them”. I always note with displeasure that the foreign “good guys” sound more American.
    British or German-accented English (especially the latter) become a shorthand for “undesirable” or “evil”.
    Remember the cartoon Alladin? Our epnymous hero spoke flawless Americanese, as did his pretty girl Jasmine. But his fellow Arabs (the bad guys) had accents worthy of their scimitars.
    In mainstream movies, it seems, the standard of “good” is frequently sounding like an American teen.
    Americans, in my experience, are extremely uneasy about accents. Mine is mid-Atlantic (I’m from Nigeria originally, and have studied in the States and in the UK), which to careless ears here in the States sounds British (and there, in London for instance, American). It irritates me to have to navigate a course between those Americans who think I’m classy because I talk proper and those who think I’m a snob for the same reason.

  21. I must agree with those who favor an accent in a production if the foreigner is attempting to speak another language (unless, of course, the character speaks the other language with a native accent), and that when the foreigner speaks his or her mother tongue they speak at a native level the language of the production.
    I saw this done to great effect in “The Coast of Utopia” at the National Theatre. The Russians (it concerns the early Russian intelligentsia, a word, according to the play, invented to describe them) spoke in RP when speaking their Russian, being members of the aristocracy, but when they actually were speaking English, in London, fullblast Russian accents were used. “Is sad Russian story…” and the like.
    The German and RP accent are probably the most mangled and most imitated accents. BTW, I’m just using the phrase “Received Pronunciation” because it is well-known. It makes it sound as though one day some wandering Anglo-Normans were waylaid by God and all the angels (not, importantly, Angles) and commanded, “Thou shalt speak in this manner” (and then “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory” played). A horrible phrase. But anyway, returning to my point, it is pathetic that these most imitated accents cannot be done correctly by many thespians. You only need the aforementioned accents, a French accent, a mishmash of a lower class English accent, and possibly a Russian accent to complete the list of accents an American actor needs to know. And possibly a Scotch-Irish one.
    So, while it is to be mourned and mocked when Tom Cruise cannot get his Oldham accent correct in time for “Riots in the Dust”, a touching dramatization of the Oldham Riots, it is not the failure and subsequent denial of roles requiring an accent that an actor who fails to master the aforementioned bag of accents deserves.

  22. We’ve just had a family viewing of “Pirates of the Caribbean”, and I thought of this thread.
    Can it be true that Johnny Depp modelled his accent on Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones? Whatever its antecedents, I required sub-titles.
    Less Mockney than Schlockney.

  23. Funny, I was just going to mention Johnny Depp in PotC. His accent was as hysterically absurd as his performance (and I wondered if he did it on purpose, but think it more likely an indication of his contempt for acting as a profession). I could not pin the accent down as it wandered piratically between colonies and outposts of the British Empire. Sometimes vaguely cockney, sometimes Australian-coated, even hintingly dipped in the Carribean, whatever that might be. It was, at one point, a perfect playback of Danny the drug dealer from “Withnail & I”.
    I’m pleased RavinDave has given the thumbs-up to James Marsters, as I’ve found his accent completely convincing (and was surprised the first time I heard the actor speak in his native American). It’s barely worth mentioning the appalling mess that David Boreanaz spews as an excuse for Irish, in “Angel”.
    Funny, my boyfriend is Italian, from Torino, and he hates the New York Italian accent that has become the default Italian stand-in. No one ever guesses his accent correctly. They usually start with Scottish (because of the rolled “rrr”s), and when we laugh at that they just start guessing wildly, usually in the Baltic States and who knows where else before they give up and he astonishes them with the truth.

  24. Michael Farris says:

    My own preferences (probably not shared by most people).
    If you’re doing a movie set in France but to be made in English then use an American (or British) cast and have them speak with standard American or British accents (matched to the social class of the characters of course). Do _not_ (please, please, please) have them effect ‘French’ accents, that’s just plain dumb. And under no circumstances make a movie with smorgasboard of various native and non-native accents please (The Trojan Women sticks out in my memory here) unless the movie is about people with a smorgasboard of native and non-native accents.
    The same goes for dubbing into English. I think one reason it’s unpopular in the states is the stupid habit of dubbing (for example) a French movie with French-accented English. Yikes, talk about annoying (in real life, non-native accents don’t bother me at all, but a whole movie of them is like fingernails on chalkboard). No other country I think does anything like this.
    For some unknown reason, a few years ago, the German comedy “the most desired man” (maybe not the exact title) was shown in Poland dubbed into British English. I had gone to the movie expecting German with Polish subtitles so I wasn’t happy about that, but the dubbing was certainly competently done. That choice made much more sense than having the to sit thru a movie full of German accented English. If I had known what to expect beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the dubbing at all.

  25. And let us not forget the endless source of mad accentry that is Mel Brooks. Blazing Saddles alone contains Lili Von Shtupp (“A wed wose, how womantic!”), Gabby Johnson (“I wash born here, an I wash raished here, and dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin bushwackin, hornswaglin, cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter”), and of course Mel himself as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief.

  26. Last year I got an e-mail with an announcement to the effect that The West Wing was looking for Yiddish-speaking men in their 20s and 30s to try out for a flashback scene. Among the characters to be played — for those familiar with the show — was Toby’s father.
    (The script given us was written in something not quite Yiddish and not quite English. It wasn’t even good Yinglish. I tend to believe that much of the weakness of foreign-language treatments in movie scripts has to do with the weakness of foreign-language translation in general.)
    In the studio, on the 30-somethingth floor of some office building, a motley crew gathered: folks from the remaining Yiddish-speaking theater, Yiddish speakers who were there on a lark (including yours truly), and TV actors who seemed to be trying out for anything and everything.
    We eyed each other warily. The serious actors got down to business practicing their lines, while the just-for-fun types busied themselves eavesdropping on the Yiddish of everyone else (and laughing to themselves).
    What do you think? They didn’t pick anyone who tried out — they tapped a couple of guys in LA. I was told by people who saw the episode (I missed it) that the Yiddish wasn’t half bad, a rarity in mass media.

  27. I recently watched for the third or fourth time the amazing and true World War II (should I say Holocaust?) movie “Europa, Europa”. In terms of authentic langage, it was excellent. Solly, the protagonist, speaks German with his German-Jewish (originally from Lodz, Poland) family. For the brief time he’s in Poland, we hear Polish. When he heads east to escape the Nazis, he lands in the Soviet Union and there are many memorable scenes in Russian. Then he gets taken in by the German army passing for Volksdeutsch and we’re back to German. And at the end, the real Solomon Perel sings Himei Matov in Hebrew, as he emigrated to Israel. Why can’t more American movies be like that, linguistically authentic?
    I loved “The Dancer Upstairs” but was so mad that the story obviously took place in Peru with the government looking for and finally capturing the head of the Shining Path terrorists, yet everyone was speaking heavily accented English. Does Hollywood think that Americans believe accented English is a substitute for a foreign language? ¿Por qué no hicieron la película en español? Spanish isn’t some rare language and just ’cause Malkovich the director doesn’t speak the language…

  28. I agree, I don’t see why they can’t use actual languages more than they do.
    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but in the movie Prisoner of the Mountains at least some of the supposed Chechens are speaking Georgian, which is pretty funny considering the fierce Christianity of the Georgians — but it would probably have been pretty hard for Russian filmmakers to get actual Chechens in 1996!

  29. Who told you, LH, that they were Chechens? What if they were a Georgian speaking rebel group. I don’t think the film maker specified the country/region of the action, though we do know it is mountainous, Islamic and Slavic.

  30. It’s true they’re not explicitly identified as Chechens, but come on — they’re Islamic rebels fighting Russian tanks — who else could they be? Certainly not “a Georgian speaking rebel group” — there are no Islamic Georgians (in a group big enough to rebel, anyway). And I don’t think everyone was speaking Georgian; some of them seemed to be speaking a North Caucasian language, but I don’t know any of them, so I have no idea which.

  31. TheloniousZen says:

    I watched “Kill Bill” in the theatres with several friends including two japanese exchange students. They mentioned that the vocabulary level of japanese by the american actors was very, very high, but their accents were absolutely atrocious.

  32. I guess we’ll just have to wait for Mel Gibson’s great epic for the ultimate in language appreciation.
    In the meantime on the subject of appalling accents, one vote for Keanu Reeves’ british accent in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” and another for Meryl Streep playing Lindy Chamberlain in the “that dingo stole my boyby” flick (Evil Angels / Cry in the Dark). Still, in the latter case, it wasn’t really Meryl’s fault, Lindy’s Mt. Isa accent is toxic enough to strip paint.

  33. You know how Sid Caesar (genius that he is) could freely riff on foreign languages, doing a convincing mock French, German, Swedish, whatever? I’ve always wanted to hear a foreign actor do mock English. I’d be fascinated to see what they imagine typifies our speech.

  34. Just to even the score, are there any famous examples of a British actor doing a really terrible American accent?

  35. Sebastian Smith said this about the film “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” (which I’ve not seen) in his book “Allah’s Mountains” about the Russian Caucasus in the 1990s:
    “One of the few attempts to make a serious film about the North Caucasus’ conflict with Russia, also called ‘Caucasian Prisoner’ and modelled on a story by Tolstoy, was riddled with cliches about the mountain peoples. While beautifully shot in the Dagestani mountains and an Oscar nominee in 1997, ‘Caucasian Prisoner’ didn’t move beyond the same old formula- bandits and folklore. It used local languages with Russian subtitles to appear authentic, but then cast a Georgian-speaking actor as a Dagestani. Few Russian film goers knew the difference – after all, to them the actors were speaking some foreign babble.”
    As far as I know, there are two major Georgian-speaking groups who are at least nominally Muslim (if we leave aside the issue of the Abkhazians): the Ajarans (or Adzharians) and the Meskhetians. Ajara is an autonomous region in the extreme south-west of Georgia and its people are ethnically and linguistically Georgian but Islamic in religion. The Meskhetians are ethnic Turks who lived in the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe (or Meskhetia) and who spoke a form of Georgian with a large admixture of Turkish vocabulary. In November 1944 they were deported wholesale to Soviet Central Asia by Stalin (along with a few unlucky Kurds who also happened to be in the region). Some now want to return to Meskhetia , but this would cause problems as the majority of the region’s current inhabitants are ethnic Armenians, the Javakhs. The Georgian government has signed a European treaty allowing their return to Georgia in the near future but it doesn’t want them to resettle their old home region. Ajara or Meskhetia are both in southern Georgia, along the border with Turkey, and not in the Caucasus mountains, so I can’t see why a Georgian-speaking Islamist guerilla leader would be fighting the Russians there.

  36. Michael Farris says:

    For American, the thing that sticks out to speakers of other languages is the syllable final r. A long time ago I read that the main impression of (presumably British) English was of a lot of hissing sounds.
    Sometimes Danish sound to me a lot like I would imagine some kinds of Enlgish sound like to non-speakers.

  37. Michael Farris says:

    John Hardy “Just to even the score, are there any famous examples of a British actor doing a really terrible American accent?”
    Often the case on the old Benny Hill show. Hill’s American was very good, but many of the others sounded just plain awful when they were called upon to sound American.
    Catherine Zeta Jones has a mixed record IMHO, though her accent was mostly very good in Chicago, a few places she seems to be dipping into British registers, especially her “Cicero”.
    When I saw Hackers (very dumb movie) I thought the lead actor sounded ‘off’, especially in his timing. Turns out he was British (he was also in Trainspotting) and I assume the weirdness was difficulty in coping with the accent.
    A British colleague told me that Gwyneth Paltrow’s British often sounds just a little off in ways that are hard to describe (the same person thought Rene Zellwegger sounded native in BJD).

  38. I was ten or twelve when I first asked myself why actors in the movies speak the language they do, then tried to rationalize it and came up with a normative solution I still like. :-) That is, when, say, a group of American actors play Russians in a film set in Russia, the producer should make the movie look like it’s originally all in Russian but has been perfectly dubbed in American English. When those Russians try to speak English, there is no reason to dub these passages, therefore, the American actors should try to affect a Russian accent in those episodes. I think it’s essentially what Nathaniel suggests. How to deal with a third language, I have no idea though: when Tolstoy’s characters speak French, as they do at length, it surely shouldn’t be done in an American English accent.
    Note that in some Soviet movies about WWII, German characters spoke German, which was subtitled or voiced over — but not synchronously dubbed, so that Russians could hear good bits of German speech. Supposing the harshest-sounding German dialects were spoken, I guess the purpose was to make the Germans in their impeccable uniforms even scarier — properly articulated German can sound intimidating to an average Russian ear. I remember an Eastern German actor named Fritz Dietz who specialized in Hitler parts.

  39. There is a Chechen diaspora in every Russian town of any significance, but whether a reasonable film director would have requested their assistance in 1996 is another question. Most Russians, at least in the big cities, have some idea of how Georgian sounds either from Georgian movies or from real-life dialogs overheard (there are plenty of Georgians in Russian cities), or — though this might easily be misleading — from the way Georgians speak Russian.
    By the way, does anyone know what what language or accent Nicole Kidman and the two French actors playing Russian thugs spoke/imitated in “Birthday Girl”?

  40. Eve Léonard says:

    I was watching The Sum of all Fears yesterday, and I’m wondering if anyone has a comment about Ciaran Hinds’ performance as the Russian President…
    As for RavinDave’s question about how American speech is typified… we have a comedian here (Quebec) called Michel Courtemanche that does a whole routine imitating an American, without saying a word. I am at a loss for words to describe it, but it’s very on point… to our ears, at least!

  41. One thing that drives me nuts is foreign movies where “American” characters speak atrociously accented English; I always think “Couldn’t they hire an actual American for this bit part?” Of course, there’s more excuse for the Russian offenders, since until the last decade it would have been pretty hard to find American actors.
    CB: You’re right, of course, about the minor groups you mention, but as I said, it’s inconceivable that any of them would be fighting battles against Russian tank battalions (in fact, the Adjarians, like the Abkhaz and Southern Ossetians, are maintained in their quasi-independence by Russian support). I like Smith’s summary of the situation.

  42. Apropos the v/w problem discussed earlier there was a turkish friend I went to school with who often would transpose the two letters, at least at the beginnings of words. (e.g., he’d order a ‘wodka’ and then a ‘vater’ to wash it down with) Are there any other languages/cultures that do that when translating to English?

  43. I don’t know much about linguistic theory, but I think these mixtures and juxtapositions are made when a speaker is confronted with a distinction (like v/w) that is made in a language (English) that isn’t made in the speaker’s original language Russian.
    So, if your native language always had you saying one sound (let’s call it v’) that was (say) 80% v and 20% w, and you’re suddenly faced with a language that doesn’t have v’ but instead makes a strict demarcation between v and w, you’ll mix em up.
    Just a guess. The experts, I’m sure, will have theories: excuse me while I unfurl my umbrella.
    postscript: my partner is from India, and, bless her Hindi tongue, she sometimes mixes up v and w. Delightfully so sometimes, like when she suggests that wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a “wine” in the bathroom? No, I reply, we rather have too much wine about the house as it is, without starting imbibing on the can, before I realise she means the vinding plant. Oh, and when I’m slow getting dressed, she calls me Wayne, I know not why, tis not my name.

  44. Ciaran Hinds was good enough as the Russian president in “Sum of All Fears”, which I plan on buying when it’s no longer a new release. My own Russian just isn’t good enough to judge this Irish actor’s roosky yazik. But the actor (Liev Schriber??) who tells Jack Ryan to suit up speaks what I think is great Russian. And then Jack Ryan asks him if he also speaks Ukrainian!! I’m sorry to all you intellectuals out there; to paraphrase the film, “I like this movie.”

  45. Cryptic Ned says:

    Just to even the score, are there any famous examples of a British actor doing a really terrible American accent?
    Several Monty Python episodes contain this phenomenon. And I wasn’t very impressed by Jude Law in eXistenZ.

  46. Cryptic Ned says:

    Oh, and on a plane heading to Amsterdam I heard a lot of people speaking a language that sounded exactly like English, but with different words. I guess it depends on the phonemic inventory.

  47. Could that language have been Dutch? I remember hearing it at some conference and thought it was English yet realized it wasn’t since I none of the words were actually English (meaning intelligible to me, an educated native speaker, though an uneducated native speaker wouldn’t have understood it either.) I once heard Maltese which had British English words in it yet it too was not intelligible to me.

  48. a language that sounded exactly like English, but with different words
    This reminds me of one of the most humiliating experiences of my linguistic life. On one of my first days in grad school, my roommate, an Italian-American (heavy on the Italian — he and his family went back to Lucca every year), and I had dinner at a local pizza joint. We began noticing the conversation being carried on between our waiter and a cook, and we got into a sotto-voce argument over what language they were speaking. I was sure it was a dialect of Spanish, very unlike the Argentine version I was familiar with but recognizably Spanish; he was equally positive it was some southern dialect of Italian. Neither of us, mind you, was able to translate any of it — the words were just the other side of comprehension — but we knew. Both being stubborn, cocksure young men, we were unable to come to any agreement, and finally we called the waiter over and said “Excuse me, but what language are you guys speaking?”
    “Greek,” he said.
    The only thing that saved the day was that our humiliation was mutual and equal. We slunk out and never spoke of it again.

  49. Michael Farris says:

    I had the Spanish/Greek experience once too. In Florida, Spanish language programs were not rare on AM radio and once near Tampa I found a station broadcasting what I thought was Spanish (which I’d studied for some time). Not only that, but it wasn’t Cuban or Mexican, but seemed to be Iberian Spanish (my preferred form at the time) because I was hearing ‘th’ sounds. But I couldn’t understand anything, just a few words sticking out of the jumble in strange ways.
    After a couple of minutes, with me growing more puzzled and morose (so many years of Spanish and I can’t understand this broadcast?) the music chimed in … “Never on Sunday”.
    I later took a yearlong course in Modern Greek (which I’ve completely forgotten) and found out that not all Greek speakers sound Spanish, in my head I classified Greek speakers into three camps, those that sounded Spanish, those that sounded Slavic and those that sounded neither (I have no idea if this corresponds with dialectal differences or is all in my head). The announcer I heard that day was an extreme example of Spanish sounding Greek.

  50. I’m much relieved to know I’m not the only person who’s made that particular mistake!

  51. “…are there any famous examples of a British actor doing a really terrible American accent?”
    Kenneth Branagh in Dead Again. Not only is his accent annoyingly off, he insists on playing an American by resorting to the hammiest 1950s Method-acting cliches. He makes co-star Robin Williams look like a model of restraint in comparison.
    But Hollywood can’t get the dialect right even when filming a movie about Americans in the USA. Just ask a New Orleanian about The Big Easy, or a North Dakotan about Fargo.

  52. The most bizarre use of accents I’ve ever seen is a British TV show ‘allo ‘allo. The series protagonist is a WWII French Resistance cafe owner who lives in a German occupied area. The “accent” determined what language a character was attempting to speak, even though to the viewers’ ears everyone was speaking English. For example, the French spoke English with a French accent, thereby indicating they were speaking in French. The Germans would speak English with a German accent when speaking German. Sometimes it would get terribly confusing, as the characters were speaking in “English” yet it was clear from the dialogue they were NOT understanding each other. If, let’s say, the Germans wanted to communicate in French, they’d adopt a ‘French’ British accent and drop the German accented English. Wacky!

  53. Re: Spanish and Greek.
    I’m not suprised by this; it has happened to me a few times as well. I find Greek and some Iberian dialects of Spanish to be intonationally and prosodically similar. Most of the time I’ve confused the two, it has been in a noisy place like a moving train, where word identities have been almost completely blurred, but enough of the delivery preserved for me to be confused.

  54. Cristiane says:

    Another actor who cannot do a convincing American accent to save is life is Michael Gambon. A great, great actor but his American accents are appallingly bad. However, the single worst accent I’ve ever heard was Jeanne Tripplehorn in “The Night We Never Met.” She was supposed to be French, and I was convinced that the big surprise was going to be that she was just pretending to be. Awful.

  55. John Thacker says:

    Yes, the Kill Bill Japanese accents were horrible. I’m not a native speaker, merely a student of the language, but it was clear to me that the Japanese spoken by Uma Thurman and especially Lucy Liu was very bad.
    OTOH, Julie Dreyfus’s accent sounded very good to my ears. (She played Sofie.) I see that she was born in Paris, but has appeared in Japanese movies as well. She’s apparently fluent in English, French, and Japanese.

  56. Another illustration of such linguistic/phonetic inconsistency in movies is Jim Jarmush’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, where Isaac de Bankolé, who speaks only French through the entire film (he and Forest Whitaker interact in a language-barred dialogue, each one trying to interpret what the other says through body language and extralinguistic hints), has a characteristic “African” accent. As a matter of fact, he is from the Ivory Coast, but the problem is that he is supposed to impersonate a Haitian immigrant. Given that Haitian, and Caribbean Francophones in general, have a very distinct (so-called “Creole”) accent familiar to anyone living in a middle-to-big French town (which is my case, since I live in Paris), this ruined completely the movie for me, even though I like Bankolé as an actor and found the other scenes, as well as the general idea of the script (hilariously pathetic depiction of the declining NY Mafia), rather enjoyable.
    Now, for a convincing and realistic use of accent in a movie, you could check out Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millenium Mambo (Qianxi manbo), where appear twin brothers who are presented as half- Chinese, half-Japanese. The fact that they grew up in Japan explains their accent in an otherwise reasonably fluent guoyu (it sounds like the average sinophone Japanese I met in China, it does not look like they learned a few sentences for the movie).
    On the topic of Greek and Spanish, I can only second Cannylinguist. As a native Greek speaker, the only other language I ever mistook (from a distance) for my mother tongue was Spanish (maybe I should say Castilian). The intonation, the sound of the jota/khi (before consonants and vowels ‘a’ and ‘o’) and ‘s’ (sigma) are what causes a confusion that would not occur with any other Roman language.
    (Language Hat, I hope it is still all right to comment on a two months old post. Actually, this is my second comment here. I posted the first one before the War. your response then was very nice and encouraging, but a lot of things changed meanwhile, and I never made it writing you the email I intended to. I owe you a book reference as well. I wish I could be able to write you before I go “back” to Asia, in two weeks.)

  57. It’s fine to comment on old posts — I like revisiting topics, and it’s a relief to see something besides spam! (For some reason, spammers always leave their dungheaps on old posts — I just had to delete one a moment ago.) The book looks great, and I’d love to hear from you; send your e-mail to hat @ languagehat.com.

  58. Wisible Southern accent by Miranda Otto (the horsey princess in LOTR) in the BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda. Wisible book, too, but I digress.

  59. Bill Mullins says:

    Re: bad American accents from Brits. Michael Caine in “Secondhand Lions” was awful.
    Another noteworthy bad one was Robert DeNiro in the remake of “Cape Fear”. One of the worst Southern accents on film.
    On the other hand, one of the most convincing Southern accents from someone who doesn’t usually have one is Robin Wright Penn in “Toys” and to a lesser degree “Forrest Gump”.

  60. Joyce Rogers-Brown says:

    I need to affect a Russian accent for Halloween. I’d appreciate direction to an applicable film.
    Thanks,
    Joyce

  61. Its good to see varied opinions on usage of accents in films(original production).We face the same problem while dubbing a film into foreign language viz Spanish,French or more exotic language like Hindi.
    During dubbing sessions we try to create a local accent which is popular in that particular region & thereby audiences can relate to it more.
    thanks,
    Lawrence
    CEO
    http://www.media-movers.com

  62. Marcelo Vinces says:

    I am easily annoyed by American movies set in other countries where the actors are made to speak in accented English. I always think how silly it must be for a French person to watch an American actor playing Napoleon as he speaks in French-accented English. I am a native Spanish speaker and I experienced this strangeness when I saw “Frida”. I found it so odd to see hispanic actors actually made to speak in Spanish-accented English instead of just speaking Spanish!
    I’m wondering, are there examples of foreign movies set in the US where the actors speak in American accents? I’m trying to picture a French cowboy movie with actors speaking twangy French. Would be fun to see.

  63. Good question — I’ve wondered the same thing. (And of course I agree about the idiocy of the accents to indicate foreign languages.)

  64. Jimmy Ho says:

    Since the spamatic chaos allows us to revisit this thread, here’s an awful movie with language absurdity: Thodoros Angelopoulos’s To vlemma tou Odyssea (Ulysse’s Gaze). Few things are more ridiculously embarrassing than hearing Harvey Keitel (whose character is supposed to be a native Greek who emigrated to America, then came back) say “Edo imaste” with a thick ‘d’ and a robotic voice. Too bad I was the only one to laugh in the theatre (Anthony Quinn did a far better job in Cacoyannis’s Zorbas).
    To avoid any misunderstanding, I held Angelopoulos’s early work in very high estime, and O thiasos (The Troop/Band of Comedians) belongs to my personal favourites, but I think he didn’t handle the language issue well when he started hiring foreign actors.

  65. Jimmy Ho says:

    For what it’s worth here is the IMDb entry for Angelopoulos’ Ο Θίασος (The Travelling Players).
    I looked for a DVD during my last trip to the old country, but there isn’t any yet.

  66. I’ve seen and enjoyed both movies, but of course (not being Greek) I wasn’t as bothered by the bad accent. Plus I love Harvey Keitel.

  67. loyerd6 says:

    Re: bad American accents from Brits…how about Liam Neeson (ok, he’s Irish) doing a Kentucky accent in the movie ‘Next of Kin’ with Patrick Swayze. Liam’s an amazing actor, but whoever tried to teach him a believable southern accent really missed the mark.

  68. so u are saying that the Greek language to an non Greek sound like Spanish!
    cause i am Greek and i have this question!

  69. I grew up speaking Greek with my family in Australia and by my early 20s I started learning Spanish. For me, it was relatively easy to pick up the sounds of the language, both aurally and verbally. In fact, my mouth goes into Greek mode whenever I speak Spanish, whereby my intonation and vowel shapes and general placement of my tongue, mouth, lips and other bits is the same as for Greek.
    Probably the only sound that I ever had trouble with was the Spanish letter u before an r or a d, so that the word sur or pudor would give me trouble for instance. Other than that, the sounds of Greek in combination with the sounds of English seem to cover the sounds of Spanish pretty well.
    When learning Brazilian-Portuguese later on, I was shocked to find how much harder it was for me to pick up the language in comparison with Spanish. I was often lost in sounds and could not make heads or tails of the noise that was coming out of people’s mouths, which contrasted sharply with my experience of learning Spanish. Furthermore, my mouth goes into another mode whenever I’m speaking Brazilian-Portuguese, quite different from the English and Greek/Spanish mouth mode. I think as a corollary to this, I mix up Spanish and Greek words all the time without even noticing because they have no distinct difference in sound, but rarely mix up Portuguese words with any of the other languages I speak. I’ve wondered if that has something to do with why kids can pick up multiple languages and not confuse them – because they sound different and their mouths need to do different things to generate the sounds.
    And I remember Anthony Quinn doing a marvellous job of the Greek accent too, but he has the distinct advantage of being Mexican. The sounds I’m assuming would have come naturally to him.
    And Quinn also starred in Fellini’s La Strada, but seeing as I don’t speak Italian, I have no idea how good his accent was.

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