Sienna Miller’s Accent.

Adam Hermann’s “Sienna Miller talks nailing the Philly accent for ‘American Woman’ on Jimmy Fallon” (Philly Voice, June 15) is interesting:

British actress Sienna Miller has an accent when she talks, but it’s decidedly not something you normally hear from an eastern Pennsylvania resident. For the film “American Woman”, which comes out next week and is set in “a small, blue-collar town in Pennsylvania”, Miller had to figure out what people from around here talk like.

It wasn’t easy, because the Philadelphia accent is so dang weird, but she clearly had some help, because she kind of nailed it. Miller appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” late this week to talk about the film, and specifically about the accent she uses in the film. “It’s like a Philadelphia, Mason-Dixon-esque accent, from Philly,” Miller explained. “Pennsylvania’s weird, because the closer you get to the Mason-Dixon line, the more like, “-eau” it goes. It sounded initially a bit Southern, but it’s not.”

That’s fair! The “-eau” is definitely a defining characteristic of the Philly accent. To get a better sense of what she’s talking about, you can watch the video below, where Miller shows off her pretty-solid take on the accent […] Last year, linguistics expert Dr. Betsy Sneller talked about the Philly accent on a linguistics podcast, where she explained the Philadelphia A:

People who speak with the Philadelphia English dialect, Sneller explained, use what’s called a “split short-a system,” talking about the sound speakers make when they say a word like “trap.”

[…] Miller said she needed a few words that would help her get into the accent. She used “poster” and “boat”. The way she said these two words was a little dramatic, but we’ll let it slide.

As always, I appreciate it when they quote an actual linguist. (Via Mark Liberman’s Log post; the Philly accent previously at LH.)

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW I don’t think the way she said “poster” and “boat” was overdramatic *in context*: whenever you are using a particular word to demonstrate a point you are making about pronunciation you are likely to “overenunciate” it compared to how you would just say it in the middle of an ordinary sentence.

  2. I agree.

  3. AJP Crown says:

    I do too. I’m not good at recognising American accents but I was in arch school with a few people from Fluffia and they did talk like that (poster & boat). Siena Miller was excellent at the British & Irish accents she tried.

  4. As commenters over at the Log noted, the accent Sienna uses in the clip is not the Philly/South Jersey accent. I have enough relations from that region to feel comfortable stating that definitively. It may be a good approximation of a Southeastern PA accent, that I can‘t say.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    Going back to the actual clip, I am struck by how her lines in that excerpt include no words at all in which the “boat/poster” vowel she showed off in the interview segment is actually deployed. (The word “old” doesn’t have it, because the regionalism doesn’t manifest in syllables where the “long O” vowel is followed by /l/ or /r/; in other words, those of us with that regionalism have a GOAT/GOAL split.) Presumably whatever studio publicist offered up that clip as the one to show was focused on some marketing theme for the movie other than “check out how good the actress’s regional GOAT-fronting is”).

  6. I think you’re misunderstanding her point. She said that when she wanted to get in character and start speaking with the Philly accent (whatever variety it is), she used ‘poster’ and ‘boat’ as keys, so to speak. Once she had them coming out right, the rest of the accent followed.

    I read an interview with Tatiana Maslany, who played a whole bunch of different people in the show “Orphan Black.” She was asked about how she would switch from one character to another and said, if I remember correctly, that it came down to a particular aspect of that character — the hairstyle or an item of clothing, for example. That was the key to her becoming that character in its entirety.

    I think this is how actors tend to work — they create a whole character, with an accent, body language, mannerisms and whatever — and to get into that character they use a particular element as the trigger, so to speak, that gives them access to the whole.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    Let me make my point more broadly — as someone who grew up surrounded by what you might call Philly-adjacent accents (maybe not mostly the within-the-city-limits-and-only-in-certain-neighborhoods Platonic form, but definitely regionally marked) I couldn’t really evaluate the clip one way or another, because the particular sentences she uttered in the clip didn’t happen to include any words shibboleth-enough in their regional deviation from a more GenAm accent for it to leap out at me that she’d either gotten it right or gotten it wrong. A word using the boat/poster vowel would have conveniently served as such a shibboleth, but there also could be others involving other phonemes. Admittedly, I might be a bit rusty-eared because of decades living 50+ miles outside the boundaries of the relevant accent zone.

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