Sounding like the locals isn’t easy. Accent coach Thom Jones takes us on a tour of New England dialects and accents.
Thom Jones likes the sound of other people’s voices. As a dialect coach for the Trinity Repertory Company and the Brown/Trinity MFA program, it’s his job to teach actors how to sound as though they’re really from the places their characters hail from—Southie, say, or Down East Maine. Jones, who has consulted on numerous films and television projects and worked closely with stars such as Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman, is a sort of accent anthropologist. He’s traveled extensively around the region and has recorded some 200 samples of New England dialects and accents. “I’m sure people think I’m crazy,” he says. “Whenever I hear somebody say something in an interesting dialect, I like to repeat it over and over to myself, to get a sense for what it feels and sounds like.”
When first working with actors on a dialect, Jones gets them to think about how they’re talking:
What are their muscles doing? What’s happening with the base of the tongue? What’s happening with the soft palate? What’s going on with their teeth? “The shape of your head, the shape of your nose, how big your cheekbones are—all of it alters your sound,” he says. “The articulation comes from the way you’ve trained your muscles in relation to what you grew up hearing.”
Finding the Music
How we speak is a reflection of our culture, which is why people tend to get territorial about their dialects. “If you don’t have the rhythm, you won’t find the music for the way it sounds,” Jones explains. For the 2010 film Edge of Darkness, starring Mel Gibson as a Boston homicide detective, Jones worked closely with the actor to perfect his accent: “I told him, ‘Boston is a little dog that’s trying to be big.’ And he went, ‘Yeah, oh yeah.’ He got it and went to work on that.”
New England, though compact, is rich in diverse dialects. “You can drive a half-hour and hear a whole different way of speaking,” Jones notes. For example, Bostonians often drop their rs, but in Western Massachusetts, they’re more pronounced, similar to what you’d find in the Midwest. Head north, deep into Vermont or New Hampshire, and you’ll hear traces of a French Canadian dialect.
That Down East Sound
Jones describes eastern Maine’s dialect as matter-of-fact and a little jagged: “It’s got a lot of music, but it doesn’t flow from one thing to another; instead, it pops. With that classic phrase You can’t get they-yuh from he-yuh, there’s a big leap between the sounds.”
“Rural New Hampshire, as opposed to Down East Maine, is calmer, without the quick expanse of sound. I call it ‘Maine light,'” Jones says. “It’s like the difference between listening to somebody from Georgia and somebody from Virginia. Both are very Southern, but Virginia is a lot easier. The intervals between the notes aren’t as broad.”
Small Is Beautiful
Because he calls the Ocean State home, Jones has a special affinity for the way Rhode Islanders speak—Cranston folks in particular. Their rs sound almost like vs, he says: “It’s like an r and a v at the same time.” An amalgamation of cultures also makes the state unique. “I got one job on a film,” he recalls, “because the guy was playing examples of Rhode Island, and I was saying, ‘That guy is Portuguese; that guy is Irish; that guy is Italian.’ Whatever culture you come from, the language from that culture influences your regional dialect.”