Welcome back! For this third installment of our Spamalot blog series we show off our outrageous accents! With the help of our music director and dialects coach, Heather Shelley, the cast has been initiated into the world of long, short, and broad vowel sounds; plosive, voiced and glottal consonants. Keep reading and you’ll soon be initiated, too!
So many accents...
Our production of Spamalot showcases at least six different accents -- British RP (that’s “received pronunciation” for the uninitiated), Cockney, French, Scottish, Valley Girl, and Finnish-ish (what does that mean? You’ll have to see the show to find out!). And, the fabulous Heather Shelley has been helping us learn them all! Heather has a Masters Degree in Linguistics, so not only is she a great music director, but also a highly qualified dialects coach. Here is some of what she taught us about the two most used accents in our show — British RP and Cockney
RP is the standard British accent taught in British schools, and is typical of the upper class. (Think, Eliza Doolittle at the end of My Fair Lady.) One of the first things that Heather taught us about British accents (both RP and Cockney) is the “trap-bath split” and “the ask list.”
The Trap-Bath Split
The trap-bath split refers to the difference between the general American accent and most British accents in using the short-a sound (as in cat, apple, spam), versus the broad-a sound (as in ah, father, palm). For most Americans the words “trap” and “bath” rhyme, both using the short-a sound. In RP (and Cockney) the words “trap” and “bath” do not rhyme -- “trap” still uses the short-a sound, but “bath” uses the broad-a sound (bath=bahth). Thus, the split.
The Ask List
“The ask list” is a collection of the most common words that fall into the “bath” side of the split. For example, the word “can’t” is on the ask list (i.e., it uses the broad-a sound — cahn’t), but the word “can” is not (i.e., it uses the short-a sound). We are constantly being reminded of this split during rehearsals (it’s so easy to forget which words are on the list!).
Forget your Ps and Qs. Mind your Ts and Rs!
Heather also taught us a little bit about consonants. RP uses plossive Ts when in the middle of words, rather than voiced Ts (e.g., the word “little” is pronounced “liTTle” rather than “liDDle”), or glottal Ts (e.g., the word “mountain” is pronounced “mounTain” rather than “moun’ain”).
RP is also non-rhotic with it’s Rs, which means you don’t pronounce the “r” sound unless it is followed by a vowel, or it is the first sound of the word. For example, the words “father” and “farther” sound alike in RP because of the dropped “r” sound. And, neither of the words would have and “r” sound at the end (father = fah-thuh, farther = fah-thuh). That is, unless it is immediately followed by a word that starts with a vowel sound, in which case the “r” sound would attach itself to the beginning of the following word (e.g., father and mother = fah-thuh rand muh-thuh).
Cockney is the accent of London’s East end, and is typical of the working class. (Think, Eliza Doolittle at the beginning of My Fair Lady.) One of the most recognizable features of the Cockney accent are all the dropped consonants.
Whatever Happened to my H?
Dropped Hs at the beginning of words are the standard in Cockney. If a word starts with the letter “H” you don’t say the H sound (e.g., horse = ‘orse, house = ‘ouse). There’s a whole slew of other “dropped consonants” in the Cockney accent. The list below is just a handful of them.
Dropped Gs from “ing” endings (e.g., ending = end-in’)
Dropped Ts from middle of words (e.g., kitten = ki’en)
Dropped Ls at the end of words (e.g., trouble = truh-bow, pal = pow)
Dropped Ts from the end of words (e.g., not = nah’, yet = ye’)
The Rain in Spain…
Another one of the most recognizable features of the Cockney accent is the swapping of the long-a sound (e.g., rain, Spain, plain) for the long-i sound (e.g., fly, time). So, to use Henry Higgins’ famous teaching mechanism, “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” becomes “the rine, in Spine sties minely in the pline.”
Shaping an Accent in Your Mouth
According to our Master Linguist, Heather, every language or accent shapes differently in your mouth. Meaning that you use different parts of your mouth in different ways to make the sounds of that language or accent. For example, speaking RP English requires more focus in the front of the mouth, and particularly the lips, than general American English.
One of the tricks of the trade for actors is having a warm-up phrase to speak to get your mouth “in the shape” of the accent. Our Spamalot cast has been using a phrase from the song All For One to get our mouths ready to speak the British RP accent:
All for one. One for all. Slightly less for people we don’t like. And a little bit more for me.
The phrase uses most of the RP rules that we learned, and gives us a chance to practice one of our songs.
Hear us for Yourselves
We hope this blog post has taught you a few rules you can apply when speaking with a British RP or Cockney accent. Keep reading this blog series to learn even more about what the cast and crew of Spamalot have been up to. And, come hear all our outrageous accents for yourself at The Empress January 18 through February 2. Don’t miss your chance! Buy your Spamalot tickets online today!