Wednesday, 19 February 2014

One of the mysteries of the new TV series, True Detective: do Americans understand each other’s accents?

I remember when we were checking into The Frenchmen Hotel in New Orleans 20 years’ ago being told by the rather languid young man behind the desk that we were being given a discount on our room. I asked him why. “Because y’all got an accent,” he replied. Hearing that comment – spoken in the richest imaginable Louisiana draaaaawwwwwl – tickled us pink.

Up to that point, I’d always considered us to be accentless – especially my wife, who is Received Pronunciation (or Oxford English) personified. I was reminded of this incident last night as we watched the first episode of True Detective, the new Louisiana-set TV crime drama starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (both in fine form). After ten minutes adjusting the volume, we admitted to each other that we could barely understand a word anyone was saying. We switched on subtitles, but they weren’t available (maybe because we'd downloaded the programme from Sky's Catch Up service instead of watching it live). Consequently, it was a bit like listening to one’s neighbours having a row by pressing a glass against a shared wall (not, of course, that we’d ever do such a thing). My wife's hearing is much more acute than mine, but I’m generally better at deciphering English spoken in a foreign accent than my wife. Last night, though, I was of no help whatsoever. (Matters weren’t helped by both of us having colds.)

Partly, the tinny little speakers squashed into flat-screen TVs are to blame (I wrote about the problem here). But in this instance I suspect it was also because the accents were being laid on with a trowel – Harrelson’s character is supposed to be from Louisiana and McConoughey from Texas (I have no idea whether their accents are authentic or not – an expert opinion would be appreciated). I suspect that American TV and movie-makers' perfectly natural and commendable desire for maximum authenticity is making it harder for Brits to understand dialogue, and I really wouldn’t want all their characters speaking in geographically anomalous Mid-West, white-bread tones. Besides, we’ve had our fun over the years sneering at reports of hopelessly insular Americans being unable to understand various British films and personalities (all the way from Kes to Cheryl Cole): who are we to complain when the shoe’s on the other foot? Perhaps sound recordists could make some allowances: dipping background noise in order to foreground the dialogues, or placing the microphones in a more advantageous position. But I'm not sure either of those things would have made much difference last night.

As we reached the end of True Detective I suddenly found myself wondering whether American viewers in, say, Boston or Brooklyn or Seattle or San Francisco face the same problems as we do with some American accents? After all, if people from the Home Counties find certain British regional accents hard to decipher even though that region's only a few hundred miles away – and they do - why would Americans who live in different time-zones find it any easier? For instance, did the descendants of Norwegian immigrants in Minneapolis breeze through The Wire without an occasional "huh?" And are similar problems encountered within countries like Germany, Italy and Spain – in fact anywhere with national TV stations and a wide variety of regional accents?

I feel a bit guilty bringing this up, because I love hearing genuine American regional accents (for instance, it was one of the many factors which made Fargo such a constant delight). But I also like to understand what the actors are saying, so it's a bit of a conundrum. We'll definitely be watching the rest of True Detective, but I'm really hoping we can figure out how to get the subtitles working from now on or we'll have to end up with our ears pressed against the television set.


  1. You are partially off the hook here. I watched it last night...the sound is terrible.
    You are partially deeper on the hook because no one is speaking with anything like a Louisiana accent. Mc is speaking with his own Texas drawl ( slightly slurred and way down in the mix), harrelson has added some odd growl to his nondescript voice.

    They are definitely shooting in the area around New Orleans but nobody (halfway through) actually had a south Louisiana (north Louisiana sounds like me ) accent.

    One of the best movies for Southern accents and southerners speaking the way Southerners speak is Bernie. Mat mc is in that one too. The best tv show is Rectify.

    1. Watched some YouTube clips from Bernie and Rectify and everything was as clear as a bell (Rectify looks good).

      Anyway, glad to hear it's not entirely my cloth ears at fault with True Detective. I was going to say it's surprising that Americans don't complain about inauthentic accents, but here we still occasionally have non-Scots playing Scots as if the accent doesn't really matter and as if that isn't insulting to the Scottish peopleand most "country" characters sound exactly the same, whether they're supposed to be from Cornwall or Norfolk or wherever. I suppose I'm surprised that everyone doesn't make more a fuss. (Mind you, very few young actors can do period upper class accents either.)

    2. The problem with the Hollywood southern accent is that it only exists in the mind of non-Southerners. Of course that is sufficient to make it the real Southern accent.
      It would be like having robin Williams doing his golf joke play every Scottish character.

      Rectify proves that this is a delusion and not an actual mishearing...two of the main actors are Australian and the girl who plays Tawny does an especially good job.
      It's not just the accents...which other than the two Aussies are actual's the use of language. Much more is to be understood by what is not said than by what is. The essence of it is Southern.,,which is very exciting to witness. It's not about the's Southern.

      It's in South Georgia ...where people say pea-can...not puh-kahn...little things like that. And best of all the mid day meal is actually referred to as Dinner... Which is what any sensible person calls it. :)
      Bernie is a very good...very funny movie that succeeds for the same reason. Most of the people in it are actual residents of the town.

  2. I'm looking at the Louisiana border...just the other side of kentwood and Liverpool exit.

    The fella I'm working with just told the coonass lady who runs a kitchen that he plays dumb sometimes ...

    "Yoo done hav ta twy too haw hawny"

    Ha...imagine trying to decipher that for an hour.

    1. Are you allowed to use coonass for Cajun? Isn't that like a hate crime or something? (Over here, the police seem to spend most of their time looking for this sort of thing on Facebook and Twitter so they can go out and arrest people.)

      I think I understood just about ever¥thing said to me in the South, but i suspect they were making allowances for a foreigner. Oddly (well odd to me) were the one or two Southerners utterly foxed by my accent. One lady in a diner in North Florida got quite angry, apparently convinced I was deliberately talking nonsense, and I was once issued a Greyhound ticket for Knoxville instead of Nashville, even though by that stage I was E-NUN-CIA-TING very carefully because of the blank stares I often received in Greyhound offices (where you'd think they'd be well used to strange accents). Apart from the angry diner lady, everyone else was charming, especially when I'd answered the oft-repeated question, "Where you from?"

      My wife and I were astounded when we took a boat tour of the swamps in Lousiana that the guide spoke with one of those classic Cajun French accents. For the first five minutes we suspected he was having us on - when we realised he wasn't, we just sat back and enjoyed the experience. I don't know why we should have been surprised, but it was just like stepping into a movie. Laissez les bons temps rouler and all that.

    2. We are and we aren't. People outside of the area who often have no idea what it means are offended to the point of distraction. In the general area coonass (if it's ok for me to say such a thing on a UK website) is used to distinguish south Louisiana gooduns from rednecks. For instance selling food in gas stations requires knowing the market. Hence questions like what do you get in here coonasses or red necks. This morning I was selling fried green tomatoes...the lady was from ten miles away in Louisiana. She had to depend on the girls in the kitchen to tell her if they were good because she didn't grow up eating them. For a redneck they are a staple. In this case it's someone who may not be Cajun but is of the s Louisiana culture. Then there are cajun Cajuns.
      Coonass is like redneck. You could use it in a way that would be made to regret but it's common usage in these parts.

  3. I have to say the victims husband, in lock up is outstanding. If he's not local he's done an outstanding job...and sheriff tate. It's funny...I see half if these places all the time.

    1. You're well ahead of us - second episode airs here this weekend, so I'll listen out for the victim's husband.

      I hope the places you visit regularly are more upbeat than they appear in TV crime series!

  4. Very interesting subject, post and comments. Thanks. Really enjoyed .

    On reflection, I suddenly realized how much I enjoy films set in post-war Texas [some of them unsung masterpieces like "The Killer Inside Me" and "The Getaway"] and the number of excellent actors that come from that State [Joe Don Baker, Tommy Lee Jones, Powers Boothe, Randy Quaid, Bill Paxton, Thomas Haden Church, Forest Whitaker...I was disappointed to discover that Slim Pickens hailed from California.] Also, we should not forget Joan Crawford and Sissy Spaceck]. And Harrelson and McConaughy, of course I have no idea wether American regional accents are genuine or not or what they are saying half the time, but as long as they sound authentic and you get the drift who cares.

    McConaughy. Took a long time to warm to him [was upset about factual travesties of "U-571"], but he is now a major player. "Killer Joe". Oh Yes!

    The other thing I started musing over - why would three of America's greatest film actors [Fonda, Brando, Clift] all come from Omaha, Nebraska and yet be so completely different? Is Nebraska accentless?

    "Bernie" is another wonderful film - Jack Black started his rehabilitation in "Tropic Thunder".

  5. Interesting point about where Amnerican actors come from - never thought of it before. (I expect California was more of a frontier state when Slim first moseyed onto the scene, dangbladdit.)

    Nebraska accents - not a clue, but another interesting point. I suspect it's where they learned their acting trade that influenced their accents, but I don't really know.