J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Accents in John Adams

In a discussion of the John Adams miniseries on The New Republic’s website, author Steven Waldman wrote, “I’d personally be interested in hearing how they figured out what kinds of accents to give each figure.” Earlier he had written, “This series depicts some of the founders as having accents—some English, some Scottish, some a unique new hybrid.” I’ve been, well, totally baffled by that question myself, trying to figure out tonal differences between Southerners and Northerners, upper-class and middling-class, and Tom Wilkinson’s Franklin and everyone else.

Screenwriter and producer Kirk Ellis replied to Waldman’s question:

From the beginning, we wanted to emphasize that independence was a battle between British Americans and their brethren in England, not, as so often depicted, a conflict that pitted Crown officers with plumy Oxonian accents against patriots with full-blown American dialects. All our research pointed to the fact that, in written and spoken speech, America was much closer to the mother country than had been acknowledged in past dramatizations.

From our advisors in Colonial Williamsburg, we learned that one’s residence in America frequently depended on one’s point of origin in England. Virginia, for instance, was largely settled by residents of East Anglia—in terms of dialect and accent a very distinctive region. Moreover, a goodly number of our characters (notably John Dickinson) had been educated in English schools and had acquired the manners and speech of the time and place. Still others, such as Adams’s Secretary of War James McHenry, were themselves immigrants whose accents (Irish, in McHenry’s case) were noted at the time.

Our dialect coach, the gifted Catherine Charlton, asked me to provide miniature biographies of each character, from which she was able to reconstruct that person’s likely accent. Catherine had had past experience in such linguistic archaeology, having had to essentially re-invent a lost Native American language for Terence Malick’s film about Jamestown, The New World. The results of the painstaking craftsmanship are evident in the rich tapestry of accents heard throughout the series, which we regard as accurate an approximation as can be reached at this distance in time, without the benefit of recording.
This question (or a press release about it) also prompted Vanity Fair to interview the dialect coach herself. Charlton says such things as, “when we’re talking about the Boston area, the Puritans believed that if you did not speak clearly and loudly enough then God would not hear what you were saying while reading the Bible.” Hmmm. Also, East Anglia was the starting-point for most Puritan emigrants to New England; I hadn’t heard it as the home base for lots of Virginians.

But at least it’s good to see that the miniseries-makers made a serious effort at figuring out how their characters should speak. We Americans do have a tendency, whether in Spartacus or Die Hard or All About Eve, to equate upper-class British accents with villainy about to be upended. A lot of American Patriots went into the political conflict with London hoping to end up more like upper-class British, not less.

I haven’t sat down to study Revolutionary-era dialects, but we do have a lot of clues about New England pronunciation from such phonetic spellers as Quincy Thaxter and this Rhode Island officer. Some things have definitely changed: Fanueil Hall used to be pronounced “Funnel Hall,” which is a little closer to the original French name than our modern rendering. We know Boston boys in 1737 found a Scotch-Irish newcomer’s pronunciation amusing, and that in 1775 British officers and Bostonians were divided by their slang.

I’ll see if the next episode of the series leaves me any less baffled by how different characters talk.


Larry Cebula said...

I haven't caught much of the show but am quite enjoying this series of posts. Speaking of colonial accents on film, I remember in the dreadful film Revolution that Al Pacino had a really odd accent--do you know anything about that?

J. L. Bell said...

Only that it was a dreadful film and a really odd accent. Donald Sutherland and Natassia Kinski’s accents weren’t any better, as I recall, just less modern-sounding.

The actor and former Quiz Kid Robert Easton was dialect coach on Revolution. He’s done the same job on many other productions, most recently The Last King of Scotland. Pacino’s interior approach to building a character might not have been a good match for Easton’s advice.

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating subject that I've been mulling over as well while watching. I think the show's creators are right to avoid the cliche of down-to-earth "Amurcan" vs. foofy Brits. But the problem (if it's a problem) is that even highly elevated British speech, I believe, was far from BBC back in the 18th C. -- so when some of the American characters go high-tone "Brit," to avoid the cliche, the accent sounds like generic costume drama. I've always wondered -- and certainly do not know the answer -- whether we'd easily understand John Adams if he suddenly appeared here and started speaking to us. I think some elderly deep-Southerners, downeast Mainers, and Chesapeake watermen sound closer to what both John Adams and George III might have sounded like than anything we're lilely to find in historical TV drama. Not sure, though. I like Giamatti's choice, in which I discern touches of Edward Everett Horton, and wish Linney's Abigail sounded a bit more "country." Really enjoying the whole discussion of the show.

Anonymous said...

It was eastern Massachusetts and some other parts of New England that were largely settled from East Anglia in the third quarter of the 17th century (and grew mostly by natural increase thereafter).

Virginia's settlement was largely drawn at first from southwestern England.

Of course, there was a great deal of variability in settlement, but those were the dominant patterns. The easiest modern resource on this is Fisher's Albion's Seed.

J. L. Bell said...

“Easiest” in this case being a thick book I didn’t feel up to lifting. Thanks!

Phillip Hill said...

I came upon this page because, watching John Adams, I was bewildered by the characters' accents. My first thought was : how could there have been so many Irishmen in Boston before 1848 ? Perhaps actors find the Irish accent the easiest to imitate. Samuel Adams definitely has been given an Irish accent and so has James Dickinson (despite the language coach's claims to have reproduced his Englishness). I actually looked up people's biographies - maybe Samuel Adams had lived in Ireland, I thought - how could he have such a different accent from his brother John. When you mentioned that the language coach for the series had also worked on "The New World", I had an idea. Maybe she just likes Irish accents (so do I), because one unbearable thing in the film (apart from Colin Farrell's acting) was that he did nothing to move away from his Irish brogue. A beautiful accent, I insist, but John Smith was from Lincolnshire. Another place.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the first two parts of John Adams and I must say “Bravo.” The whole historical accent issue is fascinating, I come to this question of historical accents thinking about Alexander Hamilton. He was a new immigrant to America – an orphan of a French mother and Scottish father he was born and raised on various islands in the Caribbean.
So what on earth was his Hamilton's accent? It must have been strange – did anyone comment on such matters in letters, etc.?
Did Hamilton’s accent or his immigrant status influence people’s opinion of him? Any help answering this question would be greatly appreciated!
Even if it were on Saturday Night Live - I would just love to see Alexander Hamilton played with a Jamaican Rosta accent and a dreadlock wig! “Hey Mon- we need the National Bank!”
But seriously what are the implications for how we see American history if our “founding fathers” had non-English accents. The German, Dutch (NY) and Swedish (Delaware) populations were establish here, were they represented in the centers of power – were the elite “founding fathers” all English or Scottish? That is clearly the impression from TV.
This also goes to the question of social class – the English class system uses accent as the critical mark of class and station, had that diminished over in The Colonies over time or with the mixing of immigrants. Were people of lower birth like John Adams or Alexander Hamilton or Ben Franklin really accepted into elite society? Or did they assume the accents of the elite though education or guile? And if they could do that then wouldn’t the same thing happen to those of non-British heritage? Did you have to sound right for the job? If that is the case, maybe they all did have the same accents in Congress?
Our image of the past is just that and image – and we know portrait artists would just add in the faces – so how much true diversity of clothing, and hair style is lost. These guys all look the same, but were they the same. Accent is a far more careful indicator of social group.
So on a larger scale what will be the impact of recorded sound on how history is understood? Would we remember Winston Churchill differently if we didn’t have the sound of his voice in our ears? Or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
By the way, does anyone know about the legislative history of the “Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen” (Marine Hospital Service) which Adams signed on July 16, 1798? It established a mandatory federal hospital insurance for sailors and resulted in the federal government running hospitals in port cities – Boston had the first. Yes at least some of the founding fathers supported a form of mandatory health insurance.

Pacificus said...

Not sure this is entirely linguistically accurate, but found it interesting and thought you might as well: