Accents for Actors of Color
Any discussion of accents and dialects for actors of color must start with the realization that many speech patterns are not confined to just one race or ethnicity. For instance, most of the 24 accents and dialects Paul offers on this page are useful to all actors, whether they be white, black, Hispanic, or Asian. General American, for example, is spoken by people of every race in the United States, while the same could be said for standard language norms in regards to French, German, Russian, and Spanish accents in those countries.
Still, actors of color are often required to master dialects and accents that are unique to their race and ethnicity. Paul’s Indian dialect instruction comes to mind, as it’s generally intended for actors of Indian ethnicity. Other examples of race/ethnicity specificity might include Jamaican, West African, regional African American speech, black South African, Puerto Rican, and Mexican. In addition, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean actors are often called upon to tackle unique dialects. Conversely, Paul offers several dialects that are associated almost exclusively with Caucasians, such as Downeast New England and Hampshire.
It might be worth mentioning, however, that radio and voice-over casting — as opposed to film, television, and theatre — tends to be slightly less color-conscious. Therefore, the following resources may prove valuable to any actor who hopes to work in that field, regardless of race or ethnicity.
Paul’s philosophy: “The needs of actors of color are paramount in my teaching. In my own classes at the University of Kansas, I often work with African American, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American students. This diversity is also reflected in my private practice and in the hundreds of theatre and film companies I have coached. One of my greatest rewards is knowing that, through encouraging the compassionate portrayal of accents and dialects not our own, I empower actors to foster, in the audience, understanding and respect for the variety of cultures with whom we share the planet.
As I say in the introduction to Accents & Dialects for Stage and Screen: For actors, the chief delight and most solemn duty is to ‘disappear’ inside their character’s story, and to take on the character’s behaviors, value system, fears, and dreams. By this act of mimesis, actors hope to penetrate a truth not their own, and to reveal that truth to an audience. A hard job!
To see one’s own culture as one among many, and to don another as a cloak, is an immensely difficult but hugely rewarding task. However, race is a social construction and not something that one can ‘put on’ and ‘take off,’ no matter what the role. Actors of various racial and ethnic identities, white and non-white, are all produced by and through the social and cultural contexts in which their bodies and identities are located. One cannot assume that just because an actor identities as a particular racial identity that the role he or she plays will require the same locations of identity. We must dig deeper than appearances to think through the complexity of identity and the ways in which language positions the subject across race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and/or class positions.
Obviously, Accents & Dialects for Stage and Screen could never have hoped to meet all the diverse needs of actors throughout the English-speaking world. With that said, in today’s wonderfully diverse casting, the dialects I include are relevant to all actors of color while containing several dialects and accents that are especially valuable to them. However, the experiences of actors of color around the world – across racial, ethnic, and national lines – are often excluded from these discussions, as they are asked to perform ‘standard’ pronunciations in training programs that often either exclude their cultural experiences or ask them to redirect their cultural experiences in ways that diminish their subjectivity by focusing on European-derived pronunciations as the hallmark of action training.
With that said, over years of coaching actors from around the world of all races and ethnicities, I have been conscious that there are accents and dialects that I, a white Brit, should not attempt to demonstrate lest I give offense. Yet, as a specialist, I want to open opportunities to incorporate and consider linguistic approaches to a wider range of dialect and accent considerations that include all human experiences and that consider the complex ways that English dialects are used around the world, past and present.
This is why I founded IDEA (the International Dialects of English Archive). My dream was to archive samples of real people from every corner of the globe, speaking English in their own style. That has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and much of the rest of this page will reference the racially and ethnically diverse samples found on that site.”
The following sections are just some of the races and ethnicities one associates with people of color. This page is not intended to present an exhaustive survey of dialects and accents but to simply serve as a reference for actors of color in both the United States and around the world.
African and African American Actors
African and African American actors must be ready for the broad range of roles for which their ethnicity qualifies them (African Caribbean and African roles from everywhere on that vast continent, and, of course, African American characters) as well as for race-neutral roles. They will also need skill in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, etc., for the speech found in many former European colonies.
Paul’s Jamaican dialect booklet/ebook is specifically designed for black actors. And, with his Indian Dialect, it’s one of two dialects specifically for actors of color (among his standard 25). In addition, IDEA is a great source for accents and dialects for black actors. Because IDEA is a searchable site, one need simply search for a specific race/ethnicity. Searching for “African-American,” for example, turns up six pages of results. Searching for “black” turns up 20 pages, although, as with a search for “white,” some results will be false positives.
Here are just a few examples of regional U.S. black speech on IDEA: Alabama 4, Alabama 8, Kentucky 7, Louisiana 9, Michigan 15, Mississippi 3, Missouri 24, New York 30 (and all of New York, especially for black/Hispanic/Dominican, etc.), North Carolina 7, South Carolina 3, and Texas 17. For accents and dialects from black speakers outside the United States, simply refer to the country or continent page. For example: Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc. And for good examples of black speech in London, England (with some Caribbean and African influences), see England 68 and England 78.
Other sources include Gillian Lane-Plescia’s Accents for Black Actors, Faedra Carpenter’s Coloring Whiteness: Acts of Critique in Black Performance, and Beth McGuire’s African Accents. The latter publication is complemented by this website.
An alternative source for not just black dialects and accents but all sounds around the world is the Speech Accent Archive, which allows you to search using a global map. IDEA also offers a similar global map here.
Native American Actors
The term “Native American” is admittedly a catch-all to refer to the thousands of nations, tribes, and other groups of people who are descendants of those who lived in North American before the arrival of European settlers. While no dialect study could possibly hope to summarize all the sounds of the various native peoples across an entire continent, IDEA does have a section devoted to American Indians and/or Native Americans. It contains, for example, subjects from Alaska who identify as Tlingit, Yup’ik, and Tsimpshean; subjects from Arizona who identify as Navajo; subjects from California who identify as Tohono O’odham; and subjects from Montana and Canada who identify as Blackfoot.
Hispanic and Latino/Latina Actors
Spanish is by far the most widely spoken Romance language. At a conservative estimate, there are around 300 million native speakers scattered through all continents, but most densely concentrated in Central and South America, where Spanish-speaking countries form a great swathe from the United States-Mexico border right to Tierra del Fuego. Spanish is the national language of 19 countries. So, of course, Paul’s Spanish accent instruction is a generalization and most closely resembles Castilian and Colonial accents of Spain.
IDEA is an even better source for the vast array of Hispanic and Latino/Latina dialects and accents of English, whether it be speakers in the United States, Mexico, Spain, or Central America. As we suggested with African and African-American dialects, searching for a particular race or ethnicity on IDEA is easy, but it might be more productive to visit the page corresponding to the country or U.S. state you desire. For example, the New York page contains many samples of Puerto Ricans and others who, despite having lived most of their life in New York, claim Spanish as their first language and identify as either Hispanic or Latino/Latina. And, of course, IDEA’s vast array of accents from Mexico, Spain, Cuba, and Central America will be useful too. Let’s also not forget that there are many different ethnicities within the broad “Hispanic and/or Latino/Latina” label, and, whenever possible, a subject’s IDEA biography includes all the appropriate descriptions of that person’s background.
Asian actors’ commercial prospects may certainly include portraying Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Korean characters, etc., and preparing them for these opportunities is an important responsibility for any dialect coach. To find real-life subjects from Asian countries speaking English, simply go to the country page you desire on IDEA. Particularly useful is the collection of Chinese samples, which is third in number only to the collections of samples from the United States and England. Some Chinese subjects have spent time in the United States, or have been heavily influenced by the English language and American culture, and will, therefore, be valuable for those searching for Chinese-American accents. The same is true for Japanese subjects on IDEA. (For the accents/dialects of South Asia (India and Pakistan), see below.)
The Indian dialect of English is one of Paul’s standard 24. In addition, IDEA offers many recordings of native speakers of India, showing the rich diversity of sounds present in the nation of more than 1 billion. IDEA also offers samples from Pakistan.
Middle Eastern Actors
Actors of Middle-Eastern descent must prepare for roles that far exceed their Arabic or Farsi-speaking origins. We have only to look at the large native-born Muslim populations of Brussels, Paris, Birmingham, Stockholm, New York, etc., to anticipate the films and television series that will increasingly portray Muslim life in those cities. As with the other accents and dialects discussed on this page, searching IDEA for what you desire is a good first step. (A search for “Arabic” yields three pages of results.) Also going to the country page you desire is a good first step. (Take note that the Middle East gets its own page separate from the rest of Asia.) The site also contains many subjects speaking not just English but Arabic as well. See Saudi Arabia 9, for example.
The aforementioned examples refer mostly to Muslim subjects. But it’s worth noting that IDEA contains Israeli and Jewish subjects too, in Israel, the United States (particularly New York), and Europe, though the latter two cannot be classified as Middle Eastern, of course. (An IDEA search for “Jewish” turns up four pages of results. Also see Paul’s Yiddish accent instruction.)
Thank you to IDEA’s senior and associate editors and Paul’s colleagues at the University of Kansas and other universities for help in the creation of this page. Particular thanks is owed to Eric Armstrong, Nicole Hodges Persley, Cynthia deCure, Micha Espinosa, Beth Mcguire, and Kathleen Mulligan.