Accents & Pronunciation in Audiobooks

Narrators have a terrific resource: AudioEloquence.com, maintained by Judith West and Heather Henderson. I spoke with these two narrators about the need for a collection of accent and pronunciation aids found on AudioEloquence, and have their interview below. I can’t wait to actually meet Judith & Heather at the Audio Publishers Association’s APAC conference in New York later this month. I’m sure they’ll be gathering more tips & tricks during the meeting. But the resources aren’t just for industry insiders – browse around the site and you’ll find some links that will come in handy someday in your personal life. Or use the resources to check out whether the narrator on your current audio listen made a flub 😉

Who is your audience for your resource website?

JUDITH: The primary audience is audiobook narrators, the same group that generated our original collection. Some producers and proofers have also contributed. Actors, announcers, and teachers would certainly find it helpful. But audiobook narrators have an ongoing and ever-changing need for all manner of pronunciations, dialects, and accents — and each book comes with its own new set of challenges. For instance, you can go from needing to know how a truckload of 20th-century artists and writers pronounced their names, to how Gullah (the slave dialect of the Sea Islands) differs from a Caribbean accent, to distinguishing the spoken English of a Chinese-born woman from that of a Japanese-born one.

HEATHER: And we’ve partitioned the site to reflect the needs of different narrators and book projects. The first two sections, Pronunciation Sites by Topic and by Language, have sites that let you quickly browse or search for a single word or phrase in a given language or on a given topic. These “look-up” sites serve both for script prep and as quick mid-session references. The other main section, Dialects, Accents, and General Language Sites, provides resources allowing narrators to listen to, study, and practice the speech of various native and non-native English speakers, as well as extended samples of native speakers of many foreign languages. These sites are invaluable in preparing character work for dialogue and some first-person narration.

 Why did you create the site? How did you compile the links?

JUDITH: The genesis was a discussion in “The Green Room,” which was the narrator’s group on the original Audiobook Community social website. (ABC is now on Facebook, to accommodate a larger community.) Narrator Adam Verner started (thanks, Adam!) by sharing a fabulous interactive map of U.S. dialects with audio and video samples. (And yes, you can find it on AudioEloquence.com!) The link-exchange frenzy grew from there.

Heather, who moderated the Green Room forum, mused about how great it would be to compile these into a master list of sites, and I leapt at the chance to help. Heather and I share the rare bibliography-geek gene (her doctoral dissertation was an annotated analysis of a Shaw play, and I edited and researched for Britannica for many years). We’ve been “virtually” inseparable ever since.

We’ve just launched the new-and-improved 2013 AudioEloquence, but our results first appeared as a printed handout at the 2011 APAC, and shortly thereafter we set up its current online home. We announced a major online update at APAC 2012 by handing out postcards with a fortune cookie message on the front, one that I actually opened with some Chinese takeout: “You will soon be receiving sound spoken advice. Listen!”

HEATHER: Well, Judith and I remember differently how it started, but I think that’s because it was parallel evolution — there were so many lively discussions on this topic in The Green Room. What I remember is Katherine Kellgren’s posting the question, “What are everyone’s favorite pronunciation resources?” and a deluge of answers pouring in from narrators. Judith and I didn’t know each other very well before then, but we discovered that each of us was compiling a list of these sites and that each of us had a background in research and annotation. We teamed up to put all these sites into a nifty list to share with other narrators, and then we needed to park it somewhere for people to access . . . and the whole project has continued growing from there.

Do narrators also receive help in choosing proper accents and dialects from producers and directors?

JUDITH: Assistance varies from client to client. Some producer-publishers have research built into their process before the narrator gets the script, usually done by the same people who do audio proofing. But often you’re on your own, especially as narrators become more their own director-producers. That’s one way that AE can be a real boon. I used to work in a booth with a director and an engineer just a few feet away to shepherd me through the book. Now, both of those jobs are done by me in my own custom-built booth — the researcher’s job too, often. So having a large and convenient-to-use stash of pronunciation links is vital.

Most professional narrators are meticulous about nailing a character’s accent or dialect, in many cases right down to the region. A poorly executed accent — especially one from a native English-speaking area — can undercut your credibility and, thus, your authenticity. Readers can be put off by bad accents and pronunciation errors, usually depending on how central they are to the book; and you can bet that major problems will come up in reviews. So a resource like AE can be a lifesaver and is definitely much speedier than having to ferret out everything on your own.

HEATHER: I might have a quick phone consult with my producer about characters before I start rolling, but mostly I fly solo. I live in Eugene, Oregon, so I’m one of a growing number of narrators who are cast by producers because we have excellent home studios and sound, and because we can reliably self-direct. Most of the producers I work for have proofers who provide me with the bulk of the pronunciation research in advance. But I often lend a hand, and I try to handle the inevitable stragglers that I run across during recording.

Most of the accent/dialect discussions I have, actually, are with my proofer, usually mid-recording or during the corrections stage, and my producer weighs in at the end to make or approve the final call. It’s surprising how much time you can spend deciding about a single word, never mind a whole character voice or narrative mood. For instance, in a horror novel I once did, my proofer and I went around and around about which pronunciation of the word “coyote” I should use. In Oregon, we often pronounce it KAI-oht, which was my preference. In Merriam-Webster Unabridged (which is the definitive dictionary for most producers), both KAI-oht and kai-OH-tee get equal weight, the former as the “Western standard” variation. In the American Heritage dictionary (which is my favorite dictionary but don’t get me started), KAI-oht seems to be preferred. We finally decided on KAI-oht because the book was set in the contemporary West. We were both ambivalent, but we had to move on, because this word only occurred twice in the book!

Has the changing world of audiobook creation – digital technology, home studios, economics – impacted the need for your resource?

JUDITH: Absolutely! Just as new technology and economic realities have helped shift more and more production responsibility to the narrator, it’s also made more, and more dependable, resources quickly and freely available to us. On the pronunciation front, we’ve gone from frequent best-guess decisions or time-consuming primary-source research to, in many cases, easy certainty — because so many sites provide audio samples, as well as phonetic transcriptions, of even the most obscure or complex speech features. On AE, we indicate whether each site provides audio or phonetic renderings or both. In addition, technology, together with the growing number of home-studio-experienced narrators, has produced great social media opportunities for conferring with your fellow performers — which set AE in motion in the first place!

HEATHER: AE is a response to changes in the industry, as Judith said, but I think it’s also a response to the growth of resources available online. There are so many that it can be overwhelming and time-consuming to find and keep track of them all.

I should mention that the least helpful online resources are synthesized speech, like text-to-speech translators. These are so variable in their reliability that I usually don’t even use them. On AE, we select for the sites that are human-voiced, and our annotations indicate when sound samples are synthetic.

Are there any other fun and interesting facts about narration and choosing the correct pronunciation that you’d like to share?

HEATHER: This could be a wonderful blog post on its own — narrators have some wonderful anecdotes about pronunciation searches. I’ve called bars in Michigan at 1 AM (to find an obscure local place-name when all other businesses were closed), police non-emergency lines all over the U.S., an Amish man who gives buggy-rides to tourists. Once I called an Air Force base in Montana, at midnight, about a word I needed for a book I was narrating about a secret government cover-up of a UFO sighting at that airbase. (That call was not one of my best decisions.)

One natural history book I did had dozens of Latin taxonomic names of obscure species, and I could not find them on the Internet for love nor money. Finally I tracked down the scientist interviewed most often in the book, and he was kind enough to go over all the pronunciations with me. As we talked we discovered we had a lot in common, and when he was in town for a research trip, he stayed with us. I took him to a patch of old-growth forest to dig for native worms, and he found a species that he believed was undiscovered. I’m waiting to hear the DNA results — if it is a new species, he might name it after me! (At least I’d know how to pronounce that one.)

Judith and I like to challenge a site by looking up unusual words or names. One promising-looking site offered pronunciations of contemporary public figures worldwide. It was maintained by an Italian linguistics professor who said he hand-selected native speakers to record his sound files. But my “Henry Kissinger” search yielded a pronunciation by a woman with a strong East End (London) accent. And “Celine Dion” was given in a native Parisian accent. Judith tried rappers 2Pac and 50 Cent, which returned really garbled synthetic renderings. Needless to say, we nixed the site for AE!

JUDITH: Oh, I wish more of my pronunciation anecdotes were fun! Most of mine have been real-life gaffes and pretty mortifying — which may be why I feel so strongly about the subject! But maybe someone should create an AE offshoot collection of pronunciation bloopers. I can contribute!

I suppose, in the face of all our tech talk, one of the most interesting and important facts remains that while you can find loads of data you couldn’t a few years ago, “correct pronunciation” is always a context-driven judgment. I narrated a wonderful book for HarperCollins recently, The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian, and in it a woman-of-a-certain-age who works at Walmart and lives in a trailer park mentions eating her lunch of Salisbury steak. One of the production team, very politely but firmly, insisted that I should pronounce it “correctly,” as “SAWLZ-buhr-ee.” I balked, politely, I hope, insisting that given this character’s demographics and the other traits revealed in her full-throttle stream-of-consciousness monologue, I knew that she would pronounce it “SAL-ihz-behr-ee.” After a couple more rounds of entreaties and demurrals, I finally found a casual online discussion about this very term that supported my point. All this to say that info and data do not equal knowledge, and it’s the context of words — who says them, why, to whom — coupled with human experience and understanding — yours or someone else’s — that determines correct pronunciation.

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About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

2 Comments on "Accents & Pronunciation in Audiobooks"

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  1. pearl@pearlhewitt.com' Pearl Hewitt says:

    This is fascinating stuff. Judith and Heather must spend SO much time working on this. It’s amazing and an incredibly useful resource for all us nit-picky narrators who want to always say the right thing.
    Ladies, you are awesome!

    Thank you for spreading the word Mary Burkey. 🙂

    Pearl Hewitt

  2. erinn@ripcityresearch.com' Erinn Warton says:

    Greetings! I’ve just finished working on a book with Judith West and I can say that she is fabulous, both in her narration and her pronunciations. I also wanted to let narrators know that there are professional audiobook research companies out there for you. Often this is the best choice for a busy narrator who just doesn’t have the time to spend researching when they are busy narrating. Professional researchers also have access to an immense database of sources, publishers and academic professionals. I’m one of the lead researchers/proofers at Rip City research. Please visit http://www.ripcityresearch.com for more information.

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