Flat Accents and Round Accents

Posted by Jim Johnson on November 06, 2012 0 Comments

A follow-up question from a reader about the varied ways that “flat” is used to describe accents: “Are there any accents for which the key concept is rounded? Are there any accents that really go the opposite way with the velum — making a rounder space at the back by lifting the velum more?”

To clarify: The velum is the soft palate, the “gateway” door at the back roof of the mouth that is the passageway between the mouth space and the nasal space. When it’s lifted, it’s closing off the nasal space; when it’s dropped, it’s opening the nasal space.

In addition, the velum is not just two dimensional – it’s not just an open and closed door. It’s a muscle that can flatten out a bit, almost sagging from the roof of the mouth, and it can also create a very pronounced dome shape at the back, greatly increasing the space in the back of the mouth: you lift or dome it like crazy when you yawn. In addition, you will tend to lift your soft palate/velum more when you smile – a technique I use in some voice work with people. Go into a “lion’s roar smile” and your velum lifts – open your eyeballs wider to “crazy eyes” and your velum goes up, too.

This “doming” of the soft palate is definitely essential for doing classic Standard RP speech, especially for elevated plays such as those of Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde. (The recent post on the cloth/lot lexical set: the rounding of the turned-script-A/4 needs rounding both at the lips and at the velum for RP.) I think this carries over to the “stage” versions of a number of accents, even if the real life version may not round the back of the mouth as much. It’s certainly true for an understandable Cockney accent.

I think the soft palate is lifted for most Irish accents as well, even at the two big extremes of a Northern Irish accent and a southern Cork Irish accent. It may seem more obvious with the southern Irish just because there is much more musicality and exploration of higher pitches, but the Northern Irish needs that space at the back, certainly if it’s going to be more clearly understood.

Rounded velum versus a more flattened velum could actually be one of the keys for an actor to make the distinction between a stereotypical Brooklyn accent and a Bronx accent. Brooklyn depends on a more resonant and open space – the doming of the soft palate helps a great deal with this. The stereotypical flatness of a Bronx sound requires a higher placement in the mouth, and it’s often described as nasal – though I don’t think it necessarily is. More on that in a future post on Twang vs. Nasal… The reduced doming of the velum will likely help with this flat quality.

Again, let me know if you have further questions to follow this up!

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